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Wiltshire Community History

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Sutton Benger

The National School, Sutton Benger

The National School, Sutton Benger Date Photo Taken 2007
Uploaded 11/02/2015 14:09:26
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Original Media Location: Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre


There were four schools established in Sutton Benger in the 1830's. By 1846 the Sunday and day school taught 16 boys and 36 girls with expenses met by voluntary subscriptions and fees. The only school to survive to the present day (now the Church of England School) is the National School. This was established in 1850 with the help of a building grant of £42 from the Committee of Council for Education. In 1858 the school was described as 'A comfortable little school-room…the floor is boarded, and the desks placed along the wall. The building is picturesque in exterior, and covered with creepers. 40-50 mixed scholars are taught by a mistress. Books, furniture, apparatus, instruction and discipline are moderate'.

Unfortunately school log books do not begin until the beginning of the 20th century, but details of how the school was run at that time can be found in other sources. Log books began in 1919 and some of the events arising then (for example holidays, common illnesses) must also have occurred in Victorian times.

As was the case in the 19th century, a head teacher and assistant teacher took charge of two classes, the infants and the older children. Quite often uncertified student teachers assisted with the classes (this happened in the 1920's and very likely in the years before this too). There were two schoolrooms; the infants in one and the older children in the other. A HMI report in 1885 stated that infants should be taught object lessons when they learned about aspects of an item and this must have been taught at the school in Sutton Benger. It was a long-standing practice to have the Reverend conduct classes in Holy Scripture, with exams in this subject too. Children were taken on nature walks and in Sutton Benger this was a very important part of village life as 'herbing' (ie. collecting herbs for sale to pharmaceutical companies) brought their parents extra income. In the 1920 children were taken out to find meadow saffron, as it must have been in short supply at the time - they were unsuccessful! Girls had to concentrate on 'handiwork' subjects from the Victorian times onwards. By 1920 they had to attend domestic science classes in Christian Malford from the age of 10, and in May 1922 it was stated that they could no longer learn needlework (as their teacher had left and an adequate replacement had not been found), so they had to start having lessons with the boys instead! In 1919 the 'scholars' sent exhibits of medicinal plants they collected to a nature study exhibition at the Bath & West County showground in Salisbury. The head teacher and a representative of the scholars also attended the show. Physical exercise appeared to be entering the school curriculum in the 1920's; the children read a 'physical exercises book' and were given physical exercise classes and organised games. They even had time off school whilst their teachers went to Chippenham for physical exercise demonstrations and drill classes. Physical exercise record forms had to be filled in by the teachers and sent off to the council. The 1920's also saw greater standardisation with domestic science classes being run by Wiltshire County council and a Wiltshire Book scheme run in collaboration with local libraries. School lesson schedules had to be received from county offices (a practice also carried out in Victorian times) and reports had to be sent to the directors of education. In the 1930's children learnt literature and poetry, written English and arithmetic, geography and handiwork, much of which was also practised in Victorian times. In 1934 a BBC official called at the school and informed them that their 'receiving set [radio] was splendid and reception was very good'. By January 1935 wireless programmes were being used to supplement class subjects such as gardening, as the head teacher was very modernistic in his approach. A HMI report noted that it was obvious that 'children were not acquainted with practical gardening and so couldn't follow the tasks with interest and understanding.' The practice of listening to broadcasts was to be stopped until gardening could be included in the national curriculum!

It seems that the school did well in their HMI reports, with good evaluations throughout the 1920's, and infants enjoying their work. Some of the older children were bright and showed 'evidence of intelligent reading'. Scripture reading was 'made attractive' and pains were made to explain work to senior groups. Standards did fall a little when permanent teachers could not be found. The school was closed for a week in June 1922 when they did not have a teacher to take charge, but standards rose again when permanent staff joined the school. In 1930 a teacher with no previous experience took on one class and standards fell again with her class becoming 'backwards', but they later rose as she worked hard and became more experienced.

