ID: SCH_VIC / Chris Kirkman

TitleSchooling in West Mersea in Victorian Times

Schooling in West Mersea in Victorian Times. (1837 - 1901)

Mersea Island is joined to the mainland by a causeway, known locally as the Strood. Even today the Strood is subject to flooding at high tides and, in Victorian times it was made of shingle with posts along each side so, before the road was raised and finished with tarmac, the island would have been cut off from the mainland every day for some hours. Consequently, when Queen Victoria acceded to the throne in 1837, it was a remote place where little would have changed for hundreds of years. Mersea Island is divided into two parishes; West Mersea and East Mersea. Of these, East Mersea was, and indeed still is, a more rural area while West Mersea has developed more rapidly into the town that it is today. The older generation of West Mersea will tell you that the community was divided into two; the 'Laneys' and the 'Uplanders'. Broadly speaking the 'Laneys' were those people who lived in and around the Lane and the coastal area of West Mersea, mainly following occupations to do with the sea, and the 'Uplanders' were the people who lived more inland and were, mainly, in occupations related to farming and the land. The parish church in West Mersea is believed to date from the late seventh or early eighth century and next door to it is the manor house. They are situated near the coast by the place where the Romans are thought to have had their 'hard', the landing area for their boats. The community seems to have developed around the church and along the coast line to the west of the church with scattered farm buildings inland. This essay will concentrate on the development of schooling in West Mersea. I shall use the census returns from 1841 onwards, Trade Directories, the Tithe map and apportionments from 1839, local knowledge including correspondence with local churches and original documents held at Essex Records Office.

Until the early 19th century there was little opportunity for the children of the working classes to gain an education. Indeed, many people thought that it would be unwise, even dangerous, to teach the working classes to read and write because they may 'get ideas above their station'. Children were expected to work as soon as they were old enough in order to bring much needed money into the family. There are children as young as five noted as Agricultural Labourers in the 1851 census for West Mersea. Schools did exist, for example Dame Schools which the parents had to pay for, but which were little more than child minding.

In 1780 Robert Raikes founded the first Sunday School in Gloucester. He saw children 'wretchedly ragged, at play in the streets' of Gloucester, spending their Sundays in an atmosphere of gambling, noise and riot, and cursing and swearing.' [ Note 1 ] His Sunday Schools taught children the alphabet in order to be able to read passages from the Bible. The Sunday School movement soon spread around the country.

In about 1800 two individuals; Andrew Bell and Joseph Lancaster both devised a similar method of teaching large numbers of children for a very low cost. Andrew Bell was an Anglican and Joseph Lancaster was a Quaker. They both claimed to have been the first to invent the 'monitorial' system of teaching. This involved the teacher choosing some of the more able children and tutoring them privately, usually after school or in the early morning, so that these 'monitors' could then each pass on their learning to other groups of children. Thus one teacher could be in charge of a class of many children. In fact Bell claimed that a single teacher 'if able and diligent, could, without difficulty, conduct ten neighbouring schools, each consisting of a thousand scholars'! [ Note 1 ] Although this was a somewhat exaggerated claim, the monitorial system was certainly a way to teach many children at the cost of the salary of only one teacher. Parents were still expected to pay a small amount towards their child's education, except for the very poor, but it was more affordable than schooling had been previously.

The classes were grouped according to ability with children moving up through the groups as they improved. Children were encouraged to learn by a system of rewards; some monetary but also merit badges for reading and spelling, toys such as bats, balls or kites which were hung up in the schoolroom as a visible means of encouragement. Both Bell and Lancaster were opposed to corporal punishment but there were various forms of punishment used such as a detention after school to enable the pupil to learn what he failed to learn during the lesson.

As Bell and Lancaster were of different religious denominations, their supporters were strongly partisan and argued with each other. These disagreements led to the founding of two church voluntary societies; 'The National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church' which was founded in 1811(usually known as National Schools) and 'The British and Foreign Schools Society' which was founded in 1814 (usually known as British Schools).

