It is, at first sight, a drably utilitarian place, reminiscent of a toilet block.

So why the race against time to preserve it?

The surprising answer is that the modest little building that has bordered Richmond Road for the past 185 years is a historic landmark that is not only unique in Kingston, but possibly in Britain as a whole.

Alas, this woefully overdue recognition of its worth may have come too late.

For there are plans for its demolition to make way for a new extension to Kingston College’s School of Art and Design, which owns the site.

Now the Kingston upon Thames Society, backed by the Friends of Kingston Museum and Heritage Service, has prepared a cogent case for its preservation.

But time is not on their side.

The college’s extension scheme will come before the development control committee on April 30, and the deadline for comments is April 12.

Three components are essential to make a compelling case for conservation.

One is firm evidence of the building’s historic significance.

The second is a knowledgable assessment of its architectural merit.

The third is a viable plan as to how it could be incorporated into the new building without compromising the scheme as a whole.

The first has been supplied by Dr David Kennedy, a member of the Kingston Society’s committee, who has used his considerable academic skills to research prime history sources.

The other two have been masterminded by his fellow committee member, George Rome Innes, an eminent art, design and architectural historian.

Dr Kennedy’s contribution begins in 1817 with the founding of the Kingston Association, whose aims were “to better by every eligible means the conditions and morals of the poor, and for that purpose to enquire as minutely as possible into their wants, employment and habits; and into the causes which promote good or bad effects upon them; and to recommend from time to time, to the public, such measures as might appear calculated to promote the one and to prevent the other”.

This new body swiftly saw the need for a school that would give poor children “elementary education on a sound basis, with religious teaching as found in the Bible”, and would counter the “idleness, ignorance and bad language, which are the principal causes of what is bad in their conditions and morals”.

With cash raised by donations, loans and annual subscriptions, a girls’ school opened in November 1818, followed by one for boys in March 1820.

Those wishing their children to attend had to get sponsorship from three of the subscribers and give each child a penny a week for the teacher. Thus the name “Penny School” originated.

In 1827 it was agreed that an infants school for the poor was also needed, and on September 1, 1828, it was opened by the Duchess of Clarence (who the previous year had opened the new Kingston Bridge, and had Clarence Street named in her honour; and who became Queen Adelaide in 1830 when her husband took the throne as King William IV).

The premises she opened that day, known locally as the “Penny Gallery”, is what the Kingston Society and Friends of Kingston Museum and Heritage are anxious to retain.

For, says Dr Kennedy, it is probably the second oldest educational building in Kingston (the oldest being the 14th century Lovekyn Chapel in London Road) and where an infants’ school was established at a time when such institutions were rare in England.

Evidence suggests that children at the Richmond Road schools were taught according to the principles of the Quaker educational pioneer, Joseph Lancaster, whereby one teacher had overall charge of a large number of pupils who were taught in groups by trained older children known as monitors.

In 1818, says Dr Kennedy, there were 120 pupils in the girls’ school, rising to 160 by 1820.

The association’s minute book shows that at least from 1827 there was a link between the school and Lancaster’s teacher-training establishment in Southwark, which he founded in 1817.

Dr Kennedy said: “Currently a claim is being made that the only remaining Lancastrian classroom, dating from 1837, is at the British Schools Museum in Hitchin.

“The Penny Gallery is probably another example of a Lancastrian classroom that pre-dates the one at Hitchin.”

It is also the only surviving physical evidence of the Kingston Association, which did so much to bring full-time education and other benefits to all, regardless of class.

Mr Rome Innes, who has personally applied to English Heritage to have the building listed, says that, as part of Kingston’s philanthropic past, the building merits preservation as a significant aspect of Kington’s heritage.

But what of its architectural and visual value? He admits at first sight he thought it had little of either.

But on closer inspection he realised that, beneath dense layers of paint, it is in fact a “modest but fine” Georgian building, and a “very rare survival” of its kind.

He cites the way red bricks – since painted over – were used to contrast pleasingly with the grey and yellow London stock brickwork that forms most of the exterior, and was thrilled to find, with careful study, it is just possible to see “beautifully constructed” arches of red brick above the windows.

Mr Rome Innes said: “Stripping away the coats of paint and render would reveal a simple but very fine small Georgian schoolhouse.

“This is a rare survival anywhere, but unique in the Royal borough. Every effort should be made to preserve it.”

Some time ago English Heritage thought the building unworthy of listing. Now Mr Rome Innes has asked them to reconsider.

He said: “English Heritage deemed it as of townscape value, but had it been possible to see through the many layers of paint its true value could have been appreciated.

“Kingston has lost so much of its historic past that I sincerely hope English Heritage can see its way to grant listing.”

The Kingston Society has praised the Kingston College extension proposals as “a fine piece of architecture that would be a valuable addition to a rather drab end of Richmond Road”, and the demolition of the Penny Gallery is its only objection.

Mr Rome Innes has a solution: “It stands where the entrance to the proposed new building would be and, if it were retained, and the central window opened to ground level, this could be the main entrance, and the interior of the old school could form the reception space.

“This would compromise the two storeys above.

"But if the front face of those floors was set back half the depth of the Penny School, and clad in reflective glass, the image would be of the sky and the old building, which would appear complete."

Note: The Kingston Association’s original boys and girls’ schools were demolished in 1907 and replaced by the present large brick building which still stands in Richmond Road.

This closed as a school in 1964, and the premises were later acquired by Kingston College.

However, the old infants school building was retained, albeit disfigured by indiscriminate painting over the decades.