This is another of my pieces about elementary schools and their teachers in the Victorian and post-Victorian era
Logbook entries needed to be brief and factual, avoiding personal comments; however, writers would naturally want to show themselves in the best light, so it’s very easy to read too much into entries. Nevertheless A G Fleming does, at least for me, come over as the best type of teacher. He develops several successful pupil teachers, he isn’t afraid of new ideas, he displays a considerable breadth of knowledge, and he is fair minded and uses punishment rarely and, by the standards of the day, humanely.
Few can have had such an appalling start as Fleming; in his very first week in 1868 he has to record that five boys – from a school of just fifty or so – are drowned when the ice they’re playing gives way. The tragedy was all the worse because the school was closed for a half holiday given to recognise the service of the vicar. At the time Wendover school was a smallish one, for boys only. Fleming is fortunate to be able to employ a pupil teacher, and the first is his son, Herbert. He’s not afraid to criticize him where necessary, but there is a quiet pride when Herbert completes his apprenticeship satisfactorily in 1874 (“The senior pupil-teacher left Wendover having completed his apprenticeship with great satisfaction and credit”).
Although the school had such low numbers it was always exceptionally generously staffed, with two or even three pupil teachers (a dozen miles away, at Cheddington, the head was responsible for more than a hundred children with a single pupil teacher). Though Fleming always tries to find good things to say, some of his pupil teachers aren’t up to the task. One decides he doesn’t actually like the work, and his replacement initially promises well, but within a year “received notice to leave on account of incapacity, idleness, and health”, which seems pretty comprehensive. Emma Beeby, on the other hand, passes nationally in the top dozen pupil teachers out of more than 1500, and others do well enough to become permanent additions to the staff.
Fleming’s no stick-in-the-mud. In his first week at the school he gives a talk on Electricity, and soon takes the boys to an industrial exhibition. He writes that when the Rector visits with a friend “they were pleased with the method I have lately adopted in teaching Subtraction” – as a maths teacher, I’d dearly love to know more, but simply recognising that different methods exist is more than some teachers I worked with have managed. He tries introducing “Home Lessons” and finds them successful enough that he employs them throughout the school. In 1877 – which seems remarkably early to me – there is a photograph taken of the children in the playground.
In 1875 the school amalgamates with the girls’ school, and Fleming embraces the opportunity to try out small-scale trials so the final process goes smoothly, and later that year the expanded school is able to present an evening performance of songs and recitations etc by the children which “surprised and pleased the parents.”
By this time the numbers have rocketed, from somewhere around 20 to 117 within six months, but the staffing continues to be remarkably generous – he has no fewer than four pupil teachers, and, on top of that, ladies from the village help with knitting and needlework.
It’s rare for Fleming to mention behaviour, and usually he deals with problems by keeping children behind, or sending them back home. But once or twice you realise how different things were 150 years ago. There’s no indication it was anything to do with school, but he records “A boy, Benjamin Terry, is now undergoing his term of imprisonment”, and in one of his very rare examples of using the cane he writes “I was obliged to administer corporal punishment to Eliza Fantham, who has been giving a very great deal of trouble lately. In consequence of her striking at me, she received a few more strokes than she otherwise would have done. The number of strokes did not exceed six or seven.” (Later Heads were to repeatedly include Fanthams in the log – see footnote 1.)
A certificated teacher needed to have a tremendous breadth of knowledge. In mathematics alone Fleming refers, among many other topics, to Simple Proportion to Standard V, and Subtraction and Multiplication of Decimals to Standard VI. The pupils in these higher standards also faced Compound Multiplication of Weights and Measures, Interest, “Circulating Decimals”, and “Double Rule of Three” (if like me you’ve never heard of this, you’ll want to know that ‘The Double Rule of Three, sometimes called Compound Proportion, teaches by having five numbers given to find a sixth which, if the proportion be direct, must bear the same proportion to the fourth and fifth, as the third does to the first and second. But if the proportion be inverse, the sixth number must bear the same proportion to the fourth and fifth, as the first does to the second and third’. He also goes beyond arithmetic and “Started a class in 1st Grade Geometry this week”.
Outside mathematics, in formal English, among others, he mentions parsing, pronouns, and prosody. On just one double-page spread in the log, he records teaching lessons on Druids, Reindeer, Manufacturers of England, Gunpowder Plot, River System of England, The Cat, Copper, The Pig, The Tea Plant, Climate of England, The Elephant, while at different times he teaches about the geography of Russia and “the Geological Character and Soil of Buckinghamshire.”
In 1877 his wife’s ill-health compels him to resign. He’s spent nearly ten years at the school and received “a valuable testimonial from the Teachers and Scholars of the Day and Sunday Schools.” He’s clearly made an excellent job of overseeing the transition form a small boys’ school to a much larger mixed-school, and the current inspection report says “The school is a credit to all concerned with it … children answered … with great promptness and intelligence. The discipline very good”.
