Hamsterley School

A History of events in Hamsterley School from 1870-1940

(Written by D Smith, 20 June 1958
. The document is published verbatim – spelling and grammar errors included. Our thanks go to Mrs. A. M. Brown-Humes for the loan of this, and a large number of other historical records.)

(Frank Sanderson of Liverpool has also contributed a tragic tale: The ‘Accidental death of Jane Sanderson‘. Jane was his great great aunt who died in a fire at the school in 1834.)

See also the Hamsterley Primary School page.


Hamsterley School was built in 1822 apparently with money raised by voluntary subscription. This at first appears to be peculiar since in subsequent entries in the log book (which only begins in 1871) it is clear that the parishioners of Hamsterley were in no way anxious to have their children educated, as they were needed at home to work on the farms. However it is highly likely that the greater amount of the money was provided by wealthy estate owners in the parish hand by the three churches.

The school was a voluntary one but it was not denominational. It had a board of managers and the vicar of the parish was usually appointed as Correspondent. The school even today still belongs to the parish and is rented by the County Council at a very nominal fee.

Little or nothing is known of the school between that time and 1871 the time at which the log books begin. However we do know that it was composed only of two quite small classrooms.

Thus we are introduced to the school really in 1871 after the Act for the compulsory provision of education. The first entry in the Log Book is as follows:

1871 Jan 30

‘The school was reopened after having been closed for about two years. There were present 8 boys and 2 girls of whom only 1 could transpose fairly a line of print, 2 others could do it imperfectly and read fairly the Reading Book for St. III; the rest did not know the letters of the alphabet.’

Although, unfortunately, we are not told the ages of these children and cannot therefore gauge very well their backwardness, there is enough to show us that the state of education in Hamsterley at that time was very poor. Also the task of the master was no mean one since had only the help of his wife.

Much of that year was spent in trying to induce parents to send their children to school and the entry for February 5th reads as follows:

‘Visited the outlying cottages of the parish with Mr. Robson of Fitches and received assurance of several additional pupils.’

The numbers in the school began to grow rapidly and by March 17th there were 50 children on the books. The good attendance was to be short lives however, for, by July the older children were being kept away from school to help with the Hay harvest and in spite of a month’s holiday in September for the corn harvest many children were still absent in October taking up potatoes. Some children were struck off the registers in July and re-entered in October.

Another interesting point reveals itself here. There were no children in the infants class at all. The parents evidently thought that seven was quite early enough to send their children to school. We find the master saying on July 31st:

Most of the older boys and girls being absent there will be a good opportunity for giving a little special attention to the junior class which, as there is no Infant class will be beneficial.’

In the Act of 1870 the schools had to be open to inspection by government officials at all times. Every year there was to be an examination taken by the inspector and a grant supplied to the school was gauged according to the results of this examination. At first the yearly examination at Hamsterley was held in October. This was very difficult since it was held immediately after the long absence from July to the beginning of October for the various harvests. Hence the entry for May 9th 1873:

‘Knowing from experience for the two previous years in this school that many children who have been attending for the past six months with tolerable regularity, will shortly be taken away to work on the fields, I have been endeavouring to get through the whole year’s work in that time so as to give a slight chance at all events of being presentable at the examination.’

May 23rd

‘Mary H. Angus leaves school this morning until the end of September at the soonest. It is probable that many others will do the same and will return to school a few days before the examination.’

This state of affairs seems to have been a constant concern of the headmaster and on his visits to parents at this stage he was frequently informed that the children were employed in making bands in the harvest and owing to the shortage of hands they could not be spared. The master mentions that May would be a much more convenient time of the year to have the exam.

Another problem with which he was faced at this time was that of shortage of space and having to deal with the whole school himself. By the end of 1872 there were 43 boys and 20 girls in the school and only the certificated teacher to deal with them and his wife to take the sewing. Thus he took them in a classroom which really would only hold 25 children comfortably.

The attendance must have been extremely erratic and one begins to wonder how any really effective teaching was carried out. When the attendance was good the school was really too overcrowded for any really good instruction to take place and many children stayed away for the greater part of the summer to work in the fields. Further there were epidemics such as diphtheria and scarlet fever; these caused sheer panic in the village and parents refused to send their children to school during such times. Consequently the school was frequently closed up to a period of two weeks. Finally the health of the master was a deciding factor for if he became ill then the school was automatically closed.

April 1873

‘Being confined to my room with Bronchitis the school has been closed for three weeks, but I am now so far recovered as to be able to open the school again this morning.’

The ability of the children must also have been very wide and varied. Owing to the greater number of children who started school at about the age of 6½ or 7 the master must have found it extremely difficult to bring them up to a good standard.

‘Large number of infants admitted lately as we had only 1 child under 7 who had made over 250 attendances last year it well be from these who have been recently admitted that we shall have to draw our St. I and as many of them are unable to read monosyllables this will be no easy task.’

