An Early Church School in Newark

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The history of Guildhall Street School from its foundation to its closure


An Early Church School in Newark

Younger Newarkers may be unaware of the history of a Grade II listed building on the western side of Guildhall Street. Though today integrated into a seemingly postmodernist housing-block, fenestration betrays its Georgian origins. A forefront plaque informs inquirers of its opening in 1787 as a Wesleyan chapel, built on the site of ‘the guild hall’, a mediæval frontage from which the street takes its name (and of which one wall still abuts at right angles to its architectural successor). Transfer of worship to nearby Barnby Gate in 1843 evoked the conversion of the chapel into a school. Known then as the Wesleyan Day School, 1950s conventions identified it simply as ‘Guildhall Street School’. This school forged links with Christ Church during the 1939–45 War under the designation of ‘Guildhall Street Christ Church Methodist’; a unique experience, it is told. It seems appropriate, then, to glimpse at the traditions of this place, deemed part of our heritage. But art history can never stand in isolation. The exterior, largely unchanged in the renovation, speaks powerfully of the cultural traits of its own time

Before the ‘school boards’ of Forster's 1870 Act, all education was provided by Church or private input, and was optional. Dubbed ‘elementary schools’, such were funded by fees and rates, subsidized by grants that were soon to depend upon attendance and performance. Guildhall Street opened as an Infants and Mixed (ie Juniors and Seniors) School, the Infants using an 1815 extension of the chapel. The first headmaster, George Rundell, seemingly was held in great esteem following his training under the Glasgow System, a strategy that appears very child-centred for its time. Even more revered, though, was Samuel Walker, who led the school from 1876 into the twentieth century. During that time statistics showed increasing strength. Wesleyan education appears to have won unprecedented confidence, but Newark Advertiser accounts of packed audiences for annual prize-evenings in the Corn Exchange, a formality linked with display of musical talent, far exceeds contemporary standards. Discipline, it is told, was persuasively- not forcefully-imposed; inspectors' reports (reading not unlike OFSTED) spoke favourably of attitudes witnessing Christian ethics. Be that as it may, the limitations of an inner town school set amidst a rapidly-expanding industrial population became subject to concern during the inter-war years, when the ‘garden suburb’ movement recognised environmental priority for green spaces and fresh air. By 1935, log books relate a transfer of the Infants to new premises at Hawtonville, later to be named after its inaugurator, Oliver Quibell. Then, in 1939, came the joint venture with Christ Church owing to the military occupation of the latter's own two schools. As the Methodists, now so-called, were never to return to sole occupancy of the school, and the Anglican buildings were accordingly sold off, much Nonconformist discontent surfaced at the perceived loss of status. This occurred in spite of the transfer of all post-eleven education to the new Secondary Schools, in accordance with the 1944 Butler Act. Details thereafter are hazy. Thanks to national concern for day-school facilities, Guildhall Street was condemned, and should have closed in 1954. A short reprieve was granted when building-targets proved ambitious, but, under the stewardship of Miss Constance Meeds, schooling continued right up to the ’70s. Oddly, the school, then under County control, was dubbed Guildhall Street County Primary for most of this time. Before closure finally happened in 1977, the correct title, …County Junior had replaced this. Mr Hollingworth was its last headmaster, following Miss Meeds' retirement. No doubt the last of the log books, currently stored at Nottingham Archives, will elucidate the final years, but this currently remains embargoed. After the closure, HS Electrics turned the structure, still owned by the Methodist Mission, into a store, remaining such until the recent conversion into housing.

What, then, can be said of the cultural setting of Newark during this time? Newark was a market town serving the agricultural needs of a community that extended towards Nottingham, Mansfield, Lincoln and Grantham, and beyond. For this purpose, road wagons were the main transport, although the river also served well. Fairs and market-days formed the hub of the town's activity, the former being held on significant calendar dates. Around these centred many of the school's holidays. The log book for 1865 records 11th August to 14th September as the ‘Harvest Holiday’. This, a period of five weeks, bears witness to the importance of that celebration in an agrarian society, since it is longer than the traditional closures for Christmas, Easter or Whitsun. It is probable, too that, as boys would be called upon to help gather the harvest, the school had little alternative but to concede. Half-day holidays for fairs and rural occasions can also be found, including the May Fair. This occasion survives today, although the holiday does not, and the entertainment aspect has outlived the agricultural roots. But Newark was also an industrial town. It escaped neither the technological advances nor the social evils of the Industrial Revolution. Brewing and malting were the town's chief industries. The school backed onto a maltster's yard, footway access being shared with the school.. Moreover the Wesleyan graveyard that also adjoined from Barnby Gate, funerals for which had to pass through the actual school building in the early days (remembering its chapel origins) was later to give its site to Devon Breweries. The latter remained, a derelict structure bounding the playground, long after the brewery's closure. Just as the funerals had captured much childhood attention, the derelict brewery became a temptation zone for ‘stray’ balls from playground games. Many other industries, such as metalworking, woodworking, textiles, quarrying and crafts were also represented in the town; the fin de siècle saw the advent of heavy engineering via Ransome & Marles and Worthington-Simpson's. The railway age recognised Newark as an important station, but had a less helpful aspect in that it enabled rail traffic to pass by the town, removing much of the ‘stopping-off’status. The age of the car, too, has been both detrimental and useful to Newark's lifeblood, but possibly more the latter. No doubt the mobility of the population explains the concerns of successive masters towards attendance at the school, as did casual employment on the town market, but Mr Walker's system of prizes and awards, disliked as it may be today, certainly seems to have encouraged dedication. The industrial age was reflected in the practical lessons that received much praise during the Awards Evening speeches, such as those of 1889 and 1893. They included such activities as pottery, chocolate-making or match-making, no doubt in the upper classes. It may seem some way departed from the Victorian traditions of silent learning of the three Rs and Bible study. But these received praise too, and it is clear that they took priority, marking the beginning of each day. Where the school differed was in its emphasis on training the intellect rather than simple instruction of fact, and the involvement of interest which, in Mr Rundell's time at least, made corporal punishment unnecessary.

