TitleBirch Village School 150th Anniversary - Centenary Chronicles 8
AbstractBirch Village School 150th Anniversary

Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History

Centenary Chronicles - No. 8.

Published in Parish News - August 1997

In this very special issue we look at our village school as it celebrates 150 years of educating our children. To end a week of special events, a "Songs of Praise" service with the Bishop of Colchester, our Rector Martin Clarke and Rev'd Keith Lovell, and the Salvation Army Band, was followed by a grand exhibition. Grandest of all was the enormous number of old pupils who came along.

As originally published this article contained photographs of Hardy's Green children from 1939 back to school in 1997 and some of the World War 2 evacuees, with partners and friends

A very hearty vote of thanks is due to the Governors Head teacher Jeff Graham and Staff of the School who all worked very hard to make the weekend a success. To the ex-pupils we say another Thank You for coming along and sharing your recollections with us. It is to Mrs Bowtle and Mr Pat Adkins that much is owed in preparing all the photographs and so forth which made a starting point for all the reflections and on their behalf we make a plea for your co-operation please? If you, or someone you know, took photographs over the weekend they would be very grateful for the loan of any negatives so that copies could be made for the School archives and to add to the collection of material from Mr Millatt now held by Mr Pat Adkins.

Birch and Area In 1847.

There are no records of the actual opening of Birch School, or at least if they do exist we have yet to find them. Therefore we have no idea of just what took place on that day in 1847 when, presumably, Mrs Emma Sarah Round, wife of Charles Gray Round, of Birch Hall, saw her efforts to provide a suitable school building for the children of the area come to fruition. If it was treated as a grand occasion then it seems strange not to find a mention of it in the local newspapers of the day. Given that Mr Round was a local JP and Recorder of Colchester, his family held a prominent place in the society. As such they would have been expected to perform 'good works' and the provision of education for the poor of the neighbourhood would have received favourable comments from their friends.

The first 'official' paper, from which we can gain some idea of how badly the school was needed, was the 1851 Census. The very first entry for Birch covers the family living at Birch Hall. Mr Charles and his wife, plus a niece and nephew whose father, a clergyman, had died. A measure of how much things have changed since those days is that also living at the Hall were a governess and 14 servants! The youngest of these had been born in Birch but others came from as far afield as London and Norfolk. There was a housekeeper, a butler, a lady's maid, four house maids, a cook, a kitchen maid, a coachman, two footmen, a groom and a horse servant.

The Census lists every person living in the area in 1851 with a Rank, Profession or Occupation, for each together with their place of birth and their age. From these details it is possible to find the early scholars although, of course, we do not know if they did, in fact, attend the school, or whether their parents thought it was the 'proper' response to make! Henry Mills the son of the bailiff at Hall Farm would, almost certainly, have attended. He was aged 7 and so probably started school in 1848. William Johnson, whose father was an agricultural labourer on the estate. The Widlock children, living with their grand parents at Wood House together with the Fisher children, next door were also among the 171 'scholars' listed under Birch. Not all of these were able to crowd into the building and it is very likely that many of the older 'scholars' were, in fact, in employment or helping out at home. There were 255 children aged between 5 and 14 when the Census was taken and some as young as 11 were at work.

The late Tom Millatt, in his 'The Story of the School', issued to celebrate the centenary in 1947, gives the original headmaster as being Joseph Hassell. He also quotes, from a report in the Essex Standard in 1850, that Mr Steel and Miss Haddon assisted the children at the service of Consecration of the new Birch Church. In the Census they are both shown as living, in separate households, in the School House, near the Church. We believe this is just up the hill from the school, on the opposite side of the road and is not the school house sold a few years ago. Both these teachers were 23 years old. Henry Steele was born in Worcester and Martha Haddon in Birmingham. It would be nice to know how two such young teachers found their way to Birch. There was almost certainly a connection with the Church and the Round family with regard to their recruitment. In addition their were two other, locally born, teachers, one Elizabeth Aliston for the infants while Mary Nice, the oldest member of staff, completed the team. Within a year things had changed and William Locke took over as Headmaster, a post he was to hold for the next 22 years by which time such things as school log books had started and it is these which provide firmer evidence of the events which have affected education down the years.

