It is rather sobering to think that my grandparents, (all four being born between 1888 and 1897), were part of the first generation to receive free and universal education. Prior to the passing of the 1870 Education Act, schooling had mainly been provided by church schools, the Church of England’s National Society and the nonconformist British and Foreign School Society. However, attendance was often patchy, this not being mandatory, and standards varied widely. It is estimated that one third of children didn’t attend school at all in the 1860s. With a growing population, there were also insufficient school places. Belatedly, the British government began to realise that free elementary education was essential if the country was going to compete with rivals such as Germany and America, who had much better educational provision for children of all classes. The passing of the 1867 Reform Act, which gave the vote for the first time to a significant proportion of working men, convinced many that education was necessary for all.
The 1870 Education Act was the start of the State taking responsibility for the education of children. Children were to be educated between the ages of 5 and 13 and elected school boards were established to oversee and supervise a network of church schools and newly established board schools, where there were insufficient places in church schools. However, education was only free when there was proof of poverty, (otherwise a fee of a penny was usually charged), and although the boards had the power to make attendance compulsory, it did not require them to do so. It wasn’t until the Elementary Education Act of 1880 that school attendance was made compulsory and it was not free for everybody until 1891. Initially, there was great emphasis on learning the three “Rs”, reading, writing and arithmetic, and schools were funded by the children passing examinations in these subjects. However, by the 1890s, there was a new focus on child development, and room was made in the curriculum for subjects such as music, literature, modern languages and science, (which could also include nature study or gardening). Physical exercise, games and drill were also considered important for the health of children.
It is against this backdrop that I decided to look at the schooling of my maternal grandmother, Margaret Mary Bullock. She was born on September 2nd 1897, in the small village of Wylye, Wiltshire, the eldest of three daughters. Sadly, with the exception of a solitary school log book of 1924, there are no surviving school records for the National School in Wylye that she attended. I live in hope that they might one day appear in the archives, discovered hidden away in someone’s attic, but in all probability, they will never be found. Nevertheless, in these circumstances, there is still cause for cheer, as there are other sources, particularly newspapers, that can help you learn much more about your ancestor’s schooldays. If you are fortunate, you may even find them mentioned by name.
I especially wanted to learn more about the schooldays of my grandmother because in my possession, I have a beautiful hand-coloured postcard of the children outside their school in Wylye. This has has been passed down to me in the family and it is particularly special because it features my grandmother herself. She is the girl wearing a white smock, standing on the far left of the postcard. Judging by her appearance, this photograph was probably taken around 1906/7:
It was not uncommon for photographers to take photos of village schools but it was wonderful that so many children are included in this shot. This led me to search online for any further photographs of the school and I was fortunate to find this wonderful postcard, obviously taken at a similar time, on eBay, which I duly purchased:
I can spot my grandmother in the centre of the picture, the tall girl holding the hand of the small child, who may well be her little sister, Lilian Maud, who was born in 1903. It is well worth seeing if you can find postcards of schools and hopefully the pupils too. These postcards are the only photographs I have of my grandmother as a child.
General Sources on Wylye National School
To find out more information about the school specifically, my first step was to search for a contemporary directory of Wylye. I consulted Kelly’s Directory of Wiltshire (1903):
Kelly’s directory stated that an elementary school had been constructed in Wylye in 1876 and enlarged in 1893. It had a capacity of 120 children but in 1903, the average attendance was 78. (The population of Wylye was 411 at the time). Job Wootton was the schoolmaster. I also consulted The Victorian County History of Wiltshire for more information on the history of education in Wylye. This informed me that a new National School and a teacher’s house had been built near the church in 1873 (rather than 1876). The 1870 Education Act had a generous provision of funding 50% of the construction of new church schools, so 1873 looks likely to be the more accurate date. Due to declining admissions, the school was closed in 1973 and today it is a private house:
The excellent website of Wiltshire Archives has a Community History section, which provides information on specific schools in the county. Here I discovered that Wylye National School had initially one classroom measuring 36 feet by 18 feet, which could accommodate up to 90 children. When the school was enlarged in 1893, it increased its capacity to 120 children, with a second classroom for infants measuring just 19 feet by 15 feet. It is hard to imagine so many children of differing ages and abilities, all being taught together.
