The Best Years of Your Life?
A look at Laindon's education facilities prior to World War Two
Because it is in everybody’s experience, it is not surprising that a lot of reminiscences of “old” Laindon are about one’s school days. Ever since the populations of Laindon, Langdon Hills, Lee Chapel and Dunton began to expand after the London Tilbury and Southend railway provided the area with a station in 1888, the compulsion on the authorities to provide the children of the area with an education moved from crisis to crisis. The child population constantly outpaced the available facilities and emergency arrangements had regularly to be made.
Before the compulsory Elementary Education Act of 1870, with its usual laissez faire attitude towards such matters, few in England were greatly concerned about the manner in which the majority of the young should be educated, particularly those of the poor whose lack of ability to pay for the privilege meant that most stayed illiterate. After all, children from as young as 6 were a vital part of the process of creating wealth; they could not spend their days in schools and in factories at one and the same time. It was not until organisations like the Post Office, the Railways, the Armed Forces, (Navy and Army) with their advancing technological prowess; together with the increasing array of bureaucracies attached to many expanding industries did it become apparent that a literate work force was required.
Having been dragging their feet for years and lagging behind not only most of Europe but also of Scotland which had established its own widespread system of education since the middle of the 17th century, the 1870 or “Forster” act of parliament laid the foundations of the educational system that prevails today. Even then, it was not until 1880 that education was made a compulsion and the first of what were often called the “school board” inspectors or Attendance Officers came into being. The Education system of England and Wales is a system that ever since its inception has been subjected to constant change and reform from the very beginning and such a process continues. As a result, practically every generation that has followed one upon the other has often had a slightly different tale to tell leading to the not infrequently heard remark that “it was a lot different in my day!”
Past Laindon had its fair share of change in schooling its young over the years; many of those changes arising from the steadily creeping increases in the child population. Experiences therefore varied and together with the fact that for standards in education to be achieved many children had to move daily outside of the area to carry on with the process means that recalling the many memories of them are an almost endless and unfailing matter of interest.
The introduction of the 1870 Act meant that from the very start provision of the means of acceding to its demands had to be met. The design of Laindon’s parish church with its distinctive looking annexe at the west end above the vestry often referred to as the “priest’s house” is an unique feature that owes its origin to one of those rare earlier attempts to provide education to the young of a parish. Under the terms of his will of 28th January of 1617/18, Yeoman farmer John Puckle of Wash Road had made lasting provision for a schoolmaster to be appointed to teach the children of the parishes of Laindon cum Basildon. In consequence just before the 1870 Act effectively transferred responsibility for education to the State, the Essex County Directory shows that Laindon or Langdon Clay and Basildon had a Free School (for 20 poor children, 14 of the parish of Laindon and 6 of Basildon) with James Hornsby, as master and Mrs. Catherine Hornsby as mistress.. Given the size of the chamber above the vestry at St. Nicholas Church one can only wonder how even as limited a number as were shown could in, presumably two classes, be accommodated in so small a place
Small wonder, then, that by 1877 not only had a suitable site been found but a purpose built school, with living accommodation for the head teacher attached had also been completed a short distance from the church. Initially called the Laindon Board School this school with several adaptations and a number of changes of name still stands and remains in use, having avoided the fate of so many other rural schools in Essex of a similar stamp, that of being converted to privately owned domestic property.
Perhaps the most memorable of the several names that the Laindon Board School has acquired in its existence was an unofficial one that has persisted through the not only several generations of children who were associated with it but also well beyond and that was “Donaldson’s” after the headmistress Mrs. Margaret Donaldson who held that position for twenty-eight years from 1920 to 1948. That the school has continued to survive is a reflection of the constantly changing needs that arose in the community that it was erected to serve.
