Our History

Suntrap Forest Centre has been open for over 50 years, our rich legacy continues in Summer 2021 when we relaunch as an education centre fit for the 21st century.

Browse through our slideshow of old photos and read more about the history of this environmental flagship.

Visit our Shared Stories page and relive visitor memories!   

Suntrap (as it has always been known) was designed by Thomas Cutler in 1894 and built on the site of the former Fairmead House “lunatic asylum” run by Dr Matthew Allen. The poet John Clare being possibly the most famous of Dr Allen’s patients. It was built for Harold Baring; the story being Harold’s sister Muriel wanted to be a nurse so her banker brother built her a hospital!

Originally a convalescent home for children, Suntrap soon had many patients from east London who were suffering from TB. At some point during the Second World War the hospital’s patients changed from children to expectant mothers as Suntrap became an annex of Plaistow Maternity Hospital. Mrs M P Churchill writing in a local newspaper recalled that mothers were sent from East London to Suntrap to have their babies “in peace”.

Following the war, in the 1950s the building’s use changed once again. Now owned by Muriel’s daughters Ursula and Muriel Brenton the building was roughly converted into flats to house “needy” families. ​Following the reorganisation of London boroughs in 1965 demand for field trips to the forest was growing as schools in Chingford and Leytonstone wanted the same opportunity for their classes.

During 1966 it was proposed that Waltham Forest Education Committee in conjunction with the Field Studies Council and with the full support of the Superintendent, Alfred Qvist should use a “purpose built” new field centre on the Jubilee Retreat site provided by the City of London – plans were even drawn up. Then in late 1966 the London Borough of Waltham Forest was offered a gift, the old Suntrap Hospital. In June 1967 the London Borough of Waltham Forest bought Suntrap from the Misses Brenton for the princely sum of £500. Ken Hoy became the first Head of Centre and all field study visits from Waltham Forest were now based at the Suntrap site.

Suntrap Timeline

• Founded in 1894
• Originally built as a children’s tuberculosis sanatorium
• Used as a maternity hospital during the Second World War
• In the 1950s, temporarily converted into flats for families in need
• In 1967, the London Borough of Waltham Forest bought Suntrap for £500 to create a centre to provide environmental education for every child in the borough

  • In July 2019 a 4.5 million pound redevelopment programme commences with a deadline date of 2020
  •  In 2017 Suntrap celebrated its 50th anniversary, acknowledgments included a hand-written note of congratulations from Sir David Attenborough

A handwritten note from Sir David Attenborough