As well as the schools run by these two societies other schools existed, albeit in lesser numbers. Charity schools were set up by groups of well-meaning individuals who would each subscribe to the upkeep and running of the school. The children paid a small fee but the trustees could sponsor poorer children whom they considered 'worthy'. Foundations such as the Bluecoats Schools, which was basically Anglican, and the Greencoats Schools, which was non-conformist, were run under such trusts. There were also voluntary schools set up by people such as the Wesleyans. These did not use the monitorial system but all the pupils were taught by the master. This came to be regarded as a superior form of schooling.

In 1833 Althorp's Factory Act made it illegal for children under the age of nine to be employed in textile mills. As a result of this, with more children now free to attend school, the government, for the first time, took a small step towards getting involved with the education system. Up until now, all schooling had been provided piecemeal by voluntary bodies and charitable individuals and institutions with no regulation. In 1833, the government granted £20,000 to be shared between the National and British school societies to help with school building. This was, even by the standards of the time, a very small amount of money to be spread across the entire country.

In 1839 the grant was increased to £30,000 and the government introduced inspectors to see that the money was being spent properly. At this time, too, a Committee of the Privy Council on Education was set up under Dr James Kay-Shuttleworth. Kay-Shuttleworth recognised that the monitorial system was failing the majority of its pupils. The pupils chosen to be monitors, estimated at about one in ten of the school population, were the only ones to benefit from being taught directly by a trained school master. The other ninety percent learnt only what the monitors were able to teach. Kay-Shuttleworth opened a Teacher Training College at Battersea to train pupil-teachers. The pupil-teachers had to be intelligent and at least thirteen years old. They assisted the teacher in the day and studied in the evenings. It was a form of apprenticeship and lasted five years at the end of which was an exam. If successful in passing the exam, the pupil-teacher could then enter the Teacher Training College and study to become a qualified teacher. Those who did not pass the exam would become assistant teachers.

However, it seems that the greater proliferation of schools in the earlier part of the nineteenth century were in towns and cities where there were larger numbers of children. Communities, like West Mersea, with a small population were less well served.

On the Tithe map, which is dated 1839 [ Note 2 ], the greatest conglomeration of cottages and houses is at the westernmost end of the coast road in the area we know today as the Lane. It is in this group of dwellings that a school can be seen on the Tithe map and this is confirmed by the census of 1841 which shows William Sadler aged sixty with his wife, Martha, fifty-five, and a son who is also named William and aged twenty and daughter, Sarah, fifteen.

It is unlikely that William would have taken up the occupation so late in life so it is fair to assume that the school had been in existence for some time. There is a record of a William Sadler who matriculated from Cambridge University at Easter, 1819. He is shown as the son of George Sadler, a farmer from Horkesley in Essex. It is possible that this is the same man, although there is a discrepancy in his age in the two records.

It seems likely that this was a private school and it is not mentioned in Kelly's Directory of 1845. Perhaps Mr Sadler had closed the school by then. The 1845 Directory does not mention any school in West Mersea but notes that there was 'An Independent chapel with schoolroom.' However, no mention is made of any school teachers.

Notes from what is now known as West Mersea Free Church show that a school room was built just behind the church in about 1841 which 'served for some years as a day school, administered by a School Board of Trustees and some local gentry' [ Note 3 ].

In White's Directory, dated 1844 and 1848, a Miss Overall is shown as the school mistress at the National School and, in 1844, it also notes that: 'The master of the Sunday School has the interest of £180 left by Sarah Overall in 1813'. Although there are three unmarried Overall girls in the 1851 census, none of them is shown as a school mistress. However, the 1851 census does show Ann Clark as a school mistress, living in the area near the church and coast road. The location of the National School in these early days is hard to pinpoint, unless it was the school in the Lane where Mr Sadler was shown in 1841 but this is debatable. There is also a teacher in the 1851 census, Mary Ann Chignall, living near the mill, which is very close to the Independent chapel so it seems reasonable to assume that Mary Ann was teaching in the schoolroom attached to the chapel. Whether Miss Chignall was teacher in a day school or just a Sunday School it is impossible to say.

