The history of Clophill, Bedfordshire, UK
Including historical descriptions, maps and statistical analysis.
Towns, like Bedford with its Harpur Trust, set up after Sir William Harpur and his wife Dame Alice gave an endowment in the 16th century, have been well provided with schools but poor rural villages like Clophill struggled to finance schools. It was mainly through local voluntary effort, led by clergymen, that early education developed in the village.
Clophill was an agricultural community where the men worked mostly in the fields as Agricultural Labourers and their wives and children worked at straw plaiting, a common cottage industry. There were straw plait schools for the young children where, as well as learning to plait straw, they may have received some basic education such as learning to read.
Older boys would be sent to join their fathers working on farms to supplement the family income.
For those that could afford it, there were what was known as Dame Schools run by women in their own home. Children were given a basic education starting with reading and writing. The better schools may have taught some mathematics and English grammar.
Initially the clergy set up Sunday Schools. Theses were schools that took place on Sundays as the children were either at straw plait school or working in the fields for the rest of the week. Here they were taught to read the bible and instructed in the Liturgy and Catechism.
In 1807 Samuel Whitbread (of Southhill Park) introduced a bill in parliament to give each child two years of education but the government did not see the benefit of educating the rural poor. It was considered too expensive to implement and it was also thought that the introduction of such a scheme would take the people away from manual work and make them dissatisfied with their social situation.
In 1818 the government started to see the benefit of the education of rural children and carried out a review asking four questions. The response for Clophill was:
1. CLOPHILL population 721
2. A Sunday school for 60 boys, the funds of which are £6 per annum.
3. Two Sunday schools for 80 girls, 30 of whom are clothed.
4. The poor are desirous of education.
Elementary Education Act of 1870 was the very first piece of legislation to deal specifically with the provision of education in Britain. The Act made provision for the elementary education of all children aged 5-13 and established school boards to oversee and complete the network of schools and to bring them all under some form of supervision.
Elementary Education Act of 1880 finally made school attendance compulsory between the ages of five and ten. 1893 Legislation in extended the age of compulsory attendance to 11 and in 1899 to 12
Despite the government view there were many people that wanted to provide education for children. In 1811 the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church in England and Wales was founded. Known as the National Society, it started to make grants towards setting up schools. The society believed that the National Religion should be made the foundation of National Education
To counter this, in 1814 the British and Foreign School Society for the Education of the Labouring and Manufacturing Classes of Society of Every Religious Persuasion was founded based on non-sectarian principles
During the 19th century, based on non-sectarian principles, the Society started a number of 'British Schools' and teacher training institutions, which in many places maintained an active rivalry with the 'National Schools' of the Established Church.
In 1835 the Rev John Mendham, reporting on the schools in Clophill to the National Society, says:- There is a Methodist School at one end of the village but the parents have in many instances purposely unsolicited by us sent their children from that school to ours.
The first mention of formal education in the village is in a deed of Mr Richard Read dated 1630 which concerns the gift of a plot of land "given on trust that they build a convenient schoolhouse for the education and religious upbringing of the children of Clophill in virtue and learning, and for the habitation and dwelling of a schoolmaster, he being a discreet, well learned man of honest life, civil carriage and good behaviour". There appears to be no evidence as to whether such a schoolhouse was actually built.
There are many references in the Parish Notes to schools in the village but where the schools were held is not known.
For example "Edward Lancaster, village schoolmaster, died on 12th July 1790".
In 1809 "a Sunday School for 30 boys was set up by private contributions".
The Parish Notes of 1812 noted that a second Sunday School for girls was started to teach a further 20.
The Notes of 1853 state that "A daily school was established at Clophill, and Mr Austin, a young man from Campton, was engaged at £40 per annum." The school was for boys and girls above seven years old.
Pigot's Directory of 1839 states that "in the village is a good school in which 130 boys are instructed on Dr Bell's system." (i.e. the monitorial system) It also states that "there is a separate school for 60 girls".
There were probably schools before 1799 but in that year Rev. Nethersole, the rector of Clophill, started a school for thirty girls at what is now Taylor's Cottage in the High Street near the Old Rectory
Above where the doorway used to be is a stone lintel with the Latin inscription 'JANUA VITAE VERBUM DOMINI' which can be translated as 'the gateway to life (is) the word of the Lord'. At the rear of the cottage is a stone with the inscription 'MDCCXCIX W P NETHERSOLE RECTOR'. Girls at the school wore a shawl known a tippet. The doll, which is on show in the church on special occasions, represents one of the pupils wearing one.
In 1835 the National Society made a grant towards building a school for 110 boys. This was the building later known as the Reading Room that was to the east of the church in the High Street.
A conveyance for the sale of a piece land for the sum of 10/- (10 shillings) by the Rt Hon Thomas Philip, Earl de Grey of Wrest Park to the Rev William Pierce Nethersole (Rector), the Rev Mendham (curate), Crouch (farmer), Harton (miller), and Burrows (carpenter) states that "a piece of land ..... on trust that they shall suffer such schoolhouse and other buildings to be erected thereon ..... for the purpose of educating boys, being children of the poorer classes of the inhabitants in Clophill and neighbourhood in the principles of the United Church of England and Ireland upon such a system as the patron, rector and curate shall appoint."
The Parish Notes of 1844, lists the following schools in the village :-
|Boys' Sunday School||100 boys||Mr Chapman, Headmaster.|
|Girls' Sunday School||80 girls||Mrs Neal, Headmistress.|
|Boys' Reading and Writing School||130 boys||Headteacher not listed|
|(National School) held on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturday mornings.|
|Girls' School for Reading and Sewing||20 girls||Miss Spicer, Headmistress|
In 1871 the National Society made a Grant of £100 in aid of building schools and a teacher's residence. This school stood on the land in front of the present St Mary's School and was officially opened in 1872
The first Head Teacher appointed to the school was Mr James Figg and, besides his wife who taught sewing, he had two pupil teachers and two monitors to help him, with two further teachers in charge of running the Infants School.
The curriculum as stated in the Log Book was arithmetic, reading, writing, dictation, scripture (often taken by the Rector) and sewing for the girls. About 50 of the older pupils were 'part-timers' due to the plait, horticultural and agricultural work, and many pupils went missing during the summer terms because they were working on the harvest.
Here are some examples from the school log book:-
23 June 1893 Some children have been irregular [this week] owing to their mothers going out and gathering peas or fruit and the children kept at home to mind the house and baby.
15 March 1822 16 boys left school for a few weeks to go stone-picking. 5 went to Countess Cowper`s to work.
6 October 1829 Owing to the harvest being so backward this year another week's holiday was given to enable the children to go gleaning.
See more examples Here.
In 1973 St Mary's School was built and the Old National School was subsequently demolished.
I am indebted to Ian Gordon for permission to quote from his dissertation The History of Education in Clophill which can be downloaded here.