24 January 2014

Mile Oak - Approved School

Judy Middleton (2002 revised 2023)

 copyright © G. Osborne
With thanks to Mr G. Osborne for granting permission for the reproduction of the above photograph  from his private collection.
 An aerial view of the School and its extensive grounds, the School's farm buildings are in the top right corner

Early Days

This establishment in Mile Oak Road was known originally as Portslade Industrial School and its construction was a joint effort between London County Council and Brighton Council. It was built at an estimated cost of £30,000 and in 1904 it was stated that the annual cost of running the school was £3,342-19-11d and Brighton Council paid half of that amount.

copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Brighton Herald 25 February 1899

The building was a handsome structure of red brick and over the main entrance there was a sculpture of a seated boy holding an open folio-size book on his knees. A curious detail is the ornamental swag of fruit and flowers curving to ankle level in front of the boy. A scroll at either side of the boy’s head bears the motto Lax Die Lux Viae meaning ‘the Word of God Lights the Way.’
copyright © D.Sharp
This lovely sculpture presents an idealised portrait of a
young well-behaved boy immersed in his book, which must
sometimes have been at odds with real life in the school
this sculpture is now sited at Foredown Tower.

The school was built around a playground with the headmaster’s quarters and offices being at the front. The gymnasium and swimming pool were opposite and the bathrooms and shower rooms were on either side. The dining room was on the ground floor too while the bedrooms were on the first floor.

The aim of the school was to reform boys who had been convicted of offences that were punishable with prison, or who were beyond the control of their parents. To this end, strict discipline was enforced and there was plenty of work plus some industrial training to occupy their time. Great emphasis was placed on physical education too and one of the masters taught boys how to swim in the school pool.

In May 1902 the Secretary of State gave permission for 120 boys to move into the fine new buildings at Portslade. They came from the Industrial School at Chailey and the Industrial School at Margate.

In 1903 thirty new boys were admitted; the London School Board sent thirteen of them, Brighton Education and Brighton Bench sent nine and there were six from East Susses (Eastbourne and Lewes two each, Cuckfield and Hove one each).

A female teacher was responsible for the two junior classes and in 1903 it was stated that there had been a remarkable improvement as a result.

copyright © J.Middleton
This photograph of Portslade Industrial School was included in a souvenir booklet of scenic views of upper Portslade

Music played an important part in school life and in 1908 it was noted that ‘singing is taught with unusual skill.’ In 1906 the brass and reed band reached a high standard and Mr G. Jamieson, the visiting bandmaster was well paid for his pains. As a result many boys found employment as musicians in the Army on leaving Portslade. Naturally, the band had its ups and downs and by 1912 it was reckoned as only of a ‘fair’ standard. The ‘tendency to over-blow requires checking and more attention should be paid to expression.’ Ordinary Portslade folk had the chance to hear the band in action because it performed at many local fetes.

On 1st May 1902 Harry J. Glover was appointed Superintendent and Mrs Glover was included because the couple received a joint salary, which in 1905 was £240 a year. Miss E.H. Glover (perhaps their daughter) was appointed nurse. Mr Glover did not reach the retirement age of 65 until 1912 but he was obliged to retire earlier because of failing eyesight.

Staff Wages in 1905

Miss E.M. Glover, nurse-£40
J. Brown, schoolmaster-£135
H.A. Brown, schoolmistress-£60
F.A. Mackay, assistant schoolmaster-£80
H.G. Walden, assistant schoolmaster-£50
J.B. Pierce, superintendent’s clerk-£40
H. Brett, cook-£30
L. Martin, laundress-£30
A. Page, housemaid-£18
T. Anderson, general servant-£18
G. Jamieson, bandmaster-£90

Industrial Staff Wages 1905

H.E. Davies, tailor-£45
W. Scully, shoemaker-£19-17-2d
G.F.C. Tuppen, shoemaker-£24-14-5d
I. Proctor, carpenter-£65
T. Hygate, farm bailiff-£119-10-2d
A. Holder, assistant-£40
A. Berry, assistant-£40
A. Harrison, assistant-£40

In 1906 the farm stock consisted of three cows, a horse and pigs and it is interesting to note that pigs continued to be kept until the 1950s. There was a tomato house measuring 100 feet in length and well-stocked gardens. In the same year there were 92 boys and staff with twelve boys working outside on licence.

copyright © J.Middleton
A late 1920s view of the School on the far hill, to the right of the school's Chapel is the school's farmhouse and barn.

