Columbia Market Nursery School


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Statutory Address:
Columbia Market Nursery School, Columbia Road


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Statutory Address:
Columbia Market Nursery School, Columbia Road

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Greater London Authority
Tower Hamlets (London Borough)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:
TQ 33690 82803

Reasons for Designation

Columbia Market Nursery School, which was built by the London County Council and opened in 1930, is designated at Grade II for the following principal reasons: * Historic Interest: one of the first municipal nursery schools in the country, reflecting shifting patterns of family life and concern for infant health and wellbeing; * Experimental Status: evidencing inter-war exploration of new materials and construction techniques such as prefabrication, for a new municipal building type; * Rarity: of surviving 'open-air' features such as the folding partitions added in 1935; * Unusual Detailing: including the weatherboarded walls and neo-Georgian porch with turned balusters.


This list entry was subject to a Minor Amendment on 19 April 2021 to reformat the text to current standards


COLUMBIA ROAD Columbia Market Nursery School


II Nursery school, 1930, by the London County Council Architects' Department.

MATERIALS: timber frame construction with weatherboard cladding and pitched tiled roofs.

PLAN: planned around a courtyard, originally open to the east, but closed in the early 2000s with a range in keeping with the older sections; there is also a lightweight modern canopy over part of the courtyard and along the northern elevation of the school. These early C21 features lack special interest. The north and west ranges contain the classroom; the south range the former medical inspection room; staff room and headteachers room; and the plan survives well. There are bathrooms at the south-west and north-west corners of the courtyard, in their original locations although the former has been extended. A kitchen and boiler room are located to the south-west of the courtyard.

EXTERIOR: Columbia Market Nursery School is neo-Georgian in detailing with multi-pane timber casement windows, a canted bay window and an entrance porch with turned vase balusters on the south range. The original open verandas that ran around the courtyard and provided access to each classroom were enclosed with glazed folding partitions above a solid balustrade in 1935; these modifications survive unaltered.

INTERIOR: there were originally low, solid wood partitions in between the classrooms and the verandas. High enough for children to see out over, and benefit from the fresh air and light that open-air school principles so prized, these defined the boundaries of the classrooms and had small gates for allowing children out at playtime. These partitions, though not the gates, survive, now with glazing above. The date of the glazing is unknown, but the joinery suggests it was not long after the verandas were enclosed. All four classrooms survive in footprint (two on the west side with a partition wall removed to make one large classroom) and retain individual timber doors to the garden, exposed roof trusses with metal ties, and (in the northern classrooms) rooflights.

HISTORY: at the end of the First World War, some form of elementary schooling was compulsory for all children and the school leaving age was raised to 14. Yet a need for nursery places for younger children also emerged, as large numbers of women had undertaken work in factories rather than within the home during wartime, and patterns of family life had changed. At the same time, elementary school teachers and paediatricians were noticing that health problems in children had set in before they even arrived at infant school. Nursery education, it was hoped, would ensure children were clean, nourished and healthy in the early years, in the hope of averting serious illness later on.

The first nurseries were philanthropic in spirit, providing social and medical welfare for under-privileged children in working class districts. The initiative came from the voluntary sector with Margaret and Rachel McMillan pioneering an open-air nursery in Greenwich in 1914; the buildings dating to 1918-21 on the same site are now listed Grade II along with a memorial to Margaret of 1932. This was an exceptional school, cited in government reports as a model decades later; most early nurseries occupied ad hoc conversions of older buildings or comprised 'babies classes' in schools for older children. Even by 1939 half of the 87 official nursery schools nationally were voluntary foundations.

The 1918 Education Act permitted, but did not compel, Local Education Authorities to provide or fund nursery schools. The 1920s and early 1930s saw many authorities develop plans for nursery schools some of which bore fruit, although others were abandoned following the economic crisis of 1931. By 1937, only 26 out of 316 LEAs (some eight percent) were directly managing nursery schools. Most of the 26 LEAs maintained only a single school, typically situated in the large industrial towns of the north and midlands. The pioneer LEAs were Bradford (which maintained eight schools by 1937) and London (which by 1939 had established five schools and grant-aided a further 18). London County Council, in addition to financially assisting the McMillan school from 1919, in 1920 planned to establish six experimental nursery schools, three of which were to be self-contained. Economic constraints stalled the programme, and it was revived in altered form at the end of the decade. In 1928, the Council resolved to build two experimental detached nurseries of 150 places each on two Tower Hamlets sites in their possession: the result was Columbia Market Nursery School and Old Church Nursery School. Both schools were opened on the same day in August 1930. The choice of location is unsurprising; the poverty of the area meant that many East End mothers worked and infant health was poor. The first head-teacher of Columbia Market reckoned that of the 88 children on the opening roll, a third had rickets, a third had problematic tonsils or adenoids, and around 80 percent were inadequately nourished. The schools' experimental purpose meant that it received many visitors, over 100 in a few months in spring 1931, including students from training colleges and educationalists from overseas.

Each school was planned with two large and two small classrooms; drying, lavatory and bathing rooms; medical inspection room; kitchen, staff rooms and stores. Staffing arrangements and hours of attendance were based on the practice of the Rachel McMillan School. The schools were single-storey with the rooms around a central courtyard. Like Rachel McMillan School, both were originally planned according to open-air principles, with the courtyard-facing classroom elevations unenclosed and open-sided, leading onto a veranda. By December 1930, however, just months after opening, the head-teacher reported that the verandas were very slippery in wet weather and that mothers were keeping their children at home on very cold days. From January 1931, canvas curtains were installed along the verandas to prevent draughts, in October 1932 a glass windscreen was added to the western range which suffered the north wind, and in the summer holidays of 1935 the stick balustrade to the veranda was replaced in solid wood and the upper portions fitted with glazed screens that could be folded back in clement weather.

It remains a thriving nursery school today (2010), an additional range modelled on the orginal building having been added in 2000, closing in the originally open east side of the courtyard.

SOURCES: Minutes of the LCC Education Officers Department at London Metropolitan Archive (Ref: LCC/EO/PS/09/001) Historic photographs and newspaper cuttings held by the school Franklin, G, 'Inner London Schools 1918-44: A Thematic Study' (English Heritage Research Report Series, 2009)


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number:
Legacy System:


Books and journals
Franklin, , Geraint, , Inner-London Schools 1918-44: A Thematic Study, (2009)


This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

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