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Former Bromley Hall School for the Physically Handicapped, Tower Hamlets

Description: Former Bromley Hall School for the Physically Handicapped

Grade: II
Date Listed: 9 January 2012
English Heritage Building ID: 1402561

OS Grid Reference: TQ3825681677
OS Grid Coordinates: 538298, 181698
Latitude/Longitude: 51.5173, -0.0082

Locality: Tower Hamlets
County: Greater London
Country: England
Postcode: E14 0GW

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Listing Text


School for physically disabled children, designed 1965 and built 1967-8 by the LCC/GLC Architects' Department under job architect Bob Giles; extended 1978-9.

Reason for Listing

* Architectural quality: one of the architecturally outstanding schools of the 1960s, designed by the pioneering architects of the LCC/GLC and combining intimate, child-scaled interiors with bold, expressive external forms reflecting the local industrial vernacular.
* Planning interest: a meticulously-planned building that seamlessly integrates internal and external space, embodying a sophisticated response to a challenging site and a highly specialised brief.
* Educational interest: a building painstakingly designed around the specific needs of physically disabled children, reflecting the post-war education system's increasingly sensitive attitude to disability.


The initial brief for Bromley Hall School, a 120-place school for physically handicapped children aged between 5 and 16, was issued by the London County Council's Education Department in 1964. The design was drawn up the following year by the Schools Division of the LCC Architect's Department, under job architect Bob Giles. The local government reforms of 1965 meant that by the time the school was built in 1967-8 it came under the aegis of the Inner London Education Authority, a special committee of the newly-formed Greater London Council. Rising costs during construction meant that the proposed hydrotherapy pool and nursery unit were omitted from the initial phase, these facilities were added as extensions in 1978-9. The school later became a pupil referral unit for Tower Hamlets Borough Council, and is now disused.

London was one of the first education authorities to build special schools for disabled children under the Elementary Education Acts of 1893 and 1899. Early examples were usually annexed to conventional primary schools, but from the early C20 separate institutions were increasingly favoured, some – especially those intended for 'delicate' children and TB sufferers – designed as pavilion-plan 'open air schools' combining indoor and outdoor spaces, a model that remained influential in post-war school design. Equally influential was the informal, 'child-centred' approach to teaching pioneered in such schools. Post-war advances in the diagnosis and treatment of disabilities saw an increasingly diverse and specialised approach to the education of disabled children, reflected in the ten distinct categories of disability recognised in the 1944 Education Act. The complex and specialised briefs drawn up for special school projects suited the individualistic culture and decentralised structure of the post-war Schools Division, which gave job architects the freedom to develop innovative one-off designs: the organic, expressive forms and intricate cellular plans of Bromley Hall, Benthal Primary School in Hackney (1967) and the Frank Barnes Deaf School in Camden (1974, demolished 2010) stood in stark contrast with the system-building that characterised much contemporary school architecture. Special schools, with their air of segregation and exclusion, fell from favour in the 1970s, as educational policy shifted towards greater integration of disabled children in mainstream schooling.


MATERIALS: The main walls, including the boundary wall, are of brown engineering brick, a material which is exposed throughout the interior, apparently to resist damage by wheelchairs. The roof structures are of laminated timber, faced internally with plasterboard and externally with artificial slates. Windows and rooflights are set in wood frames. Floors are of linoleum, with a wood-block floor in the assembly hall.

PLAN: Bromley Hall School was built on a 1.25-acre inner-city site formerly occupied by a late-C19 board school, at that time surrounded by slum housing and waste ground, and with the Blackwall Tunnel approach road under construction a few yards away to the west. This resulted in an inward-looking cellular plan with classroom pavilions alternating with enclosed courtyards encircled by a continuous boundary wall – an arrangement indebted to Arne Jacobsen's Munkegård School in Copenhagen (completed 1957). All the buildings are single-storey, with no changes in level. To the west is an enclosed forecourt where the children were dropped off and collected in buses. The main central doorway, leading directly to the dining hall and flanked by the kitchen, headteacher's office and wheelchair store, became disused at an early stage and is now blocked up. Smaller doorways on either side give access to twin circulation corridors punctuated by blocks of toilets, changing rooms and stores. Separate circulation was provided for younger and older children, with the junior classrooms on the southern corridor and the senior classrooms (as well as a caretaker's flat) to the north. Each classroom has access to its own small paved courtyard, effectively forming a double unit where children could engage in a variety of indoor and outdoor activities under the supervision of a single teacher. At the ends of the corridors are the added nursery and hydrotherapy blocks. The eastern return corridor leads to three specialist classrooms, originally for woodwork, housecraft and typewriting; these overlook a small enclosed garden planted with sliver birch trees, beyond which is the main play area. The dining hall, assembly hall, library and medical unit occupy the central core. The library opens onto a further courtyard which was used as the infants' playground; the combined space doubled as a rest area for children with heart conditions.

EXTERIORS: The site is enclosed within a boundary wall, seven feet high and curved at the corners and entranceways. Twin vehicle entrances with double metal gates lead from Bromley Hall Road into the forecourt, around the edges of which are a number of capsule-shaped utility enclosures. The various classrooms and communal areas are treated as a series of linked pavilions, each with its own tall hipped roof rising to a canted rooflight – a feature presumably inspired by nearby industrial buildings such as the early-C19 drying kilns at Clock Mill on the River Lea, though also recalling Erich Mendelsohn's Hermann Hat Factory in Luckenwalde, Germany (1920). The main hall has a taller roof with a pyramidal glazed top. A square boiler stack at the south-west corner provides further vertical emphasis. The 1970s additions to the east are treated similarly to the earlier phase but have monopitch roofs.

INTERIORS: Each of the square classroom spaces is lit from three sides: from in front via full-height windows and doors opening into its corresponding courtyard; from the courtyard behind via a glazed strip set under the eaves; and from above by means of the roof aperture, whose light is distributed evenly by the white-painted pyramidal ceiling. There are radiators set within low tiled benches at the front of each room. Some classrooms have built-in timber workbenches to the rear. Toilet, changing and storage blocks are arranged along the inside of the access corridors, dividing them into a series of alternating deeper and shallower spaces – the latter treated as glazed links cutting across the courtyards, containing further radiators set into benches. The internal doors contain glazed circular or rectangular apertures, set low down so as to prevent collisions between children approaching from either side. To the east, the corridors lead to the nursery and hydrotherapy units, the latter having a sunken central pool and changing area.

The assembly hall is a large square space, its central skylight supplemented by clerestorey lights set lower down in the roof slopes. The hall doubled as a gymnasium, and there is direct access to changing rooms to north and south. To the east is the former library, from which folding glazed doors (now sealed shut) once opened into the paved central courtyard. A second courtyard further east has been roofed over to form a shower block. Folding doors to the west of the hall open into the dining room, a top-lit rectangular space which also incorporates the former entrance lobby.

Source: English Heritage

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