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Gillespie Primary School, Islington

Description: Gillespie Primary School

Grade: II
Date Listed: 24 June 2011
English Heritage Building ID: 1400287

OS Grid Reference: TQ3180386279
OS Grid Coordinates: 531802, 186280
Latitude/Longitude: 51.5600, -0.1000

Locality: Islington
County: Greater London
Country: England
Postcode: N5 2LL

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Listing Text


Board school, 1878-9, by E R Robson, architect to the School Board for London. Minor later alterations.

Reason for Listing

Gillespie Primary School is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* architectural interest: a distinctive and ornate example of a Victorian board school, designed by the board architect E R Robson with usual features such as the arcaded screen walls between the wings on the rear elevation
* detailing: plentiful decorative embellishment including carved red brick swags, carved stone panels depicting sunflowers and other stone dressings and a florid portico with a broken pediment and Doric pilasters
* completeness: the school retains its decorative iron railings, stone entrance arches carved with sunflowers, caretaker's house and playground shelter
* interior: includes fireplaces, panelled classroom doors, dado rails, timber and glass partitions between classrooms, parquet floors (some under later coverings) and other original features


Gillespie Primary School, originally Gillespie Road School, was built in 1878 to designs by E R Robson, architect to the School Board for London, and opened in 1879. It was a product of the pioneering Elementary Education Act of 1870, steered through Parliament by William Forster and thus known as 'Forster's Act', which was the first to establish a national, secular, non-charitable provision for the education of children aged 5-13. A driving force behind the new legislation was the need for a literate and numerate workforce to ensure that Britain remained at the forefront of manufacture and commerce. Moreover, the extension of the franchise to the urban working classes in the 1867 Reform Act also alerted politicians to the need to, in words attributed to the then Chancellor, 'educate our masters'. The Act required partially state-funded elementary schools to be established in areas where existing provision was inadequate, to be managed by elected school boards. The School Board of London was the first to be founded (in 1870), and the most influential. The Board was one of the first truly democratically-elected bodies in Britain, with both women and members of the working classes standing for election. It comprised 49 members under the chairmanship of the former Viceroy of India, Lord Lawrence, and included five members of parliament, eleven clergymen, the scientist Thomas Huxley, suffragists Emily Davies (an educationalist) and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (a doctor), and a working-class cabinetmaker, Benjamin Lucraft. The Board's politics were ambitious and progressive, as epitomised by its passing of a by-law in 1871 compelling parents to send children to school; this was not compulsory nationally until 1880.

Such was the achievement of the London School Board in the last quarter of the C19, that by the Edwardian period few neighbourhoods in London were without a red brick, Queen Anne style, three-storey school designed by ER Robson, the Board's architect, or his successor TJ Bailey. The Board's adoption of the newly-fashionable Queen Anne style was a significant departure from the Gothic Revival deemed appropriate to educational buildings up until that point, and created a distinctive and highly influential board school aesthetic. Around 500 board schools were built in London, many in densely-populated, poor areas where they were (and often remain) the most striking buildings in their locales. The Board did not escape criticism, however, both on the grounds of expense to rate-payers and for potentially radicalising the urban poor through secular education. Yet its supporters were unapologetic, as the words of Charles Booth, justifying the expense of more elaborate schools in the East End, indicate: 'It was necessary to strike the eye and hold the imagination. It was worth much to carry high the flag of education, and this is what has been done. Each school stands up from its playground like a church in God's acre, ringing its bell'. Sherlock Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 'The Naval Treaty' (1894) also lauded the new metropolitan landmarks as 'Beacons of the future! Capsules with hundreds of bright little seeds in each, out of which will spring the wiser, better England of the future', thus epitomising the reformers' confidence in the power of universal education to transform society. The striking design of many of these schools is illustrative of this special history.

Gillespie Primary School has been little altered since it opened. A single-storey kitchen wing was built to the rear of the building after the Second World War, but this has since been removed. A small cloakroom extension in between the projecting bays to the eastern part of the rear elevation remains, this dating to around the 1990s. Minor changes have taken place inside.


