By Avril Lumley Prior


Educating Helpston

On 13 July 2015, Helpston’s ‘peasants’ poet’s’ two hundred and twenty second birthday, John Clare Primary School celebrates its Golden Jubilee. To mark the occasion, Head-teacher Rachel Simmons and I are compiling a short history of education in the village sourced from trades’ directories, British Census Returns, School Log Books and registers, the diaries of long-serving headmaster, Howard Wheelwirght Gagg, and the reminiscences of former pupils and Helpston residents, including John Clare (1793-1864).

Indeed, it is Clare who supplies our earliest reference to a school at Helpston, held in St Botolph’s church c. 1764, although it is feasible that one existed earlier.  He divulges that there his grandmother, church-warden’s daughter Alice Clare, was seduced by the schoolmaster, John Donald Parker, an itinerant fiddle-player, whom she encountered whilst winding up the church clock.  After a brief dalliance culminating the birth of John’s father, Parker Clare, the lily-livered Lothario left her in the lurch and vanished forever.

Clare also informs us that there was a ‘dame-school’ operating in Helpston, where Mrs Alice Bullimore taught local children the rudiments of reading, writing and reckoning for a few pence a week.  We do not know whether she had received any formal training, but Clare clearly adored her and was heart-broken when she died in September 1798 whilst he was under her tutelage.  Years later, he composed a poem in her honour and claimed that it was Widow Bullimore who first ignited his passion for literature, folklore and his environment.   

After Mrs Bullimore’s passing, Clare and his Helpston classmates had to trudge two miles to Glinton church, where the equally-inspirational John Seaton and James Merrishaw held classes in St Benedict’s church for those whose families could afford to pay.  Despite the 1833 Act of Parliament offering education to all boys and girls aged between five and ten, attendance was optional and nationwide many parents and employers believed that children were better-occupied toiling on farms, in service or in factories or mines.  For some, putting their offspring out to work was the only means of making ends meet.  

The Helpston scholars’ trek to Glinton appears to have continued until the mid-nineteenth century for, according to the Census Returns, no teacher resided in Helpston in 1841.  In contrast, one master and two mistresses lived in Glinton, running a school endowed by the Anne Ireland Charity.  By c.1846, Helpston supported a ‘dame-school’ again, taught by blacksmith’s wife, Ellen Spire.  Though Kelly’s Directory does not reveal its location, I suspect that it may have been held in her home, attached to the forge (behind the Blue Bell) which was owned by Helpston’s Poor’s Estate along with seven cottages and 19 acres, the £35 annual rent from which was used for the provision of education for children from impoverished families.

The Poor’s Estate also appointed Mrs Spire’s successors, ‘paupers’ Anne Crowson and her eleven-year-old daughter, Frances, as ‘private’ schoolmistress and ‘assistant’ or unpaid ‘monitress’ at Helpston ‘Ragged’ School, c.1850.  However in 1856, perhaps, fearing competition from the Wesleyan Methodists, who already held a Sunday School in their old West-Street chapel [next to the Scout and Guide HQ], Lord Fitzwilliam and Reverend John Legh Campbell persuaded the Church of England to build Helpston National School and adjoining head-teacher’s house on Station Road, and The Poor’s Estate to endow it.  On 2 March 1857, it opened its doors to 77 pupils, with Mr John Nichols, a native of the Scilly Isles, at the helm, and his wife, Augusta in charge of the Infants.  

By 1877, Mr Nichols had diversified as a draper, grocer and Postmaster with Augusta minding the store and their six children.  Shortly after her death in 1887, he abandoned teaching completely and was replaced by Mr Arthur Boulter, master to 112 registered scholars, taught in two classes.

The 1870 Elementary Education Act made schooling compulsory for all five- to ten-year-olds and, in 1891, head-teachers were instructed to keep a School Log Book, which has made research considerably easier.  That year, the Poor’s Estate recruited Robert Lake of Washington [County Durham] and his Buckinghamshire-born wife, Lucy, both of whom were qualified or ‘certificated teachers’, who had served apprenticeships as pupil teachers followed by two years at Training College.  Mr Lake was meticulous with his paper-work, providing us with a wonderful insight into the late-Victorian education system with all its trials and tribulations, such as shortages of coal, staff and equipment (including writing slates, chalks, paper and pencils), an over-crowded schoolroom, foul latrines, blatant absenteeism, disaffected and dirty children and dysfunctional parents.  In every aspect, this was a ‘failing school’.

Mr Lake appears to have placed Helpston National School ‘under special measures’ and, leading by example, he improved his charges’ standards and aspirations.  He instigated a school museum (housed in a bookcase), launched a Penny Savings bank (which attracted 79 depositors), awarded prizes for good attendance and academic achievement and taught accredited evening classes for school-leavers who wished to enhance their job prospects.  When there was no coal for the two stoves situated at either end of the schoolroom, he used his own supply in order in order to keep classes going.  It was not until this was almost depleted and the temperature dipped to 41˚F [6˚C], that he finally admitted defeat and sent the children home.  

