Education in Ecton in the Past

Wherever humans settle, a major concern is the upbringing of the next generation. In immemorial tradition, those of tender years learned useful skills first at mother’s knee, then by helping in the home and finally by imitating elders in field or workshop. However, in addition during the last 400 years, a variety of schools have served the villagers of Ecton.

The earliest known teacher was Mr Bridges, listed in the Peterborough diocesan visitation records in 1589. Successors included Samuel Hooke, MA in January 1607/8*, John Cooke in 1609, Mr Matchett in 1610 and Mr Thorley in 1611. These grammar masters - ludimagistri - were licensed by the Bishop to teach the Latin and Greek classics plus post-Reformation theology. Their charges were quick-witted boys of humble background (as they had been) who in maturity would extol the virtues of Protestantism. The curriculum was conceived as ‘educational insurance’ against both superstition and reversion to popery. Tuition was given in a convenient part of the parish church such as the chancel.

Hooke’s third son, also called Samuel, who went up to Oxford University, matriculating at St Edmund Hall on 9 March 1631/2 aged 16, was typically registered as ‘plebeian’. In June 1639, having gained a Master of Arts degree too, he was documented as a priest working in the diocese. This route to advancement, then securely in place, proved durable. At least five scholars who were either ‘born at’ or ‘christened at’ Ecton, though not necessarily schooled here, proceeded between 1700 and 1796 to either Cambridge or Oxford Universities and subsequently took Holy Orders.

Late in the seventeenth century, fear of a Roman Catholic revival gave rise to strident calls nationwide to stamp out the ignorance and idleness officially associated with that faith, and which afflicted the lowest social classes. This led to a flood of educational bequests. At Ecton, John Palmer in 1688 and Thomas Catesby in 1698 gave land, the annual rents of which were henceforth expended on teaching poor boys and finding them apprenticeships. These endowments were in the public domain, valued and of remarkable longevity. Whether from the beginning, a sum of £6 0s 0d was at some point set aside as part payment of salary for a master. Though its whereabouts are unknown, the resulting school was not transitory because Thomas Griffin (or Griffith) undoubtedly taught here from August 1720 to August 1726, perhaps longer.

A distinct advance for Ecton was namesake John Palmer’s erection of a substantial school together with living quarters for staff in 1752. The attractive building, of local stone with tell-tale plaque, still survives at 5-7 High Street. Palmer was probably influenced by the moralizing Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. White Kennett, the SPCK’s most eloquent spokesman, Bishop of Peterborough until his death in 1740, repeatedly exhorted the establishment of charity schools which would imbue the poor with a fear of God and deference to their superiors. The aforementioned £6 0s 0d was eventually augmented by a voluntary contribution of £16 0s 0d per year from the Isteds of Ecton Hall. Incidental school expenses were met through subscriptions, small fees if affordable and, later, government grants. These financial arrangements engendered exceptional stability in an age when many similar schools were founded one year only to disappear the next.

John Van, the highly esteemed master for 40 years, who died aged 75 in 1811, is buried in the churchyard. The inscription on his headstone, of expensive Leicestershire slate, commends him as, ‘A tender husband, an affectionate father, an honest man and a sincere Christian’. A quotation from Psalm 37, ‘Behold the upright, for the end of that man is peace’, is followed by pious verses which complete his epitaph:

`I hear the voice, “Ye dead arise”,

And lo! the graves obey,

And walking saints, with joyful eyes,

Salute th’ expected day.

O! may my humble spirit stand

Among them, cloth’d in white.

The meanest place at His right hand

Is infinite delight’.

James Barret (or Barrit) had been master for 30 years in 1847, by which date his wife Alice assisted. This domestic adaptation proved satisfactory because by 1854 Mr Fredrick and Mrs Eleanor Greenfield were also sharing the responsibilities. Benjamin Martin was the Head throughout the 1860s followed in 1874 by William Street, interestingly titled ‘master of the National School’. This is an indirect reference to The National Society for the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church, formed by the SPCK in 1811. The Society took over many existing charity schools and began issuing teaching materials based on the monitorial, or drill, system which enjoined pupils to acquire the habits befitting their proper stations through strict discipline.

Heroic as the National and other denominational Societies were in shouldering the country’s educational burden, while parliament was largely indifferent, huge numbers of children escaped the clutches of pedagogues. Official Returns for 1818 show that in Ecton precisely 20 boys were taught at Palmer’s day school though one Sunday School was attended by 45 boys and another by 50 girls (whether Church of England or Baptist is not stated). By 1833 Palmer’s school still had just 20 boys but a second day school had come into being (location unknown) at which 20 girls were `instructed at the expense of their parents’. In the same year one Sunday School (again not distinguished) attracted 30 male and 27 female scholars. Clearly, a significant proportion of the village’s children were taught only on the Sabbath, and there were others who avoided all scholastic establishments and consequently slipped through the educational net.

