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Leek & District Historical Society - March 2014

By Leek Post and Times  |  Posted: March 24, 2014

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A QUARTET from Swythamley Historical Society returned, under the leadership of researchers Judy and Alan Weeks with Dorothy Kay and Margaret Mullins, to take us back to school – to their village school at Gun End.

We've all been to school so resonance and familiarity are already there to help us engage with a fascinating scripted narration about somebody-else's classrooms and teachers, in other times and places where replacing slates was an urgent first target.

Swythamley was a long time getting its school. Up until 1870, any education for the working classes was perceived more a distraction than an asset on farms and in factories.

Furthermore, children's labour meant additional money for their families.

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There were plans in 1762 but the will leaving land didn't find its way to walls.

Lucy Herrod ran her dame school at Turner's Pool according to the 1861 and 1871 census returns, and there were church schools at Meerbrook and Rushton. One of Her Majesty's Inspectors (HMI's), Henry Sudeley, visited the area in 1871 and advised there should be a school for forty 5 to 12 year-olds, overseen by a local board to cover Leek Frith and Heaton.

The Board of Education, in London, took 30 years to acknowledge the need and pass the plans allowing Philip Brocklehurst have local farmer/builder Mr Bratt to erect a fine school with one classroom, a kitchen, office, toilets and a drinking trough in the playground on his land at Gun End.

Miss Sarah Amelia Clark, a 38 year-old former dressmaker from London took charge of the school and made her first entry into its log book when it opened on 23rd September 1902.

She enrolled 28 children at nine o'clock and remained in post for the next twenty years, up until the school became Heaton Swythamley Staffordshire County Council School No. 162 in 1922.

It finally closed in 1981. After 79 years there were just 18 children, back in one classroom and its log books saved for everyone's inspection in the Staffordshire county archives.

The delight of the evening came from the glimpses into life and moments in village schooling where the teacher's imagination and flexibility were key.

Miss Clark's annual salary was £55 for teaching and managing a single-class school boys and girls aged 5-12.

The School Log is the primary source for detail and commentary on assistants' performance, on attendance as affected by heavy snow and blizzards, whooping cough, chicken pox, the hay harvest, well dressings, coronations, Sunday School treats, the circus coming to Leek and even a trip to see the sea at Prestatyn.

Many assistant mistresses came and went as their romancing turned to marriage.

Perhaps most surprising was the absence of any mention of the Great War and its impact on the school.

Come World War II and reporting changes. There is mention of gas mask drill, the children knitting khaki scarves and socks for soldiers, of being joined by children from Manchester, of German prisoners-of-war who were about working thanking the children for their kindness, and, of course, there were the visits by the nit nurse.

Even young children would have to walk several miles to school and then back home.

The wet tracks and lanes meant, even in the '40s, clogs were worn to save shoes and, as an interesting footnote, it was the American Red Cross who sent the first pack of 11 pairs of rubber wellies in 1944.

The one about a banana almost but not quite getting into class for show has yet to be verified. History made fun is easy to digest.

There is record of one evacuee from London, Sydney Cox, who came 1940, stayed two years and described how he respected Miss Bratt.

Edith Ellen (Nellie), had started at the school as a pupil in 1908, her father having earlier built it. In 1938, she was its headteacher offering a curriculum that included spelling, drawing, woodwork, round singing, games, Rudyard Kipling' Jungle Book and drama.

She was in charge for fifteen years. From then on there was a procession of head teachers, each leaving their marks on the lives of a community, young and old.

The introduction of school milk and meals involved the employment of local folk as providers and also as caretakers but clean water was an issue up until the mid 60's. Indeed, the school log did not mention the installation of electric wiring until 1961!

This whole evening was a lesson in social as well as educational history most delightfully told by folk who so clearly cherish the heritage of their village.

For more details about their book please ring Judy Weeks on 01260 227683.

There were former pupils and a teacher in our assembly so it seems fitting that the report concluded with the comment, "I loved Swythamley school".

Our next meeting on Monday, 14th April starts with the AGM then features a talk by George Hook; Mother of Pearl, a Dying Art. Hurry to the Dove Room, Moorlands House for the best seats at 7.45pm but, please, don't run down the corridors.

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