Bengeo National Boys' School in the 19th Century

By Geoff Cordingley

The school from Bengeo Street decorated for the 1953 Coronation

The School Begins

The Clergy of the Church of England along with well meaning, influential people considered that children of “the poor” should be educated so they could read, write and perform basic arithmetic operations, especially with money. To this end Bengeo Boys’ School was opened in 1849, built on land supplied by William Parker of Ware Park. The cost was £900 raised by a combination of local subscription and a government grant. The land was next to what was to become the graveyard of Holy Trinity Church when the church was consecrated in 1855. The previous parish church, St. Leonard’s, was too small to cater for the expanding population of Bengeo.

The site facing Bengeo Street (sometimes called High Road in those days) also included a house and garden for the master to the east, i.e. behind the school. There were two school rooms measuring 25ft x 18ft each and a classroom for the infants measuring 22ft by18ft. Presumably the two school rooms were for teaching the boys over 7 years of age: sometime later, one of these was used to teach girls until the girls’ school was built in 1860.

William Parker insisted that children and adults, or children only were to be educated ‘in the Principles of the Established Church’ and that, ‘No person shall be appointed or shall continue to be master or mistress in the said schools, who is not a member of the Church of England.’

The masters of the boys’ school in the 19th Century are listed below:

Master’s name

Start date

End date

Other information

Henry Heal



Approximately 60 boys on the register

George Bennett



Ann Bennett, his wife, mistress to the infants (and girls?)

John James Glanville



Kept the first log book. Left at the end of 1865 after a HM Inspector’s report critical of the behaviour and progress

Samuel Pedley



Samuel was the son of a cotton spinner, born in 1845 in Congleton, Cheshire, where in 1861 he was a pupil teacher

Thomas Porter



On arrival he considered that the attainments of the school did not seem very high. Number of boys reached 100

Alfred Wilson



Alfred was born in 1854, locally, the son of Joseph, a farmer at Bentley’s Farm, Brickendon Green, and Phillis

William Ellis



William died on 3rd July, 1899 and his grave is in the Holy Trinity graveyard


At the beginning of the log book in 1863, Mr Glanville wrote that the school was made up of 86 boys of two groups: those from Hertford, (presumably the areas of Cowbridge & Port Vale), the parents of whom are generally “Mechanicals” and those from Bengeo and its hamlets where parents were agricultural labourers. This latter group were mainly responsible for the poor behaviour, generally supported by their parents, which eventually caused the master to leave. The behaviour cannot have been helped by that of W. Farrow, a pupil monitor, who struck a boy, Taylor, from the 5th class with a pointer. Farrow was given 5 stripes (caned) on the hand for this. Farrow then proceeded to molest and strike Taylor on the way home at lunch time. This time he was not only given 4 stripes (in front of the Rector) but his teaching money was forfeit and placed in the missionary box.

The parents were often unhappy about the punishments given to the boys and sometimes confronted the master. When the master had explained the circumstances fully, some of the parents changed their minds and agreed with the punishment. One particular instance of the bad behaviour occurred in 1870 when W. Notcutt was turned out of the school for swearing and attempting to stab the master with a large clasp knife. Amazingly, he was readmitted to the school after begging to come back.

The children had a visit from Mr. Hunt, Inspector of Police in mid-June, 1880. He warned the children about trespassing in the churchyards. At the same time the master, Mr. Ellis, warned against the use of bad language and the practice of writing filthy words on the walls, latterly on the back walls of the premises. There was a later further reprimand for the use of bad language. The children from Waterford were particularly prone to swearing.


Absenteeism was also a problem. As the boys had to walk to school bad weather affected the numbers. On 10th January, 1881 only15 children were present for prayers so no school was held on that day. By the 9th snow was generally 1½ft. deep and in some places 3ft.

Illness also continually affected attendance. Since there were no inoculations, outbreaks of diseases were common. In September 1869, the school had to be closed for four days because of an outbreak of scarlet fever in the village. Even when the school reopened the attendance was poor and the master did not return until a week later when his son, who had the disease, was out of danger.

