A brief history of healthcare
provision in London


By the end of the 19th century, it was becoming increasingly apparent that the environment in the great industrial cities was a menace to public health.  The overcrowded and unhygienic accommodation available to the working classes caused, or at least encouraged, infectious and debilitating disease.  This was seen as a situation particularly affecting many children reaching school age.  As well as those already suffering from tuberculosis, a significant proportion presented with anaemia or asthma, or were considered 'delicate' - that is, malnourished and/or underweight.

German studies in the 1890s had suggested that tuberculous children would benefit from a regime of physical exercise, rest, good food, fresh air and sunlight.  Beyond this nature-cure approach, it was seen that the children required a proper education as well.

The outcome was the establishment, in 1904, of a first Waldschule (Forest School) in Charlottenburg, outside Berlin.  The scheme proved successful, and became the model for many such around Europe over the next few years.

In England, representatives of the London County Council (LCC) had visited Charlottenburg and been impressed.   In the summer of 1907 the LCC proceeded to organise an experimental open air camp for three months in Bostall Wood, south of Abbey Wood, in grounds loaned by the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society.  This, too, was a success and its staff became the core of three new purpose-built open-air schools which were established the following year in the grounds of Birley House (Forest Hill), Montpelier House (Kentish Town) and Shrewsbury House (Shooters Hill).

These three schools began with some open-fronted sheds, as used by the German school in Charlottenburg.  Built on the Doecker system, which had been designed by the Danish calvalry officer Captain von Doecker, the sheds came in 1 metre (3 ft 3 inch) wide pre-fabricated sections which were fastened together with iron hooks and studs.  No foundation was needed; the building rested on wooden feet.  The sides and roof were covered with sheets of waterproof canvas; one side wall was removable.  The standard shed in 1911 cost £127 and could hold 50 to 60 children.  It measured 50 x 16 ft (15 x 5 metres) and could be erected in one day by an unskilled labourer.

These portable sheds were soon joined by more permanent square 'pavilion classrooms' open to fresh air on all sides.  These pavilions became a standard approach for subsequent school developments.

The expansion of the scheme was inhibited by the outbreak of WW1 in 1914, but quickly resumed following the Armistice in 1918.  Two more open air schools were established in 1919 - at Springwell House (Wandsworth) and Stormont House (Hackney).

The pace increased throughout the 1920s, beginning with Stowey House (Lambeth) in 1920, Bow Road (Mile End) in 1922, and Aspen House (Streatham Hill) in 1925.  Four more opened in 1927 - Brent Knoll (Sydenham), Coram's Fields (Bloomsbury), Geere House (Stepney) and Holly Court (Highgate).  The following years saw Nightingale House (Southwark) and Woodlands (Downham) open in 1928, and Wood Lane (Hammersmith) in 1929.  This seems to have been the peak of the movement in London.

The above list is far from exhaustive.  The schools were by their nature light on the environment, and sometimes short-lived, so that few traces remain in the records or on the ground.  In some cases, schools had to relocate - for example, the pioneer school at Shrewsbury House came to the end of its lease and moved to Charlton Park (Charlton) in 1929.  In other cases, references are vague, such as the open air schools in St James' Park and Regent's Park.

The open air movement was by no means confined to London.  Some of the schools set up about the same near the capital include Fyfield Open Air School near Ongar in Essex, and the King's Canadian Residential Open Air School at Hampton in Middlesex.  Nor were they confined to the state sector - for example, St John's Open Air School in Woodford Bridge, Essex, was attached to a Catholic convent.

As well as the schools aimed at delicate or deprived children, the same benefits were expected to apply to younger children yet to begin school, resulting in private initiatives to establish open air nursery schools.  In London, the McMillan Open Air Nursery School was set up in Deptford, and the Chelsea Open Air Nursery School.  Both of these survive today, though not practising the open air principles exclusively.

The majority of the open air schools came to an end with the outbreak of WW2 in 1939.  Most of the pupils were evacuated to country areas.  The school sites were taken over for war purposes, and some were damaged in the Blitz.  Once the initial evacuation fever had died away, some pupils reappeared and the open air schooling could continue for a while.

Nevertheless, in the post-war period, new treatments for tuberculosis and an increasing standard of living made the open air mode unnecessary.  In many cases, the school sites were retained for educational use, in particular as the basis for 'special schools' still dealing with challenged children, but no longer with the debilitated, and no longer out of doors.

Alphabetical list of
Open Air Schools

Name of School Opened Closed
Aspen House (I) 1925 1977
Aspen House (II) 1978 1979
Banstead Residential ? 1930s 1961
Benton Road, Ilford 1929 1963
Birley House 1908 1925
Bostall Wood 1907 1907
Bow Road 1922 1939
Brent Knoll 1927 1956?
Busch House 1939 1970s
Charlton Park 1929 1962
Chelsea 1928 current
Crosby Road 1925 1946
Downhills Park 1920s 1930s
(The) Elizabethan ca.1920 1960
Foundling Hospital
(Coram's Fields)
1927 1939
Fyfield 1925 1956
Geere House 1927 1939
Grays 1930 1986
Hale End 1936 1964
Hazelbury 1938 1970
Holly Court 1927 1937
Jellicoe 1918 1940s
Kensal House 1911 1939
King's Canadian 1919 1939
Kingston 1920 1950s
Knotts Green 1927 1955
Montpelier House 1908 1939
Nightingale House 1928 1939
Orchard House 1920s 1930s
Rachel McMillan 1914 current
Regent's Park
1910 1929
Regent's Park
(Queen Mary's Gardens)
1913 1939
St Giles 1925 1977
St James's Park 1918 1939
St John's 1897 1970
Shaftesbury (Loughton) 1923 1937
Shrewsbury House (Shooters Hill) 1908 1929
Springwell House 1919 1939
Stormont House 1919 1939
Stowey House 1920 1960s?
Upton House 1928 1939
Wood Lane 1928 1957
Woodlands (Downham) 1930 1970?
Woodmansterne Road 1930s 1950s

Next section: Reorganisation of local government and the end of MAB

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References (Accessed 15th September 2013)
(Author unstated) 1908 Education in the Open Air. In: Central Foundation Girls' School Magazine 1,  338-340.

Broughton H 1914 The Open Air School.  London, Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons.

Franklin Parsons H 1922  Doecker Hospitals.  In: Isolation Hospitals, 2nd edn. Cambridge University Press, 118-120.

Johnson AV 1914 Open-Air Schools.  British Journal of Nursing, 6th June, 499-500, continued 13th June, 523.

London County Council 1911 The Organisation of Education in London.  LCC Education Offices.


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