National School pupils in 1905

The earliest system for teaching poor children in England generally came from the church in the form of a Sunday School.  It is then not a surprise to find that the original school building for the National School (later St Mary’s School) in Thornbury was across the road from its present site and next to the church, squeezed into a corner of the churchyard between the road and land belonging to Thornbury Castle.

Nation School next to St Mary’s church in 1840 Tithe Map

As social awareness, and perhaps the need for a better educated workforce, increased, the National Society for the Promotion of the Education of the Poor in Christian Principles was set up in 1811 to raise money to build schools and pay teachers.  We do not know at present much about the school that operated before the National School was set up in 1839.  The booklet ” A 150 years of St Mary’s School” says that the earliest known record of the original school was in 1827 when the vicar wrote asking the National Society for a grant to enable him 005a Old school close upto increase the number of children attending the existing School.  He was already turning away pupils and he wanted to build a larger and more suitable property.  The School at that time was apparently rented for the sum of £8.00 a year, and consisted of two rooms, one for the boys (55) the other for the girls (57).  The thumbnail image on the right shows a plan of the old school building

A grant of £100.00 was offered by the National Society, but the Vicar apparently had to turn it down as no land or suitable property had become available.  We have not seen the original documents but the school referred to here may have been a Sunday School rather than a full time school as the above mentioned booklet published by the school says it was founded in 1839.

The section from the Tithe Apportionment Map drawn up between 1838 and 1840 (seen on the left above) describes the school as the “National School” and shows its position close to the church building.

National School accounts

The thumbnail image on the left shows the accounts of the School in 1850.  The salaries of the schoolmaster and his assistant were £60 and £20 respectively.  Sundry other expenses amounted to £15 7s 8d covering repairs, coal, ironmongery, stationary and printing costs.  Most of the income to cover this expenditure came from annual subscriptions from local people (about £57) and over £20 was raised from the pennies paid by each child attending the school (we know from Edmund Cullimore’s memories of his school life that children were paying 2 old pennies each week in advance).  A further £10 was raised by subscriptions made that year and £8 was collected at the Church sermons to aid the expense of running the school.  Click on the thumbnail to see the lists and amount donated by each person

Henry Carter.  The first people known to have taught at this school were Henry Carter and Mary Smith.  They were appointed by the Vicar and Committee to be Master and Mistress of the School in 1839.  These names also appear in a trade directory for 1839 as teachers at “The National School for Boys and Girls”.  We have no further information about Mary Smith at present, however we do know that Henry Carter and his wife Margaret lived in what later became 1 Castle Street.  Henry appears to have become the teacher at Atwells Free School by 1849.  Click here to read about Henry Carter

It is noteworthy that although a master and mistress had been appointed, the Vicar, Maurice Fitzgerald Townsend Stephens, was still very involved in the school.   This was not only to teach the children about religion but in some very practical matters too.  The archives of Christ Church College Oxford contain one example of this involvement in a letter dated 30th May 1839.  The letter says;

I have now turned my attention to knitting stockings.  I have begun to teach the girls of the National School, for you would hardly suppose that in this large Parish only one woman could be found to knit, luckily that was our Schoolmistress.”

Albert Verrall.  By 1849 the teacher at the National School was Albert Verrall.  The 1851 Census shows that Albert Verrall was probably lodging with Griffiths Hughes at 56 High Street.  One of Griffiths Hughes’ sons John Griffiths Hughes was a pupil teacher at the National School.  We have some evidence that Albert Verrall was trained by the National Society itself.  The Ipswich Journal of December 11th 1847 carries a petition signed by the students at the National Society’s Training Institution in Battersea which said “we are anxious to abstain from controversy and keep the school of poor children free from religious feud; but we are ready at all times to declare our deep and unalterable attachment to the English Reformation.”  This petition was in answer to comments that implied the students were being taught religious beliefs closely allied to the Roman Catholic tradition and is part of an ongoing dispute about education that led to the formation of the British Schools for children of Nonconformist families.

The trade directories for 1856 show that Joseph Lugg and Miss Priscilla Harris were schoolmaster and mistress of the National School.

Joseph Lugg – we know that by the Census of 1861 Joseph lived in what later became 81 High Street in Thornbury.  We are not sure how long Joseph was headmaster.  Edmund Cullimore referred to him being at the National School in 1858.  He is listed as being the headmaster there in Slater’s 1868 Gloucestershire Directory, when he was assisted by Jane Clark.  We believe however that this listing was based on outdated information as the school records show that Mr Warren was appointed head in 1863.  Click here to read about Joseph

Priscilla Harris – we have no further trace of Priscilla Harris.  It seems possible that she was the daughter of William Harris and that she lived with him and her brother in Gillingstool in the 1851 census.  This Priscilla Harris married Herbert Wells on 13th May 1856 and if this is the lady who was the teacher it seems unlikely she could then continue in her employment after her marriage.  However we have at present no further evidence to support this supposition.  Priscilla was listed in the 1861 census living in Llawhaden in Pembrokeshire with Herbert and a young son, Charles William who was born in Thornbury in 1859.

