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Newlyn Wesleyan Day School

By Ben Batten

Champion’s Slip has for years been hidden from the general view by the Cornish Canners’ building, and probably only a small minority of Newlyn people know it or about it, and maybe even fewer are aware of the former Wesleyan Day School premises at the top of the slope. A firm now occupies the building and the School House has long been a private dwelling-place, the School having closed when Tolcarne School was erected in 1925.

By courtesy of Mr. Norris, Headmaster of Tolcarne County Primary Junior School, I have had access to two log-books of the Wesleyan Day School, and the material in them has been of fascinating interest, reflecting not merely the conditions of the early era of public elementary education, but providing a continuous commentary and interpretation of the everyday life of Newlyn - and more particularly Street-an-Nowan,  in those years from 1873. The log-books, about 500 pages each, have entries in which the Head Teacher has recorded details of all kinds concerning the School, many of them prosaic and mundane, most of them routine, but some vivid and illuminating, enabling the reader to sense the atmosphere of the period and to know the personalities of Heads and Staff and the everyday jives of pupils, all against the background of conditions and events in the village.

The following extracts which I have selected are intended to convey the flavour of community life at this time; some require a little explanation, most are self-explanatory.

  Log-book number one covers the years from 1873 to 1901, with Mr. John Champion (hence the name of the slip) starting his entries on January 1st. The second log-book overlaps the other from 1879 to 1907, and is a record of the Infants’ Department of the School kept by the various Head Mistresses.

Discipline is a recurring subject throughout. Mr. Champion found that “discipline was disturbed by a boy who had been to sea six months”....... “home-lessons”..... were neglected by many, and the 'Report by Her Majesty’s Inspectors' wrote of .....“slackness in the discipline of the senior pupils”. At that time the Head, usually referred to as “The Master”,  had 5 teachers to cope with 8 classes. In early October the attendance..... “was very thin this week, it being Paul Feast”. There are scores of entries reflecting the frequency of hard times in the fishing......... “several absent through sickness and poverty”...... reads a March 1874 entry; in that year the H.M.I.’s Report was adverse, and the school grant was low. In one summer entry Mr. Champion writes:...... “several of the boys being wanted for night sea-going the School was taken at 1.0 p.m. and dismissed at 6.0p.m"........

The senior children certainly had some tough literary lessons. The Head was pleased that his top class....... “ have committed to memory about 100 lines and 'The Lady of the Lake' is being mastered”. I wonder how the pupils felt about this typical learning by heart stint. At least it must have been a change when.... “ they drew a map of Perthshire and had a lesson on that county”.... Inspectors, reporting in 1875 , wrote....... “It seems impossible to secure perfect order with these children”...... My sympathies are for  a harassed Head, with inadequate and often untrained staff, few facilities, overcrowded classes and an almost total lack of books and equipment to do the job decently.

Amongst poems listed for learning are “The Brook”, “King Bruce and the• Spider” and “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (in fairness, this last poem was to them a bit of fairly recent history.) On May Day 1876 the children were withdrawn early from school to enable them to see........... “The Newlyn Exhibition”; a month later Mr. Champion must have felt aggrieved when the annual report recommended, amongst slashing criticisms, that the school grant be disallowed.

Early in 1877....... “a number of the big boys left to engage in ‘bumming”’ .......a term meaning carrying fish. Obviously few scholars remained at school until they were fourteen. Because of the position of the Wesleyan Day School any severe storm prevented pupils from getting safely to Newlyn Town. This was some 30 years before the harbour road was built; and many entries show that school was dismissed early, as on April 27th in that year, to ensure that they all got home. Canings were recorded in the main log-book (the punishment book was a later requisite) and there is probably a story behind the words “young James, a troublesome boy, had to be subdued by the rod”, while one would welcome more details of this 1878 comment:...... “H. Downing, Pupil Teacher, absent from school all the morning. This was his mother’s doing. His sister was married.”........... Mr. Champion was apparently not a man of wide sympathies, and he notes that his .....‘Pupil Teachers were late in coming for instruction from 7.45 to 8.55 a.m.”...... It is not surprising that he resigned in October, and Mr. Thomas Bryant was appointed as Headmaster. When a boy named Tremethick ran home, and then returned, Mr. Bryant writes:...... “On manifestation of sorrow for his offence he was restored to his class,”...... a paternal touch.

