24 April 2015…..Yesterday Ninka Willcock came out of the shadows, to stand front and centre in high-viz orange, as her years’ long work on behalf of the Brighton Society and her achievement in getting Connaught School Grade 2 Listed was publicly acknowledged by The Brighton Society.
The occasion was the unveiling of a blue plaque on the front wall of Connaught School to honour its architect, Thomas Simpson (1825-1908), an exceptional man, responsible for a number of schools in the city, organised by The Blue Plaque Panel and The Brighton Society.
In recognition of the work done in 2010 to get Brighton & Hove City Council to take the building back from City College, which had closed it and was disposing of it, three of us from saveHOVE and the now-disbanded Action4Kids were honoured to be invited to attend the unveiling of the plaque by Mayor Brian Fitch and the reception inside the school afterwards. It was a very proud last flourish of a moment for us.
Back in May, 2010 saveHOVE raised both a council epetition and a companion paper petition and invited the Argus to help us launch it outside the school. Action4Kids parents were invited and attended (with their huge banner) and did the most to then get paper petition signatures in the near-desperate whirlwind of activity that followed. Honey Weston was 8 months pregnant at the time; and, in spite of it, relentlessly pursued her achievement of pages and pages of signatures. We asked the brand spanking-new Hove MP, Mike Weatherley to sign it. After a public meeting in the school itself, he did so. And that was the council’s Tory Administration told by its new Tory MP, wasn’t it!
At that point in time, the Conservative Administration, with Cllr Vanessa Brown presiding as its Cabinet Member in charge of schools, had a short-list of provisional sites identified for a new primary school, but Connaught was not on it. We aimed to change that and succeeded. Our petition only ran for a very short few weeks and was presented in July 2010 to Cllr Brown’s Cabinet meeting. And hey presto….in her response (see it online behind the epetition – link above) Connaught had made it onto the agenda both as a petition response and further in at item 12 as a proposed “temporary” short-term school solution It was then, very shortly after that, of course, chosen. Under Gillian Churchill, BHCC then did the superb job of upgrading and restoration we see today. Looks pretty permanent to us!
Three key moves prevented the loss of that building and its retention for school use: Ninka Willcock’s work for the Brighton Society in getting it Listed to prevent easy demolition (rumours were rife for a few years on that front, including the possibility of a Tesco petrol station) followed by the saveHOVE/Action4Kids high profile petitioning campaign to get the building after City College closed it down. The support of the new Tory MP, clearly stated at the end of the public meeting he had raised to diplomatically give the issue an airing, finally nailed it.
Before that crucial MP’s meeting, Pat Hawkes, the Labour Cllr who attended, and who had been their schools maven for years before the Tories replaced them in the 2007 elections, told a group of parents she “regretted very much that the building had been Listed“. They were shocked. Her comment underlines just how valuable and important the Brighton Society achievement of Listed status was to be. The half dozen Tory cllrs attending were conspicuously unhappy, including ward cllr Jan Young who asked Nigel Furness why he was applauding. “Why arn’t you?” was his riposte. Party leader at the time, Brian Oxley, sat red-faced, puce with rage, shaking his head into his lap throughout the meeting. It was no doubt cost as much as ideology which lay behind both positions; but EVERYONE supports it now!!!!
Both Labour and the Conservatives favour Academies and Free Schools. Under the Tory Coalition Govt, new Council-controlled schools was outlawed. This is why Connaught had to be accepted by an existing Council school as a satellite building. It is officially part of West Hove in Portland Road and is administered by them.
The ceremonial outside
The celebration reception inside Connaught School that followed
Thomas Simpson and bldg use…notes from The Brighton Society
Thomas Simpson, the architect of the elegant, Queen Anne-style building in Connaught Road, Hove, on which the blue plaque is placed, designed all but one of the former Board Schools gracing our city landscape today. Although some have been converted to apartments, most – for example, Connaught (1884), Downs Junior (1890), Elm Grove (1893), Stanford Road (1894), Queens Park (1889) and St. Luke’s (1903) – remain in educational use. Sadly, however, a few have been demolished, including two at Hove. Nevertheless, Connaught Road, Hove is the sixthThomas Simpson school building in Brighton & Hove to be Grade 2 Listed. It is also reassuring to note that several others have recently been proposed for local listing by the Planning Department, thereby highlighting their local heritage value and affording them a level of protection.
Opened in 1884 as Connaught Road Boards Schools (one of), but the relief frieze above its entrance identifies it as “Council schools” – something not actually possible in 1884. This is something of a puzzle which calls into question whether the frieze is original to the 1884 newbuild school or installed after 1902.
The building subsequently went through various permutations of educational use as demographics and policy shifted over the 20th century, including a boys’ secondary school. As an infants’ school, it closed in the building’s centenary year when pupil numbers fell dramatically – as they did everywhere at this time – and despite a hard-fought campaign by parents.
Evening class provision here actually began in the 1890’s but it was as the Connaught Adult Education Centre that the building was more recently known and prized. Now, having been painstakingly restored and adapted to meet the requirements of a modern infants’ school, it once more flourishes for the purpose for which it was originally designed – childrens’ learning.