South West Essex Technical College and School of Art opened at Forest Road, Walthamstow in September 1938 as one of the four regional technical colleges of Essex. The College was formed by the merger of Technical Colleges of Walthamstow and Leyton, together with the Walthamstow Commercial School for Girls and the Leyton School of Art, all of which had been operating as separate institutions. It served the boroughs of Walthamstow, Leyton, Chingford, Wanstead and Woodford and the districts of Waltham Holy Cross, Epping and Ongar.
The College was given locally the title of 'The People's University' and the new building included: a 1200 seat assembly hall; two gymnasia; science laboratories; engineering workshops; architectural studios; art studios; refectory; demonstration rooms; and student and staff common rooms. The College was initially organised into the departments of: Engineering; Science; Industrial and Fine Arts; Architecture and Building; Commerce, Languages and Social Studies; Domestic Science; Music; Social and Recreational Classes; and secondary day schools for boys and girls.
During its first academic year (session 1938-1939) 6842 students enrolled, 5802 of whom were part-time evening students. This unexpectedly high number of evening students saw some classes being held temporarily in the nearby Sir George Monoux Grammar School. At Christmas 1938, these were moved to the buildings of the old Walthamstow Technical College (Grosvenor House) and Commercial School for Girls (Chestnuts) in Hoe Street which soon became a permanent arrangement.
During the Second World War, the boys' and girls' secondary schools were evacuated to Kettering, but classes continued for the senior students. However due to blackouts, problems with transport and workers undertaking overtime, many of the evening classes were moved to the weekend. After negotiations with the War Office, the College began to train military personnel in the various branches of engineering. In September 1940, it accepted its first 100 soldiers who were also billeted on College premises. As the number of service personnel (which later included members of the RAF and the Navy) being taught at the College grew to around 1000 students at a time, the Sir George Monoux Grammar School was commandeered as additional accommodation. Members of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) were trained at the College from 1942, with courses expanding to cover commercial subjects such as typewriting and administration. Domestic Science was added in early 1945 as part of a rehabilitation scheme when 44 ATS members, all young married women, were given lessons in Cookery, Mothercraft and Dressmaking. By 1945 it was estimated that 12,000 service trainees had passed through the College.
After Grosvenor House burnt down in 1945, an annexe to the Forest Road building was constructed in prefabricated aluminium in 1949 to provide an additional 11 classrooms and an architectural studio. A further four storey building was added in September 1959 containing workshops, lecture rooms and laboratories for the Engineering, Architecture and Science departments. The secondary school separated from the College in 1957 and was relocated to Billet Road, Walthamstow, becoming the McEntee County Technical School.
In 1965, control of the College was transferred from Essex County Council to the London Borough of Waltham Forest, and in September 1966 changed its name to the Waltham Forest Technical College and School of Art. By then the College consisted of ten departments with approximately 7000 students enrolled on its courses.
Following the publication of the Government White Paper in 1966, proposals were drawn up for incorporating the advanced work together with corresponding staff, into the new North East London Polytechnic. A new Waltham Forest Technical College came into being simultaneously, taking over all the lower level work and acquiring premises in other parts of the borough whilst still retaining some accommodation temporarily at Forest Road.