By 1859, according to Kelly's Directory, Miss Ophelia Sargent was teaching at the 'endowed school'. In Kelly's Directory of 1882, referring to the National School, it states that this was an endowed school receiving £6 6s per annum arising from interest on £200 at 3% consols left by the Reverend John Tickle in 1812.

In the commercial list of the directory a Mrs Susannah Fincham was running a day school. As it was listed as commercial, this would have been a private school. Mrs Fincham is shown in the censuses of 1851 and 1861 as wife of Samuel, an agricultural labourer but it is not until the census of 1871 that 'Infant School' is shown for Susannah in the occupations column. However, her school is shown in the commercial section of Kelly's directories of 1862, 1866, 1870 and 1874 by which time she would have been about 74. Her husband, Samuel, died in 1876 and she is shown in 1881 living with her son and his family. She died in 1883.

By 1858 the amount of government grant paid to schools was £663,435 and the public were beginning to become concerned about the expense of educating the poorer classes especially since many people still felt that it was unwise to do so. The government set up the Newcastle Commission to look into this. Their report, published in 1861 revealed that about one in eight of the poorer population was going to school, although not necessarily regularly and that most had left school by the age of ten to find work. They also found that most children in these schools failed to reach even a basic level of education. The report recommended that government grants should only be paid to schools if children attended regularly and passed annual examinations; a system of 'payment by results'. Following this report, in 1862, the 'Revised Code' was introduced. Under the Revised Code a school was paid 6s6d for each child under six years provided the Inspector was satisfied with their general performance. The other children were to be divided into Standards 1 to 6 and, in each Standard, were to be tested in Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. The school was paid 2s8d per child for each pass plus 4s if the child's attendance was satisfactory. Thus a maximum grant of 12s was payable per child. Head teachers were also required to keep a log book of the school's activities, initially being completed daily but later lapsing to more irregular entries when there was something of note to report.

The result of these changes meant that the government grant to schools fell by about £175,000 in three years. There was also a marked improvement in attendance although it must be noted that education was still not compulsory. It also meant that the pressure of annual inspections on which the school's funding depended encouraged teachers to 'teach to the test' ignoring the wider aspects of education.

The census of 1861 in West Mersea shows, for the first time, an address 'National School House' and its teacher Elizabeth M Pittman. Also, in the 1861 census, a teacher, Sarah Ann Digby, is recorded. There is no indication in the census of where she was working but in White's Directory of 1863 she appears with Miss Pittman at the National School. At this time also White's Directory notes that the National School was formerly a chapel belonging to the Wesleyans.

Information from the Methodist church shows that a new church was built in 1861 and the 'barn' they had used previously was vacated. It was situated, 'to the best of their knowledge' near or next door to the site of the present school. A booklet, produced by Sybil Brand in 1961 to commemorate the centenary of the Methodist church states: 'The barn stood in the garden of the house next to the County Primary School on its west side and was used for seed storage until the early nineteen hundreds.' It seems, from local knowledge, that the barn ended its life as a workshop for Day's buses.

Twenty years earlier, the tithe map showed that the piece of land on which the school now stands had two slightly larger buildings and a smaller one. The apportionment says cottages and gardens. Was the 'National School House', where Elizabeth Pittman was living, one of the cottages? Was the smaller building the barn, recently vacated by the Wesleyans? It seems possible.

1861 also shows Martha Salmon as a school mistress and Susanna Cutt and her seventeen year old daughter as school mistresses. Unfortunately, as the 1861 census shows very few addresses, it is difficult to ascertain in what part of the village these ladies were living although I suspect that at least one lady was at the Independent Chapel School. White's Directory of 1863 has the first mention of a school here: 'Independent Chapel rebuilt 1841, a British School attached'. It does not, however, mention the names of any teachers.

Kelly's Directory of 1862 and White's of 1863 both have Elizabeth Mary Pittman at the National School and, as already mentioned Sarah Ann Digby in the latter. 1866 Kelly's shows Miss Sarah Hicks at the National School which brings us to 1870.