Holidays remained the same from the Victorian period onwards: Shrove Tuesday afternoon, a few weeks for Easter, a week at Whitsun, 1 month for summer holidays, a week for 'autumn holidays' and a couple of weeks for Christmas. There was also 'King's Peace Week' in October and Ascension Day in May also meant Church in the morning and an afternoon off. Other days away from school included choir outings and going to the church for the Armistice Remembrance (this was mentioned in the school log book for 1919, obviously important as it was the first anniversary of the end of WW1). The school was also closed for use as a voting station and for a Missionary Exhibition held there, again in 1919. There was also half a day allowed during Diocesan Inspections. In June 1919 the children were invited to tea on the rectory lawn to be guests of Mr and Mrs Harraway (the Reverend's daughter who had been married the day before). In February 1922 a day's holiday was given by HRH in honour of the marriage of Princess Mary to Viscount Vascelles. Every year in June children brought in roses to be sent to the hospitals in Chippenham in honour of Queen Alexandra.

Attendance at the school was consistently good with over 90 percent of children attending daily. Illness was the overriding cause of absence, with sore throats and colds sending children home. Quite often children were sent to school sick because their parents had to work but were sent home again. More serious illnesses also occurred, and outbreaks would have occurred from the time the school opened. In July 1919 there was an outbreak of Diptheria and some children were sent to isolation hospital. A suspected case of whooping cough was reported to the SMO at Trowbridge. There was a measles outbreak in 1920, scarlet fever and chicken pox in 1923, and measles closed the school for a while in 1925. Impetigo? (1925) Head lice were also putting in an appearance in those days and in September 1920 children were excluded from school on account of the 'verminous condition of their heads'. A nurse regularly visited to check the health of the children, she weighed and measured them, checked for head lice etc. The dentist also visited to check the children's teeth and record cards were sent back to the SMO (?). A girl was absent in May 1919 due to a 'poisoned' hand and in September 1920 a girl was sent to see a policeman because a dog had bitten her on the mouth. He considered the matter to be trivial and sent her to the doctor and then back to school! Another unusual reason for 'illness' occurred when 15 people slipped on the school floor. It had been used for an evening dance class the night before and was very slippy. Five people fell, including the cleaner! Very occasionally children played truant, as in July 1919 when a boy went home at lunchtime without permission. Since Victorian times School Attendance Officer's had regularly been visiting the school and enquiring after absentees. Students were also absent for seasonal tasks such as 'wooding 'in March and garden work in January to help their parents. In December 1921 children were late for morning registration because they had been gathering holly.

The weather did not seem to play a large part in attendance at Sutton Benger School, in fact it never seems to be mentioned in the log book, so the village must have enjoyed very pleasant weather or the residents must have been particularly hardy people! The weather must have been very clement in December 1919 though, as the temperature in the classroom reached 70 degrees in the infant's room and 60 degrees in the larger room. In July 1921 excessive heat in the schoolroom (82degrees when empty) gave the children the opportunity to have their lessons outdoors. The school stove and chimney seem to have caused ongoing problems for a very long time as in December 1920 it was reported that the classrooms became smoky. In January 1934 the stove was still playing up, putting out smoke and sulphur fumes into the schoolrooms! In March of the same year it got so bad the schoolrooms couldn't be used until the fire had died down and it wasn't until October 1934 that work was done to the classroom chimney to improve matters.

Standards of behaviour seem to have been very good at the school, as only minor misdemeanours were ever reported. In the1920's one boy stopped attending school because he had reached the age of 13 and thought he was allowed to leave - the SAO put him straight about that! The official leaving age was 14 (?) and most boys went straight into agricultural employment, although a boy did go on to Chippenham Secondary School. One boy caused trouble by calling out in class because his brother was being 'corrected' at the time, and some pupils were not obeying their teacher and so had to be punished (the type of punishment given was not noted!). As well as being punished, the children also received special treats; they were given apples by the Reverend, and gifts and sweets on St Thomas' Day, and in December 1921 Mrs Lea sent down 'one penny for each of the scholars… with Xmas wishes'. The children from Draycot Cerne had their names taken to find out if they could benefit from the 'Trust' funds of the Draycot Estate for admittance to the Chippenham Secondary School.


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