Blennerhasset School 1827 – Present

Where to find the history of the School
By Geoffrey Bremner

Most of what we can find out about the history of the School is owned by the School itself. There are four different kinds of record.
1. The Admissions Registers going back to the earliest days.
2. The Minutes (records) of the meetings of the Board of Managers.
3. The Log Books of the Head Teachers.
4. The Reports of the School Inspectors.

The Admissions Registers
These are very interesting because they list the names of all the children who entered the school with their dates of birth and where they lived. The first name in the earliest book is Thomas Moore, who entered the school in 1867. He was born in 1861 and lived in Baggrow. The register takes us to 1882 and then, unfortunately, there is a big gap until the second one, which runs from 1912 until 1994. Some of the names in this one are those of people who still live in the area. In the early days some of the children had to come quite a way to school and of course they would have walked. Going down the column in the register marked ‘Residence’ we find Watch Hill, Harriston, Aspatria, Langrigg, Crookdake and two places which no longer exist: Brayton Farm and Brayton Station. These date back to the time when the family of Sir Wilfrid Lawson lived at Brayton Hall (now burnt down) and had a farm there, as well as a special railway station. Most of the pupils at the School were the sons and daughters of farm workers and miners. At that time there were pits all over the area, especially in Aspatria and Fletchertown. One boy’s address is given as Aspatria Number 2 Pit.

The Minutes of the Board of Managers
When the School first started it was run by a Board of Managers, all of whom were local people. A record was kept of each of their meetings, which took place nearly every month. We have these records, known as Minutes, from the first meeting in 1884 until 1903, when the Government changed the way schools were run. The earliest meetings were recorded in the very neat ‘copperplate’ handwriting which children were taught in those days. Later on though the handwriting is not so good and is sometimes quite difficult to read. The managers had a lot of responsibility: they appointed the teachers and decided how much they would be paid, arranged for repairs and improvements and decided whether local clubs and societies could use the School premises in the evenings. They even had to give the head teacher permission before he could buy more books, paper, pencils and chalk.

At that time the School was the only place where village clubs could hold their meetings as the Village Hall was not built until the 1940s. So as well as school events we can also read about the the many different clubs and societies which existed then.

The Head Teachers’ Log Books
After the Board of Managers held its last meeting in 1903 there is a gap in the records, so there is nothing more to be learnt about the School until 1916, when we have the first of the Log Books. There are three of these and they are a continuous record until the 1980s. They tell us who the head teachers and staff were, how many children were on the registers, what books they used and, most interesting of all, what events took place there.

As well as the documents held by the School there is also some information in the Carlisle Record Office, which has a huge supply of documents, maps and books about the history of Cumberland.

The Inspectors’ Reports
These give us the Inspectors’ opinion on how the School was progressing and they give us an idea of what subjects were thought to be important in those days. In the first report in 1887 they were not too happy about the school. In the junior school only the first standard (class) seemed to be doing well. In the higher classes things were not going so well, except for needlework. As for the infants, they wrote fairly well but they were backward in Number (arithmetic) and still more so in reading. By 1900 things are looking a lot better, with the Inspectors fairly well satisfied with everything.

The History of the School

Early Days
There is a letter in the Carlisle Record Office which shows that people had been thinking about starting a school long before one was actually built. The letter is from William Donald to George Dawson. Dawson was a wealthy merchant who lived in Whitehaven. He later became Lord of the Manor of Blennerhasset and Torpenhow and was already an influential landowner in the village (most landowners lived outside the village). The letter, dated September 1827 says:

“There has been a great deal of altercation [argument] and disturbance respecting the Foundation of a School House upon the waste land at Blennerhasset, and it now devolves upon you to say, whether it has to be erected upon the present Foundation or not, you have already I am led to suppose seen the Foundation laid, and Mr Jackson and Mr Fell are now at my Elbow, and they, together with myself… will feel much obliged to you for an immediate answer to say whether we are to have it erected upon the present site or not.”

