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Silsoe School Before 1813

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. At this time Silsoe was part of the parish of Flitton and returns covered both villages. The return of 1706 stated: "There is no School, lecture, Almeshouse [sic] or Hospital endow'd within this parish". In 1709, however, the return noted a school for fourteen children in Silsoe and one for nine in Flitton. The school in Silsoe was still in existence in 1717: "We have a Charity School consisting of fourteen Children who are taught to read and do learn the Church Catechism and are brought duly to Church". In 1720, however, the vicar noted: "We have no publick [sic] or charity School".

In the 18th century when Ezekial (born 1708) and William Rouse (born 1739), both Rectors of Clophill, entered Silsoe as their school on the matriculation records for Cambridge University [CRT120/40]. This emphasizes that the response to the episcopal visitation of 1720 (when William would have been twelve) is either a mistake or the school was only temporarily in abeyance.

The early history of education in Silsoe is, as one might expect, intimately bound up with the successive owners of the Wrest Park Estate, the Duke of Kent, Marchioness Grey, the Earls and Countesses de Grey and the Barons and Baronesses Lucas of Crudwell since most of the people in the village were their tenants. A document in the Lucas Archive of about 1740 entitled "Mr. Skinner's Bills with observations" [L26/1393] states: "I know my lord [the Duke of Kent] kept in his hands one hundred pound left by his Grandmother [Amabel, second wife of the 10th Earl of Kent, she died in 1698 and was known locally as The Good Countess] to ye School at Silsoe & paid yearly six per cent interest for it, ye same Countess of Kent increased ye living of Flitton by twenty pounds a year, she brought a great fortune into ye family, with which she purchased some considerable parts of ye Bedfordshire estate herself after she was a Widow and left ye weekly benefaction of 15s. 6d. to ye poor of ye parish which has always been regularly paid".

Silsoe chapel elevation 1828 [L33/248]
Silsoe chapel elevation 1828 [L33/248]

In December 1800 Joseph Tansey, writing on estate business to Lady Lucas, who became 1st Countess de Grey in 1816, said [L30/11/215/104]: "I have made what inquiry I could about the School, that is how it was carried on formerly & before Mr. and Mrs. Harrison kept it, Another person of the same name kept the School in the Chapel at Silsoe, and when Master Harrison died his Widow kept the School in the House in which Mr. Reed now lives, and in former times none of the Charity Children were taught to Write, the Boys were taught Reading and the Girls Reading & Working, it is thought by some that in the Duke of Kent's time [1702-1740] the Extent of the Charity School was what I call the Earl of Kent's Charity, which was then £5.2.0 per Annum but now £6.13.8 per Annum. Old George Wilmor says he Remembers it so, I presume all above that Sum was My Lady Grey's [Marchioness Grey] generous and free gift, and I am inclined to believe established by her Ladyship when this Mr. & Mrs. Harrison came to Live at Silsoe but I will not positively say so".

A number of letters from various people to Philip Yorke, 2nd Earl of Hardwicke, husband of Jemima, Marchioness Grey held by the British Museum were transcribed for Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service by Mary Phillips [CRT100/27/3].

Page 28 contains the following passage from a letter of 3rd November 1763: "Mr. Hansom [sic – Harrison], the school master has lately applied to me about a better accommodation for his increasing seminary. He has already fitted his small habitation with a set of very decent, well-behaved young scholars, the sons of clergymen and reputable tradesmen and has been obliged to refuse several boarders for want of room. He seems to me to be a very modest, diligent, sober, sensible man and not insufficient for his undertaking and is well liked in the neighbourhood as appears by the increase of his school (which, including day scholars and boarders) amounts in number to upwards of forty so that there seems nothing wanting to his farther success, but a better accommodation especially in the winter season, as the cold chapel is scarce wholesome for such young students. He heard I was going to repair the vicarage house [just east end of the chapel] and wished it might be made fit for his purpose and let to him at an advanced rent and dropped some queries upon my telling him 'twas beyond my compass to do it, being allowed at ten guineas for dilapidations whether the money left by the Countess of Kent might not with your Lordship's approbation be employed for that purpose – I told him I could give him no encouragement since it was very uncertain whether that money could be got out of the hands of the Mercer's Company and if that ere possible whether it could be applied to such a use. He then said he should be very glad to have permission to make a fireplace in the chancel between the door and window. I heartily wish I could contrive to accommodate him and be the means to lay the foundation of a good Boarding-School, which I think over and above the Benefit of the children might prove in other respects a great advantage to the parish. A good school and comfortable workhouse are principal objects of my vicarial attention". Clearly this was not really a school for village children but something more akin to a private school today.