On 30 April 1892, the school ceased to be funded by the Poor’s Charity and became the responsibility of the Soke of Peterborough Joint Education Committee.  With the full weight of the newly-created School Board behind him, Lake tested pupils on a weekly, termly and yearly basis in the ‘Three Rs’ (just like at my 1950s primary school).  They also could look forward to annual visits from Inspector Dean and anyone who failed to pass muster was automatically relegated to a lower standard because (theoretically) every school-leaver needed to attain a Certificate of Competence.

Raised in a mining community where daily baths were de rigueur, Lake firmly believed that cleanliness was next to godliness and strove to improve hygiene throughout the school.  He constantly complained about the state of the outside ‘earth closets’ and the failure of the ‘night-soil men’ to empty them every seven days as decreed by The Board.  Usually humane rather than a brutal cane-wielder of Wackford Squeers’ ilk, he was driven to making an example of one boy who blithely told him that he couldn’t remember when he last washed.  ‘He received two stripes on the hand’ and was sent home to be cleaned up.  Despite finding a staunch ally in the ‘Nit-Nurse’ who was ‘empowered to remove verminous children’, Lake was fighting a losing battle on this score.  Although fleas were eradicated as domestic washing facilities improved, head-lice prevailed at Helpston until the 1950s and (it is said) still rear their ugly heads – sometimes in the most-exclusive of schools.

Of course, there were worse afflictions to keep Lake’s pupils away from their lessons.  The Log Books report outbreaks of chicken-pox, diphtheria, measles, mumps, scarlet fever, whooping-cough, impetigo, ring-worm and scabies, as well as non-contagious ailments like asthma, eczema and nettle-rash, all of which necessitated the exclusion of sufferers and those from ‘infected houses’.  Occasionally, extreme cases forced the school to close (once for 7 weeks during the 1891/2 measles epidemic) by order of The Board’s Medical Health Officer.

Needless to say, despite the threat of The Board’s Attendance Officer, Mr Lake’s ‘Irregulars’ or ‘Half-timers’ had a vast repertoire of excuses at their disposal.  They were visiting relatives, caring for siblings, blackberrying, nutting, attending Peterborough Bridge Fair, Etton Garden Fete and the Fitzwilliam Fox-hounds’ Meet.  Eventually, it became more viable simply to declare holidays during harvest-time, gleaning, Sunday-School Treats (which sometimes occurred on weekdays), the Foresters’ and Old Club Feasts and on May Day than try to enforce attendance, since funding of 5s per head per annum was determined by a child’s consistent presence in class.  In fact, it was usually Schools’ Inspector Mr Dean or the vicar who decided when the school should break for the moveable ‘Harvest Holiday’ and when it should reconvene.

To be fair, some closures were due to mitigating circumstances such as ‘stormy weather’ (mindful that some pupils walked in from Etton), ‘use of schoolroom as a polling-booth for Elections’, ‘smoking stoves’, ‘headmaster’s illness’ and Royal celebrations.

In May 1893 after the school-leaving age had been raised to eleven, The Board agreed to enlarge the building to accommodate 160 children.  Hitherto, Infants and Juniors were taught Arithmetic, Reading, Writing, Recitation, Composition, ‘Object Lessons’ [Geography, History and Nature Study], Singing (accompanied by a harmonium), Music, Art, Scripture, Needlework and Knitting (Girls) and Handiwork (Boys) and, in wet weather, Drill [PE] in a single schoolroom, divided by a wooden partition.  The Infants were to have ‘a good classroom’ to the rear of the building and boys and girls were to be segregated in two separate playgrounds.  During the alterations (completed in April 1894), the 110 children on roll were taught in the Wesleyan Sunday Schoolroom by three teachers and a monitress. 

Alas!  The new Infants’ classroom with its tiered gallery did not meet with Mr Lake’s approval.  He complained that the structure obscured light on winters’ afternoons and obstructed ventilation in summer, the ledge was too narrow for drawing and writing activities and it was impossible for Mrs Lake to negotiate in order to oversee pupils’ work.  In 1907, the gallery was dismantled and replaced with desks but the vastly-reduced school-yard remained a bone of contention.

On 27 July 1908, Robert Lake died after a short illness and that September his widow took up the School Log as ‘Acting Headmistress’.  Despite her seniority, her reign was short-lived, for on 2 November Yorkshireman William Henry Cutland took control.  Nonetheless, Lucy Lake kept her job as Infants’ teacher and remained in the School House until her retirement in February 1923, initially with her three children.  