By the early 1900s, long benches had been replaced by desks in pairs for two pupils, and there was probably tiered seating, so the teacher, with their tall desk and high chair at the front, could see everybody. Ink pens and paper replaced the slates that were previously used for writing. The teacher would be assisted by paid monitors in their mid-teens, or by a pupil teacher who was training. Strict discipline was necessary in order to keep control and ensure learning took place. If the Punishment Book for a school has survived, it is interesting to see what types of punishment were most common and the offences that incurred them. Most schools at the time had two sessions, 9-12pm and then after lunch, 2-4 pm, the changeover in lessons being punctuated by the ringing of the school bell. Lunch would be eaten at school, or the children would go home, (school dinners did not begin to be introduced until 1906). My aunt, who attended the school along with my mother in 1939, after being evacuated to Wylye, remembers a tortoise stove in the room (so called because it burned the fuel slowly and was therefore economical). During the winter, the small bottles of milk for the children would be put around the stove to warm them up. Free school milk was first introduced in 1921.
A vivid picture of school life is painted:
Lessons were the elementary ones of reading, writing and arithmetic with scripture; some lessons in the latter subject were often taken by the vicar. The girls learned sewing and all had singing and recitation. Some geography and history would have been taught. School holidays were about a week or 10 days at Christmas and Easter, a week at Whitsun and five weeks Harvest Holiday in the summer. Full day and half day holidays were given for various reasons such as church or chapel teas or Sunday school outings, Royal and national occasions and the afternoon after the H.M.I. examinations. Unauthorised absences included seasonal work on the farm and in the garden for the older children and visits to local fairs, military events and other local happenings.Wiltshire Community History – Wylye National School – https://history.wiltshire.gov.uk/community/getschool.php?id=1371
Wylye School in the News
In the absence of specific school records, I then set out to see what I could find out about the Wylye children and their school in local newspapers. Fortunately, there is a good selection of Wiltshire newspapers on the website of the British Newspaper Archive. Though I don’t have the precise dates when my grandmother attended, (these would be recorded in the Admission Registers, if they had survived), I searched for references to Wylye School for the period 1902-1911, when my grandmother would have been aged 5-13.
I was delighted to find this charming reference, in The Salisbury Times, to “Maggie Bullock” playing the role of the Fairy Godmother in a Church Sunday School production of Cinderella, when she was ten years old:
The only other specific reference to my grandmother that I found was a notice later that year, again in The Salisbury Times, on Friday July 24th, that recorded the results of the recent London College of Music examinations. Margaret M Bullock, a pupil of Miss Dowding of Warminster, had achieved a primary violin pass. For many years, no one in the family knew my grandmother could play any instrument. However, latterly a story emerged that once, when my mother was struggling to play the violin, my grandmother got frustrated and picked up the instrument to demonstrate to her how to play the piece. This newspaper snippet provided the corroboration that she could indeed play the violin.
There was still much to discover about my grandmother’s experience of school within newspaper records.