Dec 1876

‘Admitted Mgt. Stockwell and Eliz. Richardson to St. I. The former is 14 yrs of age and can barely read words of two letters. The latter aged 8 does not know the alphabet.’

This state of affairs became really critical and even after compulsory education was brought in in 1876 there was little or no improvement. It was obvious that in this district the parents were not greatly concerned about their children’s education. The master was continually having trouble. Thus for the entry July 19th 1877 we read:

‘Hay harvest has commenced. No. present at school: 1 in St. VI: 1 in St. IV: 1 in St. III; 5 in St. II: 4 in St. I and 8 infants. This makes a total of 20 children in a school of about 60.’

The master gives us frequent accounts of his visits to parents and children to try and impress upon them the necessity for regular attendance but many of the children stayed away from school to such a degree that they could be classed only as ‘half time’ scholars.

In 1877 Geography was commenced after the master had managed to obtain some maps. Also in that year Drawing was commenced and out of 50 children presented at the Examination, which took place at a different time from the General Examination, 47 passed. However it was only in 1880 that the drawing classes came into full operation. Then it was stated that several of the boys who passed in Freehand last year were working well in Geometry. Owing to the lack of equipment the master found it vey difficult to teach the Geography.

‘Find great difficulty in imparting Geography to St. III as there is not a globe in the school. The children cannot understand the motives of the earth without one.’

A library was started for the school in 1887 by a Mrs. Barclay who was apparently a subscriber to the school. After a visit she wrote to the master and asked if he thought a school library would be desirable. On his reply to the affirmative he receive 3½ dozen books although we are not told of their nature.

The 1876 Bill by which children could not be employed under ten years of age and only as a half timer between ten and fourteen years of age. This was apparently disregarded in many cases in Hamsterley and many parents withdrew their children for good at the age of ten or eleven. Committees were frequently being held at which parents of absentees were called to attend and justify the continued absence of their children. They could also apply to the parish if they could not afford to pay the school fees. Hence the entry for Sepr 19 1881:

‘School attendance officers visit and committee meeting: Mrs. Coulthard and Mrs. Eyington stated that they could not afford to pay the school fees. The committee agreed to pay for them.’

The visits of the attendance officers often did more harm than good for very often parents took offence and withdrew their children completely from school and sent them to another school which they attended with equal irregularity.

In 1882 the school suffered badly from the important changes introduced. In this all children whose names had been on the books for 22 weeks were examined, even if they had not made 250 attendances. Many had not made the 250 attendances and this affected the quality of the passes in the exam, and eventually the grant. This is shown by the entries for July 25th and September 27th 1883.

‘25 of the 65 qualified for the exam made less than 250 attendances – this will seriously affect the grant under the new code.’

Sept 27th

‘The Capitalisation Grant is £48-2-9 this year as against £59-14-6 last year showing a decrease of £11-11-9 under the new code.’

About this time several changes were introduced, a small gallery was built in the infants’ room. The managers also arranged for two girls to clean the school: they received in lieu of payment their schooling free. Also about this time military drill which had been advocated in 1870 was introduced.

At this point in the history of the school we are told rather more about the Pupil Teachers who were there. In 1886 E. Eliot passed an examination in Arithmetic, Geography, History, Music and Method. B. Eliot failed her examination. However on seeing an object lesson taken by E. Eliot the master is far from pleased. He writes:

‘Heard the P.T. Miss Eliot give a lesson on ‘A Book’ to the Infants and St. I. It was very unsatisfactory – there being no Blackboard illustration defective questioning and no discipline.’

Singing was attempted in 1887 in order that a higher grant might be realized. However the results were not good and the Inspectors only advocated the lower grant. By this time although a great deal of emphasis was being put on payment by results the Inspectors were beginning to look at the general tone of the school more. In the report for 1892 the Inspector stated that while the children had done quite well in elementary subjects more attention should have been given to the Arithmetic of the V and VI Sts. and to Oral Arithmetic generally. He further stated that if these were not done the award of the higher Principal Grant would be endangered. He added that Poetry was intelligently repeated, the Needlework good and that Military Drill was a pleasing feature. He regretted that the Infants did not start school as early as they might.

In the Act of 1880 it was stated that no child between the ages of 10 and 13 was allowed to be absent from school, even half time, with out having obtained a certificate stating that he had reached a certain standard of education fixed by the local bye laws. The boys were frequently leaving school before they should and many would not come back after the Summer holidays.

Sept 14th 1888

‘Many children have not returned to school yet – some have left although not qualified by age or standard to do so’

In 1893 we have some reference to further education in the district although not a great deal of information is given about it.

