Chelsea Open Air Nursery School
51 Glebe Place, Chelsea, SW3 5JE
Medical dates:

Medical character:
1928 - current

Open Air School

In 1928 Natalie Davies, an American heiress living in Chelsea, was taken with initiatives to provide a healthy open air environment, not just for deprived school-age children, but as a better start for infants, including her own children.  She therefore invested some of her wealth in establishing an open air nursery school near her residence for the 'Kensington cripples', that is, children who had been so cosseted by their nursery nurses that they would have to be trained to be independent in dressing, washing and the use of the lavatory.  At the school they would learn independence, self-reliance and perseverance.

A 16th century artisan's cottage in Glebe Place was soon secured.  The property had an attached 17th century workman's cottage which had been converted into an art studio by the painter Benjamin Haydon (1786-1846) and a large walled garden.

The cottages were adapted by the knocking out of walls to make open air rooms. Modern plumbing and power were installed to provide washing, toilet and cooking facilities, but not heating; the interior was not warmed beyond what was reckoned to be the best temperature for active children - 56F (13C).

Unlike other establishments based in deprived districts, such as the Rachel McMillian Open Air Nursery School in Deptford, the Chelsea Open Air Nursery School, with 20 places, was an entirely private endeavour, without involvement from the LCC or other public bodies. 

By 1936, with educational practices based on the best of current thinking on infant development, the School had become well-known in academic circles.  The Institute of Child Development in the University of London became involved, in particular Dr Susan Isaacs (1885-1948), a leading author and researcher, who became a Trustee.

In 1937 a covered playground and office space were added.

In 1939, with the approaching outbreak of war, Natalie Davies planned to return to the United States, leaving a trust fund to support the School.  By agreement, Dr Isaacs took over educational responsibility.

At the beginning of the war, many London schools were closed and their pupils evacuated to the countryside.  It seems unlikely that the infants from a nursery school could be evacuated in this way, but the School did close for a considerable period, causing the premises to become decayed.  Much of the play equipment was donated to wartime nurseries.

In 1943, when the dangers of war appeared to have abated, the School was reopened as part of the University's Department of Child Development.

Existing funds, together with fees from private pupils, kept the School going - assisted by a bequest from the estate of Natalie Davies, who died in 1959.  However, the finances remained precarious and the facilities were showing their age.

Finally, in 1977, the public sector stepped in.  The Inner London Education Authority adopted the School, which solved the financial crisis and permitted an invigorated staffing.

While the historic premises have continued to present problems, the School has managed to operate successfully, and even to expand - a Children's Centre was added in 2006.

In 2010 a tree-house classroom was added.

Present status (January 2013)

Now under the aegis of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the School continues to offer a healthy environment for some 60 local infants, as well as a 'one stop shop' Children's Centre for the local community.

The School occupies a timber-framed building dating from 1587 and a 17th century cottage.

Chelsea Open Air Nursery School
The main entrance.

Blackwell S, Pound L 2011 Forest Schools in the early years. In: Theories and Approaches to Learning in the Early Years. Miller L, Pound L (eds).  London, Sage Publications.

Franklin G 2009 Inner-London Schools 1918-1944.  A Thematic Study.  Portsmouth, English Heritage.

Whitbread N 2007 The Evolution of the Nursery-Infant School: A History of Infant Education in Britain, 1800-1970.  London, Routledge.

www.chelseaopenairnursery.co.uk (1)
www.chelseaopenairnursery.co.uk (2)

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