Mr Dawson does not seem to have been keen to commit himself. He replied that he had no objection but that the consent of the freeholders (landowners) ought to be obtained and it appeared that Mr Ritson objected to having it built on the spot marked out. There is nothing to say where this was, but as Mr Ritson owned a piece of land right next to where the school is now we can suppose that the spot was on that site. But Mr Dawson proposed that they wait until next Spring when the building season would begin again. They had to wait a long time because there is no further mention of a school until thirty years later. In the meantime children had the opportunity to go to school in Bothel. This school had existed for centuries and was made free for poor children in 1686; the better off had to pay 2s.6d. every three months. In those days however most children did not attend school at all. As soon as they were able, and that could be as young as seven or eight, they were set to work helping on the land and would never learn to read and write. This began to change part way through the nineteenth century, when people began to realise how important it was to be able to read and write. Then in 1870 the government introduced education for everyone and gradually it became quite unusual for people to be illiterate.

The first we hear of a school building in Blennerhasset is from a note in the Head Teacher’s log book of 1952. This tells us that during building work in that year a bottle was found which contained the history of the School from 1857 to 1911. A facsimile [exact copy] was made and placed in the log book and the bottle was put back where it came from. Unfortunately the facsimile is no longer there, so we shall have to wait until the floorboards are taken up again (if they ever are!) before we find out what was in that bottle. Then we might know what happened right at the beginning and between 1903 and 1911. There will still be a gap between then and 1916, which is a pity, because we miss out on the first two years of the First World War.

The next source of information is the minutes of the Board of Managers. At that time the Head Teacher was always a man and he was known as the Master. He lived rent-free with his family in the house next door to the School and was paid £100 a year. The Master was assisted by one or more teachers working full-time at the School with a salary of £35 or £40 a year. Then there were the monitors, or ‘monitresses’ if they were girls, as they usually were. They would be appointed straight from the classroom when their education was finished and they could be as young as 13 or 14. They had to make sure the children were behaving properly and supervise them when they had writing to do. In 1885 Miss Emma Tiffin, aged 13, was appointed as a monitress at £8 a year. Above the monitresses and below the teachers were the pupil teachers, who did some teaching under the supervision of the full-time teachers. This was the only way they could learn to teach unless they were lucky enough (like Emma Tiffin in 1890) to be accepted in one of the very few Training Colleges

To begin with there were no separate classrooms. All the children were taught in one large room under the supervision of the Master, with the various classes, or standards, as they were called, taught by the teachers and pupil teachers in different parts of the room. This must have been quite difficult when, in 1885, there were 150 children in the School, and numbers continued to increase and reached their highest point of 165 in 1894.Not all of them were there all the time though. The average attendance in that year was 123. Parents were not always happy to let their children attend school all the time, especially when there was a lot of work to be done on the farms. For a long time after the School began children were kept away when it was time for the harvest or for potato picking or turnip thinning. One Master complained in the log book about children not bothering to come to school every day when they were reaching the end of their time there.

Although an Act of Parliament of 1880 made education free, many schools carried on charging the parents for their children’s education. In 1882 fees were reduced slightly, but they were still 2d a week under 8s, 4d for 8-10s and 5d for over 10s. (‘d’ stands for ‘penny’ or ‘pence’ and there were 12 in a shilling and 240 in a pound.) The money had to be paid at the beginning of the week, otherwise children were not admitted to the school. The School was not made entirely free until 1891. In 1886 the Board bought some ground next to the school and had another classroom and playground built on it. This almost doubled the size of the school and must have been very welcome.

What it was like to be at the School in the early days
When they arrived in the morning the children would line up in their different classes and march into school class by class. There was no school uniform. Most of the boys wore dark jackets and sometimes a waistcoat as well. Some had ‘Eton collars’, broad white collars that reached down over the tops of their coat collars and must have needed a lot of washing. They wore long trousers or sometimes trousers that reached to just below the knee and were tucked into their socks. The older boys often wore cloth caps. Girls had white or dark dresses, usually with a frill round the neck, and black stockings. A bit later it was the custom for them to wear a white pinafore over their dresses reaching down to their knees. Some girls also had bonnets.
The day started with prayers conducted by the Master and then lessons began. At that time there were no exercise books. They used slates, wrote their work on them with chalk and then sponged it off again ready for the next lesson. They learned reading, writing and arithmetic of course, and in arithmetic they had to spend a long time learning the multiplication tables, chanting them time and time again until the teacher was satisfied that they knew them off by heart. They also spent a long time doing addition and subtraction, both written and mental. These sums were more difficult because they had to cope with pounds, shillings and pence. Reading and writing lessons included recitation, copying good handwriting from the blackboard and a lot of spelling practice.

