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Early Education in Clophill

Clophill old church about 1900
Clophill old church about 1900

The parish records for Clophill contain an interesting document of 21st June 1630 in which Richard Read senior, of Clophill, tanner gave a piece of ground measuring 16.5 feet by 24 feet north of the highway to the minister of Clophill and other trustees to "build a convenient school-house for the education and religious upbringing of the children of Clophill in virtue and learning, and for the habitation and dwelling of a schoolmaster, he being a discreet, well-learned man of honest life, civil carriage and good behaviour".

The Bishop of Lincoln carried out visitations to Bedfordshire in 1717 and 1720 and for both of these a list of questions was sent out in advance, one of which enquired about the provision of schools in each parish. Of Clophill it was reported that there was no schooling at all for poor children, clearly indicating that the intended school of 1630 was either never built or had closed before 1717. This is supported by the report of the Charity Commissioners into Bedfordshire educational charities in the early nineteenth century. They found that at Clophill the Poor's Estate rent, amounting to £11/17/10 per annum "is applied…partly in educating poor children…The sum of £6 per annum…is appropriated…to the purpose, and is now paid to the master of a Sunday school, at which about 60 boys are regularly instructed…in reading and the Church Catechism. The money was formerly paid to a schoolmaster, as an annual stipend, for the education of eight poor boys of the parish, in reading and writing; but being found inadequate to the instruction of that number of children, in both branches of education, it was considered more useful to employ it as at present, towards the support of a Sunday School". 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 rear of a parish register [P45/1/4] includes notes of events within the parish, many of the connected with education. The following are recorded between 1799 and 1814:

  • At Michaelmas 1799 a Sunday School for 30 Girls was instituted of whom 12 to be annually clothed: the 1st anniversary Sermon for the Benefit of the School was preached in September 1800 when only £2.13.9 was collected.
  • At Easter 1809 a Sunday School for 30 Boys was instituted supported by private Contributions.
  • At Easter 1812 the Girls School was increased to 40 the subscriptions at the Sermon in September 1811 amounting to £15.9.8 (Clothed 22).
  • On September 13th 1812 after a Sermon preached by the Revd. Legh [sic] Richmond Rector of Turvey, Bedfordshire, the Collection amounted to £30.5.6 when a second Girls School for 20 Children was instituted.
  • At Easter 1813 25 Girls clothed. Boys School increased to 44 - the Girls Infant School to 25.
  • On Saturday 13th 1814 as new Gallery was erected for the Boys Sunday School. Lady Lucas gave the whole of the Timber. This was a day of Thanksgiving for signal Victories obtained over the French by Lord Wellington and the Allies in Germany, France and Spain after 20 years of War.
  • At Easter 1814 the last instituted School for Girls increased to 34.

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 firmed 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 Clophill stated that the Sunday school had 60 boys. A further two Sunday Schools for 80 girls existed "30 of whom are clothed" - the schools noted in the extracts from the notes at the end of one of the parish registers [P45/1/4] quoted above. It was recorded that "the poor are desirous of education".

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. For Clophill it was recorded that there were three daily schools, two of which contained 10 boys and 15 girls.  The other accommodated 18 boys and 18 girls.  All the children were supported by payments from their parents.  Most of the children left these schools at an early age and attend straw-plait schools.  In addition there were two Anglican Sunday schools attended by 108 boys in one, 85 girls in the other.  The boys Sunday school was supported by an endowment of £6 to the master while the girls school was funded by voluntary contributions. Plait Schools were generally considered a great evil by educationalists. In theory the children learned schoolwork for part of the day and then learned straw plaiting for the rest of the time. In reality the instruction in school subjects was often considered inferior to that in plaiting. Nevertheless plait schools were usually popular with parents because they enabled children to learn and practise a trade which brought in money.