Christmas festivities at the end of term are not mentioned at all for several years, but in 1878 many parents and friends attended on December 20th the evening function of a ‘Public Examination Prize Distribution.’ school fees were twopence weekly. A sad entry for February 14th 1879 says: “.....The poverty of many of the parents prevents them paying their children’s school fees regularly.......”  Later entries show that, when the fishing improved, most parents honoured their debts to the school, but there were unpleasant episodes and accusations regarding the payments. In March .........“.....the mackerel season having commenced, several of the bigger boys have left school to go to work.........” 

[One criticism I have of the wonderful Exhibition at the Newlyn Art Gallery last year, ‘Artists of the Newlyn School 1880 - 1900’. There must have been ill-clothed and undernourished children (and adults) in Newlyn at that time, with privation, poverty and sickness showing their effects. But where, in all those lovely paintings, is there a representation of one such person?]

In February 1879 the Wesleyan Day School Infant Class was taken over by Mrs. Mercy Maria Bryant, whose initial log-book entry sounds most unpropitious: “......The children are noisy, dirty, not promptly obedient - but fairly intelligent on the whole.........” She used shells and pebbles for numeration, but complained repeatedly about the lack of equipment and the difficulty of teaching needlework  with very limited materials. Mrs. Bryant had difficulties, too, as did her husband. in collecting school fees, and she criticises the inefficient pupil teachers, but by the end of the year her remarks are far more generous: “..........The children are now cleaner and more punctual. -......... - They would have been a good first standard if properly taught last year.....”. One can forgive the stock reaction of many teachers. A sombre entry in December refers to “......Many little ones suffering from coughs, colds and want of shoes..............” She provided an end-of-term treat for them, and clearly was a warm-hearted and energetic teacher.

In the senior classes the Head had to report many pupils staying home in May of that year because of the fine weather; May Day had already seen major absenteeism, for the village customs on that day were enthusiastically kept up, (and were so till the 1920’s.) So many extraneous factors affected attendance. Mr. Bryant records “..........Many children absent on the fishery and getting potatoes........”. At least these were the staple basics of the daily menus! A sad note describes how Sarah Tregenza, leaving the playground, had a serious fall from the cliff. The year 1880 saw the admission of a number of new scholars, formerly of the St. Peter’s School, now closed, but in May the Wesleyan School lost a number of pupils to the newly built Board School on Chywoone Hill, opened on May 24th. Mr. Bryant consoled himself with the entry “........These children were chiefly irregular........” while Mrs. Bryant more charitably writes “.........The reasons given for going to the Board School are that the children will not need to go near the sea, with ensuing accidents and loss of  boots"  

Mr. Bryant punished a pupil for misbehavior and the latter  "....threatened to throw a large pebble at the Master...." The sequel was simple- the boy was expelled- without benefit of intervening psychologist or psychiatrist. On July 9th the Band of Hope and Sunday School Treat took place , a big event in Newlyn. Again on  October 8th ".....because of  exceptionally stormy weather the children were unable to come to school ."  The years last entry names Martin H Hodder[ a person of some distinction in later years] as having to be punished for disbedience. Meanwhile. 1880 had been a full and satisfactory year at the Infant Class, for Mrs. Bryant was delighted to receive much equipment, especially desks,

 summer that followed “some senior boys have been absent for weeks,” while the Newlyn Annual Swimming Match in August meant a half-holiday granted. A predictable event in September, the stealing of apples from an adjoining orchard, resulted in three boys being punished. Once again an October gale prevented children from attending the afternoon session. Mrs Bryant’s entries make it abundantly clear that there were strong rivalries between the new Board School and the Wesleyan School, and she is incensed that a Church School should be built after the Board School. Matters were not improved when Miss Rowe left the Wesleyan School to teach at the Board School at a higher salary.

One of the first entries of 1882 relates how a pupil called Curnow threw a stone at a teacher, ran home, was brought back by a police constable “and in submission to the Master he professed penitence and with promises of amendment sought forgiveness.” In the summer several of the bigger boys left to go to sea or to learn some business in Penzance, while in October the general attendance was very thin in the first week or so as the boats returned from the North Sea. This was always a time of great excitement, with the children anticipating presents and sweetmeats from their fathers who had been to Scarborough and Whitby. Boys often returned to School after several months in the boats.