In November 1764 Hadley Cox wrote to the Earl of Hardwicke [page 44] "In my last I informed your Lordship of my success with the Mercer's Company that I had obtained of them two Bonds, one for £100 and one for £70 together with the Balance of £4.1.8 for the overplus of interest and that I had lodged the said Bonds in Mr. Vernon's hands which I did partly for security and partly on account of the necessity of exhibiting them to the Company's agent whenever the Interest is demanded, it being their custom to write off every payment on the back of the Bond … When this interest is received I shall then have £9.6.8 in my hands on account of the said charitable donation and should be glad to know whether your Lordship and Lady Grey think it reasonable to allow the said sum to the Widow Harrison, who assures me she has now and has for several years four children at school whose names she specifies and that she has for the most part had to teach them all that number gratis ever since her husband's death. But this, for want of vouchers upon record, seems to want proof, as Lady Grey observed to me when I talked with her Ladyship upon the subject at Wrest. The poor woman does not express the satisfaction I expected she would, at my recovering the continuance of her pay for the future, being disappointed of her arrears by the lapsed interest being converted into Principal Stock, with which she had had hopes of satisfying the creditors of her husband who died insolvent".

"Your Lordship will pardon my troubling you with this minutia which proceeds from my unwillingness to take any steps in this affair without your Lordship's approbation. We have a poor widow here at Flitton who undertakes to teach several children. I propose to put five to her and five to Widow Harrison for the £5 and to lay out the remaining five shillings in books for them". From this it appears as if Richard and Widow Harrison's school was separate from that run by the other Harrison in the chapel. Perhaps he had begun his school shortly after Richard Harrison's death

The next letter [page 47] notes: "Mrs. Harrison's claim remains in statu quo, i.. e. in statu tenebroso, for want of written vouchers. Mr. Rouse [presumably Ezekiel Rouse, Rector of Clophill] and the Silsoe clerk Daulton seem to think her an honest woman, whose word may be relied upon. However, as the poor woman has been disappointed after a tedious expectation, has at present four children to teach gratis and has had 'em several years, besides other preceding (tho' she may not be able to make out anything near an exact account) yet with my humble submission to your Lordship's and Lady Grey's opinions, I confess it does not appear very unreasonable to me to allow her the over plus of interest which is now become due".

The next letter [page 48] states: "I called upon poor Widow Harrison on Monday and yesterday; she seems sadly troubled at the difficulties which have arisen from her own want of caution in not keeping a written account of the children she has had under her care on the Lady Countess Amabella's charity. I have exhorted her to make out a list of the names to the best of her memory. If she can recollect any number I will go round to the parents and take an account from them; which if they confirm, I hope it will recommend the poor widow whom I sincerely pity (for she appears of good character) to your Lordship's charitable consideration. She certainly has had four children  on that Charity ever since my first coming hither and has showed 'em to me three or four times. As to her appointment – she says her husband was appointed by the Duke of Kent and that she, after his, her husband's decease, kept up the school and was continued in the care of the four children by Mr. Birt, as she supposes by Authority from his grace's family. Daulton, the clerk, tells me his son was put to school to the husband (Harrison) on the said establishment I believe upwards of twenty years ago".