1863 and on

The first log book was taken into use on 1st July 1863 at which the first two classes were 'examined by the Master in Reading and Geography'. Two days later it is noted that the girls 'at needlework were making clothes for Sunday School'. On 14th July an Anniversary Fete was held but three days later a sadder note is made that the school was closed as it was required for an inquest. At the end of the month the Rector reported that the School Inspector had found it to be 'in all respects a very excellent school. It is very well done, notwithstanding that illness has much prevailed, and the examination was put off as 70 of the Children were laid down with fever. This accounts for inaccurate arithmetic'.

School attendance was not compulsory at this time and much depended on what other schools existed and it was noted that those moving to Birch from local dame schools had been ill taught. Each year farming activities impinged on attendance and bean stalking, acorn picking etc were causes of absence. Today much is heard of the advantages and disadvantages of single sex or mixed sex schooling and it is interesting to read that in October 1863 the first two classes were divided according to sex instead of being mixed. This was an experiment as the first class had given trouble of late by rude talking in spite of remonstrance and punishment.

Some of the items noted read very strangely today and we wonder exactly what the 'Women's Working Party' did at their meeting? Whatever it was school work was suspended to allow for the meeting! Well over 100 children attended regularly in 1864 and each had to pay their 'School pence' and some contributed to a 'Shoe Club'. Both meant an administrative burden on the Master at the time. Keeping account of numbers also represented a problem as staff pay was linked to attendance by pupils and with the closure of a Dissenting School in Layer Breton things must have seemed brighter but then Revd Blow re-opened his school at Layer so numbers slipped again!

As well as being closely linked with the Church the influence of Birch Hall comes across strongly and the school received the occasional holiday as the teachers were required for service at Birch Hall for such things as the Annual Missionary Tea. (An early version of a Baker Day?). Attendance slipped also when summer work on the farms increased and in July 1864 it was noted that boys were absent to help in the fields while the girls were assisting in finishing 'slopwork' prior to the harvest. Slopwork was making cheap ready made clothing for use at harvest time. Two events in 1867 give a different slant on relations with the Round family. On 28th March 'Mr Round called after Church to show the children a young alligator sent from the R Congo, Africa.' Whether it was dead or alive is not known? A few weeks later 'The school assembled at 9am dressed in their holiday attire and with garlands and banners they proceeded to Birch Hall by 10 o'clock to present their kind benefactress on her birthday with a Bible subscribed for by the children and Teachers. After the presentation they were regaled with cake and wine and returned to the School to be dismissed'. It is assumed that only the Teachers partook of the wine! At the end of that year 50 of the older boys and girls attended the funeral of Mr C G Round.

By July 1869 the number of children had risen to 184, too many for the size of rooms and 'disorder in consequence'. A year later the Inspector was reporting that the School was well taught and order 'nicely' maintained but he reminded the managers that the principal school room of 80 cubic feet allowed only for 168 children! Attendance was 185 and by 1871 a new classroom was added but delays in building it meant an additional holiday. The new arrangements met with the approval of the Inspector and he noted, in 1872, that there were 188 plus 44 infants!

The log books also make interesting reading when the weather is mentioned and in February 1873 a severe snow storm reduced attendance to 70 hardy souls and the school was eventually closed for three weeks. A Lean To or Shed was added that year so that the children had somewhere to at their dinners and this was seen as a great saving in wear and tear on the School Building and furniture! In October there were a great many absentees as children could earn 3/- (15p) a week picking up acorns. Another note, on 23rd March 1874, highlights the differences between then and now - 'Owing to a strike among the agricultural labourers in this parish the farmers have asked and obtained permission of the School authorities to employ boys over 10 - several such have been withdrawn in consequence for a few weeks'. Using children as strike breakers while their fathers were striking!

Another bitterly cold spell in January 1881 was noted 'on Friday night the 22nd the thermometer registered 5 degrees below zero, or 37 degrees of frost'. No central heating then to keep everyone warm and no legal requirements as to room temperatures. In October a high wind carried away two chimney tops but rather worse occurred on 22nd April 1884 when 'At 9.20 this morning having just commenced the school work, experienced very severe shock of earthquake. The room heaved and swayed bodily, the children being exceedingly alarmed - but beyond cracked walls and ceilings no damage was done to the buildings. The tops of three out of four chimneys of the opposite cottages were however shattered and fell upon the roofs which were also damaged. (This earthquake destroyed the Church at Langenhoe, partially shattered those at Peldon and Wivenhoe and injured those at |Layer Breton and Gt Wigborough; causing also the spire of Colchester Congregational Church to fall'.

