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London County Council School of Marine Engineering and Navigation

In the autumn of 1913, Alfred Hitchcock left St. Ignatius College and enroled at the London County Council School of Marine Engineering and Navigation, located on 112-124 High Street, Poplar, London. He studied there for a year before being hired by W.T. Henley's Telegraph Works Company Ltd in November 1914.

According to biographer Patrick McGilligan, Hitchcock "attended lectures in physics and chemistry, took all manner of shop classes, calculated nautical and electrical measurements, and studied the principles of magnetism, force, and motion". In later life, the director recalled of his time at the School:

"The worst thing was the chemistry, I couldn't get on with that. Melting things in sulfuric acid. Who cares?"[1]

The School eventually became the Poplar Centre for Further Education and is now Tower Hamlets College[2].


The following is taken from the 1994 "Survey of London: volumes 43 and 44: Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs"[3]

Poplar Centre for Further Education (Tower Hamlets College), formerly the London County Council School of Marine Engineering and Navigation, at Nos 112–124.

In 1895 a 'large and influential committee of local residents' wrote to the Technical Education Board of the London County Council to ask that a more permanent centre might be found for the technical lectures already provided there by the Board. Will Crooks and the Poplar Labour League were a force behind this, but it was also part of a growing awareness amongst statesmen, teachers and industrialists of the need for technical education. Under Sidney Webb the Technical Education Board prompted the Council in 1901 to acquire a site in the High Street for an institution to give practical instruction in marine engineering, naval architecture, navigation and related subjects.

The building was designed under the superintendence of the Council's architect, W. E. Riley (1852–1937), begun in 1902 and opened in January 1906. Unlike the Council's technical college then being built at Brixton, the construction of the building was given to the Council's Works Department, under the management of G. W. Humphreys. The slow progress was attributed to the difficult foundations, which required cast-iron cylinders filled with concrete to be sunk 18ft to the gravel subsoil. The cost of building was about £20,000, plus about £6,000 for equipment other than machines. Signs of fine and careful work, in design and execution, are not lacking, from the concealed gutters above the eavescornice to the stone-carving of the main doorcase, by Bertram Pegram (1873–1941).

The basement contained a boiler-room, engine-house, workshops and laboratories; the ground floor administrative offices, drawing office, reading room and patternmakers' shop; the first floor had lecture rooms, classrooms and a 'preparation room'; and the second floor contained an engineering drawing office, navigation room, chemical theatre and laboratory, and balance-room. The flat part of the roof served for taking astronomical observations by ship's instruments.

The face the building presents to the street is a designedly piquant mixture of Mannerist classicism in the skilfully worked Portland-stone masonry of the façade below cornice level and the modernism of large, unmodelled 'studio-light' windows in the roof. A significant part in its design may have been played by Percy Ginham (1865–1947), Riley's principal assistant (formerly in Norman Shaw's office), whose initials are on the main plans dated February 1904. The caretaker's flat at the rear on the second and third floors, an early addition of about 1910, is in a more 'vernacular' domestic style (a little like that of the LCC Coroner's Court on the other side of the street): the drawings for this do not bear Ginham's initials. Some alterations were made in 1927 by the builders F. & T. Thorne. In 1929–31 the School was extended three bays eastward (abolishing the former eastern doorway) to designs from the LCC Architect's Department in a more conventional, neo-Georgian, style than the work of 1902–6. This extension also had a flat roof for students' use. (A stylistic curiosity is the trussed timber roof of the Mates' Lecture Room, now Room D14.) In 1951–5 a further eastward extension was made at the rear behind the Public Library, partly reinstating an extension nearly completed in 1939 and destroyed in 1944, to designs by Pite, Son & Fairweather, architects. The Library building itself was acquired from the Poplar Borough Council in 1957 for demolition to enable the School (then called Poplar Technical College) to be extended again over its site, as 'it is not practicable to adapt the [Library] premises at a reasonable cost', but in 1994 the former Library building remains in use by the College.

Within the last decade the college has ceased to be mainly technological and (reflecting London's loss of a shipping industry) is no longer concerned with marine engineering and navigation. A five-storey extension of the buildings on the west side was opened in 1991, having cost £14.5 million (architects John R. Harris Partnership, consulting engineers Ove Arup & Partners, contractors Fairclough Building Ltd, engineers and contractors M. F. Kent Ltd). In 1983 the building of 1902–6, together with the 1929–31 extension, was listed Grade II.

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Notes & References

  1. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light (2003) by Patrick McGilligan, page 25
  2. Tower Hamelts College web site
  3. British History Online