The First Schools in Harpenden

Private, informal and voluntary

Drawn from The Schools: Volume 6 of The Story Of Wheathampstead and Harpenden, WEA 1976.

Private schools

Bennetts – model by George Scattergood, c.1928. Credit: LHS archives – photo of a model

One of the earliest schools in Harpenden was advertised by the headmaster, John Grover, as “situated in a village which for sweetness and sublimity of the air, pleasantness of the situation, and rusticity of prospect, can be excelled by few in the kingdom.” This was in 1775, when the only schools in the area were small fee-paying establishments for the middle classes, often run by clergymen, such as that run by the Reverend George Barnard, curate at Harpenden, who leased Bennetts and instructed “the sons of neighbours in his house”.

A report by the Church Commissioners in 1799 recorded that there were two boarding schools in Harpenden at that time. One of these may have been a girls’ school run by Mrs Mercier in the house later known as Welcombe. Mrs Mercier’s Ladies’ Academy is listed in the 1826 Directory and there is an entry for Elizabeth Mercier’s Boarding school, possibly on Church Green, though the precise location is uncertain. In 1818 the Reverend Maurice Phillips opened a “Dissenting Grammar School for Boys” at Blakeleys (Harpenden Hall). The 1837 Directory listed another boarding school run by J S Smith, which appears to have been on Church Green.

Plait schools and Sunday schools

By the turn of the century, however, the village children often attended plaiting schools where they learned to plait split straws for the local hat industry, and sometimes also learned to read a little. The children were packed closely into a cottage room, probably poorly heated and certainly lit only by candles or rush lights, as described by Edwin Grey in “Cottage Life in a Hertfordshire Village”. Plaiting took precedence over education, for once the children had mastered it they earned a few shillings week which their parents needed for their support. Agricultural wages were very low and most wives also earned money straw plaiting or sewing bonnets, and on their return from the day in the fields many husbands joined in.

The earliest Sunday schools in the two parishes were set up in 1800 at Wheathampstead and in 1802 in Harpenden. These offered free education to “the children of the poor”, teaching reading and writing as well as Bible study. The children attended for an hour and a half in the morning and an hour in the afternoon. John Bennet Lawes the elder (1768-1822) had given a cottage near the church in 1802 for a Sunday school. By 1833 there were three Sunday schools in Harpenden “at one whereof are 40 males and 70 females who attend the Established church” with a mistress who received a salary of £8 8s per annum. The Wesleyan Methodists and Independents (from 1819) provided for another 92 boys and 104 girls between them, and also ran small lending libraries. (p236, Story of Harpenden & Wheathampstead). Sunday schools were supported by subscription.

The British School

Whereas Wheathampstead opened a National School in 1815, Harpenden did not have a day school until the “British” school was opened in 1850. A meeting had been called in 1847 to consider setting up a school to be supported by the British and Foreign School Society. Early in 1848 a site was given in trust by John Bennet Lawes. The original proposal was for a school for 300 pupils, but this proved too ambitious as not enough was raised through subscriptions. So a smaller school was built for £468 with £105 from government grant and £363 from subscriptions. It opened in May 1850, with two rooms, one for boys and one for girls each able to take 80 pupils. The building can still be seen: it is the front part of Park Hall in Leyton Road.

Girls playing on the Common outside the British School – boys playing closer to the school. Credit: LHS archives – HC 175

With Mr Melville in charge of the boys and Miss Hayward of the girls, average attendance in the first year was 67 boys and 55 girls. In 1858 W L Rogers (1) visited for his report on Social Conditions in Harpenden, commissioned by J B Lawes. That year an Infants school was opened in temporary accommodation, and moved into its new premises (later to become Harpenden’s Fire Station) in January 1859. This was erected at John Bennet Lawes’ expense, with fittings provided by donations. In 1871 it was amalgamated with the Boys’ and Girls’ school under one management. Meanwhile the girls’ schoolroom had been made smaller in 1866 because of the low number of girls attending, and the extra space was given to the boys. This was further enlarged in 1871, the cost again being met by J B Lawes. However, the number of girls increased and by 1879, an additional classroom was built for them, with Lawes giving the land, and his sister Mrs Marianne Warde financing it.

