The minutes for 24 July 1842[1] record the beginning of this new venture:

‘It has been resolved to Establish a Day School for Boys on the British System in this Town and that no suitable place can be conveniently obtained.  Whereupon it was agreed unanimously that the Vestry School-room connected to the Meeting House be Enlarged so as to afford the accommodation specified, by taking into the Vestry the corner occupied by the pump house and Extending the School-room over to the Size of the new Vestry, raising the roof to the necessary height’.

On 5 August a subscription list was opened as the alterations were to start soon.

On 22 August William Morten[2] returned unused to the British and Foreign School Society (BFSS) book no 635 which had been sent to him to raise funds for the new Normal School for Females (a teacher-training college) ‘as we have found it difficult to obtain money to commence Schools in this place, and we are at the present time erecting new School Rooms.’

An entry for 30 November 1842 proves how quickly the work was accomplished.  On that day the new schoolrooms were publicly opened and tea served in the girls’ school-room to upwards of 100 friends.

This is confusing, as the stated intention was to open a boys’ school, yet they have apparently ended up with one for girls!  The solution to this mystery lay in the Archive of the BFSS now housed at Brunel University.[3]  A letter to the BFSS from E [Ebenezer] West, Secretary, dated 11 February 1841,[4]  informs the Society that they [presumably the Committee of the Amersham British Schools] ‘wish to open a Girls School on the British System at Lady Day [25 March] next’.  As a temporary measure they are going to use the School-room belonging to the Lower Meeting-House.  He wants to know where they could buy cast-iron standards for desks and forms ready-made, as it would be cheaper than having them done to order.  The intention seems to cut costs by adding the woodwork themselves.

This letter gives a rare glimpse into the finances of the schools. They need to recruit a suitable schoolmistress and are prepared to guarantee her a salary of £35 per annum plus a moiety [half] the sum produced by the children’s payment, the terms being twopence per week.[5]  He adds that all the subscribers are Dissenters except for one who is of the Established Church and one who is a Wesleyan.

It seems clear that the girls’ school had opened ahead of the boys’ and possibly as early as March 1841.  An undated report [transcribed below] by the Committee of the Amersham British Schools is pasted into the Minute Book[6] in which ‘the Committee freely confess they had not ventured to hope that within twenty months from the opening of the Girls’ School, they should be able to state that one for boys also was in full operation.’  Twenty months from March 1841 would bring us to around November 1842.

Some further support for this date comes from the 1841 census, taken on 6 June, which finds Mary Robjohns lodging with Ann Toms in the High Street. It is not until 1847 that the Post Office Directory (details for which would have been gathered in 1846) lists her as the schoolmistress at the British School.  She was born in Devon and trained in London, so it seems likely that if she was in Amersham, it would have been in order to work, even though no occupation is stated in the 1841 census.

REPORT, &c.

The Committee of the Amersham British Schools heartily congratulate their fellow townsmen on the completion of the buildings that are to be used for the education of youth of both sexes on a system in which “Nothing Essential is omitted — Nothing Sectarian taught.”

The Committee freely confess that they had not ventured to hope that within twenty months from the opening of the Girls’ School, they should be able to stste that one for boys also was in full operation, and premises erected in every respect convenient for school purposes.

Enquiries had been made without success by your Committee as to the possibility of purchasing ground for building, or renting premises that might be altered so as to serve for school-rooms, before they accepted the proposal of the Baptist Church assembling in the Lower Meeting House: this society offered to erect a building at their own expense on the site of their existing Vestry and Sunday School-rooms, the freehold of which they would retain, but whose use they would grant to the British Schools: the provision thus made, in addition to that afforded by other schools already in existence, it is believed will be fully adequate to the wants of the population: the dimensions of the rooms are 33ft [feet] by 21ft and the heights respectively 10ft and 12ft.

 The Committee are confident that this Report would ill meet the feelings of their constituents, did they not publicly thank that religious body which has shewn its deep interest in the scriptural education of the young, by thus liberally granting them the use of its premises.

The Committee further express their obligation to Mr Widmore, for the valuable assistance he has given in superintending the works through their successive stages.

The practical working of the Institution may be judged of from the fact that the number of scholars now enrolled on the books is 122, of whom 59 girls and 50 boys are in actual attendance this week; whilst the reports of the Visitors as to the orderly conduct of the children, and their steady improvement are highly satisfactory. Since the opening of the School for Boys, they have been taught Class-singing on Hullah’s System,[7] and the master has kindly given instruction to the girls also.

Shortly after the 25th of next March the Committee will submit to the Subscribers their annual account of the receipts and expenses incurred; they will therefore merely remind the Meeting that they invite the co-operation of all who are desirous that useful knowledge, based on sound scriptural principles, should be imparted to the children of their less affluent neighbours; at the same time they respectfully urge on those classes whose interests have especially been consulted, the duty of affording their offspring those educational advantages now placed within their reach.

RESOLUTIONS

I           That the Report now read be adopted, printed, and circulated under the direction of the Committee.

II           That in the opinion of this meeting, it is for the interest of all classes of the community that elementary Instruction in various branches of useful knowledge is to be imparted as extensively as possible to the children of the poor: and that this education, whilst entirely free from denominational peculiarities, ought ever to have as its prominent feature the inculcation of the grand doctrines of our Common Faith, and those high principles of action towards our maker and our fellows which the Bible teaches.

III          That past success, exceeding the anticipations of all, induces this Meeting to pledge itself to cherish a more lively interest in the cause of Education, and to make those efforts which from time to time shall be necessary to maintain these schools in an efficient state.

W Hepburn, Printer, Stationer and Book-binder, Chesham

It is clear from the report that remarkably the building costs were met entirely by the Baptists, who retained the freehold and let the premises to the Amersham British Schools Committee. This shows great determination and commitment by a fairly small body of people.

After that the running of the Schools is not mentioned in the Baptists’ Minute books and any information has to come from other sources.

 

[1] Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies, Minutes of Church Meetings 1832-1874 [Amersham Old Town Baptist] NB 1/2

[2]  The British Baptist Reporter and Missionary Intelligencer, Feb 1861, p 40, announced his death ‘Nov. 7, at the house of his daughter at Hackney, Wm. Morten, Esq., of Amersham, aged 77 years. He had been for upwards of thirty-three years a deacon of the Baptist church at Amersham.’

[3] Many thanks are due to archivist Phaedra Casey and Sarah Trim-West for identifying relevant material in this very extensive collection and tirelessly producing heavy boxes which might contain a single relevant letter.

[4] BFSS/1/7/2/2/3/2. Ebenezer West served as Deacon of the Lower Baptist Meeting from 1837, according to the list of names of members of the Church recopied on 28 March 1861 into the Minute Book of the Lower Chapel. He was ‘dismissed’ in 1863, no doubt following the move to Caversham.

[5] This seems a good offer. Horace Mann, calculated that in 1851 ‘the average emolument of masters is £55 and of mistresses £31’, Census of Great Britain 1851. Education in Great Britain. Being the Official Report of Horace Mann, of Lincoln’s Inn, Esq., Barrister-at-Law, to George Graham, Esq., Registrar-General, London, 1854, p48

[6] Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies Minutes of Church Meetings 1832-1874 [Amersham Old Town Baptist] NB 1/2

[7] John Pyke Hullah (1812-1884) was a composer and teacher of music. He travelled abroad to investigate methods of teaching singing to large groups of people and adopted and modified a system based on a fixed ‘Do’. This was much used in schools.

 

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