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Wiltshire Community History

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National School, Urchfont

National School, Urchfont Date Photo Taken 2009
Uploaded 27/02/2009 17:18:21
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Map Latitude 51.31244449630633 : Longitude -1.942530870437622
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Original Media Location: Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre

A mid Georgian house, built in 1822, was converted and in use as a school by 1833. It began as a separate school for boys and girls. The Parliamentary Survey of Schools in 1833 stated it was 'one daily school, 40 boys and 10 girls. One day and Sunday school; 25 boys and 53 girls daily. 63 boys and 79 girls on Sundays'. Kelly's Directory of 1848 lists Urchfont as having a National and a British School.

In 1858 Warburton's Census of Schools stated that at the boys' school "Eighty are taught in a fair room (38'x19') with wood floor and parallel desks by a certified master and pupil teacher; discipline and instruction are both very fair. Girls: Ninety are taught by a trained but uncertified mistress and pupil teacher in a very fair room with wood floor and parallel desks; both discipline and instructions are good. The children from Eastcott now attend this school." In 1900 the Headmistress of the girls' school resigned and the Headmaster suggested the schools be amalgamated, but this was rejected. In 1907 the next headmistress of the girls' school resigned and both schools including the infants were brought together under one Headmaster in 1908. There was also an evening school, but the day school had 158 students on its books. By 1910 the figure had risen to 174. Boys and girls had separate playgrounds with a high wall in between.

School log books from the early 20th century do survive for the girls' school and later the mixed school. They give a very good idea of what life was like at school during this time. Lessons included cyphering (arithmetic) and in January 1906 good progress was being made with Scheme B. The older girls took 'combined domestic subjects' in 1908 in the reading room. There were art lessons; in July 1908 an art assistant at Lavington paid a visit to the school. Children went on 'rambles' in the afternoon for Geography lessons. Cookery classes were held on Monday afternoons in 1907 and in June a 'cookery inspectress' visited the school! Classes had begun in 1905 and were for girls over 11. They were also held in the Reading room, just past the pond, now known as 'The Club House'. Mr A W A Dolman visited the school in February 1907 and gave instruction on drawing. Religious instruction was also very important and in February 1906 the Reverend Hill visited. In February 1913 the Reverend Robbins (organising Missionary for the Diocese) gave an address to the children during their scripture lesson. In 1909 a Reverend from Canada gave a talk on his life as a missionary there. During1915 there was a talk on Australia from the visiting Dean of Melbourne. There were also 'drill' or PE classes for the older children. The boys had football lessons in October 1908 and in 1910 when it was time to start football again a Captain and Vice Captain were chosen. In June 1908 a lesson was given on the 'Eclipse of the Sun' to the whole school. The girls also took needlework; in April 1912 they were saving sewing specimens to be entered in an arts and crafts exhibition. In March 1913 the Drawing Inspector of the Western Counties visited. He gave staff some sound advice and 'splendid' demonstrations on the teaching of drawing. The staff were sorry his stay was so short.

Lectures on horticulture began in 1906/7 and in 1908 the children had a nature calendar. It showed the date when a flower was found, the name of the founder and where they found it. In September 1910 Mr Sharp visited and took the 12 biggest boys for a survey around the gardens. An application was sent off for approval for day and evening school gardens in December 1910. The amount of land was then measured out. In 1911 land was acquired for the school gardens. One plot was opposite the turning for 'The Paddock', one was by the cemetery and another patch on The Manor estate. A great many forks and spades arrived during February and March of that year! Boys and girls had separate patches. In June 1911 the children received plants from the flower show competition and in April potatoes arrived (this happened each year). In June they received 12 geraniums which were to be distributed among the schoolchildren for an exhibition at the Lavington Flower Show. The older boys went for a lesson in land surveying one morning in June. In July the head teacher received studentship to a course in poultry-keeping and bee culture. The County Horticultural Instructor visited in March 1912, examining the gardens and took the boys for drill drawing. The Director of Education for the Local Education Authority visited in May 1912 to view the garden. He advised they needed a pair of scales and a tape measure. The Assistant Director of Education visited the Day School Gardens one evening in July and sent word he was very pleased with them. The boys went on field visits such as that in June 1912 when they were taken to see a swarm of bees in a hive. During the same month they also received a lesson on bee-culture and poultry keeping from the County Instructor. In November 1914 the gardening boys were taken for a pruning session! Other gardening tasks were to 'fix up' and paint the tool shed, as in January 1914. There was also digging up the late potato crop which in September 1913 was 'the best we have ever had, some of the plots yielding at the rate of over a sack to the lug' (16.5 feet).

