The village school and its site

Until the middle years of the 19th century, opportunities to receive schooling were socially restricted. Prior to that time, Bildeston’s wealthier citizens would have had their sons instructed at local grammar schools, while their daughters would be tutored at home. Other children attended local ‘dame’ schools, run by single women or widows in their own homes, where reading, writing and perhaps some arithmetic was taught. Apprenticeships to craftsmen, tradesmen or shopkeepers could follow. However, some degree of prosperity was necessary within the family in order to spare children from the work force to pursue their learning, although bright youngsters could learn to read at an age when they would have earned very little.

Founding a charity school

In his will date 1594, John Brownsmith, wealthy clothier in Bildeston’s woollen-cloth industry, portioned out his real estate, money and other possessions to his wife Cisseley and as the couple had no children, to their nephew also John Brownsmith. John senior signed the document but thirteen days later, he added a codicil establishing a trust to administer a house situated between Chapel Street and Duke Street. One part of the building was to remain forever as an almshouse where an honest poor person could live gratis and the other part was to be ‘a schoolhouse for a schoolmaster freely to dwell in and teach in’. The endowment allowed for only a small number of free pupils but would provide an income for a master on which he could build by taking additional fee-paying students. The will stipulated that the testator’s great-nephews, John and Samuel Brownsmith, were to be among the school’s first pupils. The founder was buried on 10 January 1595 and his will was proved the following month. However, it was not for another 24 years that the building was used as an almshouse and a school as he had wished.

A commission of inquiry

By 1615, all the trustees originally named in the will were dead, so an inquiry was held to investigate why the parish did not have benefit of a school or an almshouse as John Brownsmith had stipulated. Apparently, nephew John had taken possession of the building and allowed the tenant to continue to use the whole property. Commissioners immediately appointed eighteen chief inhabitants of Bildeston as new trustees to oversee sub-division of the building as originally specified and to select new trustees when necessary in order to maintain the trust. However, nephew John and his wife pleaded poverty and described themselves as destitute, so the commission allowed them to have the property for their home until their deaths. As the nephew had been a major beneficiary in his rich uncle’s will, it is surprising that John junior found himself in such poor circumstances. It was not until 1619 when nephew John died that the bequest was properly fulfilled.

An elementary school

As members of the vestry, the lowest level of local government at the time, the rector and churchwardens appointed the schoolmasters. The curriculum would have followed the format of other elementary schools at the time, with boys learning to read, write and cast accounts while girls, if they attended, would have only been taught to read. The length of schooling depended upon family circumstances. When a child, even a free pupil, could earn wages that would make a difference to the family’s economy, he or she would be removed from school.

The trust is broken

In 1787, John Hobart and his family moved into School House where he was village schoolmaster for eleven years. However, at the beginning of the 19th century, he was not teaching as the original trust had stipulated: he was paying rent for the property to the rector and churchwardens while running a boarding academy for young gentlemen with no free scholars. What arrangements were made in 1816, when George Notcutt came as master, are not quite clear but he must have had a room for teaching in School House even if he was unable to live there.

Plans for a new school

When Revd Joseph Gedge (rector 1849-1879) came to Bildeston, he was not happy with this state of affairs. In 1811, the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church had been founded and it was a National School that Revd Gedge opened in High Street (now No.86 and No.88). However, he planned to erect a new school building and so he launched a subscription list for Bildeston residents. In 1852, the Charity Commissioners authorised School House and its garden to be conveyed to Bildeston School Trust. Three houses adjoining on the west between Chapel Street and Duke Street were purchased by Revd Gedge and demolished to make way for a school to be used ‘for educating children and adults or children only of labouring, manufacturing and other poorer classes’. Plans were drawn up by John Johnson, architect of Bury St Edmunds.

A setback to completing the project

However, there were two impediments to the school’s completion. Firstly, the estimated cost for building with all fittings and other expenses was £506 10s 0d and although subscribers had been generous, there was a shortfall of £106 15s 0d. As the building work had already begun, Revd Gedge decided to cast his net wider by sending out begging letters to principal inhabitants in neighbouring villages. His argued that Bildeston, as central to other settlements that only had dame schools, it was a suitable location ‘for a model school for education of children of higher class as well as those of the poor’. In 1853, the new school was opened where 100 pupils were to be taught according to tenets of the Church of England as a National School. Built in red brick with ornamental relief in white brick and a slate roof, it contained front and back entrance lobbies and two parquet-floored classrooms that could be sub-divided with folding partitions.

