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North Mymms people in Victorian times
by Peter Kingsford

Chapter 2
Learning their Letters

About half of the young men of the parish were virtually illiterate in the l850s. The young women had rather more learning; only a third of them were so backward. Girls were allowed to stay at school longer than the boys. This estimate is based on the fact that bridegrooms and brides who did not sign their names in the marriage register put their mark — X. Most of the witnesses also signed with a mark.

Little learning was then required to earn a living. Most men worked on the land and most women were housewives or domestic servants or straw plaiters. Yet a generation later, in The 1880s, a remarkable change had come about. A mere seven per cent of both sexes, measured by the same standard, could be called illiterate.

The parish had only eleven hundred souls at the mid century but it did also have two single sex schools. The one for boys in the old workhouse building in Dellsome Lane, Welharn Green, had been active since 1835 and remained on that site until it was replaced by Bushwood School in recent years. The other school, for girls and infants, at Water End, started in 1847 and teaching continued there for 113 years. It is the subject of chapter 3. It was in those schools that the transformation was effected and it was not too soon, for the country labourers were given the vote in 1884. The log books of the boys’ school and the parish magazine give a good idea of the achievement. They reveal the conditions, the ideas and the motives behind it as well as the handicaps to be overcome.

Much of the achievement was due to George Foster, certificated teacher 1st class, master of the boys’ school for sixteen years, from 1864 to 1880, at a salary of £50 and a house, church organist and much else, and to his predecessor, William Goulburn. George Foster had one pupil teacher, Henry Burgess, to help teach fifty to seventy boys of all ages from seven to twelve and of all abilities, in one large schoolroom.

Equally important was the emphasis on a core curriculum of the three Rs, reading, writing and arithmetic. These subjects were thoroughly drilled because success in examinations determined the size of the Government grant. A New Code of Regulations for Schools had been issued by Robert Lowe, Vice President of The Privy Council, in the year before George Foster began at Welham Green. It laid down that the grant to the school managers would be based on attendance and examination passes in the three Rs in Standards I to VI.

Standard II in arithmetic, for instance, was a sum in simple addition or subtraction, and the multiplication table; standard V a sum in compound rules (common weights and measures). For reading, Standard II was "One of the Narratives next in order after monosyllables in an elementary reading book used in the school". Standard V was "A few lines of poetry from a reading book used in the first class of the school". The poetry read at Welham Green was Scott’s Lady of the Lake and Goldsmith’s Deserted Village (thus providing a fine contrast with North Mymms). A favourite for general reading in the school was the highly moral and generally popular story, Sandford and Merton by Thomas Day, disciple of Rousseau. The titles of other readers used tell their own tale The Boyhood of Great Men, Little Drummers, Life of Nelson, Heroes of the Workshop.

But that was only part of the curriculum, if the main part. Schooling was based on the precept, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom". Religious instruction, given by the master or the vicar, was the framework of all learning. Every day, after prayers, there were lessons in the Old and the New Testament, the Prayer Book and the Catechism. A typical entry in George Foster’s log book runs:

4 March 1879. I gave 1st and 2nd class a lesson on S Mark IV. Took 2 Standard in arithmetic, 2 class in writing & 1st class in Grammar and Analysis. Pupil teacher took 1st class dictation.

Religious instruction also permeated other subjects. Geography was much concemed with the Holy Land; writing exercises were set on stories from the Bible. Every year a diocesan inspector tested the boys on their religious knowledge and reported to the vicar as chairman of the managers.

The curriculum was not limited to this core of tool subjects and religious instruction. After a time there was criticism of the narrowing and technical effect of the New Code on teachers and pupils by, for instance, that outstanding school inspector, the poet Matthew Arnold. Consequently schools were allowed to increase their grants if their pupils passed examinations in special subjects such as literature, geography and history. Even before this came about George Foster began to liberalise his curriculum. Geography became a prominent subject, and some history and literature were taught.

