Rye Schools of Yore

Rye Schools of Yore

The feature photo is of boys at the Mermaid Street School, early 1900s.

Victorian and Edwardian Schooldays

Peter Ewart returned to his boyhood town of Rye on Tuesday, 8th April, to delight and enlighten his audience at the East Street Museum with evocative photos and many a tale of schooldays of yore — with plenty of examples from Rye.

Through stories and significant facts and a wealth of images we learned most enjoyably of the enormous educational changes which began with the 1870 Act of Parliament: the idea that all children needed an education, which should be free and compulsory, competing for many years with parents’ preference to use their children as workers; of subsequent acts which raised the leaving age from 10 to 11, to 13, to 14; of the growth of secondary schools, even for girls! in the early 1900s.

St. Marys from SoutheastWe learned of dame schools conducted in homes, church/national schools and board schools whose grants from government and local councils depended on ‘results’ and good attendance records. And of ragged schools dedicated to the free education of destitute children whose poverty was evident in photos showing ‘best’ clothes full of holes and not including shoes. (Rye’s Ragged School met in St Mary’s Church.)

We saw a photo of Playden School children, among them boys from the workhouse across the road who were released to attend. We were reminded about the high mortality from influenza and measles and diphtheria and the later importance of ‘Nitty Nora the Head Explorer’ .

We saw examples of the push in the late Victorian era to construct school buildings (somewhat resembling churches, with pointed roofs and bell towers) throughout the country where children of all ages and ‘standards’ were somehow taught in the same big room by teachers who were at first untrained, assisted by pupil teachers. We learned about the early ‘National Curriculum’ (the 3 Rs. and poetry and sometimes cookery — and sometimes even knitting for boys, the latter considered ‘child abuse’ by our speaker in contrast to the essential skills of mending and darning in an era when replacements were usually unaffordable). We were reminded that farmers in effect set the holidays as children were needed for harvesting and hop picking.

We saw pages from school logs — in effect, head teachers’ diaries (highly recommended by our speaker as fascinating reading if one ever gets the opportunity). We learned how a predominance of puny and unfit military recruits around the time of the Boer War prompted a new emphasis on exercise and drilling in schools, sometimes with dumbbells. We heard a good deal about punishments including whacking and caning and many a clip around the ear and could not help comparing Then with Now and current Health and Safety regulations. Yet we also learned of Rye teachers who tempered strictness with the custom of giving each child a Christmas card — the only present they were likely to receive in their impoverished homes.

Maypole dancersWe wondered how teachers without modern aids managed to produce such organised displays of marching and drilling and maypoling involving large numbers of children. And we saw youngsters’ examples of beautiful penmanship and well composed letters that prompted the question: Could any child of that age equal that today? And we heard of poor children of Rye who managed, with their few years at school, to become eminent citizens, for example a magistrate and community leader in Australia.

There was a great deal more in this truly memorable evening. Some of us hope that one day we will be able to find in Rye Library a book on this topic alongside Peter’s A Poor Man’s Rye: The Daily Life of a Local Labouring Family 1847-1930 which is certainly recommended reading for Ryers.

Watchbell Street Mr Pretty's and Mrs Kennett's schoolsThis photo shows boys of Mr Pretty’s Bellmount school and girls and small boys of Mrs Kennett’s school on Watchbell Street. These were somewhat ‘higher class’ schools for which parents paid a fee.




First posted in Past Talks, Rye Town History on 3rd April 2014
Last updated: 24th July 2014