Unfortunately, on 17th March, 1880 it was reported that William Pack Clifton formerly a pupil teacher at the school & then a student at St Marks College, Chelsea, had died of scarlet fever. Hopes had been entertained that he would recover but after the crisis had passed he rapidly sank & died about 8am. He always passed his examinations well and was always painstaking and conscientious in discharging his duties. His death was deeply felt by teachers and students. He was buried two days later at 3pm. Owing to the infectious character of the disease it was thought best by the doctor that the children & teachers should not pay that “outward respect to his memory which their feelings prompted them to do”, so they did not attend the funeral.

Sometimes attendance was affected on 5th November by boys ‘guying’ i.e. the boys trundled a stuffed effigy of Guy Fawkes around the streets of the village begging for money – ‘a penny (1d) for the guy.’ The master and Rector introduced a new rule on 5th November 1888, that: ‘parents who keep their children at home will have to pay an extra 1d per week.’ The boys, who had been guying, were sent home to obtain the additional fee but their mothers refused to pay and three removed their boys from the school.

Fore Street, 1880s

Fore Street, 1880s

Not surprisingly, the visit of a circus would affect attendance. This would have been one of the very few exciting events of the year in a world without television, computers, radio and where children would have to make their own entertainment. When a circus visited, some school children were absent so they could attend an afternoon performance. The master and rector counselled against this. However this did not seem to have much effect since on 13th September, 1892 there was again a problem with attendance because of a circus visit. The logbook states: “These shows are an unmitigated nuisance.” In the morning there had been 152 boys but at registration in the afternoon attendance was down to 134 although six boys did arrive after the registers were closed. Thus, twelve boys were absent. (Mr. Turpin, the master at Cowbridge British School, had a different approach and closed the school for the afternoon when a circus was in town.)

The master sometimes considered that children were away “on the most frivolous pretences,” which included collecting acorns (for the pigs presumably) on 13th October 1870, when attendance was described as miserable: out of 88, 54 boys attended in the morning and 47 in the afternoon. (Of course, children went home for lunch, 12noon – 2pm or 1:30pm in winter.)

School attendance officers were appointed in 1880. Their job was to improve attendance and deal with truancy. According to Government regulations children under the age of 10 were supposed to attend school and those under 13 were only allowed to work if they had a certificate of proficiency in the three Rs. Children’s names were given to the local attendance officer on a number of occasions, for example on 24th March, 1881 he summonsed C. Adams & Reuben Park. This became known in the village and may well account for the highest attendance of 127 boys that afternoon. In September, 1883 Charles Adams was reported to the school attendance officer as he had started employment but was not yet 13.

Presumably in an attempt to improve attendance, at the end of the first week in September,1891 the actual attendance of each class was calculated as a percentage of the number on the register. The class with the highest attendance for the week was to receive a flag and would also leave a little earlier and be excused home lessons. The first winner was Standard III with 99.5%. The following week Class 5 (Standard I) won with 99.2%.

School Fees

From the earliest days children paid a 1d per week to attend the school. The master collected this fee every Monday morning. In January 1877, school fees were set at 3d per week for Class 1 and 2d for the other classes. If paid quarterly in advance then these amounts became 3/- and 2/-. The parents were also required to pay 2d per quarter in advance for books or 1d per month. Sons of tradesmen were to pay 6d per week in Class 1 or 4d otherwise according to their circumstances. In the case of a large family a multiplication of this rule was made. The scale was adjusted in January1878 so that the 6d was paid for the eldest son only of tradesmen. Many of the families were poor and it is not clear what happened if the fee wasn’t paid. Perhaps a local moneyed person footed the bill.

The managers decided to make the school a ‘free school’ on 7th September, 1891, i.e. the parents would not have to pay a fee. Presumably, this was done to allow the school to become a State supported school in which case children of any religious denomination would be accepted.

