by David Shavreen, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 14 (2005)
H G Wells, in one of his stories, expresses the view that the new Board schools that had just begun to sprout all over London were lighthouses illuminating the darkness in which most youngsters lived until the passing of the Education Act of 1870. The nation had resisted the call for a national system of education. Plato, still regarded as an important teacher in government circles had proclaimed that those that had no proclivities for abstract thought, were incapable of profiting from formal instruction and the Church was doubtful of the wisdom of offering to mankind the fruit of the tree of knowledge and baulked at teaching them more than the Bible and the Catechism with perhaps a little needlework for the girls and some bookkeeping for the boys.
However, in Brentford Mrs Trimmer had already launched a school, under the influence of Robert Raikes and the Sunday School movement, which was to be a pioneer with its emphasis on new texts which she wrote for moral guidance telling stories about the wild life in the countryside around the town. She was a stout defender of the Established Church and feared that dissenting voices might weaken the hold of the Church if the children were to lack the proper guidance. For much the same reason the Vicar of Ealing had combined with others to start a boys’ school in Brentford that had opened its doors in 1815. This spiritual contest was replicated across the whole nation and resulted in the founding of rival societies for the development of schools, the two main ones being the National Society for The Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church and the British and Foreign Schools Society founded by the Quaker Joseph Lancaster. After the Government had announced, in 1813, that it was prepared to offer £20,000 to help pay for new school buildings, a group of local people decided to open a British School in Brentford.
The town had long had a reputation for immorality and drunkenness. Brewing was one of the major industries and drinking the products one of the major preoccupations of its citizens, who for the most part earned their livings in menial and poorly paid tasks. Their homes were often wooden shacks without proper sanitation – breeding grounds for diseases like smallpox, dysentery and tuberculosis. Yet it was the factory owners who, influenced no doubt by their religious beliefs and their concern for the poor, began to look to education to bring some hope of an ordered existence into the town. It was thus with some hope that the Rev Muscett appealed to the British and Foreign Society: ‘to render us assistance, in a town long distinguished for gross ignorance and immorality in establishing large and efficient schools.’
The response was positive and in 1834 the British School opened in Spring Gardens, just east of the present County Court. It had separate rooms for the boys and the girls and was to be run on monitorial lines where as many as a hundred children could be taught by one master or mistress, utilising monitors (the brighter children) to transmit the lessons to smaller groups. It was not a system calculated to excite the children but education had always been regarded as a privilege to be enforced with the birch and other sadistic punishments. One change now introduced was the institution of rewards for good conduct so that the possibility that children might actually enjoy their schooling was already being entertained.
The moving spirits of the enterprise were local industrialists like James Montgomrey, who owned a large timber yard where Heidelbergs now stands. He was President of the Committee with Charles Cross, a co-partner in the Thames Soap Works in Ferry Lane as Secretary. Cross was sufficiently interested to make weekly visits to the school to observe progress. Others were the Cunningtons, also soap makers, and Charles Croxford who owned the Royal Brewery which stood where Watermans Arts Centre is today. Contributions for the funds were also made by the local Philanthropic Society and the Brentford Working Men’s Club. An inspector from the old police station would come from time to time to supervise the drill classes, for the curriculum took wing as time progressed.
The purposes for which the British and Foreign Society had originally been founded were the promotion of ‘the education of the Labouring and Manufacturing Classes of Society of every religious persuasion’. The schools’ interdenominational character was to be of particular importance to Brentford’s British School since its most powerful patrons were to be the wealthy Jewish Rothschilds who were shortly to arrive in Gunnersbury. The absence of religious tests appealed to dissenters of every social class, but particularly to the wealthy industrialists who looked to educate their children in knowledge more adapted to the industrial world they inhabited than the Bible and the Catechism which still formed the staple fare in Church schools.
Opening of the school
The school began with 100 or so boys but almost at once began to grow as new boys were admitted every week. The number of girls (who were in a separate building) also increased. Within ten years it was reported that 1,000 boys and 900 girls had passed through altogether.
The annual report for 1846 sets out the subjects studied: ’12 learn the Alphabet, 24 read lessons in one syllable, 21 read easy Scripture lessons, 68 read the Bible, 42 are instructed in English History, 79 in General History and Geography and 27 are taught Grammar and the elements of Science, 104 are taught Arithmetic, 61 write in copy books and 28 of the elder boys are taught Mechanical and Map Drawing.’ The subjects were taught to both boys and girls and received the approval of the inspectors who had been appointed by the government in 1833 when the first tentative approaches had been made to establish some control over church schools.
In 1846 the monitorial system had been modified by the introduction of the pupil-teacher system under which apprentices could be paid out of government funds. They had to be at least 13 when appointed. They would serve for five years and then be entitled to training at a teachers’ training college. The Brentford school was to make increasing use of such teachers. There were also ‘stipendiary monitors’ who did not wish to be apprentices but who would continue to act as monitors until the age of 17, earning between £5 and £12.10s (£12.50p) a year.
