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Early Education in Wilshamstead

Old Church House in 1962 [Z53/134/5]
Old Church House in 1962 [Z53/134/5]

There is a great wealth of information on education in Wilshamstead held by Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service, particularly in the parish archive [P22]. The parish has along tradition of education provision, far longer, indeed, than the great majority of parishes in the county.

The story begins on 2nd February 1572 when the Old Church House, as it is called today, together with four small areas of land, was conveyed to the vicar and others as trustees. A schedule attached to the deed [P22/25/1/1] reads (note the original spellings): “This Cedule indented made the second Daie of Februarye in the xiijth yere of the reigne of our soveraigne Ladie Elizabeth, the queen’s maiestie that nowe is, indented herewith annexed made by the saide Sir Henry Cheyney knight and Charles Glemham esquier, unto Petre White and to his Cofeoffees named in the same foeffament of the premisses therin mencioned, and how the rentes, issues and profittes coming therof shalbe used, bestowed and ymployed from henceforthe forever, viz. First that the same rentes, issues and proffittes commyng and growing of the same premisses shalbe converted, bestowed and ymployed upon the necessarie reparacions of the bodie of the parishe Churche of Wilshampstede aforesaide and upon the messuage or tenement there called the Church house named in the same feoffament from tyme to tyme as often as nede shall require by the said Feoffees or the more parte of them or by the heires of the survivor or survivors of them with the good advise, Counsell and assent of the Churchewardens there for the tyme being. And also that it shalbe laufull to and for the mynistre, parishe Clerk there for the tyme being or any other inhabitaunt there mete for that purpose with the like Consent to teache and bring upp yong children in virtuous discipline, educacion and manners within the saide house called the Churchehouse, and further that it shallbe laufull to and for the parochians there forever to have the use of the same house for their poore bridalles, Churche ales and other laufull assemblies and metinges at all laufull and convenient tyme and tymes”.

Thus the first school in Wilshamstead began in 1572 in the Old Church House. In 1686 Rev William Wells, vicar since 1654, made his will [P1/1/3] and left £40 to the churchwardens and overseers of the poor to buy land which would yield forty shillings per annum in rent to be applied “in putting Children of the poorest inhabitants of the parish of Wilshamstead aforesaid to School and paying for their Learning”. It would seem that by this date no money was being used to endow a school at the Church House because in the early 18th century (see below) it is only this bequest which is mentioned as providing education, and that only for six poor boys.

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 1706 the vicar stated “There is no Lecture, School, Almshouse, or Hospital endowed within this parish”. This is very odd, given that we know the Church House was used as a school and had been endowed since 1572! The return on 1709 is rather better informed: “Mr. Wells, predecessor to the present Incumbent, left 40s. a year for the teaching of six poor children, who have been accordingly taught either by Masters or Dames”. He added: “The youth of the parish are all the Summer long instructed every Sunday in the Church Catechism”.

In 1717 the vicar wrote: “We have a small Donation of fifty shillings per annum left by my predecessor Mr. Wells, for the teaching of six poor children to read, and we have had a Master till now that has instructed them in the church Catechism, and brought them to church on prayer days, but at present we have no master”. It is interesting that here Rev. Richardson quotes fifty shillings rather than forty, was this a slip of the pen or had the sum been added to? In 1720 the sum had increased again: “We have a school in our parish endowed with three pounds per annum by my predecessor Mr. Wells for 6 poor children, who are taught the principles of Christian Religion, according to the doctrine of the Church of England, and the Master brings them to church on prayer days”. No mention of education other than catechising is made but it can probably be safely imputed, these returns were, after all, interested in the state of the church, not of secular learning.

Another will which benefited the children of the parish was that made by William Edwards of Bedford in 1726 [AD923]. Once again he left forty shillings per annum for the schooling of poor children. The will was proved in 1734.

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 Wilshamstead was as follows: “One day school, containing about 20 children, but none are refused who will attend; the salary is about £15 arising from land left for that purpose”. This suggests that money was, once more, being used from land granted in 1572 to pay for a master, as Wells’ and Edwards’ bequests only amounted to some £4 per annum. The vicar went on: “The poor are desirous of education, and the children might be taught to read, could regular attendance be procured, but their avocations call them to labour”.

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 Wilshamstead reads: “One Daily School, containing 34 scholars of both sexes, endowed with £8.0.2½ per annum, arising from land, for the education of 16 of the above scholars, who are nominated by the churchwardens and overseers; the rest at the expense of the parents. Two Sunday Schools, in one of which, of the Established Church, are about 60 children of both sexes; the other, 30 boys and 20 girls, appertains to the Methodists. Instruction at both the Sunday Schools is gratuitous. 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 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. It was in 1846 that the school at Wilshamstead was designed [AD3865/49/1-2] and the return noted a Sunday School for 47 boys and 44 girls and a daily school for 67 boys and 8 girls. It is difficult to know whether this is the old church school meeting at Church House or the new National School.