Not everything jogged along smoothly thereafter as in June 1889 the Infant Teacher gave notice and her reason was 'the lack of society and the dullness of Birch'.

1847 PLUS 150 !

To Commemorate the Centenary in 1947 Mr Millatt, a former Head Master of the School, published a history and some of the above has been taken from that book. Other items come from the notes he made for the book and articles he collected on the area. We are indeed very fortunate that he made such collections and that Mrs Millatt has allowed them to be used.

The Log Book shows that the Centenary was celebrated on 13th May 1947 with a Thanksgiving Service in the Church at 3pm followed by a Tea and Presentation to Canon Luard at the School at 4pm. There was an exhibition in the School and at 7.30pm a Gathering of Former Pupils for the Publication of the Booklet.

Many copies of Mr Millatt's book still exist and are treasured possessions of former pupils. As such though, and as a history it is only natural that it should be so, the book contains little of the 'adventures' of the children who have attended the School down the years. Since 1847 it is possible that 7 generations may have attended the School. We do not know of anyone who can trace back that far. We would like to hear from anyone who can. On the weekend of 28th and 29th June 1997 there were a good many present at the School celebrations who could very clearly recall their school days - probably more along the irreverent lines rather than those recorded in the log books! How often did we hear 'Do you remember...', 'Whatever happened to...', 'What about...'

Some present recalled schooldays from the First World War and one remembered waving to men going off to Colchester to 'do their bit' in the very early days of the War. How many now have their names carved into the War Memorial just across the road from their old School? Bad weather, farm work, needlework for Birch Hall, cold schoolrooms, all came quickly to mind. The considerable collection of old photographs helped some, hindered others and caused discussions for many! Comparisons with school as it is the 90s was a frequent topic and everyone accepted that things were not as they were! Whether they are better or worse was not an area for easy agreement! The teachers were harder in the old days, the discipline stricter, they worked the pupils harder, the cane was seen - and used - the ruler across the knuckles not unknown - but no one looked the worse for it!

Old friends met some for the first time since those school days, others travelled miles to get here and some were of the school but not really part of it! The evacuees, part of the Second World War scene, were represented by a small group. This was the first intimation that the Second War was to be different to the First. We have mentioned the waving off of the men going to the army in 1914 but in 1939 on 1st September the School was open to receive children evacuated from London. Two days later War was declared and children arrived from Chingford with some coming later with their parents from West Ham. The School then closed for a week or so and when it re-opened the local children attended in the mornings and the evacuees in the afternoons! As things settled down it was run almost as two separate schools within a school! Teachers came with the evacuees but even so things were very stretched to say the least. Much attention was paid to the well being of the evacuees with frequent visits from the nurse and medical staff and even during the Christmas holidays the buildings were opened to provide a place for the children to attend for games and entertainment. The very bad winter of 1940 meant that many were unable to get to Birch from Salcott, Layer Marney and other areas. Snow clearing was not possible and even where it was attempts were frustrated by children managing to block lanes with giant snow balls!

With the summer came other plans for the evacuees and on 29th May 1940 it was noted 'All government evacuees are to be removed to another area. Visit of Dr Alderton for a medical examination of Govt. Evacuees'. These two sentences conjure up all kinds of scenes! On the 2nd June, a Sunday, they left at 7.30 am. One can almost read the sighs of relief in the Log Book! It was interesting to hear from those evacuees who returned to celebrate and none were able to recall much of the detail of their schooling. It seems that there was no attempt to integrate them into the School and so it is possible that evacuation in this case was always seen as an interim measure whereas in other cases it was 'For the Duration'. Not surprisingly it was the mischief making which was uppermost in the recollections! Those who were billeted at Hardy's Green became expert at breaking the insulators on the telephone wires on their way to School and it was not too long before the local constabulary took an interest in their activities. It was a matter of some dispute as to whether they learnt how to use a catapult from the local lads or whether it was the other way round!

One thing seems certain and that is that if the gathering had been allowed to go on for another week there would still have been people only too willing to talk about their school days and their School. This was a unique occasion which through the publicity it received reached many former pupils and enabled them to come along to exchange yarns.

Read More
Birch School 1847-1947 by T.B. Millatt

PublishedAugust 1997
SourceMersea Museum / Breton Heath