On June 9th 1893 George Adams of St. VII sat for a Technical Scholarship at Bishop Auckland under the Durham County Council – no further mention is made of him so we do not know whether he passes the exam and was admitted to a higher Secondary School or not. Also there was talk of establishing an Evening School to be held in the day schoolroom. Nothing seems to have been done except that a cutting out class was held for the ladies in the schoolroom. This was held on a Monday afternoon from 2-4pm. So the managers decided that the school would be opened from 9-11am and 12-2pm on Mondays so long as the class continued.

The school was rapidly becoming overcrowded and short of teachers. In the report for 1895 we read:

‘School very crowded – it is also understaffed.’

By now of course the numbers had risen to about 100 and they were only housed in two quite small classrooms with the Master and his wife coming in part time and usually a monitress. In the report for 1896 further reference is mad to the conditions.

‘Both the accommodation and staff do not comply with the requirements of Acts 85(a) and l73. These defects were pointed out last inspection 30th Oct. but as yet nothing has been done to remedy what vidates the conditions necessary for the Annual Grant.’

An entry for April 30th of that year tells us that the temporary monitress failed her Candidate’s exam. Consequently for a time they were without even the monitress. When told by the Inspectors that if the present conditions continued the grant would be stopped the school managers held a meeting at which they decided to raise a fund to enlarge the school.

In January 1897 Sara Marquis a VII St. girl was appointed by the Managers to act as a temporary Monitress until she herself qualified as a Candidate in Probation. Thus in June the staff was:

R. H. Clarke             Master
M. A. Clarke             Art. 68.
S Marquis                Candidate in Probation.

Also by the end of June the plan of the proposed school extension was drawn up and accepted by the Managers. It was then sent to the Education Dept. who required only minor alterations to be made. However it was not until June of the following year (1898) that tenders for the building were being obtained and the actual work started on. In September the managers decided to defer the appointment of an assistant mistress until the new room had been erected. The gallery was removed from the Infant room and thus the entry for May 15th 1899 runs:

‘We are experiencing some inconvenience from the incomplete state of the school building. There is no gallery in the classroom, the old one having been removed.’

Finally in November of 1899 the school was closed in preparation for the opening of the new room. After three days it was reopened with Sts. I-VI in the New Room. Sts. I and II were under the supervision of the new teacher. The infants were put in the larger of the two old rooms in charge of the master’ wife. A new gallery was ordered for this room. This was again removed in 1904.

In 1897 a voluntary schools Bill was forced through Parliament providing an ‘aid grant’ to be paid through the association of Voluntary Schools formed for the purpose. Hamsterley School benefitted by this as is shown by the entry in the Log Book for January 1898.

‘The Treasurer has been informed that the Aid Grant allotted to this school under the Voluntary Schools Act of 1897 will £21. The Grant will be used for Salaries £5 and general purposes.’

The Object Lessons for 1898 and 99 are very interesting:

Infants and St. I

Quadrupeds                 Shoemakers Shop                   Sheep washing and sheering
Elephant                       Post Office                               A yard measure
Lion                              A Tear                                       Inside of a house
Camel, etc.                   A Storm                                    Qualities of water
Harvesting                    Beekeeping

Sts. II and III

Science of common things – water pump, siphon, etc.

Apart from the animals many of these things are such as could be seen by the children.

One would have thought that by now, compulsory attendance having been established for over 20 years, the attendance would have been regular but this was not the case. The children still stayed away from school for a variety of reasons.

‘As only 4 children came this morning I closed the school until Mon. 19th. The roads were quite impassible, there being snow wreaths from 12-15ft high on the main roads. Some of the children’s parents who went to market yesterday have not yet returned.’

The children still went to work:

Oct 22 1900

‘There are 21 children absent gathering potatoes, some of these are only 9 or 10 years of age and are working for hire’.

Also the school was closed for an afternoon because many of the children went after the villagers who were beating the boundaries. That same year there was an epidemic of whooping cough and the school had to be closed for 2 weeks.

The following year there was a diptheria epidemic and in spite of the fact that the school was opened one week later after the summer holidays over 70 children were absent because their parents were afraid to send them to school. Then in October there was an epidemic of measles.

However the managers had quite a free hand about holidays and when there was a great deal of schooling lost owing to the various epidemics they cancelled the Easter holidays and gave instead only one half holiday.

It was about this time that the County Council began to give half holidays if the average attendance for the month reached a certain percentage. Hence the entry for Sept 8th 1905:

‘School has half holiday granted by the County Council owing to the attendance for the month of August having been 90%.’

The institution of this half term holiday per month certainly seems to have made a difference to the attendance for there are frequent entries in the log book after this about the monthly half holiday.

By 1906 the H.M.I’s were demanding a wider syllabus from the school although for some time the school had been doing the elementary subjects, Drawing, which included freehand, Geometry and map drawing, Geography, Needlework and, of course, the Object Lessons. Music had been taught by note and tonic solfa. The H.M.I’s however demanded that the V and VI Sts. should be more intelligently taught in the theory of Music, Hygiene and History. They stated that it would be better if the timetable could be arranged so that the headmaster could take these subjects.

