Goodbye Mr Chips - Records of Thomas Northern, A Bedford Teacher
The Archives Service holds records for many Bedfordshire schools, but often little survives apart from school log books (kept compulsorily, 1862-1992, and optionally thereafter) and the occasional admission register or punishment book.
Just occasionally, though, a collection comes our way which sheds an intriguing light on the records which once must have existed for the majority of schools in the County. When Thomas Northern, Headmaster of Clapham Road School, Bedford (Livingstone Lower School since c1977) retired in 1955, after a teaching career there spanning 41 years, he took home with him not only his own papers but many of the school records as well. Nearly fifty years later, one of his descendants contacted us looking for a good home for the records which had lain undisturbed for years in a garden shed. Naturally, we jumped at the chance.
The first task was to sort the archives into Thomas Northern's personal papers [Ref: Z1202 collection], official records of the School [Ref: SD Bedford LIV], and educational magazines to go to a specialist library. Thomas Northern's pupil teacher's report book, in the first category, is an unusual survival [Ref: Z1202/1/1]. It begins in December 1905 when Thomas was only 15½ and living with his parents at Kettering, Northants. He performed well in all subjects, but not surprisingly encountered problems when he started teaching practice at Stamford Road Council Mixed School, Kettering, in late 1906. 'Owing to youthful appearance and lack of control so far together with no experience whatever in teaching it has been necessary to give [him] considerable practice in elementary matters and in general instruction of the lower classes', wrote his head teacher. However, by the end of his apprenticeship, in July 1908, Thomas had rapidly gained in experience. He then attended the Teacher Training College at Isleworth (1908-1910), before taking up appointments at South Kirkby and South Elmshall Council Schools in Yorkshire (1910-1914). His schemes for classroom work for this period survive [Ref: Z 1202/1//2-3].
In February 1914 Thomas Northern applied for the post of Assistant Teacher in the Mixed Department of Clapham Road School, Bedford [Ref: SD Bedford LIV 7/1/8] where he remained for the rest of his working life (apart from a break for war service), becoming Headmaster in 1931. The records he kept include class attendance registers [Ref: SD Bedford LIV 4 series] for 1914-1931, and a roll of honour of boys who served during the First World War [Ref: SD Bedford LIV5/4]. More unusual still are the correspondence files, 1903-1919, kept by Robert W Guppy, Thomas Northern's predecessor as Headmaster [Ref: SD Bedford LIV 6/1-4]. Among the staff problems he had to deal with was the resignation of James Coughlan in 1904 after alleged drunkenness had resulted in a sprained ankle while off-duty. There are also insights into the war-work carried out by staff and pupils alike; the Borough Education Department appealed for help from teachers during recruitment drives in 1915, while the papers also contain a summary of war work done by pupils up to October that year.
The staff records, too, are reasonably comprehensive. Usually, there is no option but to search through school log books to find brief career details for teachers. Fortunately, Thomas Northern kept eight application forms (including his own) for staff joining between 1902 and 1914 [Ref: SD Bedford LIV 7/1], as well as absence certificate stubs for 1913-1927 and 1942-1947 [Ref: SD Bedford LIV 7/2].
There are also very detailed (but for the most part scruffily kept) syllabus books for the school, 1923-1933 [Ref: SD Bedford LIV 8] which give an insight into the curriculum of the time. The different treatment of the sexes is apparent; while girls had lessons on the home, management of infants, and the treatment of common ailments, the boys did algebra and had a lecture on the evils of smoking [Ref: SD Bedford LIV 6/2]. The needlework made by the girls – items such as nightwear, overalls, tablecloths, bathing costumes, and towels and pillow cases – were sold by the school as an account book of 1904-1951 shows [SD Bedford LIV 9/1].
The school photographs [Ref: SD Bedford LIV 11] are outstanding, although unfortunately very few people in them are named. There are photographs of staff, pupils and school buildings, mostly from the 1930s to the 1950s. Particularly notable is one of a violin class in 1935 [Ref: SD Bedford LIV 11/3/6] together with a woodwork class of similar date showing boys with their creations [Ref: SD Bedford LIV 11/3/7]. The sports photographs are even more comprehensive, covering cricket, football, hockey, netball and swimming.
Overall, the records kept by Thomas Northern help to give a more rounded picture of council school life in the first half of the twentieth century than that provided by the usual log books (still at Livingstone Lower School in this case). When Thomas Northern died in 1975 he little realized that the mementoes of his school career would provide a lasting legacy for researchers today.