North Mymms people in Victorian times
by Peter Kingsford
Charles Kingsley’s famous advice may be compared with the education of girls in a parish like North Mymms. The school log books from 1897 to 1920 tell us a good deal. The school was in Water End, a rather remote, rural place one of the four ancient hamlets which comprised the parish. Built in 1847 by Miss Caroline Lydia Casamajor, it was also endowed under her will with the proceeds of £3,000 worth of 3% Bank Annuities for the teachers’ salaries, the purchase of clothing for the pupils, for books, stationery, tape, needles, thread etc for their use, and for the upkeep of the schoolhouse.
The accommodation for one hundred and thirty girls of all ages and infants of both sexes seems have given plenty of room for the average attendance at this period of about fifty girls and forty infants. As a voluntary school and a National School affiliated to the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Church of England, it was controlled by the vicar and the manage appointed by the parish vestry.
A turning point occurred in 1902. In the same year the Conservative Government’s Education Bill became law, and a new headmistress was appointed at Water End. It is difficult to say which was the stronger influence for change. The Education Act placed the school, as a "non-provided school", within the control of Hertfordshire County Council which appointed a third of the managers. It also brought the school under the influence of the new School Code of the Board of Education which aimed to sweep away the old idea of elementary education as a charity for the lower classes. The new headmistress, young Mrs Margaret Cooke, recently trained, brought new ideas into the school. Her appearance as a pioneer lady motor cyclist must have caused a stir in the parish. Before her time, under the direction of Mrs Letitia Haines, one of the oldi school who had been headmistress since 1880, there was much emphasis on cookery, needlework and piety. "Needlework", wrote the vicar, "is of equal not more importance than cookery in the training of the rising generation".
The girls made handkerchiefs for the church bazaars, among many other articles on which they were kept busy - nightdresses, pillow cases, pinafores, and towels for Miss Cotton Curtis, daughter of the banker at Potterells. Knitting of glove scarves, stockings, sock, and necklets was also prominent. Lengths of serge and dress material, "a Good Print sufficient to make a frock", were given annually as prizes for good attendance. The post of needlework mistress was an important one. For cookery, "this necessary and practical art", a room was fitted with range and classes were held twice a week. Religious instruction was given regularly by the vicar, as in the boys’ school. In the annual diocesan examinations the children’s knowledge of the scriptures and the catechism was thoroughly tested by the bishop’s inspector. The school was usually commended for its reverent tone as well as for the understanding of the gospel, though it was advised on one occasion that "Care must be taken in referring to God with a capital letter". On all holy day afternoons the school was closed for attendance at church.
Such an emphasis in the curriculum during those years left less time for the three Rs, with some geography and history. Her Majesty’s inspectors’ reports were lukewarm: 1898 "The girls very praiseworthy. Infants good on the whole but continuance of the Grant depends on improvement in reading, arithmetic, drawing and object lesson"; 1900 "In spite of special difficulties the school as a whole is praiseworthy". But at the close of Mrs Haines’s regime they recorded: "School most creditable to Head after many years of conscientious and creditable work".
No doubt there were real difficulties of which the situation of the school was a chief one. As it was at one end of the parish many young children had to walk long distances so that bad weather caused low attendance and often closure. This and the unhygienic lavatories, reported by the inspectors, contributed to endemic illness and absenteeism. In 1900 the school closed for two periods of three weeks each on account of whooping cough, mumps and measles. It also happened that when mothers were out haymaking, potato picking and acorning, the girls were kept at home.
The new regime of Mrs Cooke could be expected to bring change. In introducing the 1902 Bill, the prime minister, A J Balfour, spoke of "the deplorable starvation of voluntary schools" which he said "are in many cases not adequately equipped and not so well fitted as they should…" "The voluntary schools must be placed in a position in which they can worthily play their necessary and inevitable part…"
Changes were, in fact, made. Mrs Cooke introduced school meals (ahead of the times) and a mid morning hot drink for a penny a week, but the traditions of fifty years were not to be readily discarded. Religious instruction continued to be basic, but gradually rather less prominent and the diocesan inspector commented: "a little disappointing - not as good as it should have been. Infants did well on the whole." By contrast the reports of HM inspector became more favourable, at least in respect of the girls. In 1909 he wrote "very satisfactory, the Head deserves great credit for the praiseworthy discipline and efficiency of the upper classes", and in the following years - "The upper classes taught with intelligence and success" and "most creditable under most difficult conditions, crowded rooms and insufficient staff’. Perhaps some of this was due to the weakening of another tradition, needlework, and the time saved given to reading.
The infants, however, do not seem to have shared the progress. "Infants’ instruction ineffective" and "infants want precise order, obedience and general interest or attention" were some of the reports. To be taken with this is the repeated complaint of staff being unsettled. There was, in fact, a continual stream of assistants arriving and departing, often after a very short time. In the space of twelve years no less than twenty-three started and left. It was the assistants who taught the youngest children.
The reasons for such a rapid turnover of staff can only be surmised but the most likely ones are the same difficulties as before - the rural remoteness, the inadequacy and insanitariness of accommodation, the illness and disease, the interruptions to study, and an additional one, the scarcity of proper lodgings. All these must have been very discouraging. The inspector, in the knowledge that the managers were responsible for the building, repeatedly criticised it, particularly the "offices". In 1913 he could still report: "The infants’ offices are dirty and unfit for use, and the path should be paved with bricks. The girls’ offices are offensive and need immediate attention. Paper should be provided in the closets. The urinal floor is very dirty and should be paved." An additional room had been built, but the report commented that "the partition should be carried to the ceiling." Perhaps only a teacher, baffled by noise, can appreciate that remark,
The school had grown in numbers but otherwise much remained the same. The "labour examination", by which children could leave for work on reaching a given standard in school still meant that the ablest children tended to leave as soon as possible. Although more prizes became available under the county council auspices, they were, as before, generally given for goodness, not for cleverness; for good attendance and conduct rather than scholastic progress.
