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  • After decades of struggle for voluntary providers of schools, government
    legislation allows the creation of a rate-funded authority to take on the task.

NOTE: Much happened in the field of schools and education in the thirty or so years between the period covered by the post 19th Century Education 1 – the Pioneering Years and the events recounted here. A series of articles relating to those three decades will be added in due course.

During the middle part of the nineteenth century, the long-established political consensus that the state had no role to play in education began to break down. Two government investigations into the state of schooling, one in 1818 and the next in 1835, had found it to be severely wanting in both extent and quality for all but the children of wealthy families. The first, hesitant, parliamentary reaction came in 1833, making grants available to churches and other voluntary organisations for building and improving schools: one of these payments – of £39 – was made to Castleford parish in August 1837, for the extension of the National School (see 19th Century Education 1 – the Pioneering Years). However, even this modest degree of state intervention proved controversial on several counts. Because the majority of the initial £20,000 budget inevitably went to the biggest provider of schools, which was the Church of England, then other denominations were resentful. Nor did it find favour with those politicians and other opinion formers who either disapproved of taxpayer funding of religious organisations or remained opposed to any kind of state involvement in schooling on ideological grounds. Furthermore, some churchmen believed that accepting government funding would compromise their independence. The debate continued for years – but what eventually undermined the ‘hands off’ argument was the enormous growth in population, especially in the rapidly-industrialising towns and cities, and the inability of voluntarily-provided schools to keep up with rising demand.

Castleford was a typical example of a place where the pressures of population growth were overwhelming voluntary school provision. Between 1840, when the new classroom at the National School had not long seen its first pupils, and 1870, the number of school age children (five to thirteen years) grew from around 300 to more than 1,600, yet this more than five-fold increase in potential pupils prompted little more than a doubling of capacity at the town’s two ‘public’ schools – the National School and the Wesleyan School – from 200 to 510. True, there were also found to be 173 pupils at various private schools in a survey made in 1870, but given that the only ones of any educational worth or degree of permanence were small grammar schools charging fees beyond the means of all but a small minority of parents (the others probably being the notoriously low-standard and often short-lived ‘dame schools’), it is fair to say that the voluntary system of education had been found wanting, despite the sterling efforts of Rev Theophilus Barnes and others. The travails of the National School and its Wesleyan counterpart during the previous decades demonstrated that in a newly-developing town with no effective local government and where the wealth generated by industrialisation was concentrated in the hands of a few individuals, there was likely to be neither the structure nor the money to promote and support an effective system of voluntarily-provided education. In this respect, incidentally, it is revealing to note that in Pontefract, an established, self-governing town with a more evenly-distributed pattern of wealth, voluntary schools catered adequately for its educational needs until the turn of the twentieth century.

It was to remedy the state of affairs found in hundreds of places like Castleford that, after several similar parliamentary bills had failed in the 1850s and 1860s, the 1870 Education Act was passed. Steered through parliament by Bradford MP William Forster, it followed years of argument between supporters of state involvement in education and those who believed, despite growing evidence to the contrary, that voluntary effort could remain the prime force. Consequently, it was very much a compromise between the two positions; between religion and secularism; intervention and laissez faire. It did not seek to replace voluntarily-school provision but, rather, to supplement it in order to plug the gaps in areas – mainly rural districts and the new industrial towns – where its results left most to be desired: “to fill up its gaps at least cost of public money” in the words of Forster himself. The act permitted religious instruction in non-church schools but on a strictly non-denominational basis and it also made attendance compulsory for children between the ages of five and thirteen. The mechanism for putting these policies into effect was the school board, a locally-elected, rate-funded body with powers to build and run new elementary schools and to enforce attendance at them.

In order for a school board to be formed, the Education Department in Whitehall had to receive a petition signed by fifty ratepayers from the borough or parish in question – but it could also impose a board on a district if no such request was forthcoming and it considered school accommodation to be seriously deficient. A correspondent to the town’s newspaper, the Castleford Star, in December 1870, signing himself ‘Spectator’, was in no doubt about what should be done in respect of his home town. He wrote:

Whatever the voluntary system has done in other places, it has lamentably failed in Castleford. The majority of the inhabitants … are living quite unconcernedly, while children on every side are training for the prison. Passing through the streets I can count children by the scores whose appearance betokens the fact that they never go to school. These are they who develop into the drunkard and the poacher, the thief and the mendicant [a beggar or someone dependent upon charity]: the putrid plague spots of society. The education bill, I believe, will greatly improve things but in the ordinary course of events it must be a long time before it can be applied in Castleford; still the evil goes on. Cannot we be up and doing at once? Other towns are petitioning for school-boards, and why should we disgrace ourselves by waiting till it is forced upon us?

There can be little doubt that Castleford would have been a prime candidate for the imposition of a school board. However, unbeknown to ‘Spectator’, a group of the town’s industrialists had, indeed, been ‘up and doing’ and thus just four days after his letter appeared in the newspaper, they held a public meeting of ratepayers at the National School. While not without its dissenters – some on philosophical grounds, others expressing that oft-repeated reluctance to dip into their pockets – nevertheless a substantial majority shared the view of pottery owner Hugh Clokie, who argued that the voluntary system had failed the town and it would not make sense to try and patch it up. Among those in agreement was Castleford Star proprietor Henry Huck, whose editorial the following week bemoaned “the vast amount of ignorance prevalent in Castleford” and asked “how can this ignorance be dispelled? Not by the existing system of education, it is evident”. Supporting the call for school attendance to be enforced, the editorial noted that because “persuasive means have failed, there remains nothing but compulsory means” and concluded that “without a school board we cannot have compulsory education”. He also reckoned that a rate of 3d in the pound each year would be enough to pay for a board and was “but a trifle when put side by side with the ignorance which is flooding this land with pauperism and crime” – but that estimate would soon prove optimistic to say the least.