Only a few boys sat later for the examinations in these extra subjects and even fewer passed and earned a further three shillings per head for the managers. But in the three Rs the pass rate was always high. In 1876, an average year, out of forty-nine boys examined, forty-four passed in reading, forty-four in writing and forty-seven in arithmetic. Not surprisingly, Her Majesty’s Inspector’s report was usually favourable, though it often suggested an improvement, as for instance, "the bearing of the boys would be improved by drill". "Reverent, earnest and efficient" were the key words. Of course they were not always in evidence. Discipline called for punishment, though not frequently. Thus from George Foster’s log book:-

"25 June 1872. The drill was done by Edward Groom in so careless and idle a manner that I told him to write 10 lines after school, when he made use of an impertinent expression (not aloud) and I added 5 lines to the previous ten. These he refused to do when I punished him with the cane, and having made him get a book and slate told him that he might go when the lines were done. He however continued obstinate and so had no dinner. On re-opening school the younger brother made such an uproar that, combined with more of E Groom’s impertinence, work was impossible. I therefore sent Harry into the back room where however he continued to shout. sing etc, so that at last I was obliged to send him away from the School altogether After afternoon school the elder boy, finding that I was determined on his doing the lines, began his task, and after he had done a portion I remitted the remainder, having shown him that there can only be one master here."

The progress towards literacy had to overcome many handicaps. HM Inspector drew attention to some of them: "A class room would be a great help in the instruction of reading". "Writing could be improved but the desks are probably to blame". The main problem, an intractable and long lasting one, was irregular attendance during what was anyhow a short school life, Twelve was the normal age for leaving school.

Employment was the chief cause of absence from school; then came illness, the weather and last and least, truancy. The sports of the gentry, "bashing for the gentlemen while shooting", made the most claims on the boys. Paradoxically, it was the gentry’s donations to the school which made it possible for it to continue. Over the years their subscriptions varied between £60 and £80 per annum. While R W Gaussen was one of the chief subscribers, his shoots at Brookmans lasted several days. A note of exasperation may be seen in the schoolmaster’s log book entry: "Attendance still low - more shooting - gave the 1st Class a Lesson on the Ark in the Land of the Philistines". Harvesting, hay-making, acorn picking, potato picking, gleaning, all took their toll of school time, sometimes within the law on the employment of young persons, sometimes not. Outbreaks of scarlet fever, whooping cough, mumps, "fever" occurred. In severe weather the school closed, for some boys had to walk long distances.

The vicar grappled manfully with absenteeism, continually giving reminders to the villagers of their duty to send their children to school. Eventually he was obliged to impose fines for absence. Particularly after the 1870 Education Act did he insist on improved attendance on which the school’s income depended. If this became inadequate there was the danger of being superseded by one of the new Board Schools under the Act. If that happened not only would religious instruction suffer but parishioners would have higher rates to pay. Both God and Mammon came into it. The vicar saw the problem clearly when he wrote:

"There are, of course, difficulties in the way of unbroken attendance at School in Agricultural Districts, where wages are low, and children are soon able to earn a little, and where a certain kind of labour will only admit of a small sum being paid for it, such as bird-scaring, plough-driving, etc. On the one hand the Farmer must not have the supply for his labour market lessened; on the other, the Poor Man cannot afford to lose, the little help that his boys of 10 or 11 years are, at certain times of the year, able to gain for him."

There was a long way to go. By the 1880s the average attendance was still only seventy-five per cent. On the other hand the desire for learning was not absent. For those boys who had not had enough schooling there was night school in the winter. It was well attended and earned an additional government grant.

There was, however, no fear of all work and no play making Jack a dull boy. In addition to the school holidays of eight weeks there were days and half days off for school treats and feasts, for bonfire night, for cricket in the park, for trips to the Zoo and to Alexandra Palace. More frequently, village events got the boys off school. They had the lively social life to thank for that, for there were many church clubs and societies. The school was closely linked with them. So there were also half days off for the Band of Hope anniversaries, for the Intercession for Missions, for the flower show and the garden show, for the Sunday School feast, and still more days off for those boys who were in the church choir and for choir treats.

As a National school, affiliated to the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Church of England, the boys’ school received valuable support from that body. But it was maintained by the different classes of people in the parish according to their means. Of the income required, about a quarter came from the Government grant, and about one eighth from school pence. Labourers paid 2d a week, gardeners and artisans 3d, others 6d. All the rest was given by the gentry and the farmers, mostly from the gentry.

When George Foster died in 1880 at the age of thirty-nine a handsome collection was made for a memorial. Of the one hundred and fifty subscribers the majority were old pupils of his school. His pupil teacher, Henry Burgess, carried on his work, for he completed his apprenticeship and was appointed as assistant master at another National school.

Peter Kingsford, 1986


Chapter 3 - 'Be good sweet maid and let who will be clever'
Index - North Mymms people in Victorian times
Preface - North Mymms people in Victorian times
Photographs - from the book

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