There's Nothing Like Education.
Thirty years on
Late in 1904 Miss Prudence Bailey left the Girls' School and her place was taken by Miss Flora Maddocks, already a qualified teacher on the staff. The Schools had, by now, undergone quite a few changes. There had been additional building to provide more classroom space, and due to the insistence of HMI Reports, the big clumsy galleries in the large schoolrooms had been removed and replaced with raised platforms for desks.
Workmen were everywhere, and there was "much inconvenience. On Wednesday there was no School owing to the heavy rain which came through the partly open roof" A "heating apparatus with hot water pipes" had been installed, and in 1903 re-flooring again extended the summer holiday to eight weeks, "the workmen not being ready on time." One seems to have heard this in more recent times! At this re-flooring the wooden boards were replaced with blocks which "gave a much better appearance to the rooms. "At this time too, the dusty unsurfaced playgrounds were 'partly paved with blue bricks" some of which survived until fairly recent times.
The Boys' School "left much to be desired in the matter of furniture and equipment. Attention was first called to this in 1901. In every Report since, new desks have been asked for. The younger children have to stand up in order to write on the present ones. The teachers' desks and tables and the platform on which the master's desk stands are quite worn out." This HMI also added a cryptic note - "bicycles should nor be kept in the classroom." The furniture was replaced, but only very gradually.
In 1903 John Hale recorded:- March 31st. Today terminates the existence of the Forest of Dean United School Board. April 1st. The First day of COUNTY COUNCIL RULE.
One wonders if the date was significant!; there was certainly no immediate improvement in the supply of badly needed equipment. Emma Hale still had "over 100 little ones present in a room which only accommodates 70. Mr. Bradstock thinks is best if I refuse to admit any more children for a time."
Four years later she had acquired "an umbrella stand" and "sufficient paper and pencils that the older children no longer need to write on slates." Sliding partitions were fixed in all the main schoolrooms, making "teaching much more of a pleasure than heretofore" and "pegs for hats and coats were fixed in the Cloakrooms.
The Inspectors had been advising since 1900 that "the Board should consider the question of introducing gaslight throughout the School." During the summer of 1904 this work was carried out and on the 21st of November that year Miss Maddocks proudly wrote "The afternoon closed in very dark The Gas was lighted for the first time at 3.30 p.m.
The Pupil Teachers now attended classes at Lydney, and in Cinderford Wesley Schoolrooms, for instruction on two days a week, but their introduction to the profession was Still as Monitors and Monitresses. Their great step forwards was made in 1910 when a "Higher Elementary and Pupil Teacher Centre" was opened across the road from Bilson on a "one acre site of poor Crown Land." This building was eventually destined to become East Dean Grammar School, a school which provided 80 per cent of the future teachers of Bilson and other Forest Schools.
DECLINE IN IRON AND COAL
Life was still pretty tough in Cinderford. The huge forge hammers at the Ironworks were silenced and demolition of the furnaces was taking place. The office buildings were converted to a row of cottages, and even the stables gave up their equine tenants to become habitations -of a sort- for about ten families. It was called, most inappropriately, Whitechapel Row, and was destined to become a headache to many a Sanitary Inspector of future years.
The pits too, were on short time during most of the long summer months and there were the beginnings of rumbles of discontent among the miners, and strikes for better pay and conditions were becoming more frequent. Coal for the School boilers at this time cost seventeen shillings a ton, "delivered into the boiler house." A strike early in 1912 affected supplies of this coal to the Schools, for Emma recorded on April 1st "our coal being exhausted no fires were lit this morning and the School was very very cold. A wood fire was lighted in the afternoon which warmed us a little."
Because of the hard times the colliers were experiencing, the managers requested the County Education Committee to apply to the Board of Education for authority to provide meals under the Act passed in 1906. But this would have meant spending up to a halfpenny rate, and apparently the County Councillors just did not want to know. The children seldom went hungry, but it is highly probable that their parents often did.
At the end of September 1910 John Hale had retired, although Emma was to remain with the Infants for a few more years. Arthur J. Mantle took charge of the Boys
School and began a reign which was to last for almost 22 years. In 1914 an extensive remodelling of the School was carried out. More land had been purchased at the rear of the building and the enlargements carried out at a cost of £1,115. This was to be the last major alteration to the Schools for some years, and the building we know today is basically the result of the additions of that date.