Betty Figg who was born in 1925 remembers the school farm being on the site now occupied by Downland Court. Mr Lindup was the farm bailiff and Mr Rook was the cowman. She also remembered the remarkable figure of Dr Brown on his rounds. When he called at the school he would hitch his horse to a ring especially placed at the foot of the drive. Dr Brown wore a long, black cavalry cloak that served to keep the horse’s hindquarters warm, while on his head he sported the type of black, wide-brimmed hat more commonly associated with French clergymen.


There were two cases of diphtheria in 1908. The Medical Officer attributed the cause to the practice of pumping raw sewage onto the land. He had already drawn attention to the problem in 1906 and emphasised that a proper drainage system ought to be delayed no longer. But the practice was no different from Foredown Isolation Hospital, which also dumped sewage on nearby fields.

At the time these two institutions were built, there were literally at the back of beyond and presumably the authorities thought such a remote location combined with stiff sea breezes meant there was no urgency to provide a proper sewerage system. But soon after the diphtheria cases were noted, an arrangement was made with Portslade Council whereby the Industrial School was allowed to put their sewage into Portslade’s main sewer for a charge of £30 a year.

Inspector’s Report

Out of the 28 boys who left school in 1908, eight joined the Army and four emigrated. The Inspector noted that the ‘drawing books of the whole school are unusually rough and dirty’. He also wrote ‘Successful up to a point, it (the school) arouses no local enthusiasm and the number of Sussex boys is curiously low.’
copyright © J.Middleton
The entrance to Portslade Industrial School

But the Inspector did find some good points too. He thought the farm and vegetable garden provided a good training and he praised the quality of instruction in the shoemaker’ shop where the boys had made 73 pairs of boots. The tailor’s shop was busy too and the boys had made 142 pairs of knickerbockers, three vests and four pairs of trousers. But all was not well in the carpenter’s shop where there were vacancies.

Visitor’s Book

The Visitor’s Book has survived and in the early years Councillor Kidd was the sole dissenting voice. On 4 November 1904 he wrote ‘Visited the Boiler House and found no-one in attendance. Proctor, who appears to be in charge and responsible, does not seem in my opinion competent to undertake this duty.’ On 27 February 1905 Councillor Kidd was back again to interview the nurse about the death of two of the boys and to make enquiries about the health of the rest.

Other visitors who bothered to record their impressions were delighted in what they saw and some of them just turned up without giving any notice of their intention. But the school must have enjoyed a good reputation because visitors from abroad came to visit. For example, there was a visitor from Dublin in 1907, one from Prague in 1909 and in 1913 they came from Denmark and France. The bright faces of the boys who had come from such a poor background formed an indelible impression on the visitor from Prague; he concluded they were getting the ‘best possible training and fatherly care from Mr Glover.’

In May 1910 one visitor who arrived at dinner time was brave enough to sample the food with the boys; another visitor in the same year was very pleased with the school whose ‘arrangements are so home-like and education of an uplifting character’.

The Revd F.W. Barnett visited the school in 1913 and coined a delightful turn of phrase when he commented on the ‘admirable reclamation work done here … everywhere one is struck by efficiency’.

Many of the visitors were local such as the Revd Vicars Armstrong Boyle, vicar of St Nicolas Church Portslade, who was also a member of the East Sussex Education Committee. Then there was Miss Gosset from a large house called Northerlea in Portslade Old Village who lamented that she was too deaf to hear what was going on.

There were official visits too such as the annual one made by the Inspector; in 1911 a member of the Croydon Education Committee arrived to check on the welfare of four Croydon boys.

By 1931 the school’s name had changed to Mile Oak School and later on it became Mile Oak Approved School. London County Council took over sole responsibility for the establishment on 31 December 1931.

Personal Memories

Whatever the early days were like for the boys, it seems that later on conditions became harsh and unpleasant at least in the memories of two of them.