Boys from Croydon

Workhouses used a “boarding out system” to place orphaned children with foster parents who were given a weekly allowance. Initially the children were fostered in their own parish but later they were sent to other parishes. On 13th September 1886 eight boys from Croydon Union Authority were boarded in Bengeo. Later some of the boys were called back to Croydon because they were to be sent to Canada. One can only wonder at the feelings of children who probably had begun to make positive relations with their foster parents, but were suddenly wrenched away and sent to a distant land. Possibly one or two might have thought it was an exciting adventure?

The school boys were given talks at various times at the school about the evils of alcohol and on 6th November, 1888 the master and assistants marched 60 boys down to the Corn Exchange to the children’s meeting of the Gospel Temperance Mission presumably for a further talk on the subject.

Boys usually progressed through the school with their peers. When a master considered that a boy had not made enough progress he could be held back for a further year in the current class. This was referred to as the “Exception Rule”. On 4th May, 1888 Mr Ellis recorded that reading, writing, grammar and arithmetic examinations were held in the morning. He considered that Grumble, George & Chamberlain in Standard I; Anthony in Standard II & J. Rayment and Scrivener in Standard III appear to be “almost hopeless and fitting subjects for the Exception Rule.”

Mr. William Ellis

After a series of masters who did not stay at the school very long, Mr. William Ellis was appointed Master in 1878. By 1892 after 14 years at the school he must have been really pleased to have received a positive report from that year’s school inspection. The report stated : ‘This is in all respects a highly satisfactory school, both teachers & scholars seem really interested in their work and do well. ….. The highest grant has been obtained, each child on an average has earned 20/6d. The total grant is £132/4/6 on an average of 129. Last year was £125.8.0 on an average of 132.’ Sadly Mr. Ellis died in 1899 leaving a wife and five sons, (a further son had died in infancy.)

In 1896/7 the school had difficulty finding a male assistant teacher and so decided to advertise for a female one. Two were employed, the first lady lasted two terms but the second only lasted a few weeks saying that the work was more than she expected.

One event which presumably pleased everyone and probably improved the health of the children occurred in 1895. Originally the school had been built with cesspools to take the lavatory waste but by 9th September, 1895 these were finally filled in as the sewerage arrangements were now complete. During the Christmas holidays the closets and urinals were altered with water being laid on so they could be flushed easily.

The boys were no doubt very pleased to receive extra holiday days for special local or national events, such as weddings and funerals of local dignitaries or members of the royal family. On 2nd July, 1891 a holiday was given for a very unusual event, a balloon ascent in Hertford. On 23rd July, 1891 the children were given a half day holiday for the wedding of Miss Edith Smith of Goldings. 18th November, 1891 was given as a holiday to celebrate the marriage of two governors, Mr George Palmer, a farmer living at Revels Hall and Miss Helen M. Ord who was living in the village with her mother having come from Co. Durham. On 2nd March, 1893 a half day holiday was given to celebrate the Master’s 40th birthday. On 6th July, 1893 the children were given a holiday to celebrate the wedding of George, the second son of the Prince of Wales, to Mary of Teck.

At the beginning of the 20th century, County Education Boards were established. The Hertfordshire one gradually took over responsibility for elementary schools. The influence of the churches was reduced although religious teaching was still retained. Religious ceremonies such as Easter and Christmas retained their significance.

This page was added on 11/01/2014.

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  • My great great grandfather George Catling lived in Port Vale, Bengeo (he was initially a shoemaker and then a musician) and I would assume that his son John James Catling b 1837 would have attended this school at some time.
    John had two younger sisters who might also have attended.

    By Wendy Lawrence (07/04/2019)
  • I was at the school in 1954, the headmaster was Mr. Johnson. I remember the red white and blue railings very well.

    By R.Millett. (09/04/2016)
  • The photo was taken by Michael Saggers. The decorations are for the coronation in 1953. The fence had been painted red, white and blue by some of the boys.

    By Marilyn Taylor (07/02/2014)