The Nunney Scarecrows – Part 3: The National School

Nunney First School
It's 120 years since Nunney First School moved into its current, purpose-built building.

This is the final part of three articles about ‘Scarecrows’, the theme of Nunney Open Gardens Day 2014. It accompanies an exhibition about child labour and education in 19th century Nunney.


Richard William Church
Richard William Church, Rector of Whatley and known as Dean Church
Let’s take a moment to look at the personal influence of the local clergyman and squire in setting up and running local schools. We’ll come back to Nunney in a second, but first we must pay a visit to neighbouring Whatley.

Rev. Richard William Church, rector of Whatley (population 221 in 1869), was an interesting man. The eldest son of a wine merchant, he was a close friend of Cardinal John Henry Newman, a Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, and one of the founders of The Guardian newspaper (the Anglican weekly newspaper published from 1846 to 1951, not to be confused with the current newspaper).

Having travelled widely throughout Europe, he married the daughter of a Somerset squire and attempted to settle down as rector of Whatley in 1852. The post was in the gift of the Horner family of Mells and came with only a small living. For many years the parish had been without a resident rector; both church and rectory were in a terrible state.

Away from his Oxford friends and with no previous training or experienced in clerical work, Church felt deeply depressed in Whatley at first. A collection of his long letters, published as The Life and Letters of Dean Church, published in 1894 after his death, described how he threw himself into helping the local community.

Church of the Holy Trinity, Whatley
Church of the Holy Trinity, Whatley
“His earliest efforts were directed towards his schools to the parish school, where he went daily, to the Sunday school, and in the winter to the night school, where, with his wife, he gathered the men and elder lads of the place for instruction on two or three evenings of each week.”

“With the children of the village relations out of school hours were always full of pleasant freedom. Paper chases for the boys (an amusement unheard of before at Whatley) became an institution of the place, and one in which he might be counted on to the foremost part; and with the elder children there were long country walks in summer, when they were encouraged to search for wild flowers to be looked at afterwards with Mr. Church’s microscope. It was not long before throughout the place the hesitating welcome which had awaited him as a stranger passed into a loyal and affectionate confidence.”

Rev. Church reported to the Parliamentary Commissioners in 1869:

Child labour“A strong boy is taken away from school at 8, to keep crows, for six weeks in the spring, and the same in the autumn. At 10 he is allowed to leave school, and generally gets some light work on one of the farms; all the work they do when they first go out is light, such as cow-driving, keeping sheep etc. The parish is nearly all dairy.”

“Mr. Church has a night school, which he encourages boys to come to after leaving the other. The attendance is good, but apt to dwindle towards January. Stupid boys go to sleep after work, but not generally the case. In 1867 he had 13 on his list, and the average attendance was nine, dwindling in February to six. They are only charged for lighting the school. Mr. and Mrs. Church teach. There are men of 23 and 21, the rest boys down to 10.”

Queen Victoria
Rev. Church frequently delivered sermons for Queen Victoria, here seen with her daughter Beatrice (standing) her granddaughter Victoria of Hesse (sitting) and her great-granddaughter Princess Alice (Prince Philip’s mother). (Newspaper: Morning Post – Monday 8 November 1869)
Over time, Rev. Church won the hearts and minds of the people of Whatley with his practical, no-nonsense approach, and became very popular.

“Among the men of the village, his influence was not less remarkable. The roughest and most turbulent of them did not question his authority, or refuse a respect which was never forgotten even in the free and frank intercourse which had grown up in the night schools or the cricket-field. No one took liberties with him.”

His sermons, short and clear and practical, carefully written so as to avoid the use of long or difficult words, or of any lengthened thread of argument, had the same simple reality and directness of purpose about them. Collections of his Whatley sermons are still in print today. He also frequently delivered sermons for Queen Victoria in the private chapel at Windsor Castle.

He shared a passion for science and literature with his close friend Mr Horner and used his time at Whatley to write articles, essays, reviews and letters for The Guardian and the Saturday Review. In 1854 he published a volume of essays that established him as a leading scholar and writer.

