Demolition of a grand building

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Former Southam town councillor Len Gale says there was an outcry over the demolition of the old Southam Convent in the 1980s.

Following John Keddie’s appeal for more information about the convent building (Nostalgia, February 6) Mr Gale has submitted some photographs taken at the time of the demolition and recalls some of the building’s history.

He said: “Your article showed a picture of the old Convent Orphanage in Southam, its demolition and ‘The Cloisters’ that replaced it.

“John Keddie asks if there were any doubts about its demolition and please assure him there was a great outcry at the time.

“I was at that time a member of Southam Town council and I remember trying hard to delay the demolition in the hope that another use could be found for what I called the finest piece of architecture in Southam at that time.

“It was built in 1902 and it was a magnificent building, probably far too grand for its location and purpose but it was what the mother house in Holland said had to be built.

“Apparently the sisters in Southam asked for advice on what to build as an orphanage and they were sent a set of plans for one that had already been built in Holland with the instructions to build the same, probably as it would save on architect’s fees.

“Its demolition came about as a direct result of government policy that favoured foster parents over orphanages and as this was built specifically for that purpose it was difficult to find any other use for it and so demolition was inevitable as the sisters could not afford to have it standing there empty.

“The convent was held in high esteem by the local community and the name of ‘The Cloisters’ was used for the replacement houses that were built there, to honour it. What remains of the convent where the nuns used to live has now been empty for several years but I understand that it is about to be sold for some form of housing for disabled people which is a very good thing.

“There is a fascinating history behind this story which is tied up with the origins of the order of nuns called the ‘Sisters of the Poor Child Jesus’. An extension had been built onto the old convent house in the late 19th century and that was the part that was demolished, along with the orphanage, to return it to its original design.

“In my collection of photos I have one that also shows the old school hall, at the adjacent St Mary’s School, which is no longer there. That started life as a flat pack church, not uncommon in the 1850s.

“It was to be a church in Smethwick, Birmingham, and was transferred here and rebuilt in 1898. It was later donated to the school when a new church was built in 1925.

“It was a corrugated iron structure that came in panels and was transferred and erected on site one weekend by a group of quarry men. It was blue with a red roof and it was the centre of life for the parish for many decades.

“My children attended the school up to the age of 11 and then transferred to Trinity in Leamington.

“If you put ‘Olde House retreat’ into an online search it will show you a great deal of information in timeline format.”