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Billington School 1863-1902

Elevation of Billington National School in 1862 [AD3865/6/4]
Elevation of Billington National School in 1862 [AD3865/6/4]

Billington National School opened on 9th November 1863, having been built by subscription. Miss M. A. Wrenn was engaged as the teacher, at a salary of £30 per annum. She began her contract on 2nd November 1863. The following extracts all come from the first Log Book 1863-1881 [SDBillington6/1] giving a flavour of education at a village school in the latter part of the 19th century.

The first entry reads: "New School opened this day for the first time. Present 69 children. Spent the day in Classifying them". Matters of discipline soon reared their ugly head as on 26th November "two boys reprimanded for fighting". Then on 30th November: "The Managers have commenced a Night School. It is held twice a week opening at 6½ o'clock and closing at 8 o'clock. It seems probable that I shall have the charge of it, but this point is not yet determined, as it is only for boys". A decision was not reached until June the next year: "It is now determined…that the night school be placed under my charge, one or other of the Managers will be present at every meeting. 10 boys were present this evening".

Epidemics, some local, some national, were a fact of life in the 19th century as the entry for 21st June 1864 demonstrates: "Not taken the attendance for the last three days of this week as the Smallpox is in the village, and the parents of the children are too frightened to send them". Six days later Miss Wren wrote: "Smallpox in the village which still keeps the children from school present 23 a.m. 21 p.m."

More children were absent on 13th July: "A great many children away all day on account of a grand holiday at Leighton laying the Foundation stone of a Chapel". School attendance was not enforced by law until the Elementary Education Act of 1870. On 26th July: "Numbers not so high today a great many absent because of a fair at the town of Leighton".

On 11th December 1865 Miss Wren wrote: "Monday I went to Whitelands Training College, London, for the week to sit for a Certificate. During my absence the school was kept by the Clergyman the Rev. E. Bradshaw and the Plaiting Teacher". The last reference is an interesting one. Plait Schools were common in South Bedfordshire: children went to learn the basics of education whilst plaiting straw for the hat trade in Luton. These plait schools were usually regarded as a pernicious thing because they were mainly devoted to the plaiting rather than the education, but did provide a small income for the family whereas at the village school the family usually had to pay. At Billington the plaiting teacher seems to have engaged the children in plaiting for about half the time, Miss Wrenn taking them for proper educational subjects for the other half. An entry for 27th April reads: "Being plait market day several children absent".

In 1867 the School Inspector visited and had some criticism on the familiar theme of plaiting: "It seems to me that the value of this School is much lowered by the admission of straw plaiters. If I understand the Time Table correctly, the School day is only three hours long, except for Farmer's [sic farmers'?] children and those too young to plait". In January 1868 the teacher noted: "Children very backward". The next month the children began to write on paper, presumably having used slates hitherto, the teacher noting: "a few write pretty well". By 9th March the school seemed to be in some trouble, the teacher confiding in the log book: "Attendance up to 30. No prospect of its being better". Given that attendance had been 69 when the school opened five years previously this was obviously an unsatisfactory state of affairs.

The problem still seemed to be plaiting which looks as if it was now in competition with the village school rather than working with it, if this entry from 7th June 1869 is anything to go by: "One Child returned to School, Emma Cherry, after a week's absence at the plaiting school" - a fortnight later attendance was up to 60. The writing was on the wall for the plait schools (though they would take a long time dying) as the Elementary Education Act of 1870 made attendance at proper schools compulsory for those aged 5 to 13. The act demonstrated central government's unequivocal support for education of all classes across the country. It also sought to secularise education by allowing the creation of School Boards. These were groups of representatives, elected by the local ratepayers and the Board had the powers to raise funds to form a local rate to support local education, build and run schools, pay the fees of the poorest children and could even support local church schools, though in practice they replaced them, turning them into Board run schools (known as Board Schools). No School Board was set up for Billington.

In January 1871 the school was reorganised in response to the 1870 Act: "Plaiting was to be done in the Morning only, and if absent in the afternoon, plaiting was not to be done the next morning present. Those who did plaiting were not to be reckoned present by Government Inspectors". Clearly the plait schools were not simply going to give up without a fight, presumably because they were popular with poor parents: the log book entry for 13th February 1871 notes: "3 have left and joined plaiting schools". Clearly the teacher was exasperated, noting on 27th February: "By this time, the old customs is [sic] again renewed: 6 out of 8 admitted shortly before Christmas were taken back to the plaiting schools"; and on 3rd April: "Three more have left and gone to the horrid plaiting schools (2 Hitchcocks and E. Gower)".