William Gladstone
William Gladstone
Mr. Church most reluctantly left Whatley in 1871, having finally been persuaded by four-time Prime Minister Gladstone to become Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London – in desperate need of restoration and reorganisation at the time (at a salary of £2,000 a year plus residence – up from £200-300 in Whatley). At this own request, he was buried in Whatley in 1890.

Depravity and poaching

Nunney’s equivalent of Dean Church was the Rev. John Ireland. He was Nunney’s local vicar as well as lord of the manors of Nunney Castle and Nunney Maudley (titles he bought, with the castle, in 1836) and lived at Rockfield House. He reported to the government in 1819 that he was trying to set up a national school in Nunney.

“A subscription has been set on foot for that purpose, but so great is the poverty of the inhabitants that [I fear] it will not succeed without other assistance; and no parish in the kingdom is more in want of the means of education; the poor being brought up in a complete course of depravity and poaching.”

straysAt that time, in 1819, Nunney had a union Sunday school, in which nearly 80 boys and girls were taught. This was based in Castlebrook House (then called Maudsley House) and the neighbouring church rooms.

The Earls of Cork and Orrery, who were the local MPs for generations and lived at Marston House, were patrons of Nunney School. The rest of the funds arose from annual subscriptions, amounting to nearly 13 l. per annum and the interest of 100 l. 3 per cents, left by Nunney resident Mr. Whitchurch.

There was apparently much that room for improvement at the school. The 1819 annual report of the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church noted that:

Nunney First School“The school at Nunney, alluded to in the report of last year, has been completely arranged. A master and mistress have been trained in the Central School at the Society’s expense, and the usual supply of books given.”

“The school is now opened under the most favourable auspices, and it is confidently anticipated [that it] will flourish to the great advantage of the rising generation, destitute, heretofore, of moral and religious instruction.”

Children working in the silk factoriesJohn Fussell, the edgetool maker, left in his will money for the National School in 1819. Nunney’s school was then called the National School for the Education of the Poor according to the Principles of the Church of England.

Yet it was always a battle to get all the children into school, as the Nunney vestry minutes of 1824 show:

“That no Children shall be taken from any School to be plac’d at the Silk manufactory until the next Vestry”.

Night school

In many parishes – including Nunney and Whatley – the day school was supplemented by a night school, often open to all ages. This wasn’t a very effective system, because 30, 40 or 50 year old men didn’t want to be seen to know less than the younger ones. They would work in the field or quarry all day, go home for supper and come to the school exhausted – frequently falling asleep over their books.

2444672_origNight schools tended to be for boys and men only, because there was no money available to pay enough teachers. The government did not pay for children under the age of 12. Mixing boys and girls was considered objectionable, not least because of the potential evils of sending boys and girls off to walk home together in the dark.

There was often a sort of struggle between the vicar, who tried to keep the children at school, and the farmers, who tried to get them out to work. Farmers didn’t like what they called over-education, as it could lead a man to believe himself fit for higher employment in the towns. This certainly wasn’t the case everywhere; in Witham Friary, for example, farmers paid a voluntary contribution to support the school.

Clergyman and squire

By the time of the 1869 enquiry things had taken a turn for the worse in Nunney. According to one witness statement to the Parliamentary commission:

“Parishes in which great ignorance prevails, such as Wiveliscombe, Nunney, Compton Dundun, all owe it materially to a lack of personal influence of clergyman or squire.”

Lord Palmerston
Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, KG, GCB, PC, known popularly as Lord Palmerston
The Rev. Thomas Theobald was rector of Nunney for 47 years, from 1830 until his death in 1877. A Theobald family had been in Nunney since 1749, however, when they inherited the manors from the Whitchurch family. Thomas’ family had considerable property in Somerset and he was also domestic chaplain to Lord Palmerston – who was twice Prime Minister.