Incidentally, the text, ‘Therefore are they before the throne’ (Revelation vii, 15) was the text chosen by pastor Mr John Field for a sermon preached on 26 April 1868 in the Baptist chapel. Funds raised were to be applied to the building of a Sunday School (which did not materialize).

The erection of a school specifically for infants, in 1850, was a laudable attempt to plug a gap. There has been speculation that the school was the structure, now a residence named `Laundry House' sited in the Hall grounds. Stylistically, this edifice - particularly the unaltered formal frontage - looks the part. No uncertainty surrounds the identity of its mistresses who included Fanny Hammitt in 1854, Miss Bazeley in 1869 and Afra Hunter in 1874.

A `Ladies Boarding School’ existed in the village between 1847 and 1849, its proprietress Margaret Watson, in the house now known as ‘The Grange’ but then called ‘The Hollies’. She would have offered subjects such as English Literature, French, Writing à la mode and the accomplishments of Dancing, Music and Needlework. This academy was not long-lasting as Margaret was operating in Northampton from 1862 to 1869, first in Spencer Parade and then in Billing Road.

Lacemaking featured in almost every Northamptonshire parish from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. The Ecton laceworkers in 1698 numbered 44. Several girls attended a sometime lace school believed to have been situated towards the southern end of High Street. In its heyday the workers locked out their mentor and indulged in a cake-eating, tea-drinking holiday each St Thomas’s Day, 21 December. By 1851, females engaged in the trade varied in age; for example Elizabeth Tipster was 10, Emma Pinny 13, Jane Randall 14, Harriet Creamer 22 and Sarah Simmons 50, but the census of that year described no individual as lace school mistress’. The advantages of the young becoming self-supporting and making no demands on anyone’s purse were obvious but the bid to supplant prayers, reading, writing and simple arithmetic with institutionalized manual activity was only partially successful.

Past benefactors did not neglect those of riper years. To commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign in July 1897, Major-General F.E.Sotheby built Reading and Recreation Rooms (59, 59A High Street) principally for literate adults who were too impecunious to buy newspapers. A secretary - Archibald Robinson in 1914 - ensured the smooth running of the facility which closed in 1964. The long narrow, barn-like building (now 2 Wellingborough Road) had served a similar function earlier.

In 1875/6 Walter Barker and his wife had charge of Palmer’s school which by then had sharply deteriorated. Many of the 44 pupils were frequently absent, either toiling on the farms and tidying gardens for a few pence or suffering sicknesses such as `blister-pox’. The unqualified Barker was a weak disciplinarian and also constantly bickered with parents. In winter his stock of coal became exhausted and icy winds blew unhindered through broken windows. With patience on both sides spent, the Barkers left suddenly in May 1876.

Fortuitously, the Board School on Northampton Road opened in that year and thus began the era of free, universal, compulsory and predominantly secular education financed through the rates. The first Head, briefly, was Oliver Downes followed by Fred Barnes who stayed until 1921. Unfortunately, the Log Books cannot be traced but some minutes of managers’ meetings are to hand. In 1892, when Baptist John Field was a School Board member, the rector Charles Davies complained that pupils were benefiting from the ancient charities despite not knowing the Anglican catechism.

The Education Act of 1902 was a neat administrative measure, creating LEAs and abolishing the Boards which pioneered modern practices. For instance the Ecton Board had subsidised the cost of sending a sight-and-hearing impaired boy, Thomas Darker, to the Royal Institution for the Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Children at Birmingham whilst Thomas Pinney was summoned for non-attendance of his son. Animosity between school and church eased during Canon Arthur Jephson’s rectorship. His offer to give daily Scripture lessons of thirty minutes at the school was accepted, and in 1922 he donated 150 books to form the basis of a library. In July of that year the children were granted a half-day holiday to mark a visit to Ecton by the Bishop of Peterborough. To celebrate Empire Day, 24 May 1923, a recording of an address by King George V and Queen Mary to young people in all of Britain’s territories was purchased for 5/6d. For use at a special assembly, Mr Dicks loaned his gramophone because the school did not possess one.

For the next two decades the school served the village efficiently but uneventfully. Under the Education Act of 1944 it was restricted to the primary age phase. Everyone is familiar with developments since then. The loss of pupils aged 12 to 14 plus demographic change during the 1960s and 1970s suggested a questionable future but viability was ensured through imaginative leadership and the adoption of new admissions criteria. Indeed, recently, classroom accommodation has been extended and other improvements to the premises carried out. The years ahead can be faced with confidence.

The purpose of education is to satisfy perceived needs; vindicatory sentiments are fashioned to match the times. In days of yore the biblical injunction to `Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it’ (Proverbs xxii,6) was a popular maxim. Ecton CP’s current prospectus states as an aim the encouragement of `a mutually beneficial interchange between the school, parents and the wider community’.

It was ever thus!

Dr Douglas and Mrs Betty Shearing

*This method of dating is obligatory until the adoption by Britain of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752. Until then, the year began on Lady Day, 25 March.