Mrs Marianne Warde, sister of Sir John Bennet Lawes. Credit: LHS archives

In addition to making substantial donations to help balance the books each year, Mrs Warde was the school’s most frequent visitor until 1885, and in 1887 she even supervised the girls school when their teacher was ill until a temporary teacher was found. On her death in 1891, the school log book recorded a tribute – she was always ready with her keen appreciation, ready tact and genuine benevolence.

John Henshaw. Credit: LHS archives

Another significant figure, from his appointment in 1861, was the school’s headmaster, John Henshaw. He regularly received glowing reports from Her Majesty’s Inspector, Henry Wix, who commented in 1882 that “The discipline and tone are very good and school maintains its high reputation for thorough and excellent work”. He was remembered as a strict disciplinarian, with his own special way of teaching the three R’s – especially writing, known locally as ‘Henshaw’s Harpenden Handwriting’.

Transition from British to Board school

Based on a detailed report by Col. Durnford to the Subscribers and Parents in December 1891, it was clear that the school was filled to capacity, and money for improvement and expansion was clearly needed. Although compulsory schooling up to the age of 10 had been introduced under the Mandella Act of 1880, payment of school fees, on which the school depended, was not abolished.  A School Board, which would be able to levy rates instead of relying on voluntary subscriptions, was proposed and elected in 1894, despite objections from Canon Vaughan, Rector of Harpenden, on the grounds that it would be more expensive for rate-paying parishioners. Two of the previous managers, Col. Durnford and Mr Alan Anscombe, were candidates but only Col. Durnford was elected, along with Captain Lydekker, Rev C Paterson (curate) and Messrs Sibley (farmer), Gentle (straw plait dealer), Williams (War Office clerk) and King (plumber). Col. Durnford was elected chairman; Mr Eyles was appointed clerk and Mr Dunkley attendance officer.

The School Board was supported by the parish rates. Previously parents had contributed ‘school pence’ according to the father’s occupation, topped up by voluntary donations and subscriptions, and later also by grants (‘payment by results’ – hence the importance of doing well when the inspector called). Both John Bennet Lawes and his sister Mrs Marianne Warde had made regular generous donations to keep the books in balance. However, when the British Schools were taken over by the School Board, the Trust under which the buildings were held lapsed, and the site reverted to Sir John Bennet Lawes. He undertook to lend the premises to the School Board for up to five years until other accommodation had been provided.

Meanwhile new premises were built on an acre of land in Victoria Road bought from William Sparrow for £725, and designed by Authur Anscombe,  with the requirement that “an unclimbable iron fence be erected” alongside the railway cutting. The building, with accommodation for 140 boys, 120 girls and 140 infants was ready to open on 12 January 1897. Already running out of space, enlargement was discussed but refused by the Education Department as there were 76 vacancies at the National School (St Nicholas C of E school on Church Green).

The 1902 Education Act made Hertfordshire County Council responsible for education. The Bill had been hotly debated in Harpenden with opposition on two main grounds: the use of rates to support voluntary schools (such as the National/Church school) upset the non-conformists; and the abolition of School Boards meant that Harpenden rate-payers lost direct control of their schools. The handover of the Board Schools took place on 30 September 1903 – the year that Mr Henshaw retired in December 1903.

The National School

John Bennet Lawes of Rothamsted Manor, founder of the agricultural research laboratory in 1843, took a keen interest in educational matters in Harpenden and also played a large part in setting up the “National” School in Harpenden. This, like the earlier Wheathampstead one, was supported by another school society, the National, which was specifically Anglican.

It remains unclear whether these cottages by the church were used as the first National School. Credit: LHS archives – HC 96

The school opened in 1858 in two cottages on Church Green but was rebuilt in 1864. This building is still in use as the assembly hall at St Nicholas Church of England Primary School.

When the National School opened, an existing small school in a nearby cottage was clearly going to suffer. To avoid this, Mr Lydekker of Harpenden Lodge provided the owner, a Mrs Whitehouse, with stationery, pencils and string which which to start a shop instead, thus founding the well-known High Street newsagents and stationers (initially trading near the White Lion at 24 High Street and then from 1935/6 at 46 High Street – Martin’s Newsagents in 2020).