During these years there was also great deal of trouble about assistant teachers. Many stayed only for about eighteen months and then went to another school. Consequently there was a continual changing of mistresses. Also some of the assistants were evidently not very good teachers and could not keep discipline. At one point the Head master was continually having to send upper St. girls to keep order. If the were without a teacher for some time the upper St. girls would take the infants as well.

In 1911 the Headmaster was commended for the way in which the children had been trained to work by and for themselves. However we are told that the Arithmetic had not sufficiently varied examples to offer good practice and more modern text books were advocated. The singing by staff notation was also deplored although the Inspector remarked that the Singing by Solfa notation seemed to have been fairly well mastered. The reading it was said, would have been better if a larger and greater variety of books were provided. Also Drawing was said to be weak.

What effect did the 1914-18 war have on the school? In 1914 the girls were making garments for the use of Belgian refugees and the children had dispatched several small parcels to the ‘Old Boys’ of Hamsterley who were serving in His Majesty’s forces.

The school was very conscious of the war in spite of the fact that the village was in the backwoods. The Head teacher had to take up military duty in 1916 so the school was left in charge of his wife. He did not return to take up his work again until 1919.

When the tanks visited Bishop Auckland the school closed for the afternoon in order that the children might go and see them. They also showed honour to those wounded soldiers from Brancepeth Castle and Bishop Auckland.

The school also had a series of half holidays to gather blackberries. In about four half holidays 196 pounds of fruit were gathered. We are not told what the fruit was used for but no doubt it helped in the food shortage which was apparent.

After the war the school began to move more rapidly to up to date methods. In 1920 the number of children on the books was 111 and three new Pupil Teachers were appointed from August 1920 to July 1922 with a salary of £15 for the 1st year and £20 for the 2nd.

Debates were started on a Friday afternoon in the hope of improving the children’s General knowledge and English. The first debate held by Sts. IV–VIII was ‘Should the leaving age of scholars be 14 years or over?’ An experiment was also tried in Practical Work during the last hour on Friday afternoon to run alternatively with the debates.

More outside visits were made and on November 27th 1920 a party of fifteen boys and girls together with the Head Teacher and his wife set off on a visit to the old Saxon church at Escombe. It is reported that the children were keenly interested and other visits were planned involving Binchester and Durham.

The Head Teacher took parties of children outside to do practical work in Geography, and Nature Rambles were also introduced to widen the education here. Also some boys occasionally went with Mr. Holliday, chairman of the managers, to do some measuring outside.

A closer association with the parents was made by having Parents’ days. In the slump which followed the war the parents were again called to a meeting addressed by a Welfare Officer where it was decided to put into operation the ‘Feeding the Children’ act in consequence of the distress arising from the strike. Thus meals were provided for approximately thirty children and were continued as long as was thought necessary.

A trip to Redcar was also arranged. Some of the money was raised by the children giving a concert. All the school children together with teachers, parents and friends went by train.

At this time an Old Pupil’s Body was functioning. They met quite frequently and often presented the school with useful things such as Cricket stumps, bats and other sports equipment.

The number of children attending the school was slowly decreasing and there were less than 90 now attending. This was probably due to the closing down of a lead mine nearby and the fact that the forestry took over a great deal of moorland which had previously been Sheep farms.

Things progressed with little happening until 1938 when it was decided to make the school only Infants and Junior. Thus in May 1938, 19 children were transferred from Hamsterley to Toft Hill Council School. The school was organised thus:

Sts. III IV                                 Class I             18 children
Sts. I II                                    Class II             23 children
Infants                                    Class III            27 children

However in July Miss Ramshaw C.A. was appointed headmistress of Etherley school and so no further teacher was appointed in her place and the school was again reorganised. It was divided into the Infant class and Junior class as it is today with only two teachers. Now the numbers have decreased yet further and there are less than fifty children attending school. Many more elderly people retire to live in the village and the younger families are not as numerous as they were since there are few openings for work for the men. Thus although the actual population is within 10 of that a hundred years ago there are less children.

So from the Log Book we see how the people living in this rather out-of-the-way village were slow to accept the need for education and there was much trouble in making the children attend school. However as the attendance became more regular the curriculum was widened and the more outside visits were organised. These were most useful since it is clear that there was very little actual teaching apparatus in the school. In this way the acquisition of knowledge was much more interesting to the children. The greatest difficulty throughout the school has been the wide variety of ages and so few children of a certain age in each class.


School Log Book.
History of Elementary Education. Birchenough.
English National Education. Holman.

And a bit later:

School pupils, approx. 1934/35

School pupils, approx. 1934/5.

Primary School pupils

Primary school pupils. But what year?

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