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The Past
In old days, when Hainault Forest extended right down to Marks Gate, it was said that the children of the farmers and foresters ran wild. The Victorians of 1847 had the answer. They built Hainault Forest School. Then, within five years, they cut down the forest.

Upright citizens paid for this new school, as was the custom of the times. Aristocratic Lady Mildmay contributed from her Hampshire mansion; New College, Oxford, sent along some funds and, closer to home, Romford brewer Mr Ind (of Ind Coope) chipped in as well. Even the government granted £102. Hainault Forest School had 76 pupils in one big room – more, it was said, on a Sunday.

In time, the school, now isolated in the fields by Collier Row (as it is now), passed to the control of the Essex council. Just before the Great War, it was enlarged. The coming of the electric trains multiplied the local population, and in 1936 the older children were sent elsewhere.

After World War Two the state took over. The building, now a century old, was renamed The Oaks, a Church of England Primary School, but these were the expansive days of school modernisation in the 1950s, and the old Victorian building was deemed too small and crowded. In 1957 it lost its infant department and within ten years, ill-equipped and in need of repair, it was closed.

The Oaks was the most northerly outpost of the Borough of Barking and Dagenham, who decided to maintain the buildings, refurbished them and opened the site as a youth service resource centre, where it served an inevitably distant community for the next thirty years. By the millennium, however, the future was looking grim. The council had moved out, the vandals paid their visits, and the old Victorian building made an undignified appearance on a ‘Derelict London’ website.

However, the demolition men were held at bay by a council which recognised the building as a characterful reminder of much earlier times. Now 160 years old, the Oaks caught the eye of the visionary teacher Christine Redgrave and her team, who now take over the story.

The present
Our involvement in the building started when Graham Russell (the project manager) saw the derelict site and made enquiries.

It was by this time owned by a property developer who wanted to build retirement dwellings but had been refused council permission for the level of development required. Without this good fortune (from our perspective), the opportunity to restore the building and its surroundings - and hopefully develop the centre as a  place for children, youth and families to enjoy a range of activities - would not have presented itself.

No funding has materialised despite interest from various quarters. The only formal recognition we have is a plaque from Capital Growth - recognition for our allotment initiative, led by Jane Forbes.

The vandalism stopped from the time we began to talk to young local youths. This is to the credit of everyone involved, and we invite those interested to join in the activities as we promised we would. In this way we hope they can see what they have helped us do, and are proud of their part in the venture.

The Centre will provide a setting for leisure pursuits – a dance/drama studio, an art/craft workshop, a quiet den, an indoor gym, an outdoor play area, an astro-pitch and allotments. We look forward to helping children enjoy their free time in active and productive ways.

Our two-year preparation was now at an end. In August 2010 we opened our doors for two weeks of children’s activities, led by the core team who have inspired the project. 48 children, aged from 3 to 11, enjoyed drama, dance, cooking, football, art and craft, and all kinds of fun, competitions and challenges.

The future
Activity weeks such as these are planned for future half-terms and school holidays. Additionally, there will be out-of-school care starting in September (Mondays to Fridays, 3.30 to 6pm).

The dance studio will be used by young people, many of whom may turn an interest started in the primary years into careers in the future. Drama and Dance teacher Vikki Pontefract is working closely with us to promote the Oaks Studio as a centre of excellence.

The astro-pitch has interested many youngsters in the area. Graham Russell, son George and numerous others will offer all keen footballers the opportunity to develop their skills.

Community police and the Marks Gate Community Centre are in touch and will be part of our contact network in the weeks and months ahead.

The Wellgate Farm (opposite us) has shown interest and given support from the start. All neighbours, some of whom attended the Oaks C.of E. School, have been interested and in particular we must thank Bernard Russell, the neighbouring farmer and past pupil of the school, for his help and encouragement.

Do contact us with your memories, photographs, ideas or suggestions about the past and future of the Oaks. We want to involve as many people as possible, and we look forward to becoming a distinctive and enjoyable part of many, many young lives.