In 1864 the school was rebuilt on Church Green, to become known as St Nicholas School, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2008, as recorded by Julia Petty, who drew on the school’s log books.

School log books

At all schools log books (2) were kept from 1863 onwards, and these give fascinating glimpses of life in the rural communities such as Harpenden and Wheathampstead. The summer or harvest holiday was not decided in advance but depended upon when local farmers started harvesting. It then usually lasted four weeks. Children were kept away from school at other times in the year to help with hay-making, gleaning, weeding, fruit-picking and acorn collecting: the acorns were fed to the family pig!

Illness, bad weather or poverty accounted for a great deal of absence. The usual illnesses of measles, mumps and scarlet fever, and the affliction of chillblains, are mentioned regularly in all the log books, but we also learn of an outbreak of smallpox at Bowling Alley in 1864. Bad weather is mentioned often in the logs. For instance in February 1873 girls from Kinsbourne Green and the Old Bell were noted as unable to attend the British School because of snow. If we try to imagine the difficulties of tramping to school by unsurfaced muddy roads and footpaths, wearing ill-fitting handed-down boots, to sit gently steaming all day in a schoolroom with one inadequate stove, we can soon see why bad weather was a severe deterrent.

Truancy when horse racing or fairs were being held in the area was a very common occurrence. Every year horse races were held on Harpenden Common, usually on the Friday before the Epsom Races. The “Statty” fair was held in those days on Church Green; it must have been impossible for teachers and children at the National School to keep their minds on their work!

Were these lads skiving from school – or up from London? Credit: LHS archives – slide B.3.70

As to teaching methods, the question and answer method originally introduced by the founders of the National and British Societies was used for most of the nineteenth century. It was probably the only way in which large numbers of children could be taught by unqualified monitors, who used a text book and “heard” the various groups of children call out the answers in unison. An example from the Reverend Dr Brewer’s textbook ‘My First Book of English History’ will show what it was like:

  • Q. Who was Henry VIII?
  • A. Son of Henry VII.
  • Q. What was his character?
  • A. As a young man he was bluff, generous, right royal and very handsome.
  • Q. How was he when he grew older?
  • A. He was bloated, vain, cruel and selfish.

It has been pointed out by another author that “if an ill-disposed examiner asked the questions in the wrong order, the sham was disastrously exposed!”

Children were often given odd days off during the year. The Church Sunday School treat usually merited one day’s holiday; other occasions were “Polling for the County” in 1874, royal marriages such as that of the Prince of Wales to Princess Alexandra of Denmark in 1863 or marriages of the local gentry. In 1866 the British School girls were taken to church in the morning and then given a half holiday because the day had been set apart by the Bishop for prayer on account of the outbreak of rinderpest, a highly contagious and fatal disease of cattle. In 1864 the British School children had a treat in honour of Mr Charles Bennet Lawes’ coming of age. They had lessons for a short time in the morning, were then dismissed and told to reassemble at twelve o’clock. They then walked to Rothamsted Park where they were joined by a band, and after marching round the lawn several times they were conducted to a large barn specially decorated for the occasion. Dinner was then served, after which the youngsters amused themselves with games and dancing until teatime. “The day was ended by a beautiful pyrotechnic display on the Common”, the log book says!

The children must have enjoyed these simple pleasures, for we cannot escape the feeling that everyone worked much harder in those mid-Victorian days. For the boys especially, schooling came to an abrupt end when they reached the age of 10 or 11 and were able to take their place working on the land. Even before this age they were expected to help by bird scaring and picking stones out of the fields as well as harvesting. Girls contributed by caring for younger brothers and sisters, sewing and making straw plait.

All this changed with the coming of compulsory schooling in 1870 and the gradual increase in Government provision for education. Vol 6 of the History of Wheathampstead & Harpenden published in 1976 provides more detail on these early schools and brings the story into the 20th century, including how Harpenden schools coped in the two World Wars.


(1) Copies held in Hertfordshire Archives and the Society’s archives: LHS BF 4.15

(2) Most school log books have been lodged with the Hertfordshire Archives. Log books for the Girls British/Board School are in the Society’s archives.

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