That changing need was constantly driven by a steadily rising child population. As well as into the parish of Laindon cum Basildon, there was a steady influx of newcomers into Langdon Hills and Lee Chapel, Dunton and the southern section of Little Burstead from the beginning of the twentieth century onwards and the provisions that had been made for a widely scattered rural community began to prove inadequate. In addition to the Board School attached to St Nicholas parish church at Laindon there was a small facility at Langdon Hills on the summit of Crown Hill opposite the “new” church of St Mary that had been built in 1876 and that was slowly supplanting the much older St Mary the Virgin and All Saints to the south west in Old Church Hill.
Expanding population led to this small school (now a private dwelling house) to become inadequate and supplementary accommodation had to be arranged. As the late Mrs Wright of Bowers Gifford who grew up at Does Gate Farm on the very borders of Langdon Hills and who was a pupil at Langdon Hills around the end of the 19th century explained, she and her sisters would walk from Does Gate, carrying their bread and cheese lunches in a basket via Old Church Hill to the school where some were sent on to the Crown Hotel to be accommodated there by kind permission of Mrs Hannah Raynor, the licensee. The lunch basket would prove useful on the return journey to the farm in the evening as the means of carrying their father’s nightly pint bottle of ale.
A similar response to the over crowding in Langdon Hills at the St Nicholas Board School had to be met, but here it led, initially, to the construction of the Church Hall on the west side of Church Hill accessed from both the church yard and Pound or Doves Farm Lane as it was then known. Made available as a new community centre for the parish, this hall was often pressed into use as a temporary classroom for the school.
However, these ad hoc arrangements inevitably soon began to become overwhelmed themselves for the simple reason that the catchment area that the two small schools covered was so large. The first break came with the building of a school of a similar type to that of St. Nicholas by the local education committee that had been established in 1902 this was opened in February 1911, further to the north in High Road, Langdon Hills where it stands to this day, although its educational use has subsequently been amended. The new school was provided with playground facilities as a mark of the progress taking place in educational practice, the lack of facilities for sports facilities meant that the school later had to start using the facilities provided in the newly established “Recreation Ground” at the end of New Road off Berry Lane.
There was one small effort within Laindon, which sought to separate itself from the problems associated with the official line being followed by the government sponsored educational authorities. From as early as 1923, and possibly even earlier, G T King who lived in a small two roomed wooden bungalow named “Finchley” in Sandringham Road, Laindon consistently advertised himself willing to take on pupils for private tuition. These were said to be the “usual” school subjects and included French, Algebra and Drawing, Furthermore, his charges were “moderate, The extent of those fees were revealed by Mrs Barbara Roberts, of Ferndale, Dorset, formerly of Tyler Avenue, Laindon who recalls sitting, aged 5, on a bed at the Sandringham Road address while a debate took place over her head about the possibilities of finding 6d per week. Since the aforesaid bed was, in her memory, “scruffy” the fact that she was eventually enrolled at Markham’s Chase School probably says more than anything else about Mr King’s Private School and his one to one teaching. That private teaching did take place in Laindon, however was borne out by the late Cliff Parkinson who told me that he had never been to school because as the youngest son of the family he was considered to be too delicate in his youth. Was Mr. King his tutor, I wonder?
Ever the victim of both political interference coupled with the continuing upward trend in child population meant that whatever solutions to overcrowding were adopted by the authorities responsible for overseeing the provision of education for the young of the area were soon out of date. In addition, there was the unforeseen. William Diment has told me that after his arrival in the district in the middle 1920s with his half brother and his two sisters and settled in what was then School Lane (now the divided Church Road) they were enrolled at “Donaldson’s” school. Even at that time, around the period when the new “Council” School in Laindon High Road was actually or on the point of opening, such was the overcrowding at St Nicholas School that ,in addition to the church hall, a further additional temporary building had been erected just to the west of the church itself on the site now often used as a car park. This served as a classroom to accommodate some of the overflow of pupils. This building, like the rest of the school, relied on the burning of solid fuel (coal or coke) to keep the place warm, and the school’s caretaker was kept constantly busy tending these fires in the cold season.
