St. Michael's Orphanage or Jameah Islameah School
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What: Former orphanage and boarding school
Where: Mark Cross, East Sussex
Architect: Orphanage by EW Pugin with later additions by JS Hansom; chapel by G Goldie and CE Child
Abandoned: Chapel and Presbytery only - c.1991-2005
Listed: Grade II
Visited: August 2017
Last Known Condition: Derelict, deteriorating
Page Updated: November 2017
St. Michael's Orphanage for Girls and was built between 1865-68, following a large donation to the Catholic church by the Dowager Duchess of Leeds. The large gothic building, designed by Edward Pugin
was staffed by sisters of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus and housed 120 girls. Pugin also constructed a boys' orphanage at nearby Mayfield at the same time.
A large chapel by George Goldie and Charles Edwin Child was added in 1874-5. The
Duchess of Leeds bought the polished granite columns which divide the
nave and aisles from Scotland, and the altar was designed by Peter Paul Pugin.
In 1925, the buildings were bought by the Archdiocese of Southwark to serve as a minor seminary for St John's in Wonersh. The new Seminary was named St. Joseph's College and remained in use until 1970.
After the Seminary came Legat's school of Ballet, the first ballet boarding school in the United Kingdom, founded by Russian Prima Ballerina Nadine Nicolaeva-Legat. The chapel was converted into a performance space and auditorium and renamed the Nicolaeva-Legat Theatre.
The ground floor of the main building was used for academic lessons, the first floor housed two large dance studio and an art studio and the second floor attic was used for dormitories. The annex to the rear housed staff and senior pupils aged over 16. A third dance studio was housed in a wooden hut beside the rear driveway and several prefabricated buildings to the rear were used for academic lessons and dormitories. This arrangement lasted until 1990, when the school relocated to nearby Wadhurst College.
In 1992, the school was bought for £850,000 by a charity called Jameah Islameah, which ran an independent Islamic boarding school for boys aged 11-16. For an annual fee of £900, the Jameah Islameah school provided its students with "an opportunity of a lifetime in the form of Islamic teacher training", allowing them to teach in local Masjids and Madrasas.
Around 2005, allegations surfaced that the school had been used in the training and recruitment of terrorists. According to testimony from Al Qaeda suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, in 1997-8, Abu Hamza and groups of around 30 of his followers had held jihadist training camps here, practicing with AK-47 assault rifles and handguns. Although this was never confirmed, has been confirmed that the radical cleric spent a weekend with his followers here around that time; in fact, Bilal Patel, the school's imam, said he was immediately worried about Hamza's behaviour and on what impact the sight of the cleric and his followers would have on the neighbours.
In 2003 or 2004, the grounds of the school were used for an Islamic-themed camping trip, at which Omar Bakri Mohammed lectured. The trip, which was advertised by word-of-mouth, was attended by 50 Muslim men, most of whom were members of al-Muhajiroun.
Acting on these and other supposed tip-offs, on 1 September 2006 the school was searched by up to a hundred police officers who also held a cordon around the site for 24 days in an operation that cost over one million pounds. Meanwhile the Metropolitan Police searched the buildings and grounds and the lake. No arrests were made.
The following year, the school was closed by the Department for Education and Skills for failing to provide a satisfactory education. Numbers of pupils had declined since the raids and no pupils were on the roll at the time of the order. Two years before, OFSTED had reported that the school had a "significant number of major weaknesses" and prevented pupils from "making the progress of which they are capable".
The charity remodeled itself as a teacher training college, providing "an ideal opportunity for students to learn the Qur'an and Sunnah as well as allowing them to develop their own character according to the teachings of the Prophet (SAW)", and also offering accommodation for single men "wishing to live in a strict Islamic environment at a nominal fee." The website was operational until 2016, but now, ironically, redirects to a company selling liquor dispensers.
There is a great deal of media sensationalism still hanging about Jameah Islameah School. Don't get me wrong, I'm no apologist for religious indoctrination, or faith schools at all for that matter, but it should be remembered that the boys who went to school here weren't so different from any others. Lockers in the hall sport the same stickers from Max Power and video games I remember from my own school days (with the slightly incongruous addition of the Masjid Al Haram and the holy city of Makkah) and the scratched graffiti in the old chapel is nothing more sinister than 'Khaled woz ere' or 'Hassan rules o.k?' Was this really a factory for terrorists? I find it hard to believe the tabloid line that everyone here was an evil extremist bent on the destruction of All We Hold Dear.
My efforts focused on getting to the disused chapel, on the edge of the site. While others had crept into the main building before me, it was clear to me from the outset that people still live here. Sadly, this does not seem to have stopped numerous oafish 'explorers' from skulking about the building's corridors, some even videoing the experience; sensationalising everyday religious items as evidence of some despicable Islamist death-cult or going about as if they expect heavily armed Jihadists to be lurking around every corner. I for one stop at invading people's homes.
The chapel interior was dark, dusty, and filled with the sharp reek of pigeon dung. It looks like this part of the site was abandoned even before the school closed down. Although much of the original ornament and decoration has been swept away, probably when the chapel was converted to a theatre in the 70s, there is still some very fine work in the columns and ceiling. Although the buildings here are listed, their future seems pretty hopeless. The Islamic community here barely have the money to keep them in habitable condition, let alone restore the parts that have fallen into disuse.
Bede's School, 2017; 'About Legat' [http://www.bedes.org/legat-school/about.aspx] Accessed 23/11/17
Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, 1991; Listing text, Chapel to Former Legat's School of Ballet.
Hyland, GJ, 2010; 'Chronological Gazetteer of the works of E.W. Pugin' [http://www.thepuginsociety.co.uk/institutional-buildings.html] Accessed 23/11/17
Office for Standards in Education, Jameah Islameah School inspection report, 5 - 8 December 2005
'Profile: Jameah Islameah school' BBC News, 2nd September 2006 [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/5308626.stm] Accessed 23/11/17
The Building News, July 18 1865.