The Managers of Bilson Schools at this time were Mr. George Rowlinson (chairman),
Mr. Martin Perkins, Samuel J. T. Rowlinson, Mrs. R. E. Westaway and Mr. John Cooksey.
Each School still had an official "visiting member" who called, unannounced, every
two or three weeks to call over the Registers and check that they were correctly marked.
Cheating the Authorities, even of one or two attendance marks, was not to be allowed! Medical Inspections began, and also regular visits by the School Nurse to examine
the children's' heads. A weighing machine was installed enabling "a check to be kept on the physical condition of children from the poorer homes." It was a pale substitute for the Welfare System our children enjoy today, but it was the best that could be done at the time.
The Sunday School Treat
The Sunday School Treats continued to flourish throughout this period, and even became more adventurous, for the arrival of the Great Western Railway at Cinderford had enabled train trips to be taken to far away places like Newnham on Severn and Purton -and even over the new Railway Bridge to Severn Beach. The Franchise meetings and Club parades had already started to decline however; and the Hiring Fair and Stock Show too, had died. But in its place other Great Days were born. The Forest of Dean Eisteddfod flourished for many years, being held alternately around the larger towns -including Cinderford.
There had been celebrations at the relief of Mafeking in 1900 when "through the generosity of some of our towns people the children were conducted to the Football Field and each supplied with an orange and a bun." Only a month later the Fall of Pretoria was celebrated with another tea in the Recreation Field. The coronation of Edward VII in 1902 brought a week's holiday; the streets of the town were gaily flagged and an enormous beacon fire was lit near Latimer Lodge. Nine years later there was another week's holiday when King George V came to the throne, and, as each royal Prince or Princess was married, two more days free of School were enjoyed.
Empire Day was always an occasion celebrated with great ceremony. The Schools assembled in the morning and Registers were marked. All the scholars then assembled in the largest playground and the Union Jack was hoisted. The National Anthem was sung, following which the flag was saluted and a patriotic song called "The Flag of Britain" was rendered. The address was given by the Headmaster or one of the Managers
- in 1910 Mr. G. H. Rowlinson spoke for half an hour on "Truthfulness, Swearing, and the Mastery of our Tempers."
The whole School then recited Rudyard Kipling's "Recessional Hymn" and the second rendering of the National Anthem brought the proceedings to a close -following which, a half holiday was declared!
Attendance Holidays too, became the custom, both to encourage more regular attendance and to instil punctuality, for one had to be in place by 9.10 a.m. or the Registers were closed and your mark lost. In the Girls' School Miss Maddocks had put up a "Late Scholars Board" which "has had a good effect, the children now make a great effort to be on time."
These Half-Holidays were eagerly anticipated and much enjoyed for many many years. Neighbouring families from the small cottages spread around the "Green" would combine to pack food into the big clothes baskets, together with kettles, teapots, knitting, bats and balls and other necessities. The baskets were carried into the oakwoods around Bilson House, and while the children played "tag" or "hide and seek", or put up a rope swing from the low branches of the sturdy trees, the womenfolk would sit around the fire, watching the hissing kettles and enjoying "a bit of knitting and a good gossip"
There were still one or two occasions when the older ones were absent for unofficial reasons. One of these always took place at Eastertide, when the Friday preceding Palm Sunday brought low attendance "some boys being absent gathering flowers to dress the graves on Palm Sunday." This old Forest custom still prevails today, but our children no longer walk for miles into the country in search of wild daffodils and primroses, for the nearest florist's shop now provides this service for us.
During this period a Great War came - and went - without much apparent effect upon the life in our Schools. The working day was shortened for a while 'for coal is expensive and scarce." Two of the young men in Mr. Mantle's School went off to enlist and were never mentioned again. Attendance was "poor" on the eleventh of November 1918 "chiefly on account of the Declaration of Peace."
Emma Hale retired from the Infants School m 1916, having "given 38 years of her life to the service of our little ones in Cinderford" Miss E. Watts was appointed to fill the vacancy; the Hales had long left the School House to Mr. Mantle's occupation, and life went quietly on.
