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Early Education in Great Barford

Great Barford church from the north-west October 2007
Great Barford church from the north-west October 2007

Volume 81 published by Bedfordshire Historical Records Society (2002) is a series of episcopal visitations undertaken in the first twenty years of the 18th century, edited by former County Archivist Patricia Bell. At each visitation a list of questions was sent out in advance, one of which enquired about the provision of schools in each parish. In 1709, 1717 and 1720 the Vicar reported that there was no school in the parish, though in 1720 there was: "a Woman (at the proper Cost of her Friends) who instructs 'em very well in their catechism etc."

In 1731 Sarah Foster made her will [FN976] in which she have £500 to the Vicar, churchwardens and overseers of Great Barford to be laid out in land. Half the income was to be used to pay "an honest schoolmaster of good morals and of the Church of England" to teach eight poor boys and eight poor girls to read, write "and cast accounts and bring them to be catechised when the vicar requires it". To judge by what followed either the bequest was never made or it was used for other purposes.

In 1818 a Select Committee was established to enquire into educational provision for the poor. This was no doubt prompted, in part, by the recent foundation of two societies promoting education and specifically the building of schools. The Society for Promoting the Lancasterian System for the Education of the Poor was established in 1808 promoting schools run along the lines pioneered by Joseph Lancaster, who had himself copied those of Dr.Andrew Bell, in which older children taught their younger fellows. The Society was renamed the British and Foreign School Society in 1814,. It was supported by a number of prominent nonconformists, Lancaster himself was a Quaker, and sought to teach a non-sectarian curriculum. In answer to this perceived nonconformist takeover of local education the National Society was formed in 1811 to encourage the teaching of poor children along Anglican lines, including the catechism. The Select Committee sent a questionnaire to all parishes in the country asking for: particulars relating to endowments for the education of children; other educational institutions; observations of parish needs etc. The Vicar of Great Barford replied that there was no educational endowment. There was a Sunday School "for 70 children, supported by voluntary contribution". In those days a Sunday School was just that, a school which met on a Sunday, usually in the church or nonconformist chapel or other similar building, teaching more than the religious topics with which they are associated today. The Vicar also stated: "The poor are very desirous of education; and a national school for Great Barford and Roxton would be beneficial, as there are upwards of 60 children in want of instruction".

In the country generally the number of schools built continued to grow over the next fifteen years so that by 1833 the government agreed to supplement the work of the two societies, and local benefactors, by making £20,000 per annum available in grants to help build schools. It also prompted another questionnaire to be sent to each parish in England asking for details of local educational provision. The return for Great Barford read as follows: "Two Daily Schools, one (commenced 1822) contains 20 females, the other (commenced 1831) 16 males and 2 females; these Schools are at the expense of the parents". There were also "Two Sunday Schools; at one of which are 60 males and 85 females, who attend the Established Church; this School supported by voluntary contributions, out of which the master and mistress each  receive an annual salary of £5 it was endowed in 1827, by William Pedley, Esquire, with £100 the interest whereof is expended in the purchase of books for the use of the School. The other School appertains to the Methodists, and consists of 20 males and 17 females, also supported by voluntary contributions. In addition to the above, there are three lace Schools, in two of which the girls are taught to read".

The next national enquiry was in 1846/7 when the Church of England made an enquiry as to all its church schools. This was against the background of a new Whig government which championed secular education and the increasing importance of nonconformists, particularly Wesleyan Methodist, and Roman Catholics in providing schools. Great Barford at that date had a Church Sunday School of 49 boys and 75 girls as well as a Dame's School of 10 boys and 34 girls. The vicar explained: "The Boys' Sunday school is held in the church and the Girls' in an outhouse belonging to the Vicarage. The people are miserably poor and there are no resident gentry".