It was said at the time that Lord Palmerston’s idea of a domestic chaplain was:

“a man who could carve, play a rubber of whist, preach a plain sermon, and tell a good story” and that “Mr Theobald was a man after his own heart”

According to some sources, Theobald was gifted the role of rector of Nunney by Lord Palmerston, with a house and a salary of £500 a year. In December 1830 it was reported:

“The Rev. Thomas Theobald, Chaplain to the Right Honourable Viscount Palmerston, has been instituted to the valuable living of Nunney, Somersetshire, on the presentation of his father, Thomas Theobald, Esq., Grays, Essex.”

Western Daily Press - Thursday 24 September 1868
Western Daily Press – Thursday 24 September 1868
There’s a difference between a rector and a vicar or curate. The rectory is associated with the tithe, the income from church taxes, land and property owned by the church. The vicar acts as a sort of deputy to the rector, but it was not unusual to not have a vicar at all for long periods. In any case, both Rev. Theobald and his various vicars are all known to have conducted services in Nunney.

This does not explain, however, why it was said that Nunney was in a poor moral situation because of the long-term absence of a vicar. Theobald did advertise for one in September 1868. Rev. John Prior was appointed curate of Nunney in July 1869; he succeeded the Rev. Oliver, Rev. T. Peters (appointed in June 1864) and Rev. M. Gordon (appointed in February 1866). Peters had also conducted the wedding of one of Theobald’s daughters. In November 1870 Rev. S.R. Henderson was named curate of Nunney, followed in 1872 by Rev. Challen – a rapid turnover. Perhaps the salary of £100 a year had something to do with it; we’ve already seen that Rev. Church in Whatley received £200-300, which was considered small.

More importantly, though there is only one single mention of a curate of Nunney in the newspapers before 1864 (in 1818); perhaps there was a gap in pastoral care after Rev. John Ireland – whose Rockfield House and other Nunney assets (including the Theobald Arms) were auctioned off in 1849.

Rockfield House for sale
Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, Thursday 27 September 1849

Theobald Arms Nunney
The former Theobald Arms at Nunney Catch
The now defunct Theobald Arms pub at Nunney Catch refers to the Theobald family, although it has had a variety of names in its lifetime – The New Inn, The Hart Inn and The Baron Inn. There is another Theobald Arms still open in Grays, Essex, where the Theobald family had most of its estate.

Absentee landlord

The Theobalds owned many of the cottages in Nunney and Trudoxhill (which were at the time a single parish) too. Other major land owners in Nunney and Trudoxhill were the Earl of Cork and Orrery and the Duke of Somerset.

IMG_6412bIn 1864 the local medical officer for Nunney, Dr Hunter, reported to the Privy Council:

“At Nunney there were some very bad cottages… They were intended for the workmen at a stone quarry, and when the quarry moved off [sic] they were roughly patched up and left. Of nine, only one had two bedrooms… Some had small gardens, some had none. The floors were almost macadamised [pounded stone], there was hardly any furniture. The rent varied from 1s. 3d. (almost a sixth of a farm labourer’s weekly wage).”

Mr M D Marsh of Nunney reported to the 1869 enquiry:

“The condition of the cottages in Nunney is very bad. There are many very small, with only two rooms, and much crowded. In Mr Selk’s cottage [Somerset Cottage in Horn Street, ed.] he lives with three or four children in two rooms. Cannot say, however, that ill-health is produced, except in times when there is an epidemic going about.”

17 Caledonia Place, Clifton, Bristol
Thomas Theobald lived at 17 Caledonia Place, Clifton, Bristol, until his death in 1877.
“The parish is morally in a very bad state, most of the bad characters from neighbouring parishes settling there, and it becomes a sort of receptacle for such. I know several instances of men living with other men’s wives, and the proportion of illegitimate children is very large.”

The bad moral state he attributed to the crowding in the cottages, and the fact that the rector never visited. This is curious, for Thomas Theobald did spend considerable time in Nunney according to newspaper coverage of events in Nunney at the time. Rev. Thomas Theobald is included in the census data for Nunney as living in the old Rectory at 1 High Street without fail between 1831 and 1871. They still had maids and a groom in Nunney by 1871 (his groom was on trial at the time, accused of trying to poison his wife).