The new Master is Harry Bowles, and he serves for three years during which the school is broadly successful, though later HMI comments become a little more qualified, and some of the support teaching gives concerns – so that (even though the inspector makes a special point of praising pupil teacher Mary Louise Eldridge) the Vicar decides no further pupil teachers should be employed. For the next thirty years or so only monitors – cheaper, and often children and with no pretensions to becoming teachers themselves – are used to support the certificated teachers.
Bowles served from 1877 and in 1880 he leaves and is replaced by Samuel Vallis, whose tenure proved little short of disastrous. In 1882 the inspector wrote “A great blot; the children are restless and inattentive, and their work is careless & full of blunders. Speaking of them my assistant says ‘such careless papers were never sent out of Wendover before.” The report demands that next year HMI must look for excellence “from a school which is provided with everything that money can buy and at which the teaching power supplied (3 certificated teachers and two paid monitors for an average attendance of 113) may be called ‘enormous’”.
Vallis (below) had little chance of surviving such a report, and was quickly replaced in 1883.
The new Master by George Bushell (below). Bushell was in post for nearly a quarter of a century, until 1907, by which time the roll grew to more than 200. I found it difficult to warm to him, even though he suffered the awful tragedy of his wife’s sudden death in 1887, and losing his second wife in 1901. And he rarely mentions bad behaviour or the need to punish pupils, though on one occasion he reports “Was compelled to punish Fredk. Jordan rather severely for disobedience, which has had a good effect upon the whole school.”
However, he’s clearly no progressive, even in matters of language. I’m not too worried if he regularly calls children who come from a distance “foreigners”, but even in 1900 it must have sounded a little reactionary to talk of forming a “Dunces” class, and he makes his attitude to the children in this class plain by entrusting them to a monitor rather than a qualified teacher. He’s no friend to curriculum development either, and it has to be forced upon him for grudging implementation (“The new subjects render the work much more difficult and trying to teachers.”) Object Lessons are introduced reluctantly – or reintroduced, as they were first used back in Fleming’s time. He’s particularly negative about geography and never has anything good to say about it – the parents don’t want it, the teachers can’t handle it, the pupils find it too difficult, ….
In arithmetic he has – like some today – something of an obsession with long division, which gets mentioned on page after page. He emphasises repeated practice and says that incorrect sums “must be altered by their doing the rules over & over again”, to which the inspector comments “I hope to find … less mechanical practising in arithmetic.”
When staffing is stable school seems to proceed smoothly enough and to HMI satisfaction, but from time to time he finds it difficult to attract and keep suitable assistants, and some of the appointments last only a few days. One such drought is solved in 1893 with the arrival of a young woman called Lilian Casselden, who impresses as a “very energetic painstaking teacher” who keeps good order among her pupils. She fits in very well for two years until one Friday there is a dramatic entry in the log book – dramatic enough that I’ll make a separate posting about Lilian.
While staffing during the second half of the 1890s and the first years of the twentieth century seem to have been very settled, nevertheless HMI’s favourable comments are increasingly leavened with advice about teaching methods. Those of us who’ve written inspection reports will recognise that while the carefully chosen language may appear mild enough it may actually carry a strong message – “I hope to find some improvement in the method of teaching as time goes on, e.g. a more free and general use of the blackboard, … , and in the lower classes more careful supervision of the material used by the scholars.”
At best Bushell records the inspectors’ advice neutrally. However, he makes his feelings clear enough on one occasion, when a new HMI visits and stays all day “visiting all the Classes and criticised the teaching. He made various remarks & recommended what in his idea were improved methods of teaching some subjects.” By now Bushell is within three or four years of his retirement and possibly still recovering from the death of his second wife, and his own teaching doesn’t escape the inspector’s severe criticism “… the first class ought to be a stronger one than it is. I hope next year to find more self-reliance and honesty in their work, more smartness of discipline, and that out of turn and simultaneous answering no longer exist.”
A couple of years later similar and more extensive comments are made “The order & tone are not what one wants, and this affects the children’s attention and the evenness & soundness of their work. …. Next year, however, I shall look for improvement. I shall look for evidence of a stronger guiding hand: of more carefully thought schemes: of an organization framed with a more definite purpose: of an influence, a School influence, affecting and strengthening both intelligence and character. Unless I find this it will be difficult for me to say that the efficiency of the school is of the kind which one has a right to expect.”
There were still a couple of years to go, but Bushell was fast approaching retirement and neither the Education Committee nor HMI wanted to rock the boat. The next couple of reports were milder, but still brought out the inspectors’ view that a new hand was needed on the tiller: “The oral work is not very strong; more should be obtained from the children, less should be told them.”