The New School

Steps were in hand at this time to obtain the land required for a new school opposite the Church.   The sites for the new school and the schoolmasters house were to be on Rectorial or Glebe land owned by the Dean and Chapter of Christ Church College Oxford and leased by the Vicar of Thornbury to provide an income for the church.

The documents held by Christ Church College Oxford include a letter dated 4th January 1859 from Rev Maurice Townsend Stephens the then vicar of Thornbury enquiring whether the Dean and Chapter of Christ Church would grant a portion of this field to build a school and master’s house in Thornbury. Mr Stephens went on to say that that the present schools were not large enough for the children consequently they have “a most unpleasant atmosphere.”

The ongoing issue seems to have been that if a piece of the Rectorial land or Glebe were to be used, the rents and consequently the income would be permanently diminished.  Maurice Stephens seems to have found an acceptable solution in that he proposed that Oldbury should be sectioned off from the parish of Thornbury and become an entirely separate parish.  This would mean that the Rector of Thornbury would no longer have to provide for the upkeep of the church at Oldbury out of his income from the tithes.  Fields directly in front of the vicarage at Oldbury belonged to the Rectory and these would be given to the new parish of Oldbury to provide an income for that church.  To explain the details of his case he enclosed a list of the lands in the Rectorial Glebe and the incomes from these properties as agreed in the recent Tithe Apportionment.  At this time it was also agreed that Falfield should become independent in the same way.

Mr Howard of Thornbury Castle was concerned about the fairness of this scheme with regard to the newly formed parish of Oldbury.  Richard Scarlett as his steward wrote to Maurice Stephens and the Dean and Chapter of Christ Church in April 1862 on Mr Howard’s behalf offering to pay £150 which was half of the money needed to buy or build a suitable vicarage for Oldbury.  The other two parties were to find the remaining £150.  Maurice Stephens agreed to place a curate at Oldbury with a stipend of £100 a year.  Correspondence held in Christ Church shows that Maurice Stephens as the vicar of Thornbury was feeling very aggrieved at finding himself in the situation where he was paying out £35 a year to support the school, paying for curates at Falfield and Oldbury and paying towards the costs of building a vicarage at Oldbury.  There are some very heartfelt appeals for financial help from Christ Church in the later months of 1862.

004 Plan new school showing old oneNow that all the difficulties of providing the land were finally resolved the arrangements for the buildings themselves could go ahead.  The plans for the new School and Masters House were drawn up and builders tended their valuations.  A firm called Burchells (run by Daniel Burchell) came up with the price of £957.00, but with alterations to the plans it was brought down to £831.00.  With grants from their Lordships, the National Society and the sale of the old School to Mr Howard, the Church was still left with a shortfall, the treasurer had to appeal for more donations from local Churchmen.  We have noted that the costs for re-building show that the original building on the site was to be altered to make it suitable for the school master’s house.

The four thumbnails below show the plans of the new school.  Click on each thumbnail to see a larger image.

014 plan of rooms etc  015 Nth elevation  017 West elevation  016 South elevation

The land was at last freely conveyed to the Archdeacon of Gloucester in 1860, and the School was eventually built in 1862, only 35 years after the Vicar’s original letter!

The School had two entrances.  The one for the girls used a right of way running between the School House and the garden of Pound Cottage which was owned by Mr A. H. Howard who granted the right.  The boys entrance was from Church Road.

The toilets, or privies as they were called then, were outside.  A coal shed separated the boys from the girls. The playground was a lot smaller than today and boys and girls were once again segregated.

Mr and Mrs Warren – they were appointed as Master and Mistress in 1863.  We don’t know anything about them nor how long they stayed.  They are not listed in the 1862 or 1867 rate books.

The next two headmasters stayed longer  – in fact between them they stayed for over 70 years!

The Fills – Thomas John Golding Fill was appointed head master of the National School in Thornbury in 1866.  The 1867 Rate Book shows that the Fill family lived in the School House.  Thomas continued as head until 1905 assisted at various times by his wife, Fanny, in spite of the fact that she was to have ten children during the time they were at the school.  Several of their daughters also worked at the school as pupil teachers.  Click here to read more about the Fills


Samuel Dennis with class about 1931

Samuel Dennis – Samuel took over the position of Headmaster at the National School on 3rd April 1905.  Samuel’s wife, Mabel, also occasionally worked at the school as cover for other teachers.  Samuel retired from his post as head master in 1936.  He carried on with his gardening classes (which was his special interest) until 1937 and continued as a school manager until his death in 1965 aged 90.  Click here to read more about Mr and Mrs Dennis

We have extracts taken from the School’s log book during the period of 1939 to 1945.  They provide an interesting insight into how the school was affected by the War.  Click here to read the extracts