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‘Generations of families have come through here’ – Essex Road Pre-School celebrates 40th birthday

PUBLISHED: 10:32 21 July 2017

Pauline Davis is presented with a bunch of flowers to mark the 40th birthday. Picture: Catherine Davison

Pauline Davis is presented with a bunch of flowers to mark the 40th birthday. Picture: Catherine Davison

Catherine Davison

When three mums set up the Essex Road Pre-School in an old launderette next to the Marquess Estate in 1977, they didn’t expect it to be going strong 40 years later.

Old school photographs on display. Picture: Catherine Davison Old school photographs on display. Picture: Catherine Davison

But generations of families have passed through its doors in the ensuing decades. And some of the alumni were in attendance to see their little ones “graduate” yesterday.

The annual send-off is a goodbye to the youngsters heading for “big school”, and it was extra special this year because it was combined with the nursery’s 40th birthday party.

After watching the youngsters being presented with sashes and party bags, reminiscing parents took time to scour old photos for forgotten faces from the community.

The nursery – or “playgroup”, as it was known back then – was opened in an old launderette behind the Sir Walter Sickert Community Centre in the heart of Canonbury. And it’s still there – a community hub that fills its 32 places on word of mouth alone.

Claire Turner (third left) with her children and granddaughters: left to right: Shayla James, Marlee Turner-Flavius, four months, Fayth James, Charis Turner-Flavius and Saskia Turner-Flavius, three. Picture: Catherine Davison Claire Turner (third left) with her children and granddaughters: left to right: Shayla James, Marlee Turner-Flavius, four months, Fayth James, Charis Turner-Flavius and Saskia Turner-Flavius, three. Picture: Catherine Davison

And though it has, by all accounts, changed beyond recognition, there are a couple of constants – Pauline Davis and Jill Pluck, two of the founders.

“It’s very strange,” said Pauline, who did retire but couldn’t stay away, and now helps out once a week. “It was nothing like this when it started. It was hard times at first, but we’ve had thousands of children through here – so many generations of families.

“In those days they were called playgroups, but now they have to learn. We knew it was going to be fun, and that it would be for the future.

“But back then no one was thinking that far [40 years] ahead. Everyone was existing year to year.

Children graduating. Picture: Catherine Davison Children graduating. Picture: Catherine Davison

“They had to move all the washing machines out before we moved in, great big drums there were. And there were cubicles where people did their washing.

“And 40 years later we’re still standing! I must say it’s because of the outstanding work that the staff do. They go over and above what they have to.”

Pauline, Jill and Rose had no problem securing council funding to get the playgroup off the ground, but that was a different time.

The town hall does still give the pre-school money, but bosses can’t afford to give it enough to grow as it would like to. With 32 children on its books, and no room for any more, the hope is to find funding from an outside source to pay for a much-needed extension.

Alice and son Dylan, at the graduation ceremony and birthday bash. Picture: Catherine Davison Alice and son Dylan, at the graduation ceremony and birthday bash. Picture: Catherine Davison

“We’re OK – I was quite thrifty,” continued Pauline. “But we can’t pay for major work. We’re hoping we can get some major funding.”

Pauline and Jill (who was stuck in Kent and had to miss the party) are not the only stalwarts of the nursery: far from it. Chairwoman Claire Turner first took her son to the nursery 20 years ago. And now she has a granddaughter who attends.

“I’ve got six children,” Claire told the Gazette. “My eldest is 23 now and started here when he was three. I’ve had two sets of twins come here.

“It’s funny looking through all the old photos. It’s changed a lot, but in other ways it has stayed the same.”

Old school photographs from the 70s and 80s on display at Essex Road Pre-Schoo. Picture: Catherine Davison Old school photographs from the 70s and 80s on display at Essex Road Pre-Schoo. Picture: Catherine Davison

Claire’s son Josiah added: “Everyone who grew up on the estate has come here. I’ve seen old photos and it’s like: ‘Oh my days, I didn’t know I went to nursery with you’. It’s a community thing. Whenever I see Pauline now she says ‘you’re still not too old to tell off!’”

Claire Wolfe has worked at the pre-school for 12 years, and been head for three. She said: “It’s amazing to think it’s 40. It’s a unique nursery, not like a big children’s service. It was set up by mums and a lot of parents say it feels homely.”

Mum Alice Lythgoe-Goldstein was there with her son Dylan. She said: “As a mum it feels like a home from home. The staff are absolute stars – they are amazing.”

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