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The early history of Bladon Primary School
In the mid 19th century a Royal Commission found that fewer than one in eight children in England and Wales were going to school, or receiving any kind of education at all other than, perhaps, at Sunday School. That Commission reported in 1858, some 20 years after the Government had decided that it should give official support to National Schools – so even fewer children must have been on the receiving end of any kind of education before that. National Schools were church schools founded along the guidelines of the National Society for the Promoting of the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church, which had held its first meeting as early as 1811. Its mission was to found a school in every parish with the stated purpose “that the National Religion should be made the foundation of National Education, and should be the first and chief thing taught to the poor”.
By 1870, the Elementary Education Act provided that so-called Board Schools should be set up in those areas where there were still no National Schools, and an Act of 1876 established that it was the duty of parents to ensure that their children received basic instruction in the ‘three Rs’. I gathered these snippets of information from a booklet, by Wendy Heppell and Carol Browning, published last year to celebrate the 150th anniversary of one such National School, The Duchess of Marlborough’s School, more commonly known these days as Bladon Primary School (A History of Bladon School, published by Bladon Church of England Primary School, 2008).
It provides an insight into Victorian life in rural Oxfordshire – with very rich people providing paternalistic help to very poor ones, in a world in which there were still very few in between (middle-classes).
The seventh duchess, Fanny, founded the school to replace an earlier schoolroom that her mother-in-law had established but which, unfortunately, had burned down. At that time there were 84 children under seven attending school, out of a village population of about 500.
Interestingly, the duchess stipulated that “the school should not be altogether free, because people always valued most that for which they had to pay something”.
Accordingly, even though the school received a small Government grant from 1870, 78 of the original pupils paid between one and two (old) pence each a week, with the remaining six having their fees paid by a charity, set up in 1643 by Peter Hopkins for the education of poor children in the parish.
The seventh Duke of Marlborough, Fanny’s husband, when opening the new school, told the villagers that his wife would provide the children with a uniform which, he hoped, would be an assistance in the way of clothing. He also impressed on parents how important it was that the example they set their children at home should not counteract the good teaching at school.
By 1871 there were 96 children on the school roll, but half the older children regularly failed to turn up. And during the 1880s the village population declined because of emigration to the New World.
The Duke, who had been MP for Woodstock, went on to become Viceroy of Ireland during the potato famine years.
Historian A.L. Rowse described him as “a complete full-blown Victorian prig”, but certainly he devoted himself to ‘doing good’ according to his own lights.
He and Duchess Fanny had 11 children, and Jenny Jerome (mother of Sir Winston Churchill) has described how after meals at Blenheim Palace all the children would fill baskets with food left over and then distribute it to poor people during their afternoon walks.