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A time of innocence in an age of war: Rainham Hall unveils new exhibition

PUBLISHED: 15:00 02 March 2017 | UPDATED: 16:12 02 March 2017

A photo from the time Rainham Hall was a wartime nursery, donated by John Stirling

A photo from the time Rainham Hall was a wartime nursery, donated by John Stirling

Archant

Every building has a story, we are told, and Georgian manor Rainham Hall's tale certainly ignites the imagination.

Rainham Hall has just launched its second major exhibitionRainham Hall has just launched its second major exhibition

People from all walks of life have roamed its grounds across centuries, from sea-faring merchant – and founder – Captain John Harle, to Vogue photographer Anthony Denney and a 19th-century reverend.

With Harle’s story centre stage for the 18 months following the hall’s unveiling to the public, in October 2015, the time has come for an alternative trip back into history, to an era closer to our own.

Remembering the Day Nursery at Rainham Hall explores the 11 years the manor spent as a childcare facility, after the government, through local authorities, formed wartime nurseries to allow mothers to join the workforce.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of staff and volunteers, fascinating testimonies have been collected to bring life to a piece of history which has largely remained outside the public consciousness.

Speaking to the Recorder, creative programme manager Sally James said: “It wasn’t until we started talking to people for our oral history project – which was part of our main Heritage Lottery funding – that we started to discover what life was like in the nursery.

“What’s really important about this exhibition is it’s very much a local story for people who grew up in this area. Rainham Hall was part of their childhood.”

The manor, in Broadway, was requisitioned by Essex County Council in 1942 and the nursery launched in 1943, taking as many as 45 children at a time.

“Towards the end of the Second World War, there was a real move from different organisations – so the ministry of health, the ministry of labour, the education department – to look at what should be their provision for the community, so mothers would be able to go out to work and leave their children in the nursery,” said Sally.

A photo of nursery children and workers enjoying a party, donated by Roger and Janice CunninghamA photo of nursery children and workers enjoying a party, donated by Roger and Janice Cunningham

“The building went from being a private home to a public facility, a hub.”

Seven people so far have shared their memories of either working at or attending the nursery, including one of the hall’s own.

“Linda Moulder, who has been a garden volunteer with us for the last few years, was a child at the nursery,” said Sally.

“She worked in the local area and has now returned to us, how amazing to see pictures of her playing in the garden. She’s got that real connection with the building.

Stairway murals at Rainham Hall. Picture: National TrustStairway murals at Rainham Hall. Picture: National Trust

“It’s amazing having a team of people here who are passionate about the hall’s history and reputation.”

Much of the interviewees’ memories centre on outdoor play, as well as enjoying food such as oranges, which were a “real treat” in a time of rationing.

There is also an “absolutely star story” between two former nursery children: readers can find out more at the exhibition.

A key priority for the hall – which has seen its volunteer numbers jump from 30 in 2014 to about 150 now – is engaging the youngest in our community with the history that is all around them.

A nursery photograph donated by John StirlingA nursery photograph donated by John Stirling

Not only do the exhibitions share content in a variety of forms (such as oral recordings and artefact displays), the hall also runs a regular programme of workshops and other activities.

Preparations are underway for a Cadbury’s Easter trail in April, and a range of sessions will also run alongside the new programme.

“The exhibition is very much aimed at families,” said Sally. “We want people to make new memories here.

“I think we have a very different storytelling approach, there is something for everyone.”

Staircase inside Rainham HallStaircase inside Rainham Hall

Approximately 15,000 people visited the attraction – restored to the sum of £2.5million – while the Captain Harle exhibition was running, and it is hoped the new displays will attract even more to discover the heritage which is right on their doorstep.

Remembering the Day Nursery at Rainham Hall is now open, for visiting times and details of the gardens and cafe, visit nationaltrust.org.uk/rainham-hall or call 01708 525579.

There is still time to share your memories of the nursery: call the above number or email rainhamhall@nationaltrust.org.uk.

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