Mr. Bryant regrets that “several in the upper standards have not yet purchased reading books, and are detained after school for not doing so, except in the case of those who are too poor.”

On three occasions in 1883 School was closed early because of storms, particularly on Maundy Thursday, March 22nd., when “owing to the stormy weather and the sea coming over the cliff, School was dismissed at 3.30 p.m.” A holiday was given on a day in June “so that the School can be thoroughly cleaned” and the year was notable for the first taking of photographs (called ‘portraits’) in the yard on September 7th. Mr. I. Jenkins, an assistant master, was drawing at that time the sum of £16 per annum as his salary.

The deaths of pupils are rarely recorded in the log-books, and there must have been a far greater number - considering mortality figures of this era - than are mentioned, but a fatal accident at Trembath Mill is minuted for Dec. 14th.

It is pleasant to refer to the Christmas Tree which Mrs. Bryant provided at the end of term for the Infants, “when the children went home in high spirits.” Local magistrates had imposed fines on parents because of their children’s poor attendance early in 1884. Mr. Bryant duly enters the fact that “The School bell was disabled on Sunday, consequently it has not been rung for the week.” Vandalism is not a completely modern activity.

The phrase “Fish coming in” always prefaces an entry about poor attendance, as in May and November of that year. The two main events were the Bazaar, opened by Mr. 0. Bazeley, to raise money to liquidate the debt on the School, and the resignation of Mr. Bryant who in May was appointed to a post in Dudley.

In the summer of 1884 holidays were given for Newlyn Regatta on July 7th. and a few days later for an event called “The Fishermen’s Gala”, though I have been unable to establish what this event really entailed.

In the autumn there took place at Penzance a Fisheries Exhibition, with resultant thin attendance at School. The final entry made by Mrs. Bryant shows without doubt that she was very fond of the Newlyn children whom she now  knew so well. “There will be a new Mistress next week. I have wished the children goodbye and received a kiss from each one of the Infants whom I am very sorry to leave.”

From this point the Logbook entries lose the colour and individual touches that previously had enlivened them, and indeed there are very few points of interest in the bulk of the 1885 entries written by Miss E. M. Worth. Just before Christmas of that year there is a reference to ‘Christmas Markets’ so affecting attendance that a holiday was given; possibly some younger readers may not know that for many years there were official posters that gave times and details of pre-Christmas shopping.

Meanwhile Mr. Fleming had had a comparatively quiet year in his new post, with the familiar kind of entries about poor attendance due to the mackerel fishing in April and the July departure of the boats for the Yorkshire coast. Mrs. Christie of Trereiffe provided a treat for the Sunday Scholars, who were granted a half-holiday, in June. Mrs. Fleming had been appointed sewing mistress and Miss Janie Coulls a monitoress. Mr. Fleming was a man of musical taste and talent, and it is not surprising that a successful School concert was by request repeated a little later. The reader will have noticed how often external events were the cause of pupils’ absence on particular occasions. The declaration of the poll was expected on December 7th, with the inevitable result that the Master realistically dismissed the School for a day’s holiday, though whether this increased the scholars’ political maturity is very dubious.

On May 1st, 1866, a bald note “One child lost by death” occurs in the Infant Class log-book, the only such reference for years (apart from those to fatal accidents). Surely there must have been many more such losses, and one wonders why they are not mentioned. Mr. Fleming lists six days in that year when School attendance was very low, or registers not marked at all, the reasons respectively being a March storm; ‘the fish coming in’ in April; a circus visiting Penzance in May; Penzance Fair on June 25th; an August Rachabite Fete in Penzance; and finally the Mount Regatta and Gala on August 30th, when Mr. Fleming dismissed the few children that did attend school. The entry states: "I ascertained that the absentees had been taken by boat to the Mount.”

Fourteen children were admitted in January, 1887 from St. Peter’s School “which has been closed, but they are backward in all the subjects, most of them not knowing their letters or how to form them.” So wrote the Infant Headmistress, and Mr. Fleming’s comment on his new scholars is similar -“Their attainments are unequal.” This was neither the first nor the last time that teachers voiced criticisms of new pupils, and, by implication, of their former mentors. Mr. Fleming was receiving good reports from the H.M.I.’s, but sanitation was below standard - “the offices outside the Infants’ window are most offensive and must be removed.” The term ‘offices’ retained this special meaning for many years. When Miss E. Churchill began a brief period of duties as Head Mistress she found the children “exceedingly restless and troublesome.” An entry for August 1st., Bank Holiday, states that a half-holiday was granted because the attendance was so small.

