The first Preston School is mentioned in the book, Bringing Literacy to Rural England
- The Hertfordshire Example) by J S Hurt (published by Phillimore).
I managed to obtain a copy - not from Eric T Moores Bookshop in Hitchin, but from
These are the facts about Preston’s first school: it was united with the National
Society on 14 January 1818. No grant from the National Society was recorded. It then
withdrew from union with the National Society sometime between 1828 and 1832.
In the absence of hard evidence, some musings are perhaps encouraged. The dates noted
are not necessarily when the school was built or demolished. The School was under
the umbrella of the Anglican Church of St Mary’s, Hitchin. (This is not as obvious
as it may appear as the ‘British School’ at Hitchin was established not by the Church
of England, but by Quakers in 1810. The Anglican response of a National School at
Hitchin was in April,1817. Preston’s School thus entered the union less than a year
The first school at Preston
What sort of building might Preston School have been? Again, this is purely conjecture:
Elizabeth Darton’s son, Thomas Harwood Darton built a new, substantial school only
thirty years later, in 1847. This might suggest that Preston’s first school was of
more ‘temporary’ construction.
In 1815, at Wheathampstead, Herts a school measuring 36’ x 15’ x 8’6’’ was constructed
to accommodate 100 children. A barn was used for its model. It was built with brick
floors and foundations while the walls were ‘brick with band timbering around the
room’. If built following the pattern of a barn, it was presumably water and windproof.
Might Preston’s school have been constructed similarly - if on a smaller scale?
As to the site of Preston’s first school, it would be wonderful to have a map of
the village circa 1825 with ‘Sch’ inscribed on it. But no such map exists. However,
might it be that the first school was on the site of the 1847 incarnation - it being
demolished to make way for its more permanent successor?
So there we have it - a few facts sprinkled with much conjecture. - the main point
being that the village of Preston had a school from at least 1818.
As it was administered by the National Society, Preston’s School was neither a (straw)
Plaiting School nor a ‘Dame’ School.
Gleaning information from other sources, the Preston census of 1821 records Simon
Stevens as a ‘schoolteacher’ - a position confirmed when some of his children were
baptised. Stevens had been an Excise Officer in Northamptonshire. (See link: Simon
Stevens). Simon was therefore Preston’s schoolmaster. However, the quality of his
instruction may be doubted. In the 1841 census he was noted as a farm worker and
in 1851 he was a widower living at Cocks Green, Kings Walden with his labouring son,
Charles. It may be inferred from this that probably Simon had been teaching young
villagers rather than the children at Temple Dinsley.
Looking at the broader picture, the Lord of the Manor, Joseph Darton died on 31 October
1816 and was succeeded by his wife, Elizabeth Darton. Was she the guiding hand behind
Preston’s new school? At this time, agriculture was flourishing and several land
owners such as Elizabeth were able to contribute towards the building and maintenance
of schools. And remember that no grant from the National Society is recorded
Preston School 1849 - 1966
In 1849, the incumbent Lord of the Manor, Thomas Darton, showed a sense of guardianship
and responsibility for the villagers. While his own children enjoyed the services
of a personal governess (Eliza Forrester in 1851), apart from the plaiting schools,
the local children had no provision for education. Mr Darton financed the construction
of a rather austere and plain school building at what is today known as School Lane.
This new edifice of education doubled as a church on Sundays from 1850.
The Charity School had two rooms. The main schoolroom was 39 feet 9 inches (12m)
long, 20 feet (6m) wide with a height of 14 feet 6 inches (4.4m) to the plate. It
had no ceiling and measured 24 feet 6 inches (7.5m) from the floor to the ridge
of the roof. Such an area with its large windows would have been difficult to heat
in winter, but a stove was provided, for which firewood was fetched and chopped.
The windows in the schoolroom were deliberately sited so that the seated pupils were
not distracted by glimpses of the outside world.
No schoolmistresses are recorded at Preston in the censuses of 1851 and 1861 (apart
from the governesses at Temple Dinsley and Preston Castle). In 1871 Susannah Hayden
(20) from Cambridgeshire was a schoolmistress lodging at Preston Green Post Office.
