Edward Robert Robson, who was born in Durham, served an apprenticeship to Newcastle's John Dobson and later worked with Sir George Gilbert Scott on restoring the tower of Durham Cathedral. In addition, he served several years as architect and surveyor to the city of Liverpool before being asked to come down to London in 1871 as chief architect for the new London School Board. It is hard to imagine, now, the scale of the enterprise which resulted from the 1870 Elementary Education Act, with around 455,000 children in London alone needing to be catered for, 176,000 of them currently receiving either no education at all, or very little (White 466). New schools had to be built as quickly as possible, especially in the East End.

Rather surprisingly, the architect selected for this huge challenge was a northerner. Robson did his research thoroughly, travelling in both Europe and America, and coming back with a rich mix of ideas. These found expression in his definitive School Architecture (1874), and all the directives which followed it. William Whyte describes Robson's own school architecture as "strikingly new" for its time, suggesting that it "brilliantly embodied the reforming idealism of the school board for London itself," and quoting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's enthusiastic reference to the buildings as "Lighthouses! Beacons of the future! Capsules, with hundreds of bright little seeds in each, out of which will spring the wiser, better England of the future." Whyte continues,

Frequently building in slums, Robson and the board were determined that these schools should impress their young users and their families. They were large, imposing, and often as many as three storeys high. They dominated their surroundings. Most remarkably of all, and after some initial hesitation, Robson rejected Gothic models in favour of an eclectic English Renaissance style: more fitting, as he suggested, for secular schools. Their elevations, with fancy gables, colourful brickwork, and terracotta ornamentation, were highly fashionable. Their plans — usually featuring separate classrooms entered from a central schoolroom, and separate playgrounds and entrances for boys and girls — would influence elementary school design until the early years of the twentieth century. To be sure, Robson was not a lonely pioneer: others had already built in this "Queen Anne" revival style. Nor was his planning as original as he claimed. Nonetheless, Robson was the mastermind behind hundreds of schools, and he became the single greatest advocate of the board school style.

Primrose Hill School is certainly distinctive. It is a Grade II listed building, with (in the words of the government listing) steeply pitched roofs and "scroll enriched gables terminating in pedimented features," in what is described here as the Flemish rather than English Renaissance style. The listing also makes much of the "irregular fenestration," detailing the way the "mostly transom and mullion effect" windows extend into the gables. Compare this building to the warehouse premises of the largest Ragged School in London in Mile End. A building such as Robson's was clearly much more likely to provide the civilising effects for which everyone hoped, and the construction of such schools was one of the great (if belated) triumphs of the age. It is noteworthy, though, that the Mile End Ragged School remained in use until 1908.

After leaving the school board in 1884, and while he was still consulting architect to the Education Department, Robson built the People's Palace (now a part of Queen Mary University of London) and the New Art Gallery in Regent Street, as well as working on new schools, notably the Cheltenham Ladies' College (1896-98) and the Jews' Free School in Spitalfields (1904-5). He modestly turned down the knighthood he was twice offered, but, as Whyte says, his "memorial is appropriately found in schools throughout the country." Efforts are being made now to preserve that legacy, although adaptation to today's needs is not always easy, or even cost-effective enough to be possible (see Gould).


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Last modified 26 November 2010