Progress was hardly to be expected during the 1914-18 war. The school like many others must be counted among the walking wounded. The staff was reduced by the appointment of a monitress in place of a teacher. The curriculum was affected. Gardening came to the fore, domestic economy was taken at Hatfield, and work for the Red Cross at the request of the Director of Education produced vests, mufflers, shirts and socks. Slates, instead of paper, came back into use. The enlistment of virtually all able-bodied men placed schooling at risk, for women and girls had to take their place. The older schoolgirls were kept at home to bring coal from the sidings, "as it cannot now be carted", the logbook explains. Examinations were postponed on that account or because of the shortage of teachers.
There were, on one occasion, book prizes for proficiency and homework but they were donated by the headmistress. No child won a scholarship to a secondary school. At the end of the war the inspector commented:
"The school had been handicapped by long closure and much sickness, which no doubt accounted to some extent for the lack of energy put into their work by the children and for the low standard of efficiency reached in certain subjects. The teachers were kindly in their treatment of the children, and most earnest in their desire to improve the teaching. The teachers should visit other schools to observe their methods. A school library would improve the general intelligence and response."
It was during that war that one of the chief handicaps of the school, its situation at Water End, began to be discussed. A parish councillor complained in 1915:
"That the Schools being established on such a distinctive basis as the Girls and Infants School at Water End and the Boys School at Welham Green necessitated the great majority of the children having to walk long distances in all weathers to attend School. He had been in communication with a great number of the parents and without exception they were all agreed that the present system, of having to pass one School to attend another only because of the distinction, was more of a ‘fad’ than a necessity, and the parents attributed a great deal of the illness among the children to the fact of having to sit in School in their wet clothing, whereas by a re-arrangement of the schools, a very great many of the children would have a much shorter distance to walk, and would not run the risk of being continuously wet through in the bad weather".
The parish council immediately asked the school managers to make mixed schools at both places but it was persuaded to let the matter stand over in the belief that the county council would act after the war. Nothing happened for ten years when the Welham Green School started an infants’ class. But it was for boys only, and eighteen little boys were transferred from Water End. Another seven years later there was again public concern about the infant girls. The parish council told the school managers that if a move was not made it would call a Parish Meeting on the "urgent question". Eventually, in 1935 it was able to thank the managers for starting a mixed infants’ school at Welham Green. It had taken twenty years to bring about. The council’s hope, that one day there would be a complete mixed school at Welham Green, was not to be fulfilled for many more years. In the meantime the school roll at Water End was reduced.
During the inter-war years there were the usual ups and downs. "There was good work going on" in religious instruction and "the children were well in hand". The school library, recommended earlier, contained "very little of the best juvenile literature". The persistent problem of a turnover of staff was no nearer solution. Assistant teachers came and went all the time, most of them staying only for a short period. Ground was lost, and for the inspector to say that the essential subjects were in a very fair condition was to damn with faint praise. Advances were made all the same, not least in what were apparently the first successes in the eleven plus scholarship examinations. Constance Bevan won a place at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School, Barnet and she was followed by Isobel Clark and Beryl Honour. Domestic service was by now no longer the main employment for school leavers, though still a considerable one.
During the 1939-45 war the girls’ schooling suffered in a new way. Air warfare meant the evacuation of schools from London. The arrival in North Mymms of children from Highgate and Chelsea resulted in half day shifts for the parish children for about six months until the evacuees were placed in Moffats and the scout hut. Temporary disruption of teaching on this account and also because of damage to the school building from air raids was the new education casualty. The old casualty of 1914-18 still persisted in 1941 when fourteen girls were taken away from school to pick potatoes for the farmers, by permission of the education authority.
After the war the school had only another fifteen years to exist. This gradually became inevitable in the circumstances. Even before the war the transfer of many infants to Welham Green had created doubts about the school’s future. The desirability of mixed school was mooted; there could be only one in the parish. With the 1944 Education Act the higher standards required meant heavy expenditure. Gas lighting had to be put in at the school, and later electricity. The managers had to choose between making the boys’ school at Welham Green a mixed one, and retaining the girls’ school. They had no real choice. They needed the proceeds from the sale of the Water End school to finance the necessary reconstruction at Welham Green. The purchaser was the county council and so the girls’ school became in 1954 a county primary one for a few years. Mrs Dorothy Colville, who had been appointed in 1949, continued as headmistress. With what effect may be seen in an inspector’s report:
"The happy and thoughtful way in which the headmistress directs the school ensures its success. Skills acquired in reading and writing are used to good advantage so that not only do the children go naturally to books for pleasure but they write readily on many topics. Use was made of their knowledge in arithmetic to solve problems. History, geography and nature study are all treated in a stimulating way, full use being made of music broadcasts and easels for art lessons have recently been acquired."
By that time there were only forty-four pupils to "keep well in hand", and finally only twenty-seven.
On 16 December 1960 Mrs Colville wrote in her log book:
"The last day the school will be open. In the New Year the infants will be transferred to the new school in Dellsome Lane and the juniors will attend either the Boys’ School or Little Heath School. The teaching and domestic staff have been offered and accepted posts in the new school but I, pupil, and then pupil teacher in this school resign my position as headmistress."
Thus ended the school’s one hundred and thirteen years of history. The old building, at first converted into dwellings, was then demolished to make way for the A1(M).
Peter Kingsford, 1986
Chapter 4 - The straw plaiters
Index - North Mymms people in Victorian times
Preface - North Mymms people in Victorian times
Photographs - from the book