Converting a Victorian school

A former convent is now a traditional family home for Lucy and John Martin. The original school was very much intact when the couple first bought it, but they have reconfigured the layout into a family home

Lucy Martin was taken aback when she first saw the property her husband John had bought for them at auction.

‘I thought: What have we done? she says. ‘I couldn’t see how we were going to turn it into a family home.’

The two-storey building had been built in 1850 as two cottages and later used as a convent for Roman Catholic nuns. It was eventually converted into a school for boys, but it was put up for auction when the school moved to another location.

‘The former school was still very much in evidence,’ says Lucy. ‘We found dozens of little chairs and tables plus crates of crockery stored in the cellar; there was also a hopscotch game painted on the tarmac playground. There was a row of coat pegs for the pupils with their names painted above them in the passage, and the toilet block was still intact.’

Fact file

The owners: Lucy Martin, a civil servant, and her husband John, a carpenter, live here with daughter Lexi, eight months

However, John had a plan of how they could turn it into their dream home, despite the barn-like rooms upstairs, the dated interior and basic staff kitchen that wasn’t suitable for a young family.

The couple decided to move into Lucy’s mother’s house, who was living in Dubai with Lucy’s stepfather, while the renovation work was under way.

‘We were drawing up the plans to convert the school when my mother contacted me to say she was returning from Dubai in six months’ time,’ says Lucy. ‘At that point we began to panic and John set to work immediately, enlisting the help of his friends and family.’

Lucy and John first had to obtain planning permission to demolish a ground floor reception room so they could create an archway for car access to the former playground area at the rear.

‘That plan was initially turned down but we appealed and were eventually given permission,’ says Lucy. ‘We then had to apply for planning permission to build a triple garage in the playground. Meanwhile, we removed the tarmac to make a garden and repointed the back of the house.’

Fortunately, the Victorian school wasn’t a listed building and, as it already provided Lucy and John with all the space they wanted, there was no need for them to apply for further planning permission.

John started the interior work by knocking through the small, narrow passage on the ground floor leading from the back door through to the front of the house so they could create a large, spacious kitchen/dining/living area.

As the property was in such a dilapidated state, they needed new gas central heating and a boiler, plus it had to be rewired, re-plumbed and replastered throughout.

‘John and his friends installed new windows to help our tight timescale and save on costs,’ says Lucy.

On the first floor, John started building a series of walls to create four spacious bedrooms, a dressing room, wetroom, en suite and family bathroom.

‘As we were so conscious of the timescale, he also installed the en suite bathroom,’ says Lucy. ‘There was originally a chimney breast in that room, which John managed to disguise by bringing forward the walls on each side of the chimney breast to make a flush wall and positioning the shower in the other corner.’

Using his carpentry skills, John handmade their pine kitchen on the ground floor and laid the slate flooring for the kitchen and the first floor family bathroom.

‘After almost six months, my mother’s arrival back in the UK was imminent so we moved into our new home,’ Lucy explains. ‘John and his friends had made great progress with the renovation work so the house was habitable – but far from finished.’

They continued working on the project while Lucy was at work, but it didn’t stop her from formulating plans.

‘Every day I would come home with new design ideas for the rooms,’ she says. ‘John and I had wanted to keep some period features. However, other than the tiles in the hallway and a large cupboard salvaged from the old reception room, there weren’t many left as they had been removed when it was converted into a school.’

John installed traditional-style fittings to reflect the house’s Victorian character. He also created a perfect country-style kitchen with an old beam that he bought from a reclamation yard and installed it in the kitchen along with a heavy oak lintel, which he positioned above the Aga.

‘It took time, but nearly everything in our house is new, even though it might look original,’ says Lucy. ‘We have new skirting boards, new Georgian-style six-panelled interior doors and new coving.

‘We fitted a mix of new and reclaimed heating radiators. The Victorian cupboard, which we salvaged from the reception room during the renovation work, has been restored,’ she continues. ‘It was a dark shade of brown that didn’t really match the wood in the rest of the house, so we arranged for it to be acid-dipped to lighten the colour.’

Family friend Steve Poxon restored their staircase, stripping off the white paint with a blowtorch, then waxing it for a few days to bring out the natural wood beneath.

John, meanwhile, made several pieces of furniture for the house, including a kitchen table built from different woods. He laid a wooden floor in the bathroom and made the frames for many of their mirrors. To conceal the utility room WC, John made a frame using a reclaimed oak beam and fitted it around a large piece of mirror, which he suspended from the ceiling.

As the work on the en suite bathroom was complete, John moved on to the master bedroom, where he brought forward the walls to conceal another part of the chimney breast – similar to the en suite. He then built three small shelves within each of the new walls to display ornaments as well as to install insulation. The insulation sound-proofs the master bedroom, which is next to the neighbouring house.

‘I love our master bedroom,’ says Lucy. ‘Although the décor is very simple, we have some statement pieces in there such as our walnut sleigh bed.’

A neutral colour scheme is continued throughout the house, with statement accessories included to add character.

‘Every room is painted in magnolia and much of the furniture is a shade of cream – even our Aga, which we bought from a friend’s mother,’ Lucy explains.

‘Our only real hitch was finding the right lighting,’ she continues. ‘We went without proper fittings for two years as I couldn’t find the style I was looking for. Then my mother-in-law showed me a lampshade that looked like a grass skirt but was made from wood. It was exactly what I wanted, so I bought four of them.’

So, after months of hard work on their former schoolhouse, are Lucy and John happy with their new home?

‘It’s perfect,’ smiles Lucy. ‘We have all the space we need for a family – and a stunning house that we’ve made our own’


Garage, drive and archway£35,000
New boiler and heating£12,000
Woodwork, incl. kitchen£9,000
Fixtures and fittings£6,000
Kitchen appliances£2,600
Slate flooring£2,200
Garden landscaping£2,000