Other subjects were history and geography, ‘object lessons’, which meant learning something about the world around them and ‘varied occupations’, which needed apparatus for simple science experiments. All this was important because without radio, let alone television and computers, the children would have known very little of how the world outside the village looked. Some might have travelled occasionally, by horse and cart, to the nearest towns but this would have been the limit of their experience. It is difficult to discover what went on in the object lessons, but we do know that in 1890, Miss Bradshaw, who taught the infants’ class, asked the Board of Managers for pictures of a sheep, an ostrich, a reindeer, a squirrel and a bear. Drawing was also important so perhaps the children had to copy these animal pictures. To complete the picture, singing was taught and for the girls there was sewing and needlework.

Discipline was strict compared with what it is today. Children had to remain completely silent in class, speaking only when asked to by the teacher. This didn’t mean that the children were always perfectly behaved of course. In 1887 the inspectors complained that discipline in the junior school was poor and mentioned “a habit of secret communication being prevalent”, in other words talking and passing messages to each other, even when the inspectors were there. Children were often caned on the hand for bad behaviour and even the pupil teachers were allowed to use the cane, though this was stopped in 1896, leaving the job to full-time teachers. In later years the inspectors were more satisfied with the discipline. Attendance was always a problem. Some children stayed away regularly and the Managers would write to the parents asking them to come to the School to explain why their children were not attending. This didn’t always make much difference and some children were expelled from the school for bad attendance. Some families still didn’t see the point of their children receiving too much education. On the other hand, prizes were given for good attendance. In 1897 the Managers decided to reward two girls who had a full attendance record with a doll each. The dolls were not to cost more than 2s.6d each.

The School was probably not a very comfortable place to be in. It must have been very cramped with 140 or 150 pupils in it. The heating was provided by stoves and open fires, so it must have been an advantage to be sitting near them in the winter. The inspectors’ report in 1892 says that a lavatory “or a suitable substitute” should be provided for the boys. It makes you wonder what they did before something was done about this. The inspectors were not satisfied with the playground either, saying that it ought to be covered with asphalt or concrete. Not only that, the general appearance of the school could be more cheerful, with pictures on the walls and a brighter colour paint. The brighter colour the managers chose was ‘French grey’, which doesn’t sound very cheerful either. On the whole though the school was getting better. Subjects began to be better taught and behaviour improved as well. There’s no reason to suppose that most of the children didn’t like going to school. They expected nothing different from what they got, the teachers did their best to make the lessons interesting and most of the children made good progress.

There were holidays of course, the usual ones at Christmas, Easter and the summer (a little earlier than the summer holidays of today) and also a few days at Michaelmas. Michaelmas fell on 29 September, so it would have been like a half-term holiday. Added to this there was another two-day holiday for Martinmas (November 11). But there were no proper half-term breaks. For a few years another holiday was given for Cousin Charley’s Day. This was a celebration organised for children by the editor of a local paper. It would take place in a nearby town such as Workington or Cockermouth and included processions, fireworks and games. Sometimes the school was closed because of epidemics of measles, chickenpox or other illnesses. Such diseases were common and most children could expect to catch one or more of them at some time while they were growing up. In 1898 the School was closed for five weeks for a measles epidemic.

The History of the School (continued)
The last minutes of the Board of Managers show that there were 136 children in the School in 1902 and 80 of them were taught in one room by the Master with the help of one pupil teacher. There was a little bit of good news though: children no longer had to supply their own sponges to wipe their slates! During all these years there were many things going on in the School besides lessons, especially in the evenings. For most people it was very difficult to get out of the village unless they walked, so there were plenty of activities on the spot. There was no village hall at that time so the School was in constant demand by various clubs and societies. Most of them liked to organise a ‘Ball’ once a year. A Ball was not the grand affair we think of today but a dance with someone from the village providing the music. Dances were held by the Reading Room committee (the Reading Room was the small house next to the old shop), the Blennerhasset Football Club, with the Blennerhasset String Band providing the music, the Blennerhasset Flower Show, the Cricket Club, the Choir, the Blennerhasset Poultry and Pigeon Society and the Homing Pigeon Society.

