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Fyfield Open Air School
Ongar Road, Fyfield, Essex CM5 0TP
Open Air School
In 1885 West Ham Borough Council built, at a cost of £8,000, a 'Truant School' in Fyfield, Essex, for up to 80 boys. The purpose-built building was surrounded by 20 acres of grounds. It later became the West Ham Truant Industrial School. In 1907 it was certified as the Fyfield Certified Industrial and Truant School for 80 boys (increased in 1912 to 110 boys).
The School closed in February 1925 and the Borough Council converted the premises into a residential open air school for delicate children.
The Fyfield Open Air School opened later in 1925 and initially housed some 80 boys. It was also known as the West Ham Open Air School.
In 1931 a new block was added to provide places for 60 girls as well. By 1938 the school accommodated about 150 girls.
As with other open air schools, lessons were held in classroom huts, open on one or more sides (remembered as being cold, except in the corner next to the heating pipes!) Some classes were taken in the open fields - traces of a large ring of seats are still visible.
Country walks, playing in the surrounding fields and folk dancing were all part of the regime.
Meals were taken in a large wooden hall, on long wooden tables and benches, with enamel mugs and plates.
A typical breakfast consisted of brown bread with warm milk and a stodgy porridge - eat up or do without.
For lunch pea soup seems to have appeared too often for some. The autumn harvest brought a glut of baked apples to the menu.
One regular treat from the school nurse - cod liver oil mixed with malt - was good enough to lick the spoon clean.Classes and lunch would be followed by a compulsory long afternoon nap on camp beds in the hall.
The boys slept in three dormitory blocks, while the girls had separate buildings - out of bounds to the boys. Dormitories, too, were open on one side. During winter the sheets never became warm and there was a likelihood of snow to be found in the morning on the ends of the beds nearest the open windows.
By the late 1930s the School consisted of a considerable collection of buildings. The high ceilings of many of the rooms in the main building impressed young minds. On return to their families, some found that their homes appeared cramped and claustrophobic in comparison. In the 1930s it was noted that children from the East End, who had been sent to the School undernourished and ill, returned quiet, well mannered, subdued and well spoken.
The pupils all wore uniforms, except for church on Sunday mornings, when letter writing was followed by a walk through the country lanes and village to the church - girls ahead, boys following behind. After church, the children walked back to the School and changed back into their uniforms.
Visits from parents and relatives were strictly limited, being allowed only at weekends. In 1938, it is reported that visitors were permitted only on one afternoon every three months.
In 1939, as war loomed, the School was closed. The pupils changed from their uniforms into their own clothes, collected their belongings, and were bussed back to their families in West Ham, just as other buses arrived bringing sick and orphaned children evacuated from hospitals and children's homes in London.
Although at the beginning of WW2 the School was listed as joining the Emergency Medical Scheme, it is unclear if it was used as an emergency hospital. It later resumed school activities, carrying on through the war years. The cellars, or 'dungeons', were used as air-raid shelters and were fitted with rows of wooden bunks. Classes would have been disturbed regularly by the roar of bombers from the nearby USAAF base at Willingate.
The School remained open after the war, though now characterised more as a children's convalescent home for those needing long-term care of a year or more to recover from rheumatic fever.
By the mid 1950s, however, improved standards in living conditions and healthcare provision resulted in a declining demand for the facility. The School closed in 1956.
Present status (September 2013)
Following closure of the Open Air School, Essex Local Education Authority reopened it in 1958 as Fyfield Boarding School, initially mixed and later for boys only.
In 1980 the School merged with two other Essex boarding schools - Hockerill and Elmbridge. The latter moved into the Fyfield premises, which then became the Elmbridge Boarding School until the 1990s.
The main building survives as Elmbridge Hall. It was converted into 18 luxury apartments around 2001. The grounds of the former Open Air School have been redeveloped as Elmbridge Gate, a small housing estate, entered via Forest Drive off Ongar Road, to the north of Elmbridge Hall.
The main entrance to the gated community of Elmbridge Hall.
Elmbridge Hall, as seen from Ongar Road, is obscured by trees. The building is 2- to 3-storeys high and was built of gault brick with red-brick dressings.
Elmbridge Hall seen from the driveway.
Forest Drive, off the Ongar Road, leads to Elmbridge Gate.
5th October 2013)
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