To carry the required authority, the petition to Whitehall requesting a school board had to be organised by the local Poor Law Union, based in Pontefract, since Castleford had yet to acquire fully-fledged self-government status (and would not do so until the formation of its Urban District Council in 1893). Not surprisingly, the union evidently had more pressing priorities dealing with the ever-present poverty of the time and running its workhouse, and thus it was not until 16 March 1871 that it called the necessary ratepayers’ meeting. The previous month, a concerned correspondent had written to the Castleford Star wondering “what the Castleford promoters of the School Board movement are doing”. Predicting that a board would be imposed upon the town if no action were taken, he asked “does it not show that we are very cold and indifferent in the great work of education to require compelling to advance it when materials to do so are placed within our reach? Will no-one come forward and save Castleford from the stigma of being compelled to elect a School Board?” No doubt had this gentleman, who signed himself as ‘Patriot’, been at the meeting, he would have been pleased to note it was over in little more than an hour after a unanimous vote in favour of the motion, proposed by flint mill proprietor Joseph Horn, “that in the opinion this meeting it is desirable to take the necessary steps for the formation of a School Board”.

Many of the school boards already established had been riven by political and religious divisions, something the promoters of the Castleford board wanted to avoid. Several speakers at the two meetings had said the board should be made up of businessmen (who would, they no doubt hoped, look to protect the financial interests of the ratepayers) and there was a subsequent consensus that candidates standing on party or denominational tickets should be discouraged. Based upon the number of eligible voters (essentially property owners and ratepayers), Castleford was entitled to a seven-member board: at a meeting on 11 April it was agreed it would be best for the town if only seven candidates were to stand, thus avoiding the cost of holding an election – cost, it seems, being more important than the democratic process, a not uncommon opinion at the time. However, since a candidate could be nominated by as few as two ratepayers, this neat if contrived solution was not necessarily going to be achievable – but, as pottery owner William Gill observed, “if there was not a fight on this question, it would not be like Castleford”!

All the same, a further meeting on 17 April managed to whittle down the original seventeen candidates to eight and achieve a balance of political and religious views, the one dissenter from the spirit of co-operation being the notoriously awkward Rector of Castleford, William Sylvester. Although not present, Sylvester nevertheless refused to withdraw his candidacy when a delegation from the meeting, which was chaired by surgeon Dr Adam Jessop, called at the rectory to inform him that all but seven of the others had done so. He did, however, change his mind the following day, which meant a final gathering that evening, Tuesday 18 April, was able to ratify the seven chosen members and arrange for it to be forwarded to the returning officer of the Pontefract Poor Law Union, William Wood. The results were officially announced by Wood on 26 April and the board met for the first time on Thursday 11 May, 1871, at Castleford Mechanics Institute, on Sagar Street.

The names, occupations and addresses of the first seven Castleford School Board members were recorded on the opening page of the board’s minute book as follows.

John Austin, maltster, Redhill House, Castleford.
Thomas Binney, glassworks manager, Allerton Hall, Allerton Bywater.
Joseph Brewerton, iron founder, Half Acres, Castleford.
John Cass, tailor, Aire Street, Castleford.
Hugh Clokie, pottery manufacturer, Half Acres, Castleford.
Thomas Gorle, clerk, Welbeck Street, Castleford.
William Macvay, glass manufacturer, Ferrybridge Road, Castleford.

It was, as intended from the start of the process, a group dominated by the town’s industrialists, many of whom had already served on other of Castleford’s various governing boards or were to do so in the years ahead. Politically, it had a Liberal slant: John Austin, who was elected chairman at that initial meeting, was to represent the party as the town’s first MP (Castleford being made part of the Osgoldcross Upper constituency), while Macvay (elected as Austin’s deputy) was an agent of Sir John Ramsden, of Byram Hall, long-time Liberal member for various local constituencies. Austin was also a Roman Catholic at a time when that church was increasing its presence in Castleford, in no small part through his financial input, but he was also a subscriber to the National School along with Cass and Macvay, the last-named of whom was also a warden at the parish church. A more formal Church of England voice at the board’s meetings (albeit with no role in decision-making) would be provided by the appointed clerk, none other than Rev William Sylvester, who was perhaps awarded the post as compensation for his reluctant withdrawal as a candidate for the board. Whatever the reason, it can have done relations with the National School no harm at all and also, given that Sylvester was a prominent Tory, might have been intended to counterbalance the Liberal views of the chairman and his deputy.

These, then, were the men charged with the task of  ‘securing efficient school provision’ for the children of Castleford. Given the many obstacles they and their successors were to encounter over the next thirty years, it would be by no means a painless nor, it can be argued, an entirely successful process.

To be continued…


Reports and correspondence from the Castleford Star are available on microfilm in Castleford Library. The minutes of Castleford School Board, in four volumes, are in West Yorkshire Archives, Wakefield, in file WRD5/9/1. The 1870 survey of school capacity and pupil numbers was published in a parliamentary report entitled Returns of School Boards ordered to be formed by the Education Department – even though this action was not needed in Castleford – published in 1875 and available on microfilm in the Brotherton Library of Leeds University.