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Early Education in Potton

Board commemorating the Thomas John Burgoyne Charity February 2013
Board commemorating the Thomas John Burgoyne Charity February 2013

The earliest reference to education in any documents relating to Potton is in 1539. William Hale the elder of Marston Moretaine made his will in which he drected his executors “shall find my son’s son to scoll at Potton by the space of 2 years with such cattle” as his father left him to pay for it [ABP/R3f.12].

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 the vicar wrote: “There is no lecture, Schole, Almeshouse, or Hospital endowed within this parish” and in 1720: “Schools There is nothing of this kind”. The early history of education in Potton can be found in the north transept of the church. Here are a number of boards recording charitable bequests for educational purposes. The various boards read as follows:

  • John Snitch late of this Parish gave ONE HUNDRED Pounds to be put out at Interest June the twelfth One Thousand Six Hundred & Eight Seven, the Interest thereof to put out Poor Children born in this Parish of Potton Prentice [i.e. to apprentice them in a trade].
  • BENEFACTION to the Poor of Thomas Parish which sum was laid out Towards buying the TOWN LAND – John Burgoyne of Sutton Esqr gave Forty Pound Thos Bromsal of Potton Gent gave Ten Pounds Edn Halfhyde of Potton Gent gave Ten Pounds Thos Halfhyde of Potton Gent gave Ten Pounds William Spinkes Draper of Potton Five Pounds UPON TRUST to pay and apply the Clear Yearly Rents of the said Premises, after deducting Taxes &c. Yearly and every Year for ever, unto and Towards the Maintenance of a School-Master, who shall be of sufficient Capacity to Teach and Instruct Children in Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. The School-Master must constantly reside in the Parish of Potton and must duly attend the hearing of Divine Service in the Parish Church there and must faithfully apply himself to the Teaching of all such Children born of Parents who shall be legal Inhabitants of the said Parish of Potton and be members of the Church of England as by Law established as shall be nominated or chosen and committed to his Care by the said Trustees, their Heirs or Assigns. No Child or Children to be put to School under the Age of nine Years. And no such Child or Children to be Taught for any longer time than three Years when such Child or Children shall be removed, and another or others shall be placed in the said School, in the stead of the Child or Children who shall be removed. And such Children are not to exceed eight in number at any one time or in any one Year [c. 1699].
  • ALEXDR ATKINSON late this Parish Gent died Novr ye 8th 1712, gave ye Sum of Thirty Pounds to be Paid to ye living for ever, ye interest of which to be receivd yearly by the Minister of this Parish for Preaching A Sermon annually ye Sunday after his decease. ALSO he gave ye sum of Thirty Pounds to this Parish for ever ye interest of which to be Paid for Teaching Poor Children to learn to Read
  • MARY TOTTNAM Spinster of this Parish February ye 2nd 1728 gave ye Parish ye Sum of Sixty Pounds to purchase freehold land ye rents thereof one third part to be paid to the Minister of Potton, to Preach A Funeral Sermon the Sunday after ye 2nd of febr yearly for ever. One other for ye Poorest Widows. Ye rest for Poor Children to learn to Read.
  • HENRY WARD January ye 24th 1739 gave Sixty Pounds to ye Church Wardens of this Parish, to be put out at Interest & to pay TWENTY SHILLINGS to ye Minister of this Parish to Preach A Yearly Sermon on ye Sunday next after the 24th Day of January, & to pay the rest of ye Interest Yearly towards teaching of Poor Children to Read.
  • 1826 THOMAS JOHN BURGOYNE ESQUIRE of Stratford Place St. Mary-le-bone gave the ORGAN: and FIVE POUNDS A Year for ever to promote PSALMODY. – ALSO he Conveyed a Freehold Orchard at Bassingbourne; IN TRUST equally between this PARISH and FELTHAM in Middlesex: the POTTON Moiety of the Rent to be added to and laid out with the Income of the DONATION given by DAME CONSTANCE BURGOYNE [in 1711] for teaching poor Children to read and write.

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 reply sent by Potton’s vicar was as follows under the heading “particulars relating to endowments for the education of youth”: “A boys school, in which 8 are instructed; the master’s salary is £20 per ann.; and 3 girls schools, in each of which 7 are educated; the mistresses have £2. 11s. each; the funds are invested in trustees”. Under the heading “other institutions for the purpose of education”: “”A small school containing about 35 children”. Under the heading for remarks the vicar wrote: “The poor are without sufficient means of education; but the vicar is of opinion that if the charities were condensed and applied towards the establishment and support of a public school, it would be of essential service to this parish and the adjoining villages”.

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. Potton replied: “Ten Daily Schools, containing 70 males and 109 females; one is partly supported by an endowment arising from charity lands, for which 10 males receive instruction, and three by small endowments, amounting to 50s. annually, for which 18 children are instructed; the rest by payment from the parents. Two Day and Boarding Schools; one containing 26 females, the other (commenced 1823) 36 males. Two Sunday Schools, in which 110 males and 105 females are gratuitously instructed”. 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. The vicar replied that there was a Sunday School for fifty children of each gender and a daily school for forty girls “These schools are maintained by the Clergyman; a schoolroom is wanted, for which £100 has been collected”. This schoolroom was complete by 1848 and stands just across the road from the church, now serving as a church hall. It was listed by English heritage in November 1986 as Grade II, of special interest. It is an attractive building, constructed from small elongated pieces of ironstone laid in a herringbone pattern with red and mottled red brick dressings around the windows, doors and other places. The porch has some ashlar work and the roof is composed of clay tiles with bands of fishscale tiles. There is a 20th century extension to the rear. The listing notes: “Included for group value and for a treatment of materials peculiar to this part of the County”. The school was conveyed by the vicar to himself and the churchwardens and their successors in 1882 [P64/29/2] as a Sunday School and church hall when it ceased to be used as a daily school.

The church hall February 2013
The church hall February 2013

The first Education Act was passed in 1870 (more correctly it was known as the Elementary Education Act). It was a milestone in the provision of education in Britain demonstrating central government's unequivocal support for education of all classes across the country. It also sought to secularise education by allowing the creation of School Boards. These were groups of representatives, elected by the local ratepayers and the Board had the powers to raise funds to form a local rate to support local education, build and run schools, pay the fees of the poorest children, make local school attendance compulsory between the ages of 5 and 13 and could even support local church schools, though in practice they replaced them, turning them into Board run schools (known as Board Schools). Naturally, and luckily for local historians, the Act required a questionnaire of local schools in 1870. The reply stated that there was “No efficient school” and that accommodation was required for 140 infants and 210 older children.