As well as the Charity School, Preston had plaiting schools. In 1861, a plait school
is recorded to the east of the village. A sketch map of Preston, dated 1884, shows
two plaiting schools: Mrs Peters’ school at Preston Green and Mrs Stratton’s school
at Church Lane near the Bunyan Chapel.
The Hertfordshire Mercury included a note about plaiting schools:
‘Throughout Herts and Beds, plaiting schools are numerous and it is here
children are taught the art and (ostensibly) the three R’s. The children
at school at the usual school hours. Afterwards, during the time when they
not play, they plait a little till sent to rest. When they are about eight
years of age, they earn 2s - 3s a week.’
In her book, ‘Labouring Life in the Victorian Countryside’, Pamela Horn observed:
‘(The child plaiter, usually four years old was sent) to a plait school.
often little more than a child minding institution held in a local cottage...
Their sole function was to keep the children working as hard as possible.’
Preston’s Plaiting Schools
In 1873, Preston school had a new beginning. Following the Education Act of 1870,
instead of being a Charity School, it was regulated by the state and subject to inspections
to ensure standards were being maintained.
With a flourish, the secretary (and school manager), Rev Lewis Hensley, wrote in
the opening page of the school log book, ‘Mar 31 1873, Preston Church of England
School opened under the charge of Miss Mary Jane Hyder - Certified Teacher’. Forty-six
children were immediately admitted.
During the next 28 years the school buildings were modified. Quite soon after the
school opened the infants (‘babies’ aged three or more) were divided from the rest
by a curtain which helped concentration.
Preston School Board 1873
As more pupils attended the school, the main school room became inadequate. From
1880 the register recorded between 70 and 90 pupils. The report in 1884 referred
to the “cramped space” and in 1890 the ‘very limited space’ was noted.
Later the infants were taught in their own room. In 1881 there was a classroom measuring
10 feet 4 inches by 6 feet 4 1/2 inches. This was referred to as a ‘small space’
in 1892 and work began to enlarge the classroom in the following year. In 1897 it
measured 18 feet (5.5m) by 16 feet (4.9m).
The ‘offices’ (or toilets) for boys and girls were separate to the main building
and even in the twentieth century had to be ‘slopped out’. Segregation of boys and
girls was felt to be important while using the lavatories, so in 1874 it was recommended
that ‘a substantial fence should divide the approaches throughout from the schoolroom
to the two sets of offices’. During one hot summer in July 1896 it was noted that
the ‘offices are very offensive’.
Preston School Log Book
Parliament’s Administrative Memorandum No 48 (1862) introduced
the compulsory keeping of a record of the way each school was managed. The Preston
school log books offer a precious glimpse
of a child’s life in the village from 1873 and are a fascinating primary source of
information. They tell us what pupils were taught, how they spent their time and
help us to understand their lives.
In the Preston school log book from 1873-1901, there are more than 350 references
to individual boys and girls. Even a brief, trivial aside about an ancestor can give
a ridiculous sense of pleasure - I read, ‘Have sent Sam Wray (my father) home this
morning. He appears to have a bad cold and is feverish’ (20 March 1914). Often the
only record we have of our relatives is from late in their lives and when we read
of their exploits at school it is a satisfying reminder that they had a life before
they grew old.
For those who have relatives who attended Preston school between 1873-1901, there
is a searchable index of all the children commented upon during this time and what
was written. (Link: Preston school log book comments on children) However, in some
cases I have deleted a derogatory or personal remark which relatives may not want
broadcast (indeed the log books were intended to be confidential!). If one of your
family has a blank beside their name, please contact me (using the Contact Page)
and I will send the deleted comment.
Last time the old school was used was as a youth centre for a few years after 1966.
The planning proposal for the chalet houses has been submitted by Ryan Property Management
of Brand Street, Hitchin.
Although the old school is in a conservation area, it is not a listed building and
a spokesman for the Planning Department of North Herts Council said that, because
of its condition, it was unlikely that there would be any objection to it being demolished.