More unusual lessons included that of how to fill in a Census form in March 1911. The Board of Education sent Specimen papers for the children to practice on.

The school was inspected by His Majesty's Inspectors and the first entry in the log book for 1904 states: 'Girl's School; considerable improvement, especially needlework. [The children are] in good order and work with interest. The infants' are well taught; progress is satisfactory'. Inspections continue to go well but in 1908 arithmetic needed much more practice and attention. HM Inspectors also visited to inspect the playground in November 1911 and called to see the needlework in August 1912. The HMI report in 1913 really gives an idea of the atmosphere in the school: 'There are good features in this school. The happy relationship between teachers and scholars is very evident, the tone and discipline are praiseworthy, the children are generally neat and painstaking in their written exercises and, though it could be more general, the response in the oral lessons is creditable'. The infants were also 'bright, happy, responsive and natural - on the whole well taught'. In March 1914 the piano was tuned having been untouched for a year (it had to be done by rule of the LEA).By October 1914 history had become weak, not enough composition was done but singing and rural science were good.

The Diocesan Officials also inspected the schools and in 1911 reported that there was 'careful and thorough instruction. Questions were answered intelligently'. The writing also had good subject matter and good spelling. There were excellent results in singing, as also occurred in 1912 (the Headmaster was said to excel at the teaching of this).

Some children did very well at school; in 1912 a child won a scholarship to the Devizes County Secondary School and in 1910 two girls had taken an exam and won a 12 month Domestic Scholarship at the Trowbridge Domestic School. The very sad occurrence was that one of them became ill and died whilst attending the school.

There were many reasons for children missing school, one of the most obvious being illness. There were outbreaks of mumps in 1905, scarlet fever in 1908 (in April a girl was sent to hospital), chicken pox in 1909 and 1910, measles in 1910 and diphtheria in 1915. Other accidents befell children; in February 1910 a boy broke his collar bone in the playground and in the same month attendance was poor with children suffering the effects of nettle rash! The children were also away with bad colds as in October 1906 when the temperature reached 6 degrees without a fire and in November children were absent suffering from colds. Children were also excluded if they had lice and periodically notes were sent out on the state of a particular child's head. The children of one family were sent home in June 1910. They tried to return to school in July but had to be sent home again after their hair was checked. The situation was no better when they returned to school in September and they were sent home again. Regular medical inspections took place by Medical Officers who weighed the children, checked their teeth and measured them etc. Not all the children were ill though; certificates were awarded to 13 girls in July1907 for perfect attendance for the quarter. In May 1908 two more were given out.

The weather also had an impact on school attendance. It was hard to get dry at school and this could cause illness. In January 1904 only 39 infants were at school; the others were ill at home due to the wet weather. The same happened in March when there were only 29 present. Five inches of snow fell in March 1908 and only 120 made it to school. During the same period the following year heavy snow fell again with a severe frost - 124 out of 154 were present. Very wet weather meant that only 100 children were present in November 1910 and in December wet weather again caused 88% attendance. In December the following year a 'wild wet morning' meant that only 87 were present. In 1910 the wet weather affected football lessons when it was too wet to go out. Throughout that week the average remained at 109.8 out of 126 children on the books. In January 1912 wet weather meant only 77 were present out of 125. In the same month six inches of snow fell with 72 present. In March 1914 there was also a heavy snowstorm which proved difficult for children to get to school. There were three free standing cast iron stoves which were used to heat the classrooms. They were usually started around October and were discontinued in March, depending on the general temperature they were having at that time of year. The building had a problem with dampness. During the railway strike of 1924 no school fires were able to be lit - it must have been very uncomfortable for the teachers and students. Electric lighting was installed in 1941.

