A little Christmas cheer in Brentwood

PUBLISHED: 20:47 23 December 2020 | UPDATED: 20:47 23 December 2020

Hutton Poplars' children around 1915.

Hutton Poplars' children around 1915.

Brentwood Museum

Enjoy Brentwood More’s history columnist, author and vice-president of the Brentwood Writer’s Circle, Sylvia Kent looks back at Christmas at Hutton Poplars Residential school, now Bishops Hill Adult Educational Centre.

Hutton Poplars main buildings now known as Bishops Hill Adult Educational CentreHutton Poplars main buildings now known as Bishops Hill Adult Educational Centre

Though the world has experienced months of difficulties and sadness, perhaps we can all relax as the Christmas season is now on the horizon.

In previous years, at this point on the calendar, Brentwood folk were well ahead with their festive arrangements. But still, we are in the midst of a coronavirus epidemic and lockdown, social distancing and quarantine are still widespread as we enter this traditionally happy time of year.

One way perhaps to get things into perspective, is to adopt a nostalgic glance back to earlier times when life was much less affluent for the working classes but was still celebrated and enjoyed by all.

The old saying “the poor are always with us” was very true from historical records. In Brentwood’s Hart Street during the 18th and 19th centuries, there were several buildings recorded in the area that looked after the poor. The best known was the workhouse, whose origins go back several more hundred years. This building was became the Rose & Crown Inn and later the Gardeners Arms.

At Christmas, the inmates were allowed extra beer and bread by the overseer which was appointed by the Town Vestry. When the Poor Laws changed in 1840, the huge Union Workhouse was built in Billericay to house patients from the twenty-six neighbouring parishes. The Hart Street workhouse building then reverted to the welcoming Gardeners Arms pub we know today.

A few miles away was the former Hutton Poplars Residential School main building which had been the brainchild of the MP George Lansbury, who in 1906 opened the school to needy youngsters living in his constituency Hackney and Poplar.

From the written interviews collected from people who had lived and had been educated at Hutton Poplars over its eighty years of existence, Christmas was a time to look forward to.

Doreen Waters, a former pupil, who still lives in the area, remembers: “Hutton Poplars was wonderful for all of us children during December. My brother and I went to live at the home in the 1930s because our mother couldn’t support us. I don’t remember ever being unhappy while I lived there. We were so well looked after by lovely ladies we called “nurses” or “aunties”, never teachers. During my early years, there were 600 boys and girls at Hutton, although they were kept in separate blocks or buildings. Christmas was a magical time. Our headmaster, Mr Higdon, always put on theatrical events, such as plays and we performed in a pantomime held on Boxing Day. There were loads of parties in the other blocks.

Father Christmas made his way down the huge dormitories and everyone had a full stocking when they woke up on Christmas morning. It was wonderful what they did for us all. We particularly used to look forward to the exciting presents that would be sent by people who had donated them to The Evening News and from other newspapers. So, on the whole, I’ve no regrets and my young life was a happy one at the Hutton Poplars School.”

When the school closed, a private estate was built on the site, but Lansbury’s beautiful dining hall still remains, as well as the main school which is now the Mid-Essex Adult Community College.

More details of Hutton Poplars’ history (and photographs) can be found in my newly published book Brentwood in 50 Buildings.

Signed copies available in Essex bookshops and via Amazon.


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