School’s Out for Summer!

on Friday, 13 June 2014. Posted in Archives, Schools

Education records in Wiltshire and Swindon Archives

At this time of year, I can’t help but think of all the children doing exams at school and college, and who are now awaiting results. I thought it might be timely to write about the range of school records held in the Wiltshire and Swindon Archives that shed light on how our ancestors coped with the demands of education. I was also amused to read on an external website that Elvis Presley managed only to get a ‘C’ for music in his exams – it just goes to show that formal education is not the be all and end all!

What I’ll do is run through the main types of educational establishments which have existed in Wiltshire down the centuries, and discuss what records may be found for them, and how they may be used. A quick caveat before I begin - survival of education records is patchy, unfortunately. Also, it is worth remembering they may still be kept by the establishment itself rather than a county record office.

A good starting point is to look up the relevant place on our Community History website, then look under the heading schools, to see a summary of information about the school, plus photographs. Next, check our catalogue – available partially on www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/a2a/ - to see what’s survived. If you draw a blank with the catalogue, it is worth contacting the Archive service, in case the records have been deposited but just not been catalogued yet. Last, but not least, you might wish to contact the school in question to see if they still have archives there.

I must stress from the outset that a national system for free, compulsory education is a relatively recent creation, only dating back to the 1870 Education Act. Prior to that, education was either charitable in essence, often linked to religious institutions or private charity, or education was limited to pupils whose family could pay.

The first type of school records I want to talk about are those for endowed schools.
These are schools which were set up with money left in an individual’s will, or an organisation’s trust deed, which took in a small number of pupils on a charitable basis, but (as finances dwindled) took on fee-paying students in addition to the charitably-funded ones.

Examples of endowed schools in Wiltshire are the Cathedral school in the Close, Salisbury, which can be traced back to 1091; Dauntsey’s School in West Lavington, which dates back to the 16th century, and the Godolphin School in Salisbury which is an 18th century foundation.

The types of records which MAY exist for an endowed school are: wills, trust deeds, parliamentary papers, correspondence concerning disputes, statutes or schemes of government, leases of school sites, maps and plans of school buildings, records of appointment of trustees or governors, papers concerning the appointment/dismissal of school masters, accounting records, school master’s reports and correspondence, minute books of governors or trustees, school magazines, school songs, journals of ‘Old Boy’ associations, sports programmes, and printed lists of scholars.

Charity schools were set up either by endowment or by subscription, to cater for poor pupils unable to attend fee-paying schools.

One interesting charity school record we hold is an 18th century account book for the school in Highworth founded by James Ayescough and Henry Haggard, who in 1722 collected subscriptions from 76 people, to set up a free school for the poorer children of the locality. The subscriptions paid for the school master’s salary, and extra money was collected at special times of the year to buy bibles, books of common prayer, catechisms, children’s guides, paper, quills, besoms (brooms), chairs and 40 caps and bands, which gives an idea of the number of pupils.

Over time the number of subscribers declined, with the result that it was necessary to use the sacrament money to pay the salary of the school teacher, with the cost of books and other materials being provided by parents or other donors. The Highworth Charity School continued until 1855, when it was taken over by the National School – more of that shortly.

From the 18th century charity schools were often helped by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge – in addition to local records, the SPCK’s own archives are in London, and include published reports 1705-1732, and letter books.

The 18th century is also noteworthy for the private schools which grew up in several of the larger towns. Private schools relied on fees paid by the pupils’ families, and thus catered mainly for the middle classes. They varied considerably depending on the teacher in charge, and their interests and idiosyncrasies – for example, William Cobbett recounted visiting a school in Pewsey run by a friend who was a keen gardener, who used the boys’ games of football as a means of spreading dung over his fields!

Where still in existence – the records will be similar to those for endowed schools; where no longer existing you may be able to find prospectuses, advertisements and articles in local newspapers, trade directories, diaries/autobiographies, correspondence and bills for education.