The 1870 Education Act set up the beginnings of the system of education as we know it today. It established school boards elected by local people and new schools were to be built, paid for out of the local rates if adequate voluntary schools did not exist. Education was still not free however and children could be required to pay up to 9d per week, although the boards could offer free education to the poorest if they wished. The boards also had the power to make schooling compulsory, usually for children aged between five and ten years, and by 1876 at least half of the school boards had enacted a bye-law to make school compulsory. The voluntary schools did not have such powers and schooling there was still not compulsory.

Although a school board was not set up in West Mersea at this time, it seems that this 1870 Act had the effect of focusing minds on the education of the local children as on 3rd June 1871 the Reverend Thomas Ralph Musselwhite of West Mersea,' Clerk in Holy Orders', signed a document granting land to the Minster (sic) and churchwardens of West Mersea;

"Upon trust to permit the said premises and all buildings thereon erected [or]to be erected to be forever hereafter appropriated and used as and for a school for the education of Children and adult (sic) or Children only of the labouring manufacturing and other poorer classes in the Parish of West Mersea aforesaid and for no other purposes And it is hereby declared that such school shall always be in union with and conducted according to the principles and in furtherance of the ends and designs of the National Society for promoting the education of the Poor in the principles of the established Church throughout England and Wales" [ Note 4 ]

This is the same piece of land as discussed earlier that it seems the National School had moved to in about 1861.

The document goes on to say that the principal officiating minister of the Parish shall be responsible for the 'religious and moral' instruction and that the premises shall be available for use as a Sunday School. It gives the powers of conducting the everyday affairs of the school to a committee, naming the officiating minister, churchwardens and 'four other persons ... such other persons continuing to be contributors in every year to the amount of twenty shillings each, at the least, to the funds of the said school' [ Note 4 ]

Earlier in 1871, on 10th February, 'the Charity called the Church and Strood Land Charity in the Parish of West Mersea in the County of Essex' had made application to the Charity Commissioners for their sanction to appropriate 'the sum of one hundred pounds out of the unappropriated surplus income ... towards the cost of certain new schools which are about to be erected in the said Parish ... according to the provisions of the Elementary Education Act 1870 at an estimated outlay of six hundred and thirty six pounds or thereabouts...' [ Note 5 ] The request was granted.

It is at this time too that Mr John Thorpe and his wife, Harriet, became residents in the newly-built school house and took over the running of the school. Mr Thorpe was to run the school for, at least, the next thirty years, a time of many changes and developments in education. According to Mr Bill Clarry who was born in 1883 and was interviewed in his ninety-third year about his memories; "Mr Thorpe was a good man. He tried to teach you reading, writing and arithmetic. If you did wrong you got the stick!" [ Note 6 ]

Kelly's Directory of 1874 notes, as well as the National School with Mr and Mrs Thorpe, a Wesleyan School (under government) with Miss Caroline Eliza Edgcomb as teacher. She is shown in the census of 1871 living in Chapel Road. She is twenty four and comes from Lambeth, Surrey. Records show that in 1875 Caroline Edgcomb married a local man, Joseph Pullen, a member of the Pullen family who had a business growing seeds in the 'seed fields' near the church. It seems she gave up her job at the Wesleyan School soon after she married as Kelly's Directory of 1878 shows Miss Ellen Smith at the Wesleyan School. In 1881 Mr and Mrs Pullen are living in Yew Tree House, an imposing residence even today, on the Coast Road, and backing onto the seed fields and in 1891 Mrs Pullen, née Edgcomb, reappears as 'Principal Private School'. She seems to have run this school for at least the next ten years as she is shown in the 1901 census as Principal with her daughters Josephine (24 years) and Bridie (19 years) teaching with her.

The census of 1881 shows Ellen Smith living near the mill, which is opposite the Independent Chapel, the Thorpes at the National School and a sixteen year old pupil teacher, Jessie Dawson.