A boy who emigrated to Australia when he grew up, remembered his time at Mile Oak with anguish. The boys were often hit for minor misdemeanours but they knew better than to complain to the authorities. Every morning boys had to scrub floors with cold water and if their work was deemed not to be up to scratch and one boy held up to shame, then he and the other boys who sat at the same table would be punished. Their punishment might be to miss the treat of a film show. He said his knees had always been painful because of the hours spent kneeling on cold floors. They had to take cold showers too – several shivering boys to one cold jet. He cannot remember any industrial training apart from some basket-weaving being taught.

Ron Piper related a similar tale of hardship. Piper arrived at the school aged eleven during the Second World War. His first impression was of a sparkling clean institution; he did not realise it was all due to the boys. Discipline was harsh with six of the best meted out at the least provocation. Only the headmaster undertook caning a backside but when he did, he used to walk to the far end of the room in order to have a good run up to his target, bringing the cane down with extra force. When Piper and his friend tried to run away, they were picked up by the police and brought back to face a welcome from the headmaster of twelve of the best. 

copyright © D.Sharp
The Roll of Honour in St Nicolas Church list the names of
"Old Boys" of Portslade Industrial School who died in the
1st & 2nd World Wars
Masters were allowed to inflict four cane strokes across the fingers of both hands; this caused the fingers to swell up and sometimes it could be two days before the boy could hold his pencil properly. Piper also remembered being denied the treat of watching the Saturday film in the dining room with a few boiled sweets thrown in. The boys being punished had to sit outside on the stone floor of the corridor with their backs to the wall. They could hear the soundtrack but of course could see nothing.

A milder form of discipline was being made to stand to attention in the playground for up to an hour. Matron was the only person in the entire school to show any sympathy to the boys.

The school was divided into four houses named Allenby, Beatty, Haig and Jellicoe after Naval and Military commanders of the First World War.

But there is always another side to the story and many contributors to My Brighton and Hove have fond memories of the school and a great nostalgia for their time there. Indeed one of them, Trevor Whitworth, claims they were the best years of his life and that the school made a man of him when he was in danger of going off the rails. Neither did he mind the very frequent drills the boys were made to do. Several of the men make the point that although discipline was tough, it was just what was needed to put them back on the right track.  

Wartime Log Book

From September 1939 to July 1944 a Night Log was kept at the school. The master on duty recorded any unusual happenings in it. It was mostly worries about blackout restrictions. For example, in September 1939 the Southwick Air Raid Warden complained to the police about a strong white light coming from the building. A screen was put up, which blew down later the same month. As the school stood in such an exposed position, blinds were frequently blown down while some lights had to be left on for the security of the boys.

If there was an alert, the boys had to be woken up and taken down to the shelters, perhaps to spend two or three hours before returning to bed. Not surprisingly, bed-wetting was a problem and the duty master tried to avert this by rousing affected boys at intervals.

Some soldiers were billeted at the school and one night in May 1941 they opened up with their Bren guns just after midnight. The school provided a grandstand view of what was going on in the night sky with searchlight activity and ack-ack fire visible plus the sound of aircraft and bombs exploding.

The school kept ducks but one night in December 1941 when Mr G. Morfield, the duty master, did his rounds he found them wandering about their enclosure. He managed to gather them together and restore them to their coops.

In August 1944 five boys aged twelve were injured when a phosphorous grenade exploded while they were examining it. It was thought that one of the boys had picked it up while playing on the Downs.

copyright © J.Middleton
The only brick buildings to survive from Portslade Industrial School are the two lodges placed on either side of the drive photographed in the early 1930s. 
Closing Down

In 1961 the Valuation Officer tried to increase the rateable value of the school from £1,330 to £1,414 but the local valuation court turned it down. The increase was sought because a new house had been built for the headmaster. But it was stated the Home Office had ordered a reduction in the number of boys from 150 to 80 and because of this the school appealed against the increase in rates. It was also revealed that the gross value of the school on the basis of its school places was £2-10s higher than Eton and 50% higher than Winchester or Charterhouse.

On 1 January 1971 the name of the school was changed to Mile Oak Community Home when the Children and Young Persons Act came into force. Under this Act magistrates no longer dealt with children under the age of seventeen; instead a Children’s Officer took responsibility.