Perhaps the gap in the records after the School Board held its last meeting in 1903 will be filled some time by the discovery of all the missing documents but in the meantime we can only resort to national history and note the coming of a new king, George V, in 1910 and the outbreak of the First World War, also known as the Great War, in 1914. From 1916, our information comes from the Head Teachers’ Log Books. In that year there were 145 children in the school but attendance was not very good. Nor, it seems, was behaviour. In 1917 boys had a warning about the habit of throwing mud and stones at cars and other vehicles. A passing car was a rare event in country areas in those days. An annual event, lasting several days during the war, was bramble gathering. The weight of blackberries gathered by each child was recorded and out of a total of 93 pounds in 1918 12 pounds were gathered by one girl.

1918 seems to have been a record year for school closures: twice for severe flooding in September, once for a week in October for gathering the potato crop, and then for nine weeks from November for a serious epidemic of flu. This was the terrible epidemic of “Asian Flu” just after the end of the war which caused numerous deaths all over the world. Two children from the school succumbed to it. Life gradually settled down again after this: there were the usual floods every few years, with some children struggling to school and then being sent home again because they were wet through. Fireworks nights were held on the Village Green, which doesn’t seem to have been very green in those days, judging from photos taken at the time.

A regular event from 1920 was Armistice Day on November 11 and the two minutes silence in memory of all those who had given their lives in the war, including seven men from Baggrow and Blennerhasset, four of whom had attended the School. The War Memorial was completed in 1921 in the same year that Mr Stephenson retired after 28 years as Master. Retiring in the same year was Miss Bradshaw, who had been at the school for 34 years. Mr Stephenson was replaced by Mr Gaskarth, who taught the senior classes while the lower classes were taught by three women teachers. The school was doing rather well now, being congratulated in 1923 for its excellent results and winning the County Shield for good attendance. Religious Instruction was singled out as scoring especially good results, as it was in the following year.

An event which is no longer necessary, thanks to the National Health Service, was the “March Past” when the whole school lined up and had their heads and teeth inspected by a nurse. More popular were two special days off, one for a general election, when the school was used as a polling centre, and another to celebrate the wedding of the Duke of York, the future King George VI, and Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. We now remember Lady Elizabeth as the Queen Mother.

Now things would go on fairly smoothly with the School being regularly closed for floods during the winter, the nurse’s annual visit for the head inspections and occasional days off to celebrate some important event. But children who were at the School in the late twenties and early thirties would have had a less happy time. These were the years of the “Depression” when national economies collapsed all over the world and there was widespread unemployment. A Lord Mayor’s Fund was set up to provide money for families in need and many children at the School were helped in this way. A doctor and nurses visited the School to examine the children in case they were suffering from malnutrition and a scheme was set up for food to be provided for children on the school premises. Even teachers’ salaries were reduced by 10% in 1931.

During this time the number of miners living in the area gradually went down as the mines closed and so did the number of children in the school. For the first time since the earliest days of the School numbers in 1928 sank below a hundred to 84 and now they would continue to fall. At the same time the school regularly did well in most subjects and sent an increasing number of children to grammar school. All children took an exam when they were coming up to 11 and those who did well (usually a quarter or less) got a scholarship to a grammar school. The others would usually stay on at their elementary school until school-leaving age at 14. The nearest grammar schools for local children were Nelson School for Boys and Thomlinson School for Girls), both at Wigton.

1935 was the year of the Silver Jubilee, celebrating King George V’s twenty-five years as King. All schools had a two-day holiday and the children were given a beaker each. Some families still have these beakers. Sadly, King George died in January of the next year, and the School had another day’s holiday. Yet more holidays were given, three days this time, and another beaker was presented to each pupil for the Coronation of King George VI in 1937. Another important event was the installation of electric light in 1936. By this time electric light was fairly widespread, but many schools and homes would continue to have gas lighting for many more years. During these years the pupils were getting much more opportunity to see something of the outside world. Excursions were made to Port Sunlight, Glasgow and the Kyles of Bute and the children of the unemployed (for there were still many children whose fathers were out of work) were taken to a summer camp.