Removing an unwanted tenant

As Henry Hobart was now renting School House, there was no official accommodation for the newly-appointed master. On behalf of the School Trust, Revd Gedge set about solving this second problem by taking Henry to court to recover the building. The court found that he had been adversely occupying the premises and gave him two months to find himself and his family another dwelling. Soon after, Thomas Butterby, certificated schoolmaster formerly of Liverpool, moved in. The timber-frame of School House was rendered and the front over-hanging upper storey had been under built in red brick. On the ground floor, there was an entrance hall with brick parquet floor, sitting and dining rooms, an inner hallway with stairs and a kitchen. Above were four bedrooms and the roof was tiled.

Managing the school

Although the school building and its site were still owned by Bildeston School Trust made up of the rector and churchwardens, in 1876, running the school was transferred to Bildeston School Board. Financial support came from local benefactors, an annual government grant of £5, rent from other charity property in the village, sales of books and from pupils’ pence, which brought in about £44 annually, with infants paying one (old) penny per week and older pupils two (old) pennies. This charge would have still excluded children of Bildeston’s poorest families from receiving education.

National legislation

Foster’s Elementary Education Act of 1870 set the framework for state-sponsored and state-regulated schooling in England and Wales for children aged five to twelve with exemptions for pupils in rural areas when helping with agricultural work, such as at harvest. It was not until 1891 that scholars’ weekly pence were abolished and elementary education became free and compulsory for all children. In 1896, Bildeston’s school was enlarged with the addition of a classroom especially for infants so the building could now accommodate 130 pupils aged five to fourteen.

A shared responsibility

While West Suffolk County Council was responsible for building maintenance, delivery of education, teachers’ salaries and, after 1935, a playground extension, in 1903, Bildeston School Council acted as overseers of the school’s smooth running. The building continued to serve village children: firstly as an elementary school taking five to fourteen-year-olds, with a few receiving scholarships to Sudbury Grammar School; and after 1944, as a primary school for rising fives to eleven years. Pupils were then transferred to Hadleigh Secondary School or for pupils who had passed the eleven-plus examination, Sudbury Grammar School. By 1968, the Victorian building was considered too cramped and inconvenient so staff and pupils were transferred to newly-built accommodation in Newberry Road.

After the staff and pupils had left

The following year, the old school was valued and recommended for sale by public auction in two lots with a reserve price of £2,500. Established in the late 1960s / early 1970s, Bildeston Community Council made plans to purchase and turn the old school into a village hall but insufficient funds were amassed by the sale deadline.

West Suffolk County Council had deeds for the playground extension but the sale could not take place as there was no proof of entitlement for the school building, its site and School House. A long-term village resident made a statutory declaration: he believed that the School Trust had free and undisturbed possession without claims by any other persons. In 1972, both Bildeston School Trust and the County Council sold their particular parts of the property to a holding trust. Eventually, after six years, School House became a private residence for £15,000. The Victorian building was demolished and its site sold for £13,000 with planning permission for six houses in Chapel Street. Their garages facing on to Duke Street were built with bricks reused from the school, which contain marks where children had carved their initials and sharpened slate pencils.

© Sue Andrews 2020

Images from top to bottom:

  • The building that remains today in Chapel Street is part of the gift made in 1594 for a school and an almshouse. For most of the time, this portion was used as a charity school and home for the master until 1853, when a new school was opened alongside and this became the headmaster’s residence known as School House.
  • Architect John Johnson’s drawing of 1852 for the National School erected in 1853.
  • The north side of Chapel Street looking westward showing the National School and School House.
  • A view of Chapel Street looking east.
  • Some headmasters of Bildeston village school.
  • A class of mixed infants in May 1906 with their pupil-teachers. (Photo: Nigel Crisp).
  • Some school leaves in July 1963 line up in the playground, which faces on to Duke Street: Susan Le Grice, Michael Dee, Nigel Wright, Graham Smith, John Mears, David Baker, Nicholas Goodchild, Walter Covey, John Taylor, Lesley Webb, Kevin Taylor, Helen Taylor, Sue Taylor, Maureen Pryke —– Aldous.