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Meppershall Charity School

An extract from charity accounts [P29-25-1]
An extract from charity accounts [P29/25/1] to see a larger version please click on the image

A deed held in the archives reveals that in 1691 Mistresses Elizabeth and Sarah Emery of Ampthill established a trust for 'putting to school the poor children of Ampthill and Meppershall' [WE1513]. This trust became known as Emery's charity, and evidence of its early operation survives in the Meppershall Parish Records – an account book of the charity lists payments made for the teaching of the children. Thus, on 22nd December 1698, the following information was recorded [note original spellings]:

Taught by Dame Gurny:

Elizabeth Deer can read well & hath knit 3 pair of stockings

Emma Tomson can read pretty well & hath knit 2 pair of stockings, one for her self & another for her father.

Ann Blane reads pretty well, has knit a pair of stockings & made some linen

Mary Tailer begins to read in her Testament, & learns to knit & to sew

Taught by Dame Soal

Thomas Roff reads pretty well in his Testament

Ann Leonard begins to read in her Testament, & spins a pound of hemp tare in a week

Thomas Cherry knows his letters & begins to spell

Hannah Tomson knows her letters & spells; And spins two pounds of tow in a week

Ann Endersby is learning her letters, & can spin two pound of hemp tare in a week: she makes a good thred

The education given at this early stage seems to be a mix of academic work, such as reading and writing, with more vocational or labour based skills, such as spinning hemp, and some 'accounts of the scholars in their learning' has been included at the back of the account book. 'A copy of the Orders of Engagement' provides a list of rules for scholars at the school to abide by. This includes "That if any child comes to School after the hour appointed, Hee or shee shall bee shut out of the school for that day, or else corrected by the Dame". Should the same pupil repeat offend three times in one fortnight, they would lose their place in the school altogether.

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. Visits were made by the Bishop William Wake in 1706, 1709 and 1712. The visitation of 1706 records that the Emery charity was generating 'a settlement of about £5 a year for Teaching of poor children to read. No Lecture, Almeshouse, or Hospitall'. It was also noted that 'No Person of Quality, nor Gentleman of any considerable Estate, lives or has any seat in this parish. The 1709 visitation records that the parish now had 'A Charity Schole for about 8 Children, who all learn the Church Catechism. No other benefaction of any kind whatsoever'. The settlement had more than doubled by the 1712 visitation, by which time "The endowment of the charity Schole is the moiety of a freehold Farm of about £`13 a year… 12 or 14 Children are taught, and duly brought to Church'.

For the visits of the Bishop Edmund Gibson, in 1717 and 1720, set questions were devised prior to the visitation, one of which referred to the provision of schools within the parish. In 1717, Towers Ashcroft, 'Rector de Meparsall' responded that "There is a Publick School in my Parish endowed. The number of Children that are taught in it is uncertain by Reason of the Taxes and Repairs and other Accidental Charges that lye heavy upon the Estate. I take care myself of their Instruction". Still rector in 1720, Ashcroft describes the school as "A Charity-School. The Endowment 6 li. 10s [£6.10.0] per Annum for the teaching of six boys and six Girls who are Instructed in the Principles of the Christian Religion according to the Doctrine of the Church of England.

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 return for Meppershall (listed as Mappershall) reported that there was one charity school, "the numbers have encreased from 25 to 40 children of both sexes". When the income from the trust was not sufficient for the running of the school, "the deficiency is made up by the rector'. The rector himself, who completed the questionnaire, James Webster, also stated that "the poorer classes are not desirous of having any other means of education than the school before mentioned". 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.

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. Meppershall's return recorded the Emery charity school, "in which 14 boys and 14 girls are educated" and "One Sunday School (commenced about 1829), consisting of 40 children, is supported by Mrs D S Webster, widow of the late Rector."

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. At this point, the Sunday School (now 32 boys and 42 girls) and the Daily school funded by the Emery's endowment (now 34 boys and 31 girls) had been joined by an evening school, although this was only attended by 2 boys and 4 girls. We know from a later account book of Emery's charity that in 1846 [P29/25] the funds generated by the trust no longer supported the existence of a separate school, and was instead used to support the National School.