Abbots Langley School

Part 1

‘School days are the happiest days’… or so the saying goes and, despite the stresses of today’s school world of hi-tech, homework and exams, some would still agree with that sentiment.

Yet, with this thought, it may be difficult for children today, or in the future, to fully understand how different it was in the recent and distant past – and that prior to the 19th century, poor children in this country had little or no education when, apart from the religious charity or local ‘dame schools’, many children never went to school. Few people could read or write and many could only sign their name with an ‘X’ – as many old documents and parish registers show. The ‘dame schools’ were often nothing more than a child-minding facility where an elderly woman looked after the young children and ‘taught’ bible scriptures or rhymes, usually by rote method.

In this area these ‘schools’ became known as plait schools, where many of the children (some as young as three) were also taught to plait straw – a lucrative cottage industry in the 19th century villages of Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

Abbots Langley was fortunate that in the 17th and 18th centuries, there were several wealthy people living in the area who generously bequeathed land and monies for the benefit of the poor of the parish. These charities, as they were known, meant the beginning of ‘schooling’ for the poor children of the parish.

One such person was Francis Combe, a wealthy miller of Hemel Hempstead, who in 1641 left an acre of land adjoining the churchyard and monies from other property rents, to be used for schooling. In 1725, the David White Charity left money for the education of the poor and in 1803, Sarah Freeman left various funds to be divided between education and support of the poor. Three vicars of Abbots Langley also left money for the education and welfare of the poor – they were John Manlove in 1688, John Ramsey in 1785 and John Filmer in 1821.

Sarah Freeman’s Charity School was situated in a barn which stood on Combe land (where the present library stands). This school had ten boys and ten girls aged under ten years, who were taught to read and write. (Despite some initial opposition to the idea of ‘schooling’ for young children, mostly from farmers who feared losing their cheap labour force, Abbots Langley must have fared reasonably well from the existence of the early Charity schools.)

The school mistress, a Mrs Linney, taught reading and writing in the mornings and plaiting in the afternoons. The vicar took Catechism and gave lessons on behaviour and knowing the difference of ‘right from wrong’. He also taught them how important it was to know ‘one’s place in life’.

It was in the early 19th century that the idea of educating working-classes gathered momentum when some people feared that an ‘uneducated and uncivilised working-class could be more dangerous than one which had been to school’.

As the idea for primary education of the poor grew, three main factors emerged in its favour: the need for the instruction of religion and to be able to read the bible; that business required those who could read and write and take further training; and for the eventual granting of political power to working-classes – which, as Robert Lowe, a leading Liberal, said in 1867 – ‘We must educate our Masters’.

In 1798, a form of primary education, known as the monitorial system, had been set up by a Church of England clergyman, Andrew Bell, and a Quaker, J Lancaster. Both used the older pupils to act as monitors who, in turn, taught the groups of younger children. (This system meant that one teacher could manage several hundred children at a cost of only 7/- a year per child.)

The mainly non-conformist supporters of J Lancaster then formed a society in 1808 to ‘expand education by his methods’ – this was later known as the British and Foreign Society. However, the Church of England bishops became alarmed at the rival system and in 1811 helped Andrew Bell to form the National Society – for ‘Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church throughout England and Wales’. The society soon found itself inundated with applications for grants and in its first 20 years founded some 3,000 schools.

Yet, despite this advancement, the rivalry continued between the two societies until 1833, when the government gave its first ever grant of public money for education. The sum of 20,000 was to be spent by both religious societies. In 1839 the grant was increased to 30,000 and a ‘Special Committee of the Privy Council’ formed, supervising the spending of monies and appointing inspectors to visit the schools. By 1858 the grant had risen to 900,000 – yet surprisingly only a tenth of school children were proficient in the three R’s – Reading, ’Riting, ’Rithmetic!

So it was that in December 1830, Vicar Lewis applied to the National Society for a grant for a daily school at Abbots Langley. This was approved and in 1831 the Boys’ National School was opened… n

To be continued. A Ashby


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