Page 50 is a letter of December 1764. It reads, in part: "As to my predecessor not having mentioned the Charity money now vested in the Mercer's Co. either to your Lordship or Lady Grey, there is one consideration which makes me think it must have slipped your memory, viz. a letter from Mr. Mallet to Mr. Birt, assuring him of your Lordship's and the late Lord Hardwicke's approbation of that disposal of the said £100".

"The Widow Harrison is very positive as to the appointment of her husband by the order of his grace the Duke of Kent [died 1740] and that she was continued by Mr. Birt, and is ready to take her oath that the children have been continually sent to be taught by her on that foundation ever since. In answer to a question how she came to go on teaching children gratis, when the money was not forthcoming she answers with some appearance of reason, that my predecessor was perpetually encouraging her to go on with hopes that the Company's affairs would e'er long be so retrieved as to pay the whole of the arrears and that she might depend on being paid at last which promise she has made use of to quiet her husband's creditors, he having died insolvent of debts to the amount of between £30 and £40".

"P. S. Extract of Mr. Mallet's letter to Mr. Birt dated 16th February 1743 "Dear Sir, your proposal to loan the £100 at 4% to the Mercer's Company upon Bond is very agreeable to my Lord and Mr. Yorke and they present their compliments and desire the money may be loaned accordingly, signed Gabriel Mallet".

"I found the following memorandum in Richard Harrison's book written in his hand. "1755 ten years salary due to me from Mercer's Co. the 14th or 15th of this March 1755".

"The full list of children since Harrison's decease which was about seven years ago [the parish register for Flitton shows the burial of Richard Harrison as 14th August 1758]. John Young, William Holman, William Read, Samuel Carter, two children of T. Bayley's, William Leach, Thomas or John Odel, Thomas Dogget, William Low. In No. ten. She [Widow Harrison] believes there were more which she cannot recollect".

The final letter in the saga is on page 77 and was written on 1st October 1765: "Immediately after your Lordship's departure from Wrest I made it my first business to enquire farther into the merits of Mrs. H's demands. In the first place I compared the list which her Ladyship did me the honour to send me with the parish register to try if their ages agreed with the supposed time of their being at school (viz. for the four [sic] years from 1749 to 1762 inclusive of both which seemed to answer as well as we could expect as your Lordship may judge from the schedule annexed".

"I then went round to the parents of the children and the luck to meet with every one of them, they all agreed (one Hughes only excepted who was uncertain) that their children were put to school with the Widow Harrison by Mr. Birt and not paid for. She affirms the same with regard to Hughes' child I believe with truth as she was so honest as to disclaim one, whom I had added to the list the father having told me she was sent to Widow Harrison by Mr. Birt … The schooling for the four years in question on the establishment aforesaid seems to me to be sufficiently ascertained to make good the remainder of her claim. Your Lordship having allowed the preceding claim of her deceased husband from the minutes in his account book I only wait your Lordship's Fiat to proceed to allow her the £40 and to begin paying her £10 at present and £5 yearly till the whole debt is discharged".

In April 1767 Hadley Cox wrote to the Earl of Hardwicke [page 104]: "I have forbid all the assembling of the school for the present" as a man in the village had smallpox.

In May 1776 Cox wrote [CRT100/27/4(ii) page 230]: "The interest upon the Mercer Co's bonds being now in course of payment I make bold as usual to enclose a note to Mr. Vernon begging him with your Lordship's approbation to receive the last year's dividend due at Lady Day last and remit the same to me by Mr. Pawsey. I shall then have it in my power to make an addition to the number of scholars upon that allowance having last year cleared accounts with the Widow Harrison and paid the present schoolmaster one year's pay. May I beg permission to send one or two children of this place [Flitton] whose parents I know will be indeed more than pleased with this benefaction, Mr. Harrison's school being in high credit". This suggests that Widow Harrison no longer taught any children and that perhaps the school in the chapel run by the other Harrison had now taken on a little more of the colour of a village school.