Clearly Miss Wrenn had, by now, moved on as the Inspector in 1871 noted: "The school is not in a satisfactory state. The irregular attendance of the children renders it difficult for the Master to carry out a proper course of instruction".

It was not just the evil plait schools, however, which affected attendance. In June 1871 many children were absent due to an outbreak of scarlatina in the village. Sadly three of them, George Gower, Martha Ann Saywell and Frederick Gower died - aged just three, two and six respectively. Parish registers reveal that two one year olds, James Syrett and Mary Procter also died.

On 15th September 1871 the master reported, no doubt with pleasure: "This week this school was visited by H. M. Inspector of factories: children under 8 years forbidden to plait at all; between 8 and 13 not more than 6 hours a day; and every child ordered to have at least 2 hours Education daily". However, a fortnight later: "This week still decreases. Some of the obstinate parents persist in keeping all their children away and others only send their children too young to plait". On 13th October the teacher put up a "large green curtain" dividing "the plaiters and little ones from the upper classes" in the schoolroom. On 19th January 1872 the teacher was happy to report: "On Monday 15th a Gentleman, after visiting several of the Plaiting Schools, visited this school. Finding no children under 8 years plaiting, he left here and summoned several parents for sending children, 8, to plaiting school". Early in 1872 measles swept through the village and more children died, the parish register recording the deaths of Emma Culverhouse, an infant, Amos North, aged 3, William Hemby, aged 5, William Thompson, an infant and Martha King, aged 5 between 19th January and 14th April, though not all may have been due to measles.

Plaiting still lived on: the inspector in July 1872 noting: "The plaiting which prevails in this neighbourhood, makes education a very difficult task". Clearly too difficult for the master, George Dacre, who left and was replaced by a certified teacher, Mrs. Stonebridge, who had been teaching the first class. She reported that she had: "succeeded this week in getting some of the girls to bring needlework instead of plaiting". But in December: "Two more big girls gone to the plaiting school", however, 80 were present on 24th January 1873 "which number exceeds that of any attendance for years". Mrs. Stonebridge noted: "Yesterday being May day most of the big girls were away", hoping to be May Queen, no doubt.

Throughout the log book there are references to agricultural pursuits, such as gleaning, fruit picking and harvest which kept children away from school. Slightly different is the entry for 30th October: "William Varney, S. Ann Heley, Alice Hing, infants, left the school for the winter as the walk is too far from Little Billington". Even those who lived nearer could have problems: "Yesterday Alfred Evans met with an accident when going home from school, a cart wheel passed over his foot and crushed it sadly".

Amazingly, the plaiting controversy still rumbled on. The log book for 29th January 1875 notes: "Yesterday afternoon, Thursday, the Inspector of factories came to the school and after leaving, visited the plaiting school and the parents of those children whom he found violating the rules. This caused great disturbance among them". Clearly his visit had a real effect, as the log book for 12th February states: "Within the last fortnight 13 other children have been admitted, viz: 11 girls and 2 boys. All of these with one exception came from plaiting schools". By the end of July, however, the tide was, once more, flowing the other way: "Mary Ann and Emma Green left the school to go to a plaiting school". Sometimes it was not plaiting schools which were to blame: "Sarah Pheasant, Emma Griffin, Maria Potts, Emma Potts, Eliza Griffin and Emma Pheasany (the greater part of the 1st class) kept at home to plait".

The pressure on the plait schools continued and in 1876: "H. M. Inspector of factories visited the school and after taking the names of all half timers, proceeded to the different plaiting schools and subsequently to the homes of the children whom he found there. The consequence is that our average has been raised to 65 this week, several of the children having attended who were illegally employed at plaiting". The following year the inspector: "after examining the registers, expressed himself satisfied that there had been an advancement in the regularity of attendance on the whole since his last visit, and suggested that some inducement should be held out for the half timers to bring their plaiting to school in order to keep them as much as possible from the plaiting schools". In July 1877 the parents of Florence Holmes became the first in the parish to be served with a notice for non-attendance by the Attendance Inspector.

An entry for 1878 reveals just why the plait schools lingered, not only did they pay money to the parents but the village school still charged money to attend: "By the request of the Managers I have been obliged to send back several children this week for non-payment of school pence, some of them now owe as much as 10d. and 1s. each, and one child 1s.4d."

Through the 1880s and 1890s the school continued to serve the parish, as a National School. The plait schools fell away in importance and eventually ceased altogether but sadly we cannot more precisely chart this as the log book for 1883 to 1899 had never been deposited with Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service.

Site layout plan of Billington National School in 1862 [AD3865/6/1]
Site layout plan of Billington National School in 1862 [AD3865/6/1]