The population of nineteenth-century Newark expanded rapidly, owing to industrialization, the coming of the railway, and migration from the countryside, where agricultural profitability was declining. Jonathan Brown graphs the increase in Newark's population during the middle years of the century as far exceeding that of other given market-towns, from 6½ thousand in 1801 to 15½ thousand by 1900. The boundaries of the town shot outwards in all directions other than that bounded by the Trent, and this would soon follow. Elementary education, though not yet compulsory, had to be provided for all thanks to a series of Acts that began with that of 1870. Before that, Christian denominations provided all the town's schooling along with private institutions and the free school that was later to become the Magnus. Hence rolls at schools such as the Wesleyan School increased to the point of concern for successive heads The frustration of how to cater for increasing numbers is witnessed through extant documentation in log books, correspondence with managers and verbal reports from inspectors or heads recorded in The Newark Advertiser. Certainly, Heads such as Mr Walker felt cause to be proud of their achievements. In true Wesleyan tradition, education was based upon Biblical glorification of God. Prayers, hymns and Bible passages mattered just as much as the three Rs, and a Biblical ethos underlay the philosophy of all teaching. Discipline, if ever it caused problems (and one cannot easily believe otherwise) gave no acknowledged concern in early days, but more naughtiness was admitted in twentieth-century records. Architecturally, the school reflected the ‘back-street’ impression of industrial England, which comes as no surprise since it was not purpose-built. Physically, it had no room for expansion, no green area, and outdoor toilets that could only be reached after crossing a sometimes-slippery playground. Wintry conditions made their use unpleasant; the writer remembers such conditions still prevailing in 1959; and the boys' urinal, literally, had no roof. It may have sufficed the Victorians, who badly needed school facilities, but would have stood in an unfavourable light alongside the newer amenities of the twentieth century. Its high brick wall, dark impression (made worse by cottages that were built alongside) and ugly two-storey status branded it undesirable to potential scholars or parents. Better options availed, particularly when the new Hawtonville estate was built, leading firstly to the loss of the Infants and then to the closure decision. Loss of the Seniors could also be taken for granted, after the Butler Education Act of 1944 secured the concept of Secondary Schools as a separate entity. Education was seen by successive governments as an antidote to pauperism, crime, neglect or squalour. For this reason, schooling was made free after the 1891 Act. Previously it had been grant-aided, payment by results. Mr Walker's reports to awards evening audiences follow his belief in consistently-good results, and examiners' remarks back this up. His gratitude at the release from fees as a burden on parents is also noted, whilst he points out that parental contributions would remain an essential source of income. Mr Walker was wise enough to know that where parental pockets had paid towards educational provision, then not only would there be more intense support and encouragement, but also scholarly dedication would be ensured from the home. The full attendances at the Corn Exchange on the annual awards evenings verify that support – one cannot imagine a similar parental presence in the present day. The 1832 Reform Act had initiated a redistribution of franchise, and it appears that the idea of allocating political clout to the man in the street prompted him towards school management too. That local politics was deemed significant in school management is witnessed by The Newark Herald's epitaph to Mr Walker of 10th August 1918. It pays tribute to his activities as a Liberal politician until the 1902 Education Act disqualified him from this office. Mentioning also his support of Newark's sporting associations, this article speaks volumes of the different social status of the Victorian headmaster to that of today Esteem was clearly much higher, and links between school and town were irrevocable.

There is much more that could be written on this fascinating theme, if space permitted. The writer's research, particularly his scrutiny of primary documents held by either Newark Library or Nottingham Archives has revealed much. He even located his own name in the admissions register of 1953 for the new Wesleyan Infants School. Perhaps he will get the opportunity to write more on these themes on a future occasion!

© Roger Peacock for Christ Church, Newark, magazine: revised 28 th May 2012

This page was added by ROGER PEACOCK on 29/05/2012.

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