Biographical notes: Mary Woodhams was born in April 1913 - the daughter of Arthur
Chalkley and Harriet (nee Claridge). She married William James “Bill” Woodhams. Bill
and Mary lived at 9 Council Cottages, Chequers Lane, Preston. Mary passed away in
January 1984 and her husband, Bill, died three years later. Mary, Bill, Arthur and
Harriet were all buried at St Martins, Preston.
(The minutes of the School Manager’s meetings record those mainly responsible for
pushing through the plans for a new school, namely Mr Seebohm, Mrs Maybrick and Mr
Orchard, the headmaster)
By the 1950s, it was clear that a decision about the future of Preston School on
School Lane needed to be
made. In November 1959, the school committee chairman Derrick Seebohm spelled out
1. Extend the present buildings by adding to the present site at School Lane. There
was an additional unused
1.8 acres lying behind the site making a total area of 2.01 acres. This was just
a little more than the minimum requirement for a school for 100 pupils. But, Mr Moffatt,
of The Bungalow, School Lane, protested about the compulsory purchase of ¾ acre of
2 Rebuild the school on a site at present owned by the RDC and reserved by the
Council for building houses.
3. Rebuild the school on a field owned by Mr Webb behind his home - St Martins Place
on Church Road.
However, despite the best efforts of Mr and Mrs Seebohm and Lady Bowes Lyon, the
Council refused to sell
their site to the LEA. Also, owners of neighbouring properties had raised objections
to 2) and 3). It was felt
that the third option was the best and the Vicar was asked to meet with Webb to try
to win him over into selling the site voluntarily. But, both Webb and the RDC refused
to sell their land. As a result, a third new site
was mooted – the first field (part of Castle Farm) on the right of Chequers Lane
after the Council Houses.
In January 1960, a further possible location was considered. It was understood that
Flowers Brewery would be willing to sell the 2.3 acres behind the Red Lion and with
frontage on Back Lane. This was on the condition that that the land could be sold
as ‘Building Land’. The Planning Officer rejected an initial approach – apparently
concerned that other building development would follow. Despite this, obtaining the
Back Lane site was pursued with the intention of possibly having the County Council
acquire it by a Compulsory Purchase Order. Yet it was clear that Webb’s land was
the preferred site.
In July 1961, Flower’s Brewery stated that they would not object to a Compulsory
Purchase Order for the Back Lane site. This meant that the land would become the
property of the County Council. The option of using Webb’s land was finally discarded
as there was the likelihood of further delays and the Minister had not given his
consent to this proposal.
Because of the Chancellor’s budget cuts, the building of the new school was delayed.
In the meantime,
Mr Seebohm and Mrs Maybrick had discussed how the site could be prepared – marking
the boundaries, tidying the hedges, harrowing the field and filling holes in the
playing field. There was a misunderstanding as Mr Massey (landlord of the Red Lion)
kept chickens on part of the land and hadn’t been told officially that the site had
In March 1962, the committee was informed that there was no hope for the start of
building work in 1962/63. At each of the three times Preston won the Best Kept Village
Competition, it had been presented with three trees and plans were made concerning
where these should be planted. The North boundary of the new school ground was selected
and a ceremony was planned in recognition of the children’s work in keeping the village
tidy. This took place on 16 November at 1.45. But, the delay in getting the green
light to build a new school was a source of frustration.
By November 1963, the playground around the school had been finished and gates and
fences erected. Then, during a committee meeting on 30 October 1964, it was noted
that the new school was in the 1965/66 programme. As soon as sufficient funds were
available, Mr Carey was asked to draw up the plans for the building. Ironically,
concern was expressed that the number of pupils at Preston School was dropping. There
were forty-eight children in March 1966 – a third of these were from Langley. It
was noted that the young of Preston had to move out of the village as there were
no available houses at Preston. As a result, the village population was growing older.
By October 1965, tenders for building the new school had been received. Phase One
was to be finished by September 1966 and the second phase might begin immediately
afterwards. Plans were made for the inauguration of the new school – the Open Day
was postponed so that parents could attend and the children who had left could receive
their prizes. Miss Austin and other County executives were to be invited. Final touches
such as the planting of trees and shrubs and exterior (white) together with interior
colour schemes were discussed.
