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Story behind Vernon Square

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BA Middle Eastern Studies

Rumours say it was a madhouse or that someone committed suicide just in the room your lecture is in. What was the history of this slightly scary and confusing building really like?

Here it is, your first lecture at Vernon Square. You arrive early, but not early enough to anticipate such a weird building full of tortuous corridors and scary dark corners. Luckily, you quickly find a bunch of other confused freshers with whom you could then wander around unexpected staircases and hidden rooms and grumble about the crazy architect that caused this. You immediately start hearing stories about this building being a mental asylum (Well, who wouldn’t go mad in there?) or an orphanage full of abandoned children or other depressing and slightly scary theories. Well, here is what the story was really like.

This lovely building was finished in 1916 as Vernon Square School, a mixed primary school for an impressive number of 1500 pupils. The cool part about it is the rooftop playground in the place of nowadays third floor where the children were protected from falling down by a massive brick wall. You can actually still liven up your next boring tutorial on the third floor by observing the wall from the classroom’s windows and imagining children playing around you. Other than a change to a secondary school for boys by 1926, there really was not much happening there until WWII. During this period, the school was used by the National Fire Service and partially damaged by a parachute mine that hit nearby buildings. Apparently, the Southeast wing had to be demolished and rebuilt again after the war for the school to be reopened.

From the year 1952, the school was renamed after a teacher and a politician Sir Philip Magnus. According to Sandra Blacker, a former teacher from 1960s, the quality of teaching wasn’t so bad, though the students weren’t expected to go to college or university. However, there is a reference in the 1984 Sydney Morning Herald (crazy enough) about brutality and aggression of these students. One of the teachers back then claims that he walked into a classroom where one of the students was a heroin addict and another one was sent to a mental asylum for his aggressive behaviour in class. In this article, Sir Philip Magnus School serves as an example of a place from which everyone ran away as soon as he could and the teacher himself admits to be “in a state of nervous collapse” after two years of working there. Reliable or not, at least we are not the only ones to go slightly mad in this building.

Since the school was closed down, there has been a great controversy over what to do with the space. It seems that there was a plan on construction of a huge hotel, but that was rejected after strong public objection. The building was finally acquired by SOAS in 1999 and through renovation became the place that we know today.

However, by the summer 2015, things are going to change once more. Moving SOAS to the North Block of the Senate House means that Vernon Square is on sale again. Well, technically, the building is offered for long leasehold of 150 years, so SOAS will still have some power over its future. So far there is nothing more than speculation about the prospective buyer, but no matter what the building is to retain its educational function. According to the information provided on SOAS web page, the money from the sale is promised to be reinvested in the future of the university, so everyne can keep hoping that those writing pads will stop falling apart.

The corridors may seem confusing with the wind howling in the upper floors frightening, but all facts point to the conclusion that the house actually is not haunted. It has always been a school and to my knowledge, there were no orphans, madmen or suicides. So it all comes down to one fact: the only crazy person in there was the architect.

One of the teachers back then claims that he walked into a classroom where one of the students was a heroin addict and another one was sent to a mental asylum for his aggressive behaviour in class.

                            The front of Vernon Square in 1960 (image from LMA)

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