Then, at the beginning of September 1939 came the Second World War. The first effect of this on the School was that it received large numbers of children from the North-East of the country, the evacuees, some from South Shields, others from Newcastle. It was thought that these towns were very likely to be bombed because of the amount of heavy industry in the area. It was not possible to accommodate all these children in the existing classes so a shift system was adopted. Number one shift was from 9.00 to 12.30 and was for the local children and those from South Shields. Number two shift was from 1.00 to 4.30 for the large numbers of Newcastle children. Many of these children went back to their homes when it seemed that there was to be no bombing after all but then, in the summer of 1940, they had to change their minds and the School admitted twenty evacuees from Newcastle. By the next year, after the bombing had stopped, the evacuees began to go home again and by 1943 there was only one left from Newcastle and most of those from South Shields had left too. Now life went on much as it had before the war.

One event which will be remembered by people who were at the School in 1947 was the long hard winter when snow remained deep on the ground until April, but nearly all the children managed to struggle to school through it every day. Most families still did not own cars so children were quite used to walking to school every day, sometimes from villages several miles away. What was less easy to get through was the flood when the snow began to thaw and flooding is a problem that has never been solved; the School can still be cut off from many of its pupils when there is heavy rain or a big thaw, as happened again in 1965.

1951 saw the only mention the School was ever to receive in the national press. The enterprising Headmaster, Mr Braithwaite, took a party to London for the Festival of Britain exhibition and while they were there they attended the burial of the ashes of Ernest Bevin, the former Foreign Secretary, at Westminster Abbey. A report from The Daily Telegraph reads: “Children from the village school of Blennerhasset, Cumberland, attended the service. At its close, the children filed past the grave”. In 1953 the School was the only one in Cumberland to send children, 20 in number, to see the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth, but this did not rate a mention in the national press.

Excursions to London were a rarity but in the 50s and 60s children were taken to Blackpool, to see the illuminations, Manchester, Southport, Newcastle and Morecambe. But it seems that all these outings didn’t result in improved behaviour. There is a punishment record in the Headmaster’s log book which lists the following punishments, either two or four strokes of the cane, mostly four, for insolence, theft, swearing, robbing birds’ nests, letting off fireworks, smoking, disobedience and truancy. In 1962 the GPO threatened to close the telephone kiosk if any more damage was done to it; this was unfortunately reported on Border TV. The damage was usually caused when four or five teenagers tried to crowd in at the same time. But the misbehaviour went on: two years later a police constable called at the School to give a general warning about out-of-school behaviour, especially in the phone booth. Nowadays of course, with nearly every home having a phone and nearly everybody having a mobile, the phone booth stands empty and unharmed most of the time.

1963 had been a sad year for the School when their energetic Headmaster, Mr Braithwaite, left to become Head of the new school in Aspatria. As well as taking children on numerous excursions he had started a wide sports programme, with regular football matches with schools at Fletchertown, Allhallows, Aspatria, Bothel, and cricket with Aspatria and Allhallows. After this the logbooks are less informative and by 1985 they record only the numbers on the roll, which vary between 19, in 1985, and 43 in 1991. Luckily these years are recent enough for people in the village to remember what happened and the most important event was the enlargement of the School. The main part of this was completed in 2006 and, apart from giving the School a more symmetrical look, provides better accommodation for the Head Teacher and staff. The second stage, at the back of the School, was carried out in 2010.

Numbers during this time had been steadily falling. Long gone were the days when over a hundred children turned up at the school every day. They had first fallen below a hundred in 1928 and in the 1950s numbers fluctuated between 50 and 70. The next big drop came when the Beacon Hill Secondary Modern School opened in Aspatria in 1964 with the result that children over eleven (twenty in 1964) left the School instead of just the few who had gained places at the grammar schools in Wigton. Numbers continued to fall until they reached an all-time low of 14 in 1972. A school with so few pupils was bound to be threatened with closure but, happily, it has survived, and now flourishes, with 53 children on the roll.