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North Mymms Schools & their Children
1700 - 1964

by Peter Kingsford

Chapter 1
Charity 1710-1840

There have been schools in the parish of North Mymms for at least 275 years. Few things can have been more important in the history of a parish than its schools. Their effect on thousands of boys and girls was surely incalculable. Granted that the years of schooling were short for all of the children for most of that time, their influence on thought and behaviour must have been a formative one.

A school existed in the parish at the beginning of the eighteenth century, although its origin is unknown. It is mentioned in the records of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge thus:

1710 Northmymms Hertfordshire. Twenty-four Pounds per annum subscribed for a School for 30 Boys and a Master chosen.

1711 A School for 14 B. cloathed, and put out Apprentice when fit. 12 Girls kept at School at the Expense of a young Gentlewoman.

Five years later the parish petitioned Dr John Bettesworth and Dr John Andrew, officials of the Archdeaconry of Huntingdon, for permission to build a schoolroom and accommodation for the master, in the churchyard:

‘Whereas it hath been represented unto us by petition that it would be very convenient to have a Lower Room erected with an Upper Room or Chamber over it in the Church Yard of Northmymms in the County of Hertford and the Archdeaconry of Huntingdon upon a small parcel of ground there containing about three hundred square feet adjoining to the South side of the Steeple of the parish church of Northmymms aforesaid and to the westward of the South Isle of the said Church and that the said Lower Room should be appropriated & used as a Vestry or place to hold and keep the public Vestries for the said parish and at other times to the Use of the Schoolmaster of the Charity School as a public School and that the Upper Room be appropriated to the use of such Schoolmaster for a Chamber or Lodging Room your Licence or Faculty hath been requested for the purpose aforesaid.’

The faculty was granted to the vicar, John Alkin. A few years later, in 1724, the school had twenty-six scholars.

Readers who go to North Mymms church may be able to locate the position of this combined school room and vestry. Its remaining stones may be seen embedded in the flint wall adjoining the porch.

Something about this school may be inferred from its governing body, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, founded in 1698. The Society’s teachers were required to be members of the Church of England and "to be of meek temper and humble behaviour; to have good government of themselves; and to keep good order". In the country side they were sometimes drawn from the poor of the village. "The parish clerk, the village dame, the religious poor woman, the private venture schoolmaster were retained by the patrons of the new schools, to teach the catechism, reading, and sometimes writing … free, gratis and for nothing." The North Mymms teacher may have been any one of those. Later on a wider field of recruitment seems to have developed. When the churchwardens advertised for a schoolmaster in 1769 they received several applications by post.

Earlier in that century the SPCK had thirty schools in Hertfordshire and hundreds throughout England, usually maintained by subscriptions from the gentry. Some of the schools were endowed specifically for teaching religion and the three Rs to the children of the poor. This probably saved them from the farmers who generally opposed all such instruction because of its interference with their supply of child labour. They "denounced the folly of instructing country lads and lasses in the ‘theoretic parts’ of reading and writing".

Such schools were a stronghold of the Protestant religion so recently affirmed in the revolution of 1688 and the expulsion of James II. They may also be seen as islands of piety and proper conduct in a wide and rough sea of poverty and destitution. Vagrants abounded. A comprehensive definition of them by the Hertfordshire justices in 1714 gives a picture of the times: -

These are to be accounted vagrants, all patent gatherers or gatherers of alms under false pretences of loss by fire; collectors for prisons, fencers and bearwards; players of interludes, minstrels, jugglers, gypsies, pretenders to physiognomy or palmistrv, fortune tellers, persons that play at unlawful games or do run away from their wives and families; as also petty chapmen or pedlers without licence, and wanderers lodging in barns and outhouses, or pretending to be soldiers, mariners or seafaring men; persons living idly and refusing to work for common wages or ranging about from place to place.

Religious instruction was the chief purpose. The following directive from the Society was followed throughout the country: -

‘To the End that the chief Design of this Schco4 which is for the Education of Poor Children in the Knowledge and Practice of the Christian Religion, as Professed and Taught in the Church of England, may be the better promoted, the Master shall make it his chief Business to instruct the Children in the Principles thereof, as they are laid down in the Church Catechism, which he shall first teach them to pronounce distinctly, and plainly, and then, in order to practise shall explain it to the meanest Capacity, by some good Exposition approved by the Minister.’

The Anglican Catechism was the first textbook for the infants who were learning to read, followed by the Book of Common Prayer, the New Testament and finally the Old Testament. There was much learning by heart, sometimes whole chapters of the Bible. Such a method, resulting in correct pronunciation rather than understanding, was self-defeating. Writing was taught only when the children could read competently, and more often to boys than girls. Arithmetic, consisting of the first four rules, was reached only when reading and writing were "perfected", and so, seldom. There was criticism of this "literary curriculum" as not likely to develop habits of industry in children destined to become labourers or domestic servants. Accordingly, needlework, knitting, spinning, gardening and even ploughing took up much of the time in school. That was the general run. The charity school in North Mymms is not likely to have been very different from it.