Bushell’s final term finished in June 1907; he’d been at the school since September 1883.
I’ve a nagging feeling I’ve probably been rather unfair to him, and allowed my reservations to outweigh his many qualities. Nevertheless, he does feel like a much less sympathetic character than his predecessor A G Fleming, or the near-contemporary William Wotton Winsor less than a dozen miles away at Cheddington. All the same, Bushell had done a job far harder than any I ever had to do, and done it for nearly 25 years. Once he’d located good people they tended to stay with him for many years, most notably Lizzie Cummings, who was a monitor for a possibly unprecedented seventeen years. He doesn’t seem to have had any difficulties with discipline, and his relations with parents were – with the possible exception of the Fanthams – excellent. However, he’d suffered grievous ill-fortune, he was the choir-master and organist at the church, and it seems clear that he was worn out and probably had little wish to take the school forward into the more expansive curriculum of the first years of the twentieth century.
Bushell’s replacement was A W Molineux (below), who was to serve virtually as long as he did, from 1907 until 1930. He immediately gave the school the new impetus the inspectors wanted. They were pleased to note a more satisfactory programme of work for younger children, and more practical work and experience – plasticene, clay, and cardboard modelling, and teachers were encouraged to take their classes out on Nature Study walks. He records talking with pupils following an appearance of a comet one evening. Cookery was introduced; also Gardening, with both boys and girls winning prizes at local exhibitions and completing courses qualifying the school for grants.
For the first time, teachers went on professional development courses, and the school also hosted the Aylesbury and Leighton Buzzard Teachers’ Association. Soon the school was held in such regard that the Education Authority made a point of appointing a promising pupil teacher it wanted to place – the first at Wendover for thirty years. Molineux introduced a more overtly caring aspect – there were none of Bushell’s references to “Dunces”, and he talks of “distant pupils” rather than “foreigners”. He gives up most of his Whit holiday to teach boys to swim, and arranges for a visiting speaker to talk to the girls about caring for young children.
Relations with the wider community and with parents are excellent, and the inspectors are impressed when he introduces “the practice that obtains of sending a Report of each child’s progress to the parents at the end of each term”. Not surprisingly, the inspectors feel able to report: “The Mixed school is in good hands. Mr. Molineux has done much to improve the tone and discipline of the school & to raise the standard of the work, and his assistants are rendering him loyal and thoughtful service”
Footnote 1 …… Fleming was merely the first Master to have problems with the Fantham family, and over twenty years from 1874 no fewer than ten Fantham children are mentioned in the log, sometimes for being of limited ability, more often for irregular attendance and bad behaviour. In 1885 when the school was used as a polling station in the General Election George Bushell ruled that the wearing of party colours and use of slogans should be banned, and he “also advised the children not to mix with the rough element in the street”. The family took exception to this, and the Fantham children, notably Alice, disobeyed the instructions and stayed away from school. This became a long-running saga, the Attendance Officer proved unable to persuade them to return, and the matter came to the notice of the inspectors, who asked the local authority to take Mr Fantham to court. Even after conviction he continued to hold out and it wasn’t until the summer of 1888 – nearly three years later – that Alice eventually returned to school.
Clearly the Fanthams saw no reason to let a good grudge go to waste, and the feud continued for years. In 1892 George Bushell records that for a January inspection “many who had been ill came and did well. All who were able to come were present, with one exception, Harry Fantham being kept away with no reason.” Indeed, Fantham children were still being recorded as irregular attenders in 1896.
(I confess I myself taught a couple of Fanthams, though by this time they’d moved up in the world and were local solicitors.)
Footnote 2 …… I was intrigued by the case of Lillian Casselden, and you’ll find out more about her in my next post.
Footnote 3 …… It’s easy to think of the late Victorian and Edwardian period as being one of a leisurely pace; I recently studied one school in a isolated village where children seemed to be living very similar lives to those their grandparents had experienced.
In fact, the rate of change could be even greater than in our own day. For several years now, Wendover has been embroiled in controversy over proposals for HS2, with no apparent progress. The train came late to Wendover and work on building the line from London to Aylesbury wasn’t begun until 1890. However, within just four years the service was so established that on one Friday afternoon school was begun early, so giving the teachers the chance to catch the train to London for the start of the Whitsun holiday. By 1911 it was so bedded into local life that the start of term had to be delayed when a railway strike meant that many families were stranded and were unable to get back to Wendover as planned.
Acknowledgements …… All the information from the log book comes from the CD-ROM version produced by the Buckinghamshire Family History Society in co-operation with the School. The Society produces several such CDs which are available very cheaply and make the information available in a very convenient and easy-to-use form. ( www.bucksfhs.org.uk )