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 obtained a copy - not from Eric T Moores Bookshop in Hitchin, but from France.These are the known 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 establishing a National School at Hitchin was in April,1817. Preston’s School thus entered the union less than a year later) 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 questioned. 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 first 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 recordedWhat sort of building might Preston School have been? Again, this is purely conjecture: Elizabeth Darton’s and/or her 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.
Preston School 1849 - 1966
In 1849, either Elizabeth Darton or 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.
Preston’s Plaiting Schools
In addition to 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 that children are taught the art and (ostensibly) the three R’s. The children remain at school at the usual school hours. Afterwards, during the time when they do not play, they plait a little till sent to rest. When they are about eight or nine 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. This was 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 School Board 1873
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.
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.The log books contain:
The names of teachers and monitors Lessons taught, songs learnt, poetry recited, timetables Attendance figures and reasons for absences Admissions and leavers Disciplinary cautions Illnesses Annual inspections and reports Visits of school managers and patrons. School equipment Incidents, accidents, holidays and treats.
Preston school log book from 1901
In the Preston school log book from 1873-1901, there are more than 350 references to individual boys and girls. Even a 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 and I will send the deleted comment.
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 rangto 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 memoriesof 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.
Mary Woodhams at work
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.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.
Events at Preston School since 1966
(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 three alternatives: 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 his land.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 been acquired. 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 now 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.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.’