It is worth noting, however, that – unlike many other clergymen – Theobald did not contribute to the 1867-69 Parliamentary report into working conditions for women and children. The curacy of Nunney was publicised as vacant in October 1868, so it is possible that Nunney indeed did not have a hands-on clergyman for quite a while. That still doesn’t explain why Thomas Theobald would (a) seemingly not take an interest in the moral standing of the village he lived in, and (b) doesn’t seem to have been particularly interested in maintaining family property in Nunney. It’s a bit of a mystery.

James Theobald
James Theobald (the father)’s death is announced in the Hampshire Telegraph, Wednesday 10 May 1871
The actual Lord of the Manor of Nunney was a relative, James Theobald, who appears to have been head of the Theobald family at the time. The bulk of the Theobald estate in Essex passed from James Theobald (who died in 1871) to his son, also called James Theobald. This appears to have included the Nunney manors. This James was born in Winchester in 1829. He entered parliament on the Conservative ticket for Romford at the 1886 general election, and was reportedly very popular and hard working.

James Theobald
James Theobald
James Theobald had little or no interest in Nunney, as far as we know. He concentrated on his work as MP for Romford and on his estate in Grays Thurrock, Essex. Between 1871 and 1901 the town burst out of its ancient shell, expanding north, east, and west. Growth was stimulated by the coming of the railway, the continuing development of local industries and the opening of the neighbouring Tilbury docks. James Theobald, as Lord of the Manor, invested heavily in the new growth. Between 1871 and 1893 over 1,000 houses were built in the town under leases granted by Theobald.

Between 1871 and 1893 James Theobald raised mortgages of over £92,000 on the estate. At the same time he was granting many building leases in the town. In 1893, a few months before his death, he sold the freehold reversions of most of the leases to Sir Julian Goldsmid.

Nunney Church restoration
Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette – Thursday 26 January 1871
Western Gazette - Friday 21 January 1870
Western Gazette – Friday 21 January 1870
James Theobald the elder and later his widow, referred to as Mrs James Theobald of Weymouth in accounts, did donate to local charities and were supporters of the new school in Nunney. Thomas Theobald was also not afraid to stick his hand in his pocket, if necessary; he rebuilt the crumbling chancel of All Saints Church at his own expense in 1874.

Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette - Thursday 12 June 1873
Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette – Thursday 12 June 1873
It is possible, however, that he spent most of his time at his town house in Bristol, where he died in 1877. When his daughter married in 1873, Thomas is still described as Rector of Nunney but living in Clifton. It is also possible that he had little or no control over the family purse and was not in a position to maintain cottages in Nunney. Whatever happened, we have reports that the vicar was hardly ever there and that many cottages were in a terrible state of neglect.

Romford Station in the 19th century
Romford Station in the 19th century
James Theobald died in a tragic accident on Friday 9 March 1894, when rushing through Romford Station to catch the 2.16pm train to London. He attempted to board a carriage, but the train had already started moving, and he tripped and fell between the foot board and the platform. Severely injured, he died the next morning at the Golden Lion Hotel.

James Theobald had no children, and in 1896 the remainder of his Essex and Somerset estates were broken up and sold. The Nunney estate and title were sold to the Baily family (who later changed the family name to Baily-Neale).


Castlebrook House, Nunney
Castlebrook House (left) and the church rooms (right)

Mr Marsh could not help but report in 1869:

“There are quantities of idle children always about, and many of them have never been to school. There would have been little schooling at all if it hadn’t been for a local charity.”

The Turner charity (which is still going today) provided a house for the schoolmaster (Maudsley House, now called Castlebrook) and an annual salary.

Nunney School 1843
Hereford Journal, 1 March 1843

Thomas Turner, a Nunney resident, had died on 21 May 1839. In his will, he left £14,467 to be applied “to the instruction of youth, the alleviation of suffering and infirmity, and the solace of old age.” The charity still exists today. The ‘instruction of youth’ resulted in bursaries, boarding places at the local school with fees paid for by the Turner charity. It is likely that the children boarding stayed at Castlebrook House too.