The Headmaster’s Report on Friday, October 28 1966 began, ‘The most important item
being that they were at last in the new building and were delighted with it, staff
students and canteen staff alike’. The move took place in one day – the school moved
after prayers in the old one on 12 October (see telegram from Mr Orchard to Mr Seebohm
below). There were fifty-one pupils on the register.
Inevitably, after the building work was finished, there were still a few teething
problems – no storage space for bicycles, spare chairs etc. and the boiler failed
on the first day of term (which meant a day’s holiday!). Drainage and fire prevention
issues were revealed. The wording on the school sign was debated and there were even
many complaints about the colour in which the oil tank was painted!
The Opening Ceremony was conducted on 9 December 1966 by Mrs Bowes-Lyons - an event
commemorated by a stone.
Today, the school is described as a Voluntary Controlled Church of England School.
It has three classrooms (one built in 1972), a large hall, a library and a club room.
In 2012, a new building was opened which included a resources room, a music room,
a new staff room and a classroom for the Foundation Stage. In the 1990s there were
eighty pupils in attendance.
Events in the mid-twentieth century
In her Preston Scrapbook, Mrs Maybrick wrote, ‘In 1947 it was found that there was
not enough money to keep the school up to the standard required by the County Council,
so the managers were faced with the alternative of closing down or taking a grant
from the Council and becoming a 'Controlled' school. They decided that the children
should be kept in the village up to the age of eleven so they signed an Instrument
of Effect and the school became a Voluntary Primary (Controlled) School.
OLD SCHOOL DOOMED February 1977
End of an era for cleaner
Three detached chalet houses may soon stand on the spot where Preston schoolchildren
fidgeted on school benches – and for Mary Woodhams,
who has been school cleaner for generations of them, it will mark the
end of an era.
The now almost derelict building was built in 1849 and its rafters rang
to the voices of its last all-aged class of children in October 1966 when
the new Junior Mixed Infant School opened.
Mrs Woodhams was cleaner then, as now, and her earliest memories
of the school go back to 1917 when she was four.
‘I wish I could come to the school as a child now,’ she says without a trace
of fashionable nostalgia. ‘These children are all happy together and there
were no big boys to bully them.’
There’s no sentiment in her memories of cleaning at the old school either.
The job which she took on from her own mother, who had it since 1924,
was a heavy dirty one.
Mrs Woodhams started cleaning in 1939 when her own children were old enough; one
of her duties was to empty the buckets which were the only
form of toilets in the school in those days. Twice a week she had to dig
holes to empty them into.
Another duty was to fetch and chop firewood for the old-fashioned round stove that
heated the 38 ft. by 20 ft. schoolhouse. ’I didn’t mind the hard work – I liked it,’
she said.’After all, the school becomes part of you after all those years’.
But the fate of the old school is unlikely to be mourned by many now that its condition
has deteriorated so far. It will be remembered by the log book and photographs salvaged
by the last headmaster, Mr Freddie Orchard, and now in the keeping of the present
headmaster, Mr Ray Penrose. He also has the old school bell and is planning to have
its clapper restored and to re-hang it so that it can summon the children of Preston
to their studies once again.
Mary Woodhams at work
In November 2013, the headmistress, Mrs Alison Brooks wrote: ‘There are currently
ninety-seven pupils on
the roll and they come from Stevenage, Letchworth, Hitchin, Wymondley, Whitwell,
Langley, Offley, Lilley,
King's Walden, Kimpton, Ley Green,St Ippolytts and Gosmore. There are actually only
11 children who attend
the school live in Preston.
We have our wonderful new building with a Music room, a meeting room for the village
to use, a resources
room, a staffroom and another classroom.
This year we have acquired a chicken coop which houses 4 chickens. The children really
enjoy looking after the hens and collecting the eggs.
We opened an all weather surface pitch this term which allows the children to play
ball games all year round.
The PSA hold a Ball every two years. This summer was our fourth Ball. The parents
presented us with a
cheque for £7000 to help pay for the all weather pitch. Most of the money was raised
from the Ball. Two years ago they presented us with £19,000, which they raised to
help pay for the new building. As you can see we have a very supportive set of parents.’
Links to pages of historical information about Preston School: