The Suntrap Field Studies Centre has recently reopened with a new lease of life as ‘The Hive’. Their excellent record of outdoor education for schools in Waltham Forest is now expanded to cover ‘outdoor educational activities for schools, families, adults and community groups’. The building has been completely renovated – but not for the first time in its history.

The original house on the site was used c.1825-45 by Dr Matthew Allen as part of his mental asylum but this was rebuilt in 1895 as a T.B. Sanitorium.

In the Great War the Artists’ Rifles used the building as training facilities. The poet and writer Edward Thomas joined the Artists’ Rifles in July 1915 and on October 17 he wrote that his address was now Suntrap, High Beech, although he was moved to Hare Hall Camp, Gidea Park, Romford by late November.

Epping Forest Guardian: Edward Thomas.Edward Thomas. (Image: unknown)

The family lived in Hampshire but Edward’s son got an apprenticeship at a motor works in Walthamstow, so in autumn 1916 he found a cottage for his family at High Beach “standing in the grounds of a nursery garden which had run wild”. (Paul’s Nursery, near The King’s Oak pub). It was cold and inconvenient but within cycling distance for his son. His wife, Helen, knew that Edward would be sent abroad to fight in the New Year and was devastated that he would not be allowed home for Christmas. But then, as Helen wrote so beautifully in World Without End, “a miracle happened. Suddenly this Christmas of all Christmases became the most joyous: the snow-bound forest sparkled like Aladdin’s Cave; the house was transformed into a festive bower of holly and ivy and fir boughs, and our listlessness was changed into animated happiness and excitement. Edward after all was coming home for Christmas!”

Sadly this was to be the last time she saw her husband who was killed by the blast of a shell during the first hour of the battle of Arras, on April 9, 1917.

Epping Forest Guardian: A memorial stone to Edward Thomas near his home in Hampshire A memorial stone to Edward Thomas near his home in Hampshire (Image: Georgina Green)

On a happier note, Suntrap became a maternity hospital and in 1984 Mrs Joyce Calder described her time there at Christmas 1944. “I attended the maternity clinic at Howards Road, Plaistow, and as the bombing was a little bit naughty I was advised to have my baby at ‘Suntrap’. I duly arrived there on the 8th December 1944 and my daughter was born on the 9th December 1944. The Sister in Charge was named Coak and the nurses attending me were C. R. King and P. Herigham.

“My memories are a little vague but on entry I was upstairs in a largish room, but then I was transferred to a small room large enough for two patients. The lady in there was a private patient but she was a little lonely, so I was asked if I would mind joining her, naturally I didn’t and I had private treatment without any cost. Unfortunately in those days we were confined to bed all the time, so I was unable to explore the home.

“My loveliest memory, apart from my baby, was on Christmas morning. I was being collected to go home that day by my husband who was on leave from the Navy, but early in the morning we were awakened by the nurses singing carols and they were wearing their capes inside out, revealing a lovely red glow. We each had a stocking filled with a comb, flannel and soap for “mums” and for my daughter a pair of bootees. Breakfast that day was wonderful as we had egg and bacon, a rare treat, and then home to East Ham.

“The next day, 26th December 1944, a bomb dropped very near ‘Suntrap’ so I was glad that I missed that !”

  • Georgina Green has been involved with local history in Redbridge, Waltham Forest and the Epping Forest area for 40 years and is the author of several local history books. She was elected a fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 2021.

Out in the Dark

Written by Edward Thomas

at High Beach, December 24, 1916

Out in the dark over the snow

The fallow fawns invisible go

With the fallow doe ;

And the winds blow

Fast as the stars are slow.

Stealthily the dark haunts round

And, when the lamp goes, without sound

At a swifter bound

Than the swiftest hound,

Arrives, and all else is drowned ;

And star and I and wind and deer,

Are in the dark together, - near,

Yet far, - and fear

Drums on my ear

In that sage company drear.

How weak and little is the light,

All the universe of sight,

Love and delight,

Before the might,

If you love it not, of night.