Kelly's Directory of 1882 shows a change at the Wesleyan School with Miss Agnes Rees now in charge. Then Kelly's Directory of 1886 has a Congregational School with Mrs F Shepherd and no mention of a Wesleyan School. The Congregational School is mentioned in Kelly's for 1894 with Henry Goldsmith, 1898 with Mrs Carver and in 1890 with Miss Annie Nicklin. It is known that the Congregational School was held in the schoolroom at the Independent Chapel, and, just across the road, the Wesleyan school was held in their schoolroom.

The census of 1891 does not list an Annie Nicklin in West Mersea but shows that Mr and Mrs Thorpe now have their daughter, Nellie, as a pupil teacher at the age of fourteen. Another fourteen year old pupil teacher is shown living in the village, Grace French. Also listed is Rosa Hempstead, a teacher. So, in 1891, there were definitely two voluntary schools in West Mersea as well as at least one private school.

Kelly's Directory of 1898 notes 'A school board of five members was formed July 17 1896 C.W. Denton 18 East Stockwell Street, Colchester, clerk to the board.' This was after a protracted correspondence between all the interested parties in West Mersea; those for and those against setting up a school board. As the original deed of gift of the land for the school had stated that it was always to be a National School, the Rector at the time, Reverend Smythies argued that the government had no right to appropriate the land and buildings and hand them to the school board. There was, however, a group of influential people in the village who were very much in favour of forming a school board and the correspondence between them is most interesting.

John Thorpe was still at the main National School and plans were being drawn up to enlarge the premises. Why it was necessary to open another school is unclear although it may be that the building of 1871 was not big enough as schooling had been made compulsory by 1880 and, in 1893, the leaving age was raised to eleven years. Schooling was also now free.

On June 22nd 1895 Elizabeth Annie Calver opened a 'Temporary Parochial School' in a room rented from the Congregationalists with Rose Salmon as assistant teacher. This seems to have been under the auspices of the National School movement and was at a time when a school board was being mooted. Matters seem to have come to a head and forced the Rector's hand when, in April 1896, he received notice to quit the temporary schoolroom being rented from the Congregational church because he had not paid the rent! Correspondence at that time seems to indicate that the government inspectors had cut the grant paid as conditions were unsatisfactory and Reverend Smythies was, reluctantly, forced to agree with the formation of a school board. So, in June 1896 the Temporary Parochial school was closed. [ Note 7 ]

It is recorded that on August 26th 1896 Elizabeth Annie Calver took charge of West Mersea Board School which was still in unsatisfactory accommodation as an Inspector's report of around June 1897 notes the dirty state of the classroom and the fact that the tables are too big for the children. It goes on to say 'I am to remind the Board that these premises were accepted only for a year. Before the end of the current school year the new school, plans of which are still awaited, should be in occupation.' [ Note 8 ]

It seems, however, that the new building was not ready' before the end of the current year' as it is recorded that on "7 September 1899. School reopened with Mr. John Thorpe as Head Teacher and Mrs. Florence Mayhew in charge of infants. Mrs. Calver and Miss Daisy Brand and Mr. Woods in the new school and Miss Minnie Mole and Miss Jessie Mayhew as assistants to the infants in the old school." The census for 1901 shows Mr and Mrs Thorpe still at the National School , now in two buildings; the Infants and the rest.

In conclusion, few records appear to have been kept for the period before the 1870 Education Act. The evidence, mainly from the various censuses and Trade Directories, is that schools did exist, but it has been very difficult to pinpoint their location. There are, therefore, many questions still remaining to be answered. Pinpointing the location of the early National School still needs to be investigated, together with the start and finish dates for the Congregational and Wesleyan schools. It does seem, however, that an increasing proportion of the children in West Mersea during the reign of Queen Victoria, had at least a few years of schooling before they joined the adults working for a living. In the early twentieth century the school concentrated on preparing its pupils for local occupations, mainly farming and gardening. The grounds, which had been enlarged with the building of the new school in 1899, were turned into a market garden with the older boys learning skills that would be useful to them in adult life.