In 1888 Mr. James Kelynack (Paul Board School) began duties as Assistant Master. Mr. Fleming’s highly successful Christmas concert drew a crowded audience when it was repeated in February. He was conductor of the Wesleyan Chapel Choir and his log-book entry reads: “Considering wretched pecuniary state of the village and the time of year, the attendance was good. Many children are kept at home as parents cannot afford fees, and sewing materials for the classes are too dear for them to buy.” In October he started a “Newspaper Club.” Each scholar paid a halfpenny per month, and the books bought included “Boy’s Own Paper,” “Girl’s Own Paper,” “Chatterbox,” “Little Folks,” “Harper’s Young people,” and “Cassell’s Saturday Journal.” Friends of the School lent volumes of “Union Jack,” “Quiver,” “Leisure Hour,” and “British Workman.” Reading was allowed a half-hour before afternoon school. As the Head comments: “The circumstances of the village won’t allow of such juvenile opportunities in their own home.” In November special concerts were given to provide a Day School library.. Mr. Fleming comes over as a man of resource and energy. At the Infants’ Department the log-bock entry for April 30th is chilling in its nonchalance: “Admitted two girls and one boy this morning and lost one by death,” a rather ambiguous statement devoid of any personal interest. When Miss Lilian Jeremiah took charge in September 1889 she found the children unruly and in need of discipline; a few days later she “commenced teaching a new song, ‘Come, Happy Children,’ and I am pleased to find the children so musical.”

Mr. Fleming compiled for the log-book a list of ‘dull scholars’ which I will not reproduce, as I tend to believe in heredity and have no desire to embarrass estimable Newlyn folk. Major-General Bland conducted the Drawing Examination in April, the School was closed for two days in June so that it could be thoroughly cleaned, and a week later many pupils were reported as being employed in the field. Dr. Grieves of the U.K. Band of Hope gave a scientific lecture on “Alcohol,” and the children wrote essays on the topic and gained certificates. Again the Headmaster details 23 names of scholars “of below average ability.”

It was, however, a sad year for Mr. Fleming whose wife, after months of sickness, died in September. The log-book entry is poignant, and private.

A few days after the funeral the children enjoyed a half-holiday to see a grand demonstration at the opening of the Morrab Gardens. There are no further details, but I wager the occasion went well, without police, polemics or puerile slogans.

An influenza epidemic in January 1890 affected half of the School. The log-book references to epidemics•- measles, scarlatina, mumps and chicken-pox especially - are few in comparison to those at the Board School, which is rather puzzling. Mr. Fleming’s annual February concert went well, and ‘musical drill was enjoyed’. He adds, somewhat acidly, that “the concert has worked a wonderful cure of the supposed epidemic.” Meanwhile the Infants’ Class was gaining good annual reports, and the boys were taught “Froebel’s. System of drawing in checkered slates.” Because the bell monitor neglected his duty on November 22nd the majority of pupils arrived late.

We come to the last year of log-book entries, and 1891 was memorable for two events at least, the first being the Great Blizzard in March. Mr. Fleming has a brief note for March 9th and 10th to the effect that there was no afternoon school because the weather was too strong, but certainly uses no superlative about the terrible conditions. Miss Jeremiah’s entry is much more iliuminating, “Owing to the high tide and stormy weather the very small number of children who assembled this afternoon had to be dismissed, each having to be carried or assisted over the cliff’.

A few weeks later the complimentary H.M.I.’s report pays tribute to “the children’s remarkable dexterity in their manual employments.” From that note one turns to the supreme educational high-water mark since the 1870’s - free education. On August 31st 1891 a holiday was granted, not for a mere local event, but for the inauguration of free education, to begin the next day, with school pence abolished and a different attitude created overnight. Mr. Fleming writes that “a marvellous increase in the attendance is the initiatory result.”

From this date there is a series of improvements in many aspects of school life, bringing education, as we now understand it, within the reach of all.



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Last modified: Thursday April 16, 2009 .