Perhaps the most significant happening of this era was the raising of the School-leaving age to 14. In 1903 new County Bye-Laws were introduced to bring this change into operation. In the Forest of Dean however, the news was not received with any degree of enthusiasm; the colliery owners being greatly opposed to the plan for "it was considered necessary to the mining industry that boys should be available to work in the thinner seams of coal."
Nevertheless, the Bye-Law was confirmed, and the miners' sons were at last enabled to complete to a great degree, their education, before the pits claimed their labour -if not their lives.
The nineteen-twenties began a period of great depression in the towns and villages of Dean. Already the coal industry was beginning to decline. The miners' working week shortened to two or three shifts, and with wages of five shillings to seven and sixpence a shift, times had become very hard indeed. This inevitably had its effect upon the children. Strikes became more frequent as the desperate miners tried to improve their lot, usually to no avail.
In 1921, "in consequence of the continuation of a local strike" it was 'found necessary to provide a meal for necessitous children attending Bilson Schools. A midday meal is to be provided and served under the shed at the back of the School each day. The teachers will superintend the serving. This is to be carried out under the Provision of Meals Act 1906-1914."
Smallpox broke out in 1923 in Factory Row - a cluster of poor dwellings on Bilson Green, long since demolished. The Public Vaccinator was called in and "as many of the pupils and staff as gave consent were vaccinated", the Schools were closed for five weeks to allow the epidemic to subside. 1926 brought another prolonged strike by the Forest miners, and the feeding of their children was resumed, this time in a classroom, "the meal being prepared by voluntary workers."
This necessarily "caused much interruption of work" but the feeding went on from May to October during that year; the School even remaining open during the long Summer holiday for the meals to continue. When the strike finally ended the children's' fathers had gained nothing; those who had taken the most active part were never able to get work in the pits again and were forced either to leave their home town for good, or to join an ever lengthening queue for "dole" money.
There had been, during these bitter days, a minor upheaval in the teaching methods of the Schools. Far away in the Lake District a Miss Charlotte Mason had evolved a new method of education. Backed by an organisation called the Parents National Educational Union, her methods had spread, until eventually they reached Gloucestershire. Even before the end of the Great War, their Secretary had visited Bilson to discuss the new system, and during the next year or so the staff were attending conferences, and books were being delivered.
By 1922 the scheme was well established, although Miss Maddocks had pointed out that "the books set by Miss Mason were so advanced it would be more satisfactory if Form I only were taken in this School." Another difficulty cropped up, in that "Miss Mason's School Year does not coincide with the School Year of the Board of Education."
The necessary books and equipment were supplied through the Charlotte Mason College in Ambleside; examination papers were set there and the completed ones returned for marking.
The scheme was, no doubt, a revolutionary one for its day. By the middle of the 1920's it was well established at Bilson, and teachers from every School in the Forest, and even from across the river, came here to study its working. The motto of the P.N.E.U. was "I am, I can, I ought, I will." and this had to be painstakingly written by the child on the first page of every exercise book which was begun. My own recollections of doing this, in a shaky Infant script, are very vivid.
The slates and their squeaky slate pencils were now banished for ever. The sand trays survived in the "babies" rooms for quite a while longer, and these too, I can remember very well, always having had trouble in holding the thin sticks with which we drew in the sand. Very dear to memory also, were the lovely cowrie shells which we used as counters - so smooth and polished, and so satisfying to hold.
Of my first attempt at knitting I have less cherished recollections. It was, I remember, a pair of ill fitting slippers, knitted in a straight strip of two colours in a kind of check pattern; this, Teacher later sewed into a shape of sorts and attached to a cork sole. The bag of wools of various glorious colours was distributed around the desks, two skeins to each girl. In my eager anticipation I had already chosen the royal blue and rose pink.
When the bag finally arrived at my place I was given one hank of a peculiar shade of pea green - and - horror of horrors - a second one of a violent mauve, then, as now, one of my least favourite colours. Protest would have been useless, I swallowed my tears, the slippers were eventually finished, but I never really took to knitting from that day to this.
On the whole, though, memories of the Infants School of this period were very happy ones. The visiting Minister of the Wesley Church, making the annual Scripture Examination, wrote of "the winsome ways of the teachers in this school, which must make the children very reluctant to stay away." Perhaps those dedicated teachers of the day realised only too well, the shadows which hung so menacingly over our families, and, in their own way, tried to soften the hard edges of life in the 1930's.