Mr Cutland’s sojourn at Helpston was unremarkable but His Majesty’s Inspector deemed that he ‘left the school in good order’ when he was promoted to a larger establishment, in April 1912.  He was replaced by James Frederick Whitby from Maidenhead.  Mr Whitby was a strict disciplinarian, who eradicated bullying, meted out swift, sharp punishments and knew exactly how to deal with difficult parents, including the abusive mother whose son he had caned for smashing a classroom window.  Conversely, he was shocked to hear that the Attendance Officer had ‘boxed a boy’s ear’ simply because he failed to give a plausible reason for his absence!

In August 1916, Mr Whitby was called to arms and the school was closed for an extra week so that he could settle his affairs before joining his regiment. The capable but kindly Lucy Lake held the fort, aided by her 24-year-old daughter Ida, until his return in 1919.  One of Whitby’s first acts was to caution children ‘about entering gardens and pilfering flowers’, which ‘had become a nuisance’ while he was away.

World War I had brought irreversible changes.  Many women had taken over jobs vacated by men serving in the armed forces and throughout the duration had enjoyed decent wages and a measure of autonomy.  Now, both sexes were seeking more profitable careers than working on the land or in domestic service.  Although the children continued to learn ‘life skills’ such as cookery (again in the Wesleyan Schoolroom, now converted into a domestic-science centre) and sewing for girls and gardening for boys, the curriculum was expanded and the school-leaving age rose to fourteen.  Pupils considered to be ‘bright enough’ were presented for Common Entrance Examinations in the hope of a gaining a free scholarship at King’s or Thomas Deacon’s Boys’ Schools, the County Girls’ School or at Peterborough Junior Technical College [in Broadway], where science, mathematics and business studies were taught.  

In 1939, Helpston was at war again and that September it was swamped with evacuees.  Indeed, at one stage, there were so many that the local children and incomers were taught in shifts.  After 1942, the evacuees ceased to be documented and presumably either went home or became absorbed into the community.  All children were issued with gas masks and treated to a lecture on ‘Bombs and how to know them’ by Sergeant Thursby, who brought along exhibits.  The School also seems to have adopted former Grimsby trawler, HM Sandringham, requisitioned by the Admiralty and redeployed as a minesweeper.  After the War, she was eventually returned to her owners and her bell was presented to the pupils by Councillor Arthur Mellows, Chairman of Peterborough Education Committee.  

James Whitby retired in July 1943 and was replaced by Howard Gagg, a dynamic, progressive and highly-respected head-teacher, who used his numerous outside interests for the benefit of his school.  He was an accomplished artist, potter, musician and a seasoned traveller, keen gardener and, crucially, a detailed diarist.  Furthermore, Mr Gagg enthusiastically embraced modern technology, introducing BBC radio broadcasts such as ‘How things began’, ‘Movement and Music’ and ‘Singing Together’.  He also broadened the children’s horizons by inviting Malayan and blind gentlemen to talk about their lifestyles and arranged expeditions to the Festival of Britain Exhibition, Peterborough Cathedral, the cinema, theatre, East of England Show and Regent’s Park and Whipsnade Zoos.  

During the post-war period, the children’s welfare became of paramount importance with regular visits from the School Dentist, Speech Therapist and Nurse.  On 22 September 1947, School Meals were introduced, served in the Wesleyan chapel from the kitchen next door.  That year, the leaving-age was raised to fifteen and free education offered until eighteen-years-old.  Now, pupils from all backgrounds and abilities had the chance of a first-rate secondary education via the Eleven-Plus selection examinations.  

On Thursday 8 July 1954, Helpston organised what probably was its very first John Clare Festival, attended by his 91-year-old grandson, John Frederick Clare (1863-1955).  Lessons ended at 3pm to allow the children to participate and, on 13 July, they marked the poet’s birthday by laying posies on his grave, perhaps initiating the Midsummer Cushions tradition.  

When the old Helpston County Council School faced closure in 1965, Mr Gagg masterminded the move with military precision, even suggesting that the new establishment should be named after the village’s most famous son.  On Monday 12 July, a crocodile of children and their four teachers proceeded along West Street carrying their books to a centre of learning that Mr Lake would whole-heartedly have approved of, with light, airy classrooms idyllically-set in a former playing field.  Next day, its namesake’s 173rd birthday, John Clare Primary School was officially opened by Professor Edmund Blunden, a renowned authority on the poet.  Thus, as one chapter on the history of educating Helpston ended, a new and exciting episode was just beginning . . .


Howard Gagg and his family remained in the old School House until May 1966, when they moved to Peterborough.  When Mr Gagg retired in July 1972, he presented the School with a portrait of John Clare.  His Diaries are preserved in Huntingdon Archives and make terrific reading.  

I am deeply indebted to his son, Andrew, for sharing his reminiscences and nostalgic (but copyright) photographs, to Adrian and Norma Challands of the Old School House and to Mrs Rachel Simmons for allowing access to the School Log Books, all of whom have enabled this article to be written.  

Undoubtedly, this potted history will invoke some school-day memories. Please, please tell us about them.



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