Cowbridge School was opened in January 1863 in Dimsdale Street (behind what is now the United Reform Church). It was a “British School”, i.e. for children from Dissident or Non-conformist families. These schools were based on the work of Joseph Lancaster (1778 – 1838), a Quaker, who used a system of monitors – older children teaching younger children. (National schools were organised in a similar way, based on the work of Dr. Andrew Bell (1753 – 1832) and were Church of England schools.)
There had previously been a British School in a disused chapel in Back Street (now Railway Street) but exactly when and where is not known.
Cowbridge school was built at the same time as the Congregational Church1, situated on Cowbridge, was rebuilt. The school was run by a group of managers with the land owned by trustees.
The first master was Mr Pearce, a teacher "of great experience" according to the Hertfordshire Mercury. His wife was the mistress, i.e. responsible for the girls and infants. The Pearces were paid £100 per annum.
There was an assistant master who was paid £30 per year and an assistant mistress who was paid £4 for two months. The school cleaner was paid 1s 6d per week.
In 1869 Pearce was followed by John Frost Caville.
Walter Turpin was Headmaster of Cowbridge School for 26 years, from 26th February 1889 until 31st March 1915 when, along with the boys, he transferred to the newly opened Port Vale School for Boys. In 1903 Cowbridge had become one of the first two County Council Schools in Hertford. The other school was Christ Church Infants' School.
Miss Agnes Stuart Lethem took over as headmistress of the girls' and infants' school from 19th April, 1915 when there were 90 girls and 56 infants on the roll.
Miss Lethem obviously made an impact since the H.M.I. report covering an inspection on 20th October, 1917 gives a positive glow to the state of the school under her tutelage, viz. “ The general appearance and arrangement of the rooms has been very much improved since the present mistress took charge. The children are now happy and busy and making good progress in most of their work.”
Miss Lethem terminated her engagement with the school on 27th July, 1923.
Miss Edith Bradbeer became the next Mistress joining the school on 4th September, 1923. On the day she took up her appointment there were 126 children “on the books.”
In 1931 there was a re-organisation of Hertford schools and Cowbridge became a junior and mixed infants (JMI) whilst Port Vale became a senior girls' school.
In September 1939, at the outbreak of war, Cowbridge was closed until hostilities ceased, as there was no ground where trenches could be made. (Parents received intimation of this on 20th July.)
On 29th September, the Cowbridge children started their school year sharing the St. Andrew's School building. A double shift system was used, i.e. one school worked in the morning and the other in the afternoon.
From 7th September the Cowbridge building was used by the military authorities for classes for soldiers and officers.
Miss Bradbeer was informed on 18th October that the military had vacated the premises and the school could return to the Cowbridge building. There was no mention of the absence of shelters or trenches at this time.
On 2nd September, 1940 after three weeks summer break, two weeks in July/August and one week at the end of August, 18 mothers told Miss Bradbeer they would not be sending their children to school until Air Raid shelters were provided.
On Friday 11th October the L.E.A closed Cowbridge School & arranged for the children & staff to be transferred temporarily to the Port Vale building where trenches had been built. Here they shared with the Senior Girls’ School. The Cowbridge children started work on Thursday, 17th October. Again a double shift was worked.
The seniors of the Jewish Orphanage who had been evacuated to Hertford earlier in the year began using the Dimsdale Street site in November 1940. They had originally shared Longmore Senior School but this was damaged by a bomb in November 1940.
By January 1942 the schools had been re-organised so that the juniors were working a full day with the infants still working a double shift. In order to accommodate this the girls of Port Vale were spread around the town.
By June, 1943 all the senior girls had moved out of the Port Vale building.
On Monday, 28th June, 1943, the name of the school was changed and for as long as Cowbridge School Staff & Scholars were using the building, the school was to be known as Port Vale Junior Mixed & Infants School. The note of instruction from County Education Officer was dated 12th June.
Miss Bradbeer continued as Head of Port Vale JMI until she retired on 3th June 1953.
The Cowbridge building was used as a craft centre after the war. Boys from the Cowper School used it in the 1950s for pottery, woodwork and metalwork classes, but this use ceased after Simon Balle was opened. The building was finally closed in 1968. It sits there still rather forlorn and deteriorating.
In 2001 Courtyard Arts Centre, Port Vale put forward a plan to use the premises for courses in art and crafts. The proposal would have required extensive remedial work to bring the building back into use as well as structural changes, and the plan was eventually abandoned.
The building is now over 150 years old and hopefully an educational use can be found for it in the near future.
For more information on the school under the different headteachers along with short biographies of the heads, please read the articles below.
1 According to the booklet "Tercentenary Hertford Congregational (United Reformed) Church" the Congregational 'Old Meeting House' situated on Meeting House Lane, near South Street, was pulled down in 1796 to make way for the enalrgement of Christ Hospital School and a site purchased from Baron Dimsdale. A church building was erected on the site and the land at the rear was used as a burial ground. As the current church replaced this one, the implication is that the school was built on the burial ground! This document is avaiable at Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies in the Hertfordshire Local Collection.