Other absences were caused through children helping their parents in the fields, for instance September was the time for gleaning and potato picking. In the 1930s families went to Southampton for the fruit picking season. Some absences were far more fun, though! In July 1908 there were only 135 present out of around 150 due to a local wedding. Each year in April some children skipped school to attend the Devizes Fair. In May 1910 two boys arrived very late to school having been picking flowers and one boy was late after helping to get stray calves back to their field. In December 1910 there was only an 82% attendance because most children had gone to Devizes Christmas shopping! The Town Crier Competition in Devizes, February 1910, diverted children from school and in November some boys who had arrived late due to watching the foxhunting got three strokes each. An aeroplane passed over the village and settled near Stert in January 1911. Children went into the road to see it and 10 boys were absent in the afternoon visit it in Stert. The other amazing event of an airship flying over the village gave the children an excuse to leave school but his time with the teacher's permission. This event happened in September 1912. The children were allowed to go to the Manor Farm stockyard to view it as it slowly headed to Upavon against the wind. In the afternoon 30 of the larger children went to Conock as the airship had settled there. In March 1908 attendance was so poor in the infant's class that LEA enquiries into irregular attendance were sent out. This usually happened by informing the local School Attendance Officer who would then visit the families involved.

Punishment occurred on a frequent basis for often what seems now to be quite minor offences. In September 1913 the teacher discovered children biting their finger nails. To break them of the habit they had to put a paraffin rag over their nails after coming to school for a week. Strokes were given for truancy (1912) and playing football in the playground with a hard ball after being warned before (1909 - the ball was burned!), swearing (1911), stealing paper fasteners and bullying a smaller boy (1908). In the same year a boy was caned on 'the seat' for stealing school pencils, blaming a little girl and lying about the matter. The cane was also used when children were late back from sliding on the pond in winter. In May 1910 a girl was given four strokes for repeatedly lying as to having written other girls' initials on her nature specimens. Another boy got three strokes because he threw water over a schoolfellow who had got him the water to drink! A letter was sent to the parents of a boy aged seven in 1911 as the teachers' felt sure that he was encouraged at home to annoy them. In June 1910 a boy had been caught playing truant most of the week. He had been mentioned before getting punishment for other offences and in July was sent to a reformatory school for six years. Some of the boys do seem quite an unruly lot; in April 1908 five boys appeared before the magistrate's court for trespass and wilful damage.

In the early 20th century school holidays were similar to today, but with a four term school year as in 1904: a week at Christmas, a week at Easter, a similar time at Whitsun and five weeks for the harvest/summer holidays. In 1919 they moved to a three term year.

The children were given days off as well as holidays. In January 1905 the school was closed to enable children to practice for an entertainment. In January 1906 the school was needed as a polling station. The Band of Hope also used the schoolroom for their concerts. The children were given days off to attend a demonstration and excursion in Devizes, and for the annual Urchfont Feast (1908). There was a Friendly Society Fete, a trip to Bournemouth and the Devizes Fair during 1910. In May 1911 the Wedhampton children were allowed to leave early for the Chirton Club Feast. In June there was a day off for the coronation holiday of George V. A choir trip to Weymouth and half day for the Wiltshire Agricultural Show occurred in 1912. The church organist was being given a choral wedding in June. Two teachers took the choir boys to church in the afternoon as they were taking part. The annual May Day celebrations proceeded as follows: the girls with their teacher rose at 6am to wash their faces in the dew pond and recited the phrase 'wash your face in the morning dew, and you'll be beautiful the whole year through'. This was followed by cooking and eating sausages and electing the May Queen. There was also maypole dancing on The Green. In 1921 there were school visits to Devizes Museum, Urchfont Manor to study the trees, local farms, Silbury Hill and Stonehenge, Cheddar Caves and Wells Cathedral.

The school toilets were outside and were served by an ash pit. In 1910 toilets were installed in the girls' cloakroom. The boys and infants still used buckets. In February 1912 two cupboards arrived to replace two old ones which had been 'condemned'! In 1911 the schoolroom walls were re-colour washed and painted. A picture moulding was fixed to the walls of each room and the pictures rehung. In October 1914 the gardening prizes arrived. In December 1914 the Reverend Hill gave away prizes at the school.

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