My mother, Hazel Mary Riches, opened this school, in this very building on October 4th 1949. Plagued by weak health from early childhood, Hazel was raised by her grandmother and kept alive by her and the talented military doctors at Colchester Garrison. At fourteen she was sent to London and told it was time for her to make her own way in life.
She went from domestic service to being a Rates Officer for the Old Borough of Hampstead within a few short years, as well as carrying out fire watching and ambulance duties during the War years. In the early 1940’s she married a handsome young soldier and against all medical advice went on to have two children during that decade.
Hazel needed to work but was unable to find a suitable nursery school in which to leave my sister and I so she used her initiative and decided to open one herself. She found St Stephen’s Hall, which had been used for newspaper storage during the War, and asked the Parish if she could lease the building. She then spoke to the local Welfare Officer who advised her on what she needed to do and how to do it, and then gave her a licence to open a school.
The great day came on Tuesday 4th October 1949 – Hazel having exhausted herself of course, clearing rubbish from the relevant areas of the building, eliminating the ‘all over’ bottle green paint and getting the place suitably equipped. I clearly remember walking along Rosslyn Hill towards Pond Street, wheeling my dolls’ pram, in which sat a kettle among other things, with my sister beside me clutching her teddy bear. In that first year sixteen pupils attended Heathland Nursery School, as it was known then – one of those sixteen was Julia Neuberger who is now both a Rabbi and a Dame.
Hazel ran the school, as it grew in size and reputation, until the 1970’s when ill health forced her into early retirement and it was then that I changed the name to Hampstead Hill School. I myself had trained to teach drama but had come to work at the school for a short period in the 1960’s to cover Hazel’s absence while she was in hospital, and during that time I became very involved in the development of a little boy with problems – today he would be called autistic. By now I had a small daughter and feeling inspired by my experiences with this little boy I decided that a career in early education would provide me with a life I would really enjoy as well as enabling me to use my drama training to some extent.
Obviously I did stay and as the years rolled by I grew to love my chosen path more and more and found I thrived off the challenges it brought. In 1980, whilst raising my daughter and two small sons from my second marriage, I registered the school to take older children. Then in 1982 I expanded Hampstead Hill by opening the Pre-Preparatory Branch, originally in Willoughby Road, before moving it in 1990 to larger premises in Courthope Road. From there we moved again in 2009 – our 60th Anniversary year – into St Stephen’s, the magnificent Grade I Listed building that we are privileged to occupy today. My husband and I had taken up the challenge to restore St Stephen’s in 1998 and spent the next decade raising nearly six million pounds. He then supervised the actual restoration work with the support of English Heritage.
So from the sixteen pupils in 1949 we grew into the much larger family that is Hampstead Hill today, but we strive, and always will, to maintain the same happy, caring family atmosphere and educational ethos that we have always had. Hampstead Hill is most certainly a Mighty Oak that grew from a very small acorn but everything that is its ethos was born from Hazel’s beginnings. I am only sad that neither she, nor my dear sister Vanessa, have lived to see the culmination of the great and proud history of this school. I am however deeply grateful and happy that two of my children have also chosen to work at Hampstead Hill alongside me, as this will ensure that the family line and ethos will continue long into the future.