The home closed in 1977. On 31 August 1977 the headmaster Mr L.G. Kane wrote ‘at 5 p.m. I closed the book and handed it over with my keys to Mr A.M. Probyn.’

It was envisaged that the school would become part of Portslade Community College’s campus and indeed the Sixth Form College was based there for a while. But the old school building was eventually demolished and housing quickly covered most of the land. The only vestiges to remain are the two lodges located on either side of the old driveway to the school plus the sculpture of the boy and book removed to safe keeping at Foredown Tower.

James Hay (1885-1958)

copyright © National Library of Australia
The Critic (Adelaide) 20 April 1921

It seems incredible that a famous tenor born in Australia should in later life have become a teacher of music and singing at Mile Oak Approved School in around 1946, indeed it is something of a mystery. Perhaps the pay was generous because way back in 1905 the Bandmaster enjoyed the highest staff salary. Hay was also able to live in a bungalow in the school grounds.

copyright © National Library of Australia
The Mercury 1 February 1928

He was born in Western Australia as Peter James Hay, being named Peter after his father. But he was always known as James Hay. His grandfather had lived in Edinburgh and was a Presbyterian minister. Perhaps the revered gentleman longed for pastures new – at any rate he emigrated to Australia, and his son became a sheep farmer. Some of James Hay’s earliest recollections were of the sheep, and minding them. So isolated was this holding that the youngster did not see his first train until he was aged fourteen.

But it was in this quiet location that Hay was introduced to music, and it became the love of his life. Music was in his genes because both his grandfather, and his father would sing the old Scottish songs to him. When the family decided to move to Perth in Western Australia, young James sang in Perth Cathedral choir.

Later on he was advised that the only way forward was to seek expert tuition from the finest teachers in England and France. It seems that a benevolent businessman sponsored him. In taking this step, he was following in the footsteps of the celebrated Dame Nellie Melba (1861-1931) who also had Scottish ancestry but was born in Australia, and she too headed for the bright lights of Europe in order to further her career.

The teaching that Hay received led to musical success, firstly with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, and then with the Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company. He joined the first company in the chorus and worked his way up, and then moved to the second company as their principal tenor. It seems his favourite singing part was in the opera Iolanthe. On one occasion The Times was moved to comment that his tone was powerful. But he was on the stage so frequently that at times he overstretched his voice.

copyright © National Library of Australia
The News (Adelaide) 17 June 1927

On 14 November 1922 Hay married his wife Stella at Christ Church, Mayfair, and photos of the celebrity couple appeared in the newspapers. It seems that the pair had been acquainted for several years before the knot was tied. Might there have been some reluctance on Hay’s part? For instance, she was Mrs Ettlinger, the widow of a wealthy diamond merchant, whose business proved lucrative enough to provide her with £40,000 a year. Then there was the little matter of the age gap because he was fifteen years her junior – the term ‘toy-boy’ comes to mind. Perhaps she underestimated his devotion to music, and when he left England to tour Australia in 1926, she did not accompany him, and this was only four years after the wedding. Nor was Hay in any hurry to return to these shores, not coming back until 1929.

It was surprising the marriage lasted as long as it did but by 1939 they were divorced. Thus it is curious to find them noted as both living in a flat in 1945 at Viceroy Lodge, Kingsway,  Hove. After that it is difficult to know where their separate ways went.

It is so sad that at the end of his life when Hay was admitted to Brighton General Hospital, the staff regarded him as just another lonely old man. Nobody had any idea of his illustrious career. He was aged 73 when he died on 1 July 1958, and when the death certificate was filled out, the word describing his occupation was ‘unknown’. There were no probate proceedings. Today James Hay is well-remembered at Clare in South Australia, while at Portslade he is forgotten.

(Information kindly supplied by J.Clarke)


Encyclopaedia of Hove and Portslade

National Library of Australia

On-line – Jeff Clarke, James Hay: A Tenor lowly-born who married into a world of wealth

Piper, Ron Take Him Away (1995) QueenSpark Book number 29
R/E2/43/25B Portslade Industrial School 1901-1915 (East Sussex Record Office)
R/59/1 Visitor’s Book Portslade Industrial School (East Sussex Record Office)
Copyright © J.Middleton 2014
page layout by D.Sharp