In the Lucas Archive fifteen letters from Sarah Harrison to Marchioness Grey and, after death in 1797, to Lady Lucas (1st Countess de Grey from 1816) covering the years 1789 to 1820 [L33/11/133/1-15]. She was schoolmistress at Silsoe and was the wife of the William Harrison who ran the school in the chapel. Their daughter Sarah was baptised privately on 20th March 1776.

The first surviving letter, of 16th April 1789, is about singing: "Tho' I have not heard anything from your Ladyship since I last had the Honour of addressing you, yet as I have informed myself further (as I fear I was not then explicit enough) concerning the children's Learning to Sing, hope I do not do wrong in giving your Ladyship this trouble. I told the Singers what your Ladyship was pleased to say on the Subject, that you had no objection to the Plan nor to the doing something towards encouraging it, But that I thought the Master must not expect to be paid for by the children as for the young men. He therefore agrees to take five shillings entrance for the whole of the enclosed list and a Shilling a lesson afterwards and which, as he teaches twice a week, will be two shillings a week ... This, I find, will satisfy all Partners and the Leader of them being a very sober married man he and Mr. Doulton undertakes management of the children and answers for keeping good order in case any complaint of irregularity may be brought before us". On another matter she wrote: "I have sent word to Mr. Hawkins that your Ladyship and Lady Grantham are displeased with Him and think he has ill fulfilled his Duty as a Master with his Scholars".

The list of children wanting to sing was as follows: John Dalton; John Lowins; James Lowins; John Dogget; John Peachy; Joseph Mann; Elizabeth Giddins; Sarah Lawrence; Mary Dalton; Ann Chamberlin; Sarah Heddy; Mary Ann Welch and Elizabeth Dalton.

In March 1797 Sarah wrote to Lady Lucas once more about singing [L30/11/133/5] "in consequence of the Goodness & encouragement your Ladyship has been pleas'd to convey through my hands to the children of this place who sing Psalms. They have for some time strangely fallen off, not in numbers, but in their powers of Singing & seem'd scarcely able to manage their tunes which we have been sorry for as they cannot always have a Master at their Elbow. However, to Day all the young Men of this Town both married & single gather'd themselves together at Church & desired the children would give up & they all sang very well indeed. After service Mr. Harrison made up to them & ask'd what they meant. They all said they proposed paying something for themselves & making a Subscription to have a Master who they had engaged to teach them by Notes & not by rote as Hawkins had taught the children, that they had no objection to the children's singing with them provided they paid for this Learning as the rest did. The Congregation were pleas'd with the young Men. We wish'd to know if it would be your Ladyship's pleasure to encourage this Plan, which we know not how to act in till we do know it, nor ever heard a word of their intention till this Day".

She wrote again on 2nd April [L30/11/133/6]: "I have the Honour to inform your Ladyship that the Terms on which the Master comes to instruct the young Men of the Village in Singing are one Shilling entrance & 2d. per Head for each time of attendance afterwards. He would expect the same if he was to teach the Boys & Girls of your Ladyship's School. The Farmers' Sons & Sons of the Tradespeople & your Ladyship's Head gardeners under Mr. Walker will certainly pay for themselves, but there are two young Married Men (with families) at the Head of them that are very unable to pay the expence [sic] of it & it would be great charity to assist. The parents of the children who used to sing will all be very thankfull [sic] to have their children join the Choir & Lament that it is not in their own power to have them taught. Porter's Sons & all who could afford it join'd the other young men as soon as the Scheme took place. It is exceedingly vexatious to me to think the money that has been paid & by the trouble that was taken to no purpose by the children not having learnt by Notes, but I was really so ignorant that I was not aware that it was material & earnestly hope Lady Grantham is not displeas'd with me".

In 1813 Lady Lucas decided the school needed to be in new premises. She thus converted a row of cottages abutting onto the High Street. The plans survive in the Lucas collection [L26/460 - see below, click on the image to see a larger version] and show that they are the same buildings which today survive as School House Mews.

Silsoe National School in 1813 [L26-460]
Silsoe National School in 1813 [L26/460]