The school was known locally as ‘the Turner school’. The schoolmaster in 1860 was Mr Adams. He wrote:

“In the school there are 45 boys, and nearly as many girls. There are two other schools in the parish, containing perhaps 30 between them. There is no night school. One was kept some time ago by Mr Cotton, a super-annuated exerciseman, but it abandoned now. Few children attend school in the haymaking and potato-setting time, but I deny that there were 20 boys in the parish who did not go to school at all.

Many children in Nunney had their school fees paid by the charity, and given an apprenticeship after that. The Turner charity also provided relief for the poorest in the village, but Mr Marsh said that this was “not productive of good, and a lying-in fund”.

Universal education

Boy working at a loomThe Elementary Education Act 1870, commonly known as Forster’s Education Act, set the framework for schooling of all children between the ages of 5 and 13 in England and Wales. A driving force behind the Act was a perceived need for Britain to remain competitive in the world by being at the forefront of manufacture and improvement.

There were objections to the concept of universal education. One was because many people remained hostile to the idea of mass education. They claimed it would make labouring classes ‘think’ and that these classes would think of their lives as dissatisfying and possibly encourage them to revolt. Others feared that handing children to a central authority could lead to indoctrination.

Some poor people feared that mass education would equip people to scam those without an education. Another reason was the vested interests of the Church and other social groups. The churches were funded by the state with public money to provide education for the poor and these churches did not want to lose that influence on youth.

The Act established the foundations of English elementary education. Under Prime Minister William Gladstone, the state became increasingly involved and after 1880 attendance was made compulsory for children until they were 13 years old, with various exemptions.

Education was not made compulsory until 1880, since many factory owners feared the removal of children as a source of cheap labour. However, with the simple mathematics and English they were acquiring, factory owners now had workers who could read and make measurements.

Following continued campaigning by the National Education League, following the Elementary Education Act 1880, attendance to age 10 became compulsory everywhere in England and Wales. In 1891, elementary schooling became free in both board and voluntary (church) schools.

Utterly inadequate

The Earl of Cork as caricatured by Adriano Cecioni in Vanity Fair, January 1872.
The Earl of Cork as caricatured by Adriano Cecioni in Vanity Fair, January 1872.
The school in the Church Rooms next to Castlebrook House would later be extended, thanks to a large donation from the Earl of Cork and Orrery, the local MP who lived at Marston House. Richard Boyle, 9th Earl of Cork, was three times Master of Her Majesty’s Buckhounds and twice Master of the Horse in a ministerial career spanning between 1866 and 1895.

The Earl played a pivotal role in establishing proper education in Nunney. When the trustees of the school refused regular government inspections, he decided that enough was enough. The Education Act gave him all the excuse he needed to intervene; after all, compulsory education meant that the old ‘Turner School’ would no longer be big enough.

According to the Bath Chronicle of 19 October 1871:

“In no village in England has the passing of the Education Act been the means of doing more good than at Nunney. For many years the Farmer’s Charity School had done its best to educate the few, but the Earl of Cork, the owner of the school premises, has been for some time desirous of bringing the means of education within the reach of all the young people of the parish.”

Nunney School extension
Bath Chronicle, Thursday 19 October 1871
“When the old trustees were unwilling to introduce Government inspection to the school he offered to cancel the lease of the premises, which had still twelve years to run, and to re-let them at half the rental (£20) to a new school committee, thereby losing no less a sum than £240. The trustees consented to this arrangement.”

“Feeling that the school accommodation was utterly inadequate for the requirements of the parish, Lord Cork decided upon greatly enlarging the premises at an outlay of £300, the committee agreeing to pay interest on that sum.”

“But when the work was completed his lordship instead of increasing the rent, reduced it as before stated, doubled his annual subscription to the funds, added a new infant gallery to one of the class rooms, presented a set of educational works to the committee, value £10, and assisted them in securing a certificated master and mistress.”