Since the school in Wylye was a Church of England school, it was very important that the children received regular religious instruction. This was usually given by the rector of Wylye, who visited the school every week to teach the children. The school was then inspected by the diocese every year and a report was published in the local newspaper. Here is what the Diocesan Inspector had to say about Wylye school in 1903:
The school passed the viva-voce examination very successfully. I was much pleased with the great interest shown by the children in all the subjects. The work was mostly very well known. The children displayed a quiet demeanour and good manners, and I should think the influence of the teachers is strong and beneficial. The repetition was said with reverence and good emphasis, and the Catechism and Prayer Book were expressed with intelligence. The state of the religious knowledge reflects credit on the teaching staff, and the managers are to be congratulated on the result of the examination.Warminster and Westbury Journal – Saturday December 26 1903
Nearly a year later, the schoolchildren were once again examined in their religious knowledge and they passed with flying colours:
This school has done remarkably well. The answering was bright, intelligent and eager, and general in both divisions. Some really good pictures, which have been provided for the infants, have evidently been a great help to them in realising the subjects taught. The repetition was accurate and relevant.”Warminster and Westbury Journal – Saturday December 3 1904
Apart from being examined on religious knowledge, the children were similarly evaluated every year by H.M. Inspector to assess the quality of the children’s learning and the teaching methods employed. No doubt, a lot of work was done to ensure that the children were well-prepared when the big day arrived. Judging by the report in 1902, Wylye school was doing well:
The School – The following report had been received from H.M. Inspector, and the highest grants awarded: –Mixed School – The master has been practically single-handed in this school. The work has been satisfactorily planned, and the instruction is efficient and intelligent. The children are orderly and interested. Infant Class – Discipline is kind, and the instruction is suitable and intelligently given.The Warminster and Westbury Journal – Saturday March 15 1902
From the ages of 7-12, the curriculum was divided into seven standards and pupils had to pass the H.M. Inspector’s examination to move up to the next level. Originally, extra money was given to the school when pupils passed examinations in just the three “Rs”, but by this time, other subjects were also considered important too. Another good report was given in 1904 but this time, the children’s ability in mental arithmetic was found to be lacking:
The School – Reporting on this mixed school, H.M. Inspector states that the scholars are orderly and attentive, and appear to take interest in their work. On the whole they are making good progress but they should be able to answer more readily in mental arithmetic. The infants are receiving careful and suitable instruction.The Wiltshire Times, Saturday – March 26 1904 via https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/
It is evident from these reports that the school was flourishing under the headship of Job Wootton and the children were receiving a good education.
In 1902, there were two major national events that must have been very memorable for the children of Wylye. The Boer War had broken out in 1899 and at this time, many people in small rural communities were anxiously awaiting news of their loved ones who were fighting in South Africa. In early June, news of peace being declared was gradually spreading throughout the country:
Rumours of the news reached Wylye on Sunday, being conveyed by a cyclist, but the Wylye people were not quite convinced of its authenticity until the following morning when the papers arrived and verified the cyclist’s statement. The villagers then gave themselves up to rejoicing. The school children assembled outside the school and sang the National Anthem, and meanwhile, the Rector had hoisted a large Union Jack and flags were placed on the church tower, whilst the tradesmen vied with each other in the display of their enthusiasm. The band readily assembled outside the schools and played patriotic airs, concluding with “God save the King”, which, at the request of the Rector, was afterwards sung by the assembly, led by the band. Cheers were raised for the King and the brave soldiers who had fought in South Africa. and also for Lord Kitchener.The Wiltshire Times, Saturday June 7 1902 via https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/
After a service in the church, the celebrations continued with dancing in the village, the band supplying the music.
Another exciting event that year for the schoolchildren was Coronation Day. After the death of Queen Victoria the previous year, Edward VII and his Queen, Alexandra, were invested at Westminster Abbey on Saturday August 9 1902.
In Wylye, the church bells were rung joyfully at 5 a.m. to announce that the big day had finally arrived. Everybody had been preparing for days, and the village was decorated with Union Jacks on “every vantage post”. The schoolchildren had an important role to play in the celebrations:
I am sure this day must have made a huge impression on my grandmother: the singing, the processing, the decorations, the dancing, the wonderful tea, the fireworks and bonfire. The children must have been so proud to each receive a medal and their own Coronation mug. In fact, my grandmother was to participate in similar celebrations once more when nine years later, Edward VII’s son and successor, George V, was crowned King on June 22 1911.
In the summer of 1902, The Warminster and Westbury Journal reported that a sale of work, with various stalls, took place in the Rectory grounds one Thursday afternoon, to raise funds for the church. The church wall needed to be repaired, as did the pinnacles on the tower. Other attractions included a jumble sale, a may-pole dance, several sideshows and music. The event was opened by the Countess Clanwilliam at three o’clock. She was presented with a beautiful bouquet of roses by Ethel Ford, the little girl who had been chosen to be the Queen of the May in the may-pole dances that the children performed. The girls, dressed in white dresses with coloured sashes, were drawn up at one side of the drive in front of the door during the opening ceremony, and made a charming addition to the scene.