In the case of the temporary classroom, the fire was housed in a free standing cast iron stove, the smoke from which was expelled via a metal tube passing through the roof. This outlet became a hazard when, through overheating the chimney stack became red hot and succeeded in setting the wooden roof of the temporary building ablaze. The class teacher, a Mrs Arnfield, who is described by William as “a calm motherly individual with her hair rolled up in ‘buns’ on both sides of her head”, did not panic but ushered the class outside and down the hill to the relative safety of Pound Lane.
Having been summoned by some unknown means, the Laindon Fire brigade arrived. This was, at the time purely a volunteer organisation and mustering the crew under its Chief, a Mr Wheatley who was also the local School Attendance Officer (alias the “school Board man”) inevitably took time. Another of the volunteers was a now long dead Laindon “character” called “Tommy” or Tom Endean. Slightly physically disabled, Tom spent many years in Laindon offering himself as a “jobbing gardener”, proclaiming his services in large capital letters around the rim of the black peaked uniform hat he habitually wore. The son of an expert grower of succulents and cacti living in Ulster Road, Tom was a kindly soul who would do his utmost to be of assistance wherever he could. His nightly stand was at Laindon station selling late editions of the evening press (“Star”, “News” and “Standard”) this time wearing a “Laindon Recorder” hat band.
It was in the circumstances almost inevitable that, given a building in an exposed and high position, mounted on piles and composed entirely of inflammable material, there was very little the fire-fighters could when they eventually arrived to save the temporary classroom. It had been completely destroyed and its high position had meant that mothers as far as Wash Road away, worried for their children, had come rushing up from all quarters only to find every child being placated with chocolate by its calm and collective teacher.
The problems of under provision of school accommodation would continue to present the community with difficulties right through to the advent of the development of Basildon New Town and even after, The opening of Laindon High Road “Council” School in 1926, initially as an “all age” establishment and after 1933 with the opening of Markham’s Chase Infant and Junior meant there was frequent adjustment or change of schools for some pupils during their school career, not recommended as “good” educational practice. Small wonder then that some parents who were able to afford to do so ensured their children attended schools outside the Laindon district in Billericay (St Johns), Upminster or Brentwood, (Ursuline Convents) or even travelling daily to Westcliff on Sea, Southend or Chelmsford.
The introduction of what was known as the “scholarship” and later as the “11 plus” meant that with raising of the school leaving age to 14 and making this the culmination of what was known formally as “elementary” education meant that children who displayed evidence (usually detected by means of a competitive written examination) of benefiting from further education might be able switch to Grammar Schools. Since there were none of these in Laindon, a fair proportion of the area’s child population on reaching 11 years of age had to travel outside the district to complete their education. Even this process of grading or classification was itself further divided into those who might not be considered academically able but to be more suited to “training” in technical matters. For these similar arrangements outside the area had also to apply because Laindon lacked such facilities. Thus for many children in the most formative years of their lives, commuting, particularly train travel, became an early routine and areas like Grays Thurrock, Chelmsford, Southend and Brentwood and so on became as familiar ground to them as did Laindon.
A further establishment within the orbit of Laindon and district that must have experienced problems relating to the education of its residents but about which very little is said is the West Ham Municipal Sanatorium off Dry Street. Although the residents of this establishment were ostensibly of West Ham origin, their sojourn at the sanatorium entitles them as residents of the area as as does that of any member of the community. As so many of them were children their education while at Langdon Hills was clearly important and apart from the reference to a visiting school teacher from Stanford–le-Hope in David Alexander’s account of his being there in WW2 it is not clear what provision was actually made.
One thing is absolutely certain. Whatever the positive attributes of Laindon and District that were exploited from 1880 until the middle of the 20th century by the commercial interests in the area eager to boost their attempts to dispose of their land holdings, the area’s beauty, its healthy environment, the convenