There's Nothing Like Education.
Let There Be Light
It was the iron and coal which once lay in rich seams beneath our feet which brought the town itself into being. Cinderford lies largely on the outcrop of this coal, and early mines were being worked here by 1750. All over the open greens were small pits -Prospect, Spero, Tormentor, Teaseall, Bilson Winner, Paragon (which gave its name to Parragate) and Leather. These pits were only shallow workings, for water soon became a problem and then one small shaft would be abandoned and another one started.
These small workings were those of the Freeminers of old. Soon however, the advent of powerful pumping engines meant that larger shafts could be sunk to the valuable seams of coal lying deep in the basin. The old freeminers gales were bought and amalgamated into large workable companies, and by the middle of the nineteenth century the mining industry was well established.
At the same time the ancient iron industry revived after several centuries during which it had only been carried on in a desultory fashion. The outcrop ore was almost exhausted by centuries of small scale exploitation, but deep below the surface lay seams and pockets of valuable iron ore as yet untouched.
It was in the valley adjacent to Cinderford Bridge that there opened in 1795 the first blast furnace to use coke instead of charcoal for smelting this iron ore. And it is upward from this valley, now Valley Road, that the town developed. Miners and foundrymen and their families quickly moved into the area from surrounding villages, and the untidy sprawl which was to become Cinderford really began.
In the early 19th century there was little or no provision for education or religion on the Wood Side. Provided that the miners and ironworkers could be housed, however poorly, little else seemed to matter. The first place of worship was built by Aaron Goold, Coal Owner of Bilson House, who provided a Wesleyan Chapel on Littledean Hill in 1824. The building remains to this day, having been for many years Chapel Farm.
1840 another coal owner, Edward Prothero, had become concerned about the non-education of the children of his miners. He built a schoolroom on "Cinderford Tump where the old holly grew" and overlooking the ironworks in the valley. This schoolroom was consigned to the care of one Zachariah Jolly and numbers sometimes exceeded 280 children, each paying twopence a week to attend. It was adjacent to this Schoolroom
that St. Johns Parish Church was built in 1844, the church acquiring the schoolroom at the same time. The School then became a National School, Mr. Jolly later transferring his interests to a private school of his own, situated wholly or partly on the site now known as British School Row in Church Road.
During this period too, St. Stephens Schoolroom in Abbey Street was a Day School for boys and girls - privately run. Much of the land on the upper slope of the Wood Side was still part of the Flaxley Abbey Estate; only the lower, poorer ground was held by the Crown.
1870 saw the passing of the Government Act making provision for Education compulsory; and thus began the history, first, of Bilson Schools, and soon of several others in the immediate area. The first step was the formation of the United Forest of Dean District School Board in 1875. Its opening meeting was held at the Speech House on April 8th. At this meeting Alfred Goold was elected Chairman to the Board and Mr. J. S. Bradstock its first Clerk.
The most pressing need was for a school for the children of Cinderford, now a rapidly growing town, already well established almost to the summit of the hill above Littledean. Several sites were looked at during 1876, and eventually (probably because it was the cheapest! ) one was chosen at Bilson Green, on the North side of the road leading to the earlier railway station, the land costing thirty shillings a perch. The ground in this area was poor, having been much worked over by the earlier miners; and even today the old blue/grey heaps of colliery spoil reach almost to the back door step of the School.
By the middle of 1876 the building plans had been accepted. They were designed by Hodden Bros. . Architects, of Hereford, the school being roughly shaped like a capital E with a pair of semi-detached School Houses in the angle. The long East Wing would house a Boys School and the matching West wing the Girls Department. The Infants School would occupy the centre section; each School would be separately administered, and would be complete in itself, with its own entrance. By August of 1876 the tender of William Bowers, Builder, of Hereford was accepted.
The cost was to be £4,880. 16s. 8d., and the furniture and fittings would cost another £212. 17s. 7d. The proposed building was to be a brick one, but early in 1877 the plans were changed, and the blue/grey Forest Pennant Stone was substituted. In retrospect this was a wise decision, one which was repeated subsequently for schools at Ruardean Woodside, Joys Green, Steammills and St. Whites, all of which blend very happily into their Forest landscape.
Building must have proceeded almost immediately, for Bilson Schools were officially opened by members of the Board on December 4th, 1877. The staff for the new schools had been appointed in July of that year; John Hale would be Headmaster of the Boys' School at a salary of £110 per annum with house and firing found, Mr. Hale paying the rates. Mrs. Emma Hale, his wife, would be Headmistress of the Infants' School at a salary of £70 per annum. Mr. Hale would be assisted by George Proper, a qualified teacher, and Mrs. Hale by Miss Amy Packer.
Keeping it in the family seemed to be the
fashion of the day, for we find that the Girls' School had Mrs. M. Thorley as Headmistress, Miss Mary C. Thorley as assistant, and Edith Ellen Thorley as Pupil teacher, joined later in the year by Bessie Adela Thorley, Pupil teacher. Mr. Amos Morgan was appointed School Keeper (or Caretaker) at a wage of ten shillings a week.