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  • How the town’s Methodists progressed from Sunday schools into five-days-a-week education.

Although the Church of England, with its hundreds of National Schools, was far and away the biggest provider of education prior to the passing of the 1870 Education Act and the consequent opening of rates-funded board schools, it was not without its rivals. Chief among them were the Wesleyans, one of three competing sects into which the Methodists had split by the middle of the nineteenth century and who possessed the strongest commitment to secular as well as religious education of all the ‘nonconformist’ churches. Philosophically they considered it to be necessary for proper study and understanding of the scriptures, while practically they had been spurred into action by two political initiatives. The first was MP Henry Brougham’s unsuccessful 1820 parliamentary bill for state funding of schools in areas lacking voluntary provision (very much a precursor of the measures introduced by the 1870 Education Act), in which only Anglicans would have been allowed to teach; the second was the granting of state aid to the National Society and the British and Foreign School Society (a notionally non-denominational organisation but mainly made up of members of nonconformist churches) from 1833. Fearful that pupils taught by the Anglicans would go on to become members of Anglican congregations – but encouraged by the availability of government funding – the Wesleyans began to establish their own schools from the mid 1830s, the movement being especially strong in the newly-industrialising towns where their chapels were also thriving.

In Castleford, a Wesleyan Day School – day school being a title often used to distinguish Monday–Friday church-run schools from their Sunday Schools – was established in January 1848. To begin with, it is likely it used a small schoolroom which had been added to the main chapel building to coincide with the opening of the Sunday School  in 1842 (see A True Phenomenon). However, in 1859, this original chapel, which dated from 1815 and stood at the north end of what is now Wesley Street, was replaced by a bigger church on Carlton Street (now the site of the building opposite Marks & Spencer occupied by, among others, the Co-Operative). Once the building ceased to be used for Sunday worship, church rules dictated it should be transferred from the chapel trustees to the education department if it was to continue to be used for a day school, so in advance of the new chapel opening an application was made, on 3 May 1858, for government funding toward “purchasing or building” a school for 240 pupils. It was submitted by a committee of six promoters comprising Thomas Wilson, George Turner Taylor, Joseph Smeaton, Thomas Hirst, John Henry Wheley and Moses Winterbottom, all of whom were involved in various manufacturing businesses.

Their application stated that 320 families of the “labouring population” were members of the Wesleyan congregation and claimed that an average of sixty-five pupils attended the National School each day. It supported the claim for financial assistance by drawing attention to the recently increased population of Castleford and the probability of further growth; by bemoaning “the deplorably low state of education and morals” reported by an inspector who had visited the previous year; and by pointing to “the prevalence of ignorance and crime” indicated by the police. It also cited “the fact that we already have 120 children under instruction in a temporary school”, this reference suggesting that the initial intention was to bid for a new building. However, that ambition was evidently soon scaled down in favour of adapting the existing premises: perhaps the recent failures of Rev Theophilus Barnes to secure sufficient funds for the parish to rebuild the National School (see 19th century education 1: The pioneering years) were taken as a warning of the likely outcome, given the largely working class and all-too-often poverty-stricken nature of the Wesleyans’ congregation. Consequently, at a meeting on 20 September 1858, the chapel trustees agreed to sell the building and site on which it stood for £469 12s, plus another £30 for a plot of land to provide a playground.

Castleford architect and builder James Simpson was appointed to draw up plans for an interior refit of the chapel, dividing it into a main schoolroom 45ft long by 31ft wide and, towards the back of the building, a pair of classrooms 21ft long and 15ft 6in wide. The schoolroom was to be the full 23ft height of the building (which probably had a first-floor gallery typical of nonconformist chapels of its time), while the smaller rooms were to have lowered ceilings installed, making their height 11ft. According to the application for funding, the estimated cost of buying the building and fitting it out – including fixed desks and benches in tiered rows – was £605 and the land on which it stood was valued at £143. With the architect’s fees, legal expenses and ‘sundries’, the total bill was reckoned to come to £793.

This was, of course, a substantial sum of money in the middle of the nineteenth century and even if a government grant was to be forthcoming, it would only cover part of the cost, so a big fundraising exercise was started. Fifty of the town’s wealthiest ratepayers (presumably those of a Methodist persuasion) pledged sums ranging from Thomas Wilson’s £100 and George Taylor’s £50 down to a number who contributed £2 2s – two guineas – which, with the addition of the proceeds of a bazaar, added up to £306 11s. A further £90 from collections in the church brought the total to half the estimated cost, which left the promoters of the school requiring £396 in government funding. From this point things moved quickly: by the end of October, Castleford Local Board of Health had approved the plans for the school and the Education Department had consented to a grant for the full £396 applied for. The necessary alteration work took a little longer, but on 9 February 1860, after the building had been inspected and passed fit for use, Castleford Wesleyan Day School reopened in the premises which would serve it for more than forty years until the school was adopted by the West Riding County Council in 1903.

Wesleyan SchoolCastleford Wesleyan School. Based on an architect’s drawing from 1871.

It would be some time, however, before its 240 capacity was tested: to begin with there were almost 100 fewer pupils on the roll, while the first weeks saw an average attendance of only ninety-eight, though at least this was more than the seventy-five a school inspector had noted on his visit in March 1858. But then the years ahead were not to be easy ones for this school – nor, for that matter, for its rival Castleford National School. The difficulties they both had to face will be the subject of a separate article.


The majority of the information is from the Public Record Office, Kew, in file ED103/73. Also consulted were the Carlton Street Wesleyan Chapel minute book for 1858–70 in West Yorkshire Archives, Wakefield (file C11/106) and the 1851 Religious Census (file HO129/504) in Sheffield City Archives.