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George Widdows Schooldays - with apologies to Tom Brown!

Posted Sunday, July 1, 2007

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George Widdows’ Schooldays - (with apologies to Tom Brown!)

If you were educated (or otherwise!) at a school within the County of Derbyshire, then the chances are – allbeit perhaps unknowingly - that you will have reason to be grateful for the genius of George Widdows, a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

`George Widdows was the architect responsible for over 100 schools in Derbyshire'

As County Surveyor and later as County Architect from 1905 until his retirement in 1936, George Widdows was the architect responsible for the design and construction of almost 100 schools in Derbyshire.

Many of them incorporated advanced, influential and sometimes controversial and innovative designs and presaged something of a revolution in educational architecture.

Prior to the twentieth century and the advent of state-funded schools, the majority of educational establishments were either private or church owned and thus the architecture of the later Board Schools was heavily influenced by the ecclesiastical style of building.

In Victorian times it was hard, at a glance, to tell the difference between a school and a chapel or church building, and of course in many instances, they were one and the same.

Into this turn-of-the-century transition in architectural styles came the young pioneering architect George Widdows. Born in Norwich on 15th October 1871, he was educated at the King Edward V1 School and between 1887 and 1894 was an articled apprentice to architect and Diocesan Surveyor of Norwich, Arthur Lacey.

Once qualified he travelled the country gaining experience whilst working as an assistant in Bolton, York, Bridgwater, and with W.Henry Wright of Cavendish Square, London, before his appointment to Derby Corporation as Chief Architectural Assistant in 1897.

For the next seven years Widdows worked on minor projects within the borough – including the design of public conveniences!

However, his first major project was the Reginal Street Baths in Derby, one of the first completely tiled baths in the country.

In 1904 Widdows was elected an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects and appointed Buildings Surveyor to Derbyshire County Council Education Committee, within a year he became Architect for that Authority and the work for which he is noted began.

Around the turn of the twentieth century Derbyshire had a larger increase in population than any other county in England owing to the rapid expansion and development of the coal fields along its eastern boundary. This population explosion created an urgent need for more schools and coincided with a revolution in school design during what was termed the Healthy Schools Crusade which began in 1902. The Board of Education’s building regulations of 1902 suggested that, `the best general plan for secondary schools is that of a central hall around which other rooms are arranged and from which they are entered by doors, the upper portion of which are glazed’. This reflected the style of the aforementioned Board Schools of the late nineteenth century with large three-storeyed central halls and tiers of classrooms easily surveyed by the teacher. But they were built on a cramped back-to-back system and with little thought given to natural light, heating or ventilation; the emphasis seems to have been on ease of control for the authorities, rather than creating an optimum learning environment for the children.

The first major conference on school hygiene was held in 1904 and in 1906 the provision of meals act was passed allowing school dinners for the first time, but the major turning point came in 1907 when legislation by the Board of Health meant that schools became subject to regular medical inspections. This led to a new working partnership between the medical profession (Board of Health) and school architects and designers – and to George Widdows with his radical designs locking horns with the Board of Education. He designed the ‘Marching Corridor’ school which allowed for indoor exercise when outdoor space was unavailable and examples from 1907 include Bolsover, Tibshelf and Shirebrook Schools.

In 1910 Widdows was appointed Architect to Derbyshire County Council and read his paper entitled `Derbyshire Elementary Schools – Principles of Planning’ to the Royal Sanitary Institute. He criticised the old central hall style of building, then part of the education building regulations:- “Think of the depressing effect of these halls with no windows to look out of. Then again look at the accommodation; ten classrooms of sixty each, that is 600 children under the head teacher and all classes the same size – and this is education, approved by the Board of Education, the supreme authority for the intellectual development of the human race”.

George Widdows was a staunch Methodist Lay Preacher and was not averse to sermonising when addressing the authorities. He told them,“Someday the Board of Education will find out that light and air are two of Heaven’s greatest blessings”. He was right – and `someday’ wasn’t long in coming.

Another architect campaigning for change was John Hutchings of nearby Staffordshire, who together with the backing of Dr. George Reid, the influential Medical Officer of Health, favoured a breakaway from the old central hall plan and devised `a structure which had one semi-detached hall of three departments, on each of which a line of classrooms joined by a corridor could be cross-ventilated by a wholesome supply of fresh air’.

So radical was this design that a deputation went to London in 1905 to explain it to the Board of Education and Felix Clay, Head of the Board expressed astonishment, but after lengthy discussions the plan was approved.

The first experimental school of this type was built at Darlaston in February 1907, and by 1914 a major revision was undertaken with the Board of Education acknowledging the replacement of the central hall system by, `single-storeyed groups of rooms, arranged to let the sun and air into every corner; there should be openings on opposite sides of the room, and these should be into the outside air’.

In Derbyshire George Widdows was at the forefront of a massive schools building programme. In 1911 the pressure of work took its toll and Widdows suffered a breakdown and following his doctors advice went on a long sea-cruise to Egypt. On his return he completed the King George School at Ilkeston and in 1912 completed New Mills School and Wirksworth Infants School.

He was made a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1913 and in 1914 started the verandah style of design with the first school of its kind at North Wingfield.

An article in The Builder dated October 31st 1913 states: “The great work which Mr. Widdows has carried out constitutes a revolution in the planning and arrangement of school buildings. It constitutes a real advance which places English School architecture without a rival in any European country or the United States”.

George Widdows became one of the most respected men in his profession and in 1921 read his paper on `School Design’ to the RIBA.

In thanking him Head of the Board of Education Felix Clay said,

“No architect has done more than Mr.Widdows to develop the modern school. The whole emphasis of design has shifted. Instead of the old of compact three-storeyed central hall building we have a bewildering variety of plans from cart-wheels to L-shaped buildings, but all arranged so as to secure the maximum amount of sun and to get air into the classroom from both sides”.

Also in 1921 Board of Education Director Sir Edmund Phipps said;-

“If there is one thing Mr. Widdows has left upon our minds it is this: that he has been able to get the best out of us, to make the best of us. He is a man of such sympathy that in dealing with the board he realises that we are not merely hide-bound officials by nature, but that we stand between the Treasury on one side and the Ministry of Health on the other, and there are many allowances which can be made for us. Mr. Widdows has endeared himself personally and officially to the Board and their staff”.

George Widdows designed and built his own house at Allestree near Derby and when he retired there in 1936 he had been responsible for 60 elementary schools and 17 secondary schools in Derbyshire, including the Lady Manners School at Bakewell and the St. Helena Girls High School in Chesterfield, plus many other County Council projects and works.

He died at his home at Allestree, Derby, on February 11th 1946, aged 74. George Widdows Schooldays are over, though his work remains, and it is with grateful thanks to Nicholas Hobbs of Wirksworth and to County Architect Iain Mackay for providing information about his life and work that we are able to pay this tribute to the man who brought healthy learning and happier classrooms to thousands of Derbyshire schoolchildren.

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