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Early Education in Kempston

Church Cottages November 2007
Church Cottages November 2007

The first reference to education in Kempston in any document held at Bedfordshire & Luton Archives & Records Service is in 1674 when the overseers' accounts [P60/12/2] noted: "paid for beare the workemen had when they made fitt the house under the Schoole loft for Thomas Saunders to live in". A further reference in 1677 notes: "Given to William Radwell for carring [sic] up a load of wood into the Schoole loft for the poore". This "school loft" may have been over the porch of All Saints church in what is now Kempston Rural. The phrase under the school loft would not be quite literal as it would mean that Saunders lived in the porch! It would that he had a house nearby so that is was under the shadow of the loft. He may have lived in one of the Church Cottages. Alternatively the school loft may have been in the attics of these cottages.

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. The responses were as follows:

  • 1706: “There is neither Lecture, School, Almes-house, nor Hospitall endowed in this parish”. Evidently the school loft was no longer in use.
  • 1709: “No public or charity Schole. 2 men in the parish teach for nothing any poor children that come to them. No public Benefaction of any kind to Church or Poor”.
  • 1717: “No Publick charity school”.
  • 1720: “No charity or Publick School, onely a workhouse for poor children who are instructed in the catechism of the church of England and come constantly to church”. This workhouse was likely today’s Church Cottages.

The burial register for Kempston of 1757 notes the burial of "one Wingfield, formerly schoolmaster" suggesting that a school may have been in place some time after 1720, unless Wingfield had been a schoolmaster elsewhere.

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. Kempston still had no educational endowment but did now have: "A day school, supported by the scholars, who amount to about 25, and a Sunday school for 20 girls, who are partly clothed, and entirely supported by Sir W. Long, the principal landlord in the parish". The vicar noted: "The poorer classes are desirous of the means of education, and for this purpose a Sunday school, to be supported by voluntary contributions, is in the contemplation of the vicar". 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.

Bedfordshire & Luton Archives & Records Service has the records of Kempston Church Walk Charity Trustees [X47] who record in their minutes a number of items of interest relating to education. On 22 Aug 1823 it was recorded: "Poor house repaired and relet”; "a Plan and Estimate for the building of a Room or Rooms for a Sunday School upon some part of the Ground belonging to the Charity Estate be procured and submitted to the Trustees". The minutes of 20th March 1827 note: "that £100 be borrowed…to pay the…debts occasioned by the building of the School…". A minute of 30th September 1828 noted that 11½ poles had been bought “from Pierson for the use of the School Room”. By 30th December 1831, minutes reveal, the school room had been erected by the Trustees, sadly their efforts were in vain, however as "this is not considered useful by the inhabitants, building to be taken down and £200 distributed among poor of parish". A letter of Samuel Whitbread's notes that in 1828 a "School House lately erected by me is now used as Charity & Sunday School by Independent Dissenters".

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. Kempston's reply was: "Three Sunday Schools; one, of the Established Church, consists of 43 females; one, supported by the Independents, consists of 48 males and 50 females; books for this school are furnished from a library belonging to the Old Meeting [i.e. the Bunyan Meeting] at Bedford; a School of Wesleyan Methodists consists of 72 males and 52 females: all these are supported by voluntary contributions".

The school supported by the Independents is presumably that erected by Samuel Whitbread in 1828. In 1863 the Bunyan Meeting in Bedford referred to girls being taught sewing and both girls and boys being taught writing and cophering at a schoolroom purchased for £30 [BY9/3]. A new building is mentoned two years later [BY9/3].