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Silsoe School 1813 to 1902

School House Mews March 2011
School House Mews March 2011

A new school building was created in 1813 by Amabel, 1st Countess de Grey (as she became in 1816). She converted a row of cottages into a school building [L26/460]. The buildings survive today as School House Mews. The part nearest the High Street was a house for the teacher, the boys were taught in the next part and the girls in the part at the back, furthest from the road.

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. At that date Silsoe was still part of the parish of Flitton. One of the Earls of Kent had left £100, which was lent at interest to the Mercer's Company and three-fifths of the interest was applied in supporting the school in Silsoe. It was in 1818 maintained by the 1st Countess de Grey, and 70 boys and 30 girls were instructed. This was stated to be a NationalSchool and thus must be one of the earliest such schools in the county.

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 Silsoe was, as in 1818, included in the parish return for Flitton. An infants' school for 77 children had opened in 1828. It stood further south on the High Street than the boys' and girls' schools and is today 24 High Street. Estimates for salaries, expenses and repairs to the building from 1821 to 1837 survive in the Lucas Archive [L26/1454-1455].

There was also a daily school for two boys and sixteen girls "instructed at the expense of their parents" which had opened in 1831. These were in addition to the two daily and Sunday "Lancasterian Schools" for 98 boys and 87 girls who attended daily and 73 boys and 74 girls who attended on Sundays. The daily Lancasterian schools were clearly the National Schools noted in 1818. The day scholars continued to be educated at the expense of Earl de Grey and the Sunday scholars by the parish. There was a library for the use of both schools. 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.

An countywide inspection report from 1844, quoted by David Bushby in his Bedfordshire Historical Record Society volume (Number 67, published in 1988) The Bedfordshire Schoolchild reported on the separate boys' and girls' schools had "Active and intelligent teachers. Good disciplinarians. Perhaps the most important ends of education might be kept more in view. Children trained in some measure in horticulture. Building satisfactory". The infants' school was described as being taught by "a motherly dame".

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 return for Flitton and Silsoe stated: "The educational wants of this district are amply supplied, and there is a Daily school at Silsoe". In fact three schools were listed for Silsoe, a Sunday school for 61 boys and 67 girls, the daily school for 69 boys and 67 girls and the daily infants' school for 39 boys and 38 girls. "The schools are supported solely by the Countess de Grey, and are under the superintendence of the Clergymen of the parish". The school begun in 1831 had clearly closed by this date, which, given the competition from the schools supported by the de Grey family.

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. Silsoe still had its school, now described as a Church of England School with accommodation for 97 boys and 72 girls. The infants' school had accommodation for eighty.

Ensuring that children attended school regularly was a common problem.  Bad weather, prolonged illness and the need to work to help their families all meant that children's education was often disrupted.  However, there were also more fun reasons that lead to children missing school, both examples taken from the girls' school logbook [SDSilsoe1]:

  • 17th July 1874: "A holiday given on account of the Agricultural Show at Bedford"
  • 23rd July 1874 "Holiday all day – school treat".

In 1896 the Boys' and Girls' schools amalgamated and formed Silsoe Church Junior Mixed School. The infants continued to be taught on separate premises.

The gable end of School House Mews March 2011
The gable end of School House Mews March 2011