“The side shows and attractions were numerous. One of the most interesting was the maypole dance given by the school children, who gave ample evidence of the careful way in which they had been trained by Mr and Mrs Wootton; the selections of the music by the Wylye Brass Band, who, under the conductorship of Mr Wootton, played for the dances; and last, but far from least, Mrs Penrudocke’s famous string band, who played a carefully selected programme of music, and proved one of the attractions of the afternoon.Warminster and Westbury Journal of Saturday July 26 1902
I discovered that the children and their may-pole dancing were in regular demand on festive occasions. In September 1902, the Wylye Valley District Horticultural Society had their annual show and the children performed again. There were over 400 entries with different classes for vegetables, fruit and flowers and this time, the Countess of Pembroke distributed the prizes. The wild flowers competition was open to the school children in the district. In Wylye, Elsie Carter won first prize, Connie Wootton, second and Ellen Dowdell, third, (as reported in The Wilton Times and South Wilts Gazette, Friday September 5 1902).
School Treats, Festivals and Prize-Giving
The Sunday School treat, the gift of the Rector of Wylye, was an annual event eagerly anticipated by the schoolchildren. It usually took place in January and it sounds as if the children had a lot of fun, judging by this report in the local newspaper in 1903:
How exciting to watch a magic lantern show and receive bon-bons! Since the Sunday School Treat was also an opportunity to award prizes for regular attendance, there is always the possibility that your ancestor’s name might be mentioned in the newspaper report.
In the summer holidays, the school festival, held in August every year, was a very jolly affair. Here is a report of the day’s activities in the summer of 1903:
You can imagine the laughter and constant chatter as the children enjoyed games, races, swings, dancing, and a slap-up tea. They also all got to take a present of their choice home, along with buns and cake. The children were obviously made a big fuss of and the rector and his family, along with other more prosperous members of the village community, were happy to contribute to make the occasion a big success. Similar reports on the school festival appear in the local newspapers in subsequent years also.
Prizegiving every year provided an incentive for the children to do well in their studies and have a good attendance record:
Once again, a lot of children are mentioned in the newspaper by name.
Although school had been made compulsory in 1880, inevitably some children played truant from time to time, especially when they could earn some money on a local farm, perhaps for “bird spotting” in the winter. Prizes for good attendance helped to encourage them to come to school instead. Attendance during the winter tended to be less regular because of illness and also bad weather, particularly if there was snow on the ground that made it difficult for children who lived at a distance to get to school. Parents were usually only prosecuted if there was persistent absence.
In an age before the discovery of antibiotics, childhood illnesses could wreak havoc in a community and result in the closure of the school. In The Wiltshire Times, Saturday October 14 1905, it was reported that Wylye school had to be closed, owing to an outbreak of measles amongst the children of the village. Given the number of children packed in one classroom, illnesses could quickly spread. Similarly, it was reported in The Wiltshire Times on Christmas Day 1909 that the school at Wylye had to be closed due to an epidemic of scarlatina (scarlet fever). The Christmas festivities planned for the children also had to be postponed. Scarlatina was a leading cause of death in children at this time, and had a mortality rate of around 25%. It makes me wonder what childhood illnesses my grandmother might have had.
Although it is frustrating when you find that records have not survived, especially when they definitely would have mentioned your ancestors, there are often other sources that can provide a useful substitute. When it comes to school records, newspaper reports, in particular, can provide specific references to a child and paint a vivid picture of their schooldays. Special occasions such as the Sunday school treat or the annual school festival were widely reported, as were the examination results. It is also evident from reading the local newspapers that schoolchildren played an important role in community events, particularly celebrations. The Wylye schoolchildren, for example, were in much demand for their may-pole dancing! I also gained a wonderful impression of rural village life at the time. You may even be lucky enough to find a contemporary picture of the school that your ancestor attended. Perhaps there are also surviving parish magazines that might tell you about the school’s activities and mention children by name. Too often we know very little about our ancestors’ childhoods, but I hope I have given you some ideas on how you might learn more about this formative period in their lives.
© Judith Batchelor 2021