Plan of Nunney Church Rooms
A plan of the ground floor of the Church Rooms in Nunney, when it was in use as a school.

The newly enlarged school was renamed ‘The Nunney National School’. The Earl and Lady Cork both spoke at the opening of the new extension, in a festively decorated room on the first floor. He told his audience:

“For some years the education of Nunney, like too many other places, has been neglected. It now remains for the mothers present to take advantage of the means placed within their reach. They will perhaps find great difficulties in sending their elder children constantly to receive education, but I will press upon them the necessity of making a few sacrifices for their children in early life, for the better it will be for them in after years.”

Lady Cork then addressed the children:

Countess Cork (1860), by G F Watts
Countess Cork (1860), by G F Watts
“My dear children, I expect to come here many times and to see you even more usefully employed than at present.”

“There are a great many interested in making you happy tonight. Your friends hope you will grow up good and useful, a comfort in your own homes, able to earn your own living well, and repay the care of your parents.”

“There is an old saying – ‘One can bring a horse to the water, but no one can make him drink’. Many may give you opportunities of acquiring knowledge, but no one can make you get on and learn. I hope I shall hear good accounts of you all, and that your parents will send you to school regularly.”

Floor plan of the new school
The new school opened in its current location in 1896.
The committee of governors of the new school included the Rev. Thomas Theobald, Dr Marsh and Mrs James Theobald. In 1891 the school situation in Nunney was described as:

“A School Board, composed of five members, was formed here in 1874, to whom a lease of the National school has been granted by the Earl of Cork, and the board school is now carried on, wherein ten boys are educated free, clothed, and receive 1s. 6d. per week for maintenance out of Turner’s Charity, and when sufficiently old receive £20 each for apprenticing them, with free permission to choose their own trades and masters; there are also Sunday schools for boys and girls held in the schoolroom.”

The school moved to a brand new building in its current location in 1896.

Compulsory Education Act

Nunney School in 1902
Nunney School in 1902

In 1878, the Compulsory Education Act helped reduce the numbers of child labourers. English children under the age of 10 were required to attend school, not work. Subsequent laws raised their age and made working conditions safer.

In 1883 the average attendance at Nunney school was 130-140. There were places for 70 boys, 70 girls and 40 infants, but the average was only 45 boys, 42 girls and 40 infants, which suggests that in addition to the usual absence through sickness there were still a fair number of children working in the fields or elsewhere.

For many thousands of children throughout Britain, who had lost their childhood and often their health working in factories, on railways and buildings since the Industrial Revolution, it came too late.

For generations of boys and girls in Nunney it came too late too. They had grown up as human scarecrows, running around the fields of Nunney shouting and throwing stones at birds in return for the smallest of wages. Many had grown up in agony, bow-legged and crippled by being made to do too heavy a job at too early an age.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC) was created in 1891 – 67 years after the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) was established.

Nunney First School
Boys group at Nunney First School

In 1895, the year before Nunney School moved to its current location, the head of the school reported:

“Nunney Board School (boys, girls & infants), for 70 boys, 70 girl & 50 infants; average attendance 43 boys, 46 girls & 38 infants; 10 boys are educated free, clothed & receive 1s. 6d. per week for maintenance out of Turner’s Charity & also £20 each for apprenticing them, with free permission to choose their own trades & masters; James Rees Griffiths, master; Mrs. Elizabeth Griffiths, mistress; Miss Ellen French, infants’ mistress.”

UNICEF_schoolposter[LR]-bigMany generations of children have since received their education at Nunney Pre-school and Nunney First School. The scarecrows of Nunney Open Gardens Day are a silent but poignant reminder of the suffering of previous generations and the struggle to ensure proper education for all.

Around the world today over 240 million children still work for low wages and in dangerous conditions. Donations to UNICEF help fight a number of threats to child welfare, including child labour and child trafficking. And in a recent paper analysing the effectiveness of foreign aid programs, UNICEF was ranked as having above-average practices. You can make a donation here.