On Sundays the boys were probably put in the church gallery. In North Mymms this was built in about 1730 because "so great a part of the church … is now taken up by the Pews appropriated to the Gentry". They could be kept under control there, as Joseph Poorgrass recalled in Far From the Madding Crowd ‘and he would box the charity boys’ ears if they laughed in church, till they could hardly stand upright and do other deeds of piety natural to the saintly inclined."

There is no trace of the North Mymms School after 1770. It seems likely that it disappeared since there was a general decline in SPCK schools. Forty-seven years later (1817) there were no parochial schools in the parish, according to Joseph Sabine, churchwarden, giving evidence to a select committee of the House of Commons. This is con firmed by a report a year later from the vicar to another Parliamentary committee that "A National School for boys is much wanted, as the poor are both ignorant and irreligious." However, charity had persisted, for the Rev William Jackson told the committee that there was in fact "A school lately established by an individual at his own expense, in which 42 girls are taught; and a Sunday school, containing 30 boys, supported by subscription." This was in a population of about one thousand. Girls could be more easily spared than boys from contributing to the family income.

Some explanation of the term National, used above, may be given here. As the industrial revolution developed and a new class, the working class, emerged from it, educationists saw that schools of the proper kind would be the surest way of preserving traditional values in society. Soon after William Lancaster, a Quaker, had started his monitorial system of teaching, the British and Foreign School Society was founded in 1808. Its object was to provide non-sectarian education. It was in response to this alarming nonconformist initiative that the Anglican Church established, in 1811, the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church. This was the beginning of a rivalry, which bedevilled progress in education for the rest of the century. In North Mymms, in the virtual absence of nonconformists, it was a National school which was "much wanted".

One was not long in coming, Though it was only for girls. In 1824 Brookmans School affiliated to the National Society. This school may have been the same one reported by the Rev Jackson in 1818 for it was Cecilia Gaussen, widow of Samuel Robert Gaussen the Squire of Brookmans, who signed the application to the Society. Fifty to fifty five girls attended daily and on Sundays and about twenty years later the attendance had risen to sixty. The mistress in 1841, Mary May, a spinster of thirty five resided in the "School House, Brookmans". This was near Moffats Farm which belonged to R W Gaussen. It seems likely that the school was in the former barn, now St Michael’s and All Angels’ chapel, since National schools of that period were often held in barns.

There was also in existence, in 1831, a small school which, a Government Return recorded "contains 14 children of both sexes, and is partly supported by endowment, for which six are instructed, the remainder are paid for by their parents." A further step was taken when the parish workhouse building in Workhouse Lane, Welham Green, became vacant. Consequent upon the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 North Mymms workhouse was closed in 1835, the furniture sold and the twelve inmates, young, old and infirm, shipped off to Hatfield Union Workhouse. In the same year their place was taken by schoolboys.

It was this school which became the parish’s National School for Boys, "much wanted" seventeen years earlier on. The vicar, the Rev J H Sotheby, may have taken the initiative for he signed the application for the school to join the Society in 1837. Forty to fifty boys sat in the schoolroom on Sundays as well as weekdays. They were all ruled by one master, William George Goulburn. Born in 1800 in the City of London, he had lived in the East End, in Bethnal Green and Shadwell, before moving to the very different, little world of Welham Green. Goulburn lived in the school house with its yard and garden at Barefords, owned by the parish, with his wife Ann and two sons and two daughters, all born in London. He was to stay in the village for another fifty years, doubling as parish clerk with schoolmaster and, after retirement, as postmaster and rate collector.

The National Society, to which both schools were affiliated, had grown and become influential, supported as it was by bishops and archbishops. The first Government grant of £20,000 in 1833, shared between the National Society and its nonconformist rival, the British & Foreign Society, increased to £30,000 by 1839. The grant was towards the building of schools; neither of the North Mymms schools appear to have received any of it. Grants to schools were conditional on the monitorial method of teaching being used. Under this system the master gave the monitors simple instructions which they then passed on to groups of pupils. The principle of division of labour had spread from the factories to the schools. Although North Mymms had no grants, it is likely that the monitorial system was adopted in its schools since it was in general use. It was cheap, and in North Mymms there was only one teacher to each school.

Peter Kingsford, 1987


Chapter 2 - Born to be daily labourers 1840-1870
Index - North Mymms Schools & their Children 1700 - 1964
Preface - Why Peter Kingsford wrote the book
Time Chart - Key dates in the educational history of North Mymms
Sources - Where Peter Kingsford researched his material for the book

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