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Cuckoo School - Hanwell Community Centre

In 1841, when St Mary's Church had been rebuilt, Hanwell was still a rural village with a population of only 1,469. Things were soon to change and fifteen years later, building started on the London District Poor Law School, popularly called the Cuckoo Schools, in Hanwell Park. Messrs. Brass & Son got the contract to build the school for 35,000 and the foundation stone was laid on 11th September 1856.

A year later the school buildings were finished, and on October 20th 1857, one thousand children with accompanying servants and officers were brought in from Norwood, Surrey in horse drawn wagons. The school they came from was owned by a certain Mr Aubin, whose methods of caring and educating children were considered hard and harsh, even in those days. It is thought probable that he was the original for Dickens' portrait of the workhouse master in Oliver Twist.

Although this huge influx of pupils and staff virtually doubled the population of the village overnight it did not overburden local resources as the campus, made up of various schools, formed a self-reliant township of its own.

In addition to classrooms, dining hall, kitchen, library, gymnasium, dormitories and bathrooms, the school had its own chaplain, infirmary, swimming pool, laundry, wash house, dairy and farm house. There was also carpenter's shop, a boot maker, tailor, and many other services, which included a 375 ft well, engine house and water tower. The estate had its own lodge house and also contained its own sewage and gas works.

A herd of about 30 cows was kept at Cuckoo Farm, that supplied the school with dairy products and also served as a training establishment for the boys. Croquet and lawn tennis were played in the grounds.

One of the schools most famous pupils was Charlie Chaplin, who spent some time there, from June 1896 to January 1898. But Charlie never had happy memories of the Cuckoo Schools. He didn't like the harsh discipline and corporal punishment, but nevertheless didn't forget what the school tried to do for all the poor and orphaned children. He returned on one occasion and treated all the schoolchildren to a picnic and a showing of one of his films in a Shepherds Bush cinema.

The L.C.C. took over control of the school in 1930 and two years later the closure of Hanwell Residential School, (its new L.C.C. name), was announced. In June 1933 all the scholars were transferred to other schools and this complex-of buildings was left empty and echoing. It was only 76 years old but was now considered obsolete. Shortly after, outlying blocks and wings of this school were demolished until only the central administrative block and dining hall remained.

The main Italianate style building was used during the Second World War for storage and various community activities and now effectively serves the local area as the Hanwell Community Centre.

This page was originally prepared for Hanwell History society by Chris Edwards.

More information: Central London District School