Note 1. British Economic and Social History 1700-1870. Philip Sauvain
Note 2. Tithe Map and Apportionments, West Mersea. Essex Records Office D/CT 239A and 239B
Note 3. Notes kindly provided by the Elders of West Mersea Free Church.
Note 4. Deed of gift of the site. Essex Records Office D/P 77/28/4 [ MBK_HED_111 ]
Note 5. Sealed Order by Commissioners. Strood and Lands Charity. Essex Records Office D/Q 1 / 25
Note 6. Oral history. Lions Talking Magazine Tape 24 July 1980 Mersea Island Museum LN002401_001
Note 7. Papers relating to the handing over to a school board. Essex Records Office D/P 77/28/7
Note 8. School Log Book. Microfilm at Essex Records Office T/P 452/1 [ copy available in Mersea Museum ]

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Local Education and the Lessons of History

AuthorChris Kirkman
PublishedFebruary 2020
SourceMersea Museum
Related Images:
 West Mersea Schools and School House. Cleghorn Series postcard. The gentleman sitting in the deck chair in the field would now be in the middle of the Co-op store. Cleghorn was most active 1902 - 1908, so photograph probably dates from this period.  CW3_013
ImageID:   CW3_013
Title: West Mersea Schools and School House. Cleghorn Series postcard. The gentleman sitting in the deck chair in the field would now be in the middle of the Co-op store. Cleghorn was most active 1902 - 1908, so photograph probably dates from this period.
Source:Mersea Museum / Carol Wyatt
 The back of this post card says 'Peace day July 18th 1919'.
 Photograph taken in the school - the school log book for 21 July 1919 says School closed to allow of its being cleared after Peace Celebrations. 
 24 October 1919 the school was closed for one week as Peace Celebration.  LIL_SCH_001
ImageID:   LIL_SCH_001
Title: The back of this post card says 'Peace day July 18th 1919'.
Photograph taken in the school - the school log book for 21 July 1919 says "School closed to allow of its being cleared after Peace Celebrations."
24 October 1919 the school was closed for one week as Peace Celebration.
Date:18 July 1919
Source:Mersea Museum / Lil Clarke Collection
 Group outside West Mersea school. John Thorpe was schoolmaster at this time.
The woman is Harriett Thorpe. Standing girl, Doris Butcher, central sitting girl, Stella Butcher. Boy with cap John Thorpe. Baby probably John Butcher, died in infancy.
 The photograph and details are from Jill Jeffery (née Manthorp) who is a granddaughter of John Thorpe She says this is the front door of the school house at West Mersea..
 From other research [TXA00420]: Harriett Thorpe's oldest daughter, Annie Toone Thorpe (1873) married Frederick James Butcher in 1897 and the couple can be found in the censuses of 1901 and 1911 living in Ipswich. Now, FreeBMD has a death for John Thorpe aged 71 in 1916 in Ipswich and Harriet Thorpe in 1920 in Ipswich aged 74.
 The Butcher girls, Doris & Stella were born in 1898 and 1899 respectively in Ipswich. A younger daughter, Janet Annie, was born in 1909 also in Ipswich [Rosemary Rainbird].  THP_005
ImageID:   THP_005
Title: Group outside West Mersea school. John Thorpe was schoolmaster at this time.
The woman is Harriett Thorpe. Standing girl, Doris Butcher, central sitting girl, Stella Butcher. Boy with cap John Thorpe. Baby probably John Butcher, died in infancy.
The photograph and details are from Jill Jeffery (née Manthorp) who is a granddaughter of John Thorpe She says this is the front door of the school house at West Mersea..
From other research [TXA00420]: Harriett Thorpe's oldest daughter, Annie Toone Thorpe (1873) married Frederick James Butcher in 1897 and the couple can be found in the censuses of 1901 and 1911 living in Ipswich. Now, FreeBMD has a death for John Thorpe aged 71 in 1916 in Ipswich and Harriet Thorpe in 1920 in Ipswich aged 74.
The Butcher girls, Doris & Stella were born in 1898 and 1899 respectively in Ipswich. A younger daughter, Janet Annie, was born in 1909 also in Ipswich [Rosemary Rainbird].
Source:Mersea Museum / Caroline Young