The school is a three-storey, yellow stock brick building with red brick and stone dressings and timber windows, painted white. The tiled roof is hipped and has large shaped gables, tall brick chimneys, and a central cupola, this with a square timber base, two octagonal stages with lead domed tops, the lower with round-headed louvred openings. The building is E-shaped on plan, with its long side facing north to Gillespie Road and three wings projecting to the playground at the rear. The north frontage comprises fifteen bays, the end three bays and the central bay slightly advanced. The central bay contains the main entrance, framed by Doric engaged columns and a frieze bearing a datestone which reads 'Ao Di 1878' surrounded by floral decoration. This supports a broken pediment, framing a mullion window topped with a segmental pediment bearing the name of the school surrounded by further floral embellishment. Above, the second floor windows have a curved, shallow stone balustrade and the bay finished with a shaped gable with a stone cartouche, stone volute kneelers, and a stone finial. The treatment of each storey is consistent across the building: the ground floor is red brick with projecting brick banding in between the round-headed windows; the first floor windows are also round-headed, but set in relieving arches of red brick with stone keystones; the second floor has square-headed red brick dressings. The south frontage has three projecting wings, with the staircase in the gabled central wing and classrooms in the end wings which are under hipped roofs. The round-headed first floor arcade of relieving arches to the first floor continues on the blind return walls of the wings. The fenestration in the bays between the wings on the south front (largely small windows lighting the main corridors) is concealed behind a screen wall to first floor level, this with open arcading in the same design. There is a small single storey later extension in between the two easternmost wings. The second floor in the recessed bays has two tall windows set in a shaped gable grouped with a tall chimney stack decorated with red brick ribs. The shorter end walls to east and west have fewer windows and are decorated with red brick panels (the upper ones with carved red brick swags) and stone carved plaques depicting sunflowers. The eastern front has a later metal fire escape and a light-weight ground-floor canopy at ground floor level providing shelter to a raised timber deck which partly obscures the ground floor.

SUBSIDIARY FEATURES: The north frontage is bounded by the original ornamental iron railings and gates. At each end of the elevation are stone entrances with inscribed lintels reading 'BOYS' (to the east) and 'GIRLS' (to the west) and decorated with sunflower heads; the rear panels of the lintels are inscribed with the date '1878'. The rest of the site is bounded by brick walls, with store rooms and a row of outdoor WCs built against the wall in the south-western corner of the playground. In the south-east corner of the playground is an open-sided play shed with an iron roof, a common feature in Victorian board schools. The caretaker's house, to the east of the school, is a typical design by Robson of the period in red brick; its windows have been replaced in uPVC.

INTERIOR: The infants and girls (who used the ground and first floors respectively) would have entered the school via the two inscribed doorcases on the western side of the southern fa├žade; the playground was originally divided with a brick wall and the western side was the girls and infants section. The boys' playground was to the east and their entrance to the school (they occupied the second floor) may have been in the eastern equivalent position as the girls' entrance, at the base of the main staircase, but the original inscribed doorcase has been lost. The main entrance on Gillespie Road is likely to have been reserved for teachers and visitors originally. The two staircases, for boys and girls, have stock brick walls, which would probably always have been painted, timber handrails and metal balustrades in the upper flights. Some of the classrooms have been subdivided, others opened up, but the original arrangement of rooms is traceable; this comprises two classrooms on the northern side of the building and pairs of classrooms in the end wings, accessed via a corridor running along the south side. Many of the classrooms are divided by the original timber folding or sliding partitions, these with lead-paned glazing in the upper portions; others have interconnecting doors with glazed fanlights above. There are no purpose-built school halls (which were not included as standard in London board schools until the 1890s), but the classrooms with sliding partitions may have served as assembly halls as well as classrooms. A number of original timber panelled classroom doors survive, these with glazing in the upper round-headed panels. Several classrooms have the original stone fireplace surrounds and one an original iron grate bearing the School Board for London monogram. The floors are mostly parquet. The moulded dado rail in some of the classrooms rises towards the back of the room, indicating where the original raked 'forms' were positioned. The classroom ceilings are all have straight timber beams supported on brackets. The rooms opposite the stairwells, in the central bay of the building, are smaller and perform a different function on each floor. On the ground floor is the entrance foyer, with classrooms accessed to left and right, with glazing to the upper parts of the dividing walls to admit daylight. On the first floor there is a cloakroom, which retains an original wooden and grille partition. In the same position at a mezzanine level between the first and second floors is a staff room accessed via its original timber staircase, supported by an iron column. Overall, the interior has seen only minor alterations and retains a good degree of its original joinery and other features.

Source: English Heritage

Listed building text is © Crown Copyright. Reproduced under licence.