The Rothschilds arrived at Gunnersbury in 1835 and almost at once began to take an interest in the school. They were appalled by the conditions they discovered at Brentford and began at once to extend a helping hand. In 1846 the school recorded that Baroness de Rothschild of Gunnersbury House, Brentford had contributed £20 and organised tea parties and outings for the children as well as being the most generous contributor to the Clothing Club. This club represented the first organised practical attempt to deal with the dire needs of parents who could only afford to dress their children in rags and cast-offs. In November 1851 it was stated ‘that a Clothing fund had been established by the Baroness and that 50 girls had been provided with materials and had made new clothes’. It adds: ‘the Baroness wished the number increased and would happily provide the funds. This would be such an addition to the usual work in the school and the number of girls in attendance having much increased lately that Miss Smith required an Assistant Teacher or must be under the necessity of giving up the Clothing Fund’. Such a possibility was not to be considered so the school advertised for an assistant at a projected cost of £40 a year.
The income of the school, however, was very dependent on the weekly payments of the children. These ranged from a penny from the poorest to 9d from the children of the more wealthy. Absence meant a loss of income and the school did its best to round up missing pupils by sending out letters or assistants to visit the children’s homes. The records list many causes of absence: attendance fell off in the afternoons when energy for school lessons was dissipated by domestic duties or hunger; in winter the school was cold and illness was rife. Poor sanitation and lack of clean water meant that smallpox and tuberculosis took their toll and infectious diseases were common. Work in the fields such as spring sowing or gathering the harvest meant children were withdrawn from school to provide cheap labour, and high days and holidays, like the Brentford Fair, were opportunities for some families to profit from rich pickings. However, the expanding population as families became larger and health began to improve, meant the school was bursting at the seams and larger premises were necessary.
The new school building
It was to Baron Lionel de Rothschild that the school committee turned, in 1857, for advice and assistance in finding a new site for the school. A suitable site was found in Brentford High Street opposite Montgomrey’s timber yard (where Alexandra House now stands). Baroness Evelina de Rothschild, a younger daughter of Baroness Charlotte laid the foundation stone and the new school was completed by July 1859. At the party to celebrate the occasion, tea and cakes were served in the two schoolrooms and there was vocal and instrumental music, directed by the schoolmaster Mr Crampton. There was also a party for 160 adults held in the Town Hall. The following motion was proposed at the annual meeting of the Committee in 1860 ‘That the thanks of this meeting be presented to Baron and Baroness Lionel de Rothschild, Mrs Fisher and other donors by whose generosity the Committee had been enabled to erect the ample buildings in which we are now assembled.’ As the illustration shows it was a handsome building in the mock Elizabethan style much favoured by Victorian architects for school buildings.
It was an unpropitious time however for progressive education since in 1858 the Newcastle Commission had been set up to report on measures likely to ‘extend sound and cheap elementary education to all classes of people’. It was back to basics with a vengeance. The Commission recommended that financial aid given to any school should depend on the pupils’ mastery of the three Rs as measured by the inspectors, and the records of attendance. Poor results would lead to a reduction in the government grant. The system became known as ‘Payment by Results’ and was considered a disastrous plan by Matthew Arnold, the son of the reforming Head of Rugby School, who thought it would reduce education to a meaningless ritual in which teachers were forced to concentrate on results which could only be obtained by rote learning of the most mechanical kind and the degradation of the teaching to memory work. Wealthy schools alone could continue to provide a stimulating curriculum.
Fortunately Brentford British School fell into this category. It retained a percentage of children from comfortable homes and, contrary to the general trend that saw a disastrous drop in the number and quality of teachers, was able to increase its teaching staff. In 1860, in addition to the Head, there were five pupil teachers and four auxiliary and occasional teachers. By 1870 the number of pupil-teachers had increased to eight and the school had received the approval of Matthew Arnold himself.
In 1866 Evelina de Rothschild suddenly died in childbirth and the Rothschild family was plunged into grief. To commemorate her daughter’s interest in education, her mother had marble tablets placed in both the boys’ and girls’ schools and founded the Evelina Prize of £5 awarded annually to the best child in the school for ‘punctuality and regularity in attendance, abilities in study and general good conduct’.
In subsequent years the Rothschilds’ contribution became of a much more light-hearted nature. Entertainment was provided at Christmas usually in the form of a magic lantern show with cakes, buns and oranges for the children. James Montgomrey, Chairman of the Committee provided the lantern and the Rothschilds the food. Later, a zoescope, the forerunner of moving pictures, was provided. There were special excursions to see the wedding of Princess Mary of Cambridge and to watch the Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Race. A cricket club was formed and, in 1869, a drum and fife band.
The curriculum developed and began to reflect some of the practices of foreign schools. There were also early lessons in simple science, although science was frowned on by many who believed that a Classical education wedded to Greece and Rome should take priority.
When Baroness Rothschild died in 1884 two thousand Brentford people are said to have gathered at the gates of Gunnersbury Park for the start of her funeral procession to Willesden. By 1906 the school had been renamed the Rothschild School in her honour.
An inspection of the school in 1894 described it in the following terms: ‘Brentford British School was a highly successful, disciplined and happy school which had never abandoned the cultivation of the intellect in a stimulating environment with its varied curriculum and its interest in play and entertainment.’ The Borough of Ealing took over the school in 1919 and it closed in 1930 when Brentford Secondary Modern School was opened. The building was demolished in 1936. Alexandra House, the Community Resources Centre, now covers part of its site.
David Shavreen lives in Brentford and taught for over 40 years, mainly in schools in Brentford, Chiswick and Tottenham.