Some children of poor families who didn’t attend another type of school might find help from “dame schools” which were often run by women in their own homes, who had very little education of their own, and were in effect childminders for children while their parents were at work. Records of this kind of informal schooling are very few and far between. It is also worth remembering that attendance was voluntary for children, and parents would not be punished for failing to send children to school prior to 1870.

In 1811 the National Society was founded which aimed for education for all, based on Church of England principles. The Society aimed to found a Church of England school in every parish in England and Wales. It offered grants to prospective founders, funding the construction, enlarging and fitting out of school rooms. The Society also trained teachers for these National Schools, and bought books. The archives of the Society are to be found at the Church of England’s Record Centre in Bermondsey, London.

In addition to the Church of England, other denominations recognized the need for better education. Joseph Lancaster was a Quaker who was concerned to promote education of the poorer classes and is responsible for what are known as ‘British’ schools. The records of the British and Foreign School Society are held at Brunel University.
As I’ve alrea

dy mentioned the 1870 Education Act was a major step forward for education for all children over 5 and under 13 in England and Wales.


The Act stated that the ratepayers of each Poor Law Union or Borough could petition the Board of Education to investigate educational provision in their area, and if there were not enough local schools, a ‘Board school’ could be set up. This would be financed as part of the local rates. Boards could create bye-laws to make attendance compulsory.


In Wiltshire the first board schools were formed at Salisbury and Box in 1871. However, opposition to state provision of elementary schools was strong in Wiltshire. As late as 1937, 233 out of 302 elementary schools were ‘non-provided’, making cooperation of managers and the public essential. (The ‘non-provided’ schools were the National and British schools, continuing under the new legislation.)

The school boards were abolished by the Balfour Education Act, 1902, which replaced them with around 300 Local Education Authorities. The remit of these included secondary education for the first time. As far as secondary schools are concerned in Wiltshire, many existing institutions were utilized and developed, including both private schools and state-funded. The 1944 Education Act increased the total number of schools. Some of these schools have deposited records with the archive service but not all.

All state-funded schools will have the same kind of records owing to their reporting relationship to central government including:

School log books (dating back to 1862) are a day-to-day record of events at a school kept by the head teacher. They include information on activities outside the normal timetable, official visits and inspections, outings, special closures, incidents of misbehaviour, staff appointments and absences, reorganisation of classes, and reasons for low attendance (harvesting or illness being the most common). Log books are a wonderful resource for local history.


Admission records are vital for tracing individual pupils.
Admission registers record the arrival of new pupils at a school, and are usually arranged by date of admission. They are sometimes indexed. Most school admission registers usually include pupils’ names, parents’ or guardians’ names, addresses, pupils’ dates of birth, entry and leaving. Many different formats are found, and sometimes columns are included for pupils’ signatures on admission (a useful indicator of literacy).

Other types of records include: managers’ or governing body minutes; correspondence with central government or the LEA on significant issues; policies and procedures; prospectuses and newsletters; accounts; records of ‘old boys’ organisations’; plans; photographs and many more. 

Wiltshire County Technical Education Committee was formed in 1891. It investigated technical education in the county and only found that the New Swindon Mechanics’ Institute and Salisbury School of Art were providing a suitable level.

In 1892 the Agricultural committee of Wiltshire County Council was set up which concentrated on itinerant schools of butter-making, cheese-making, farriery, bee keeping and poultry-keeping. The Farm Institute at Lackham, acquired in 1950, was an important step forward in the provision of agricultural education. 

Anyone researching education in Wiltshire in any depth is advised to look at Volume 5 of the ‘Victoria County History of Wiltshire’, and to use the various published parliamentary reports on education which include lots of local detail. 

At the end of this, I feel even more sympathy with young people undergoing their exams, as I feel I have written not just a blog but an essay for you to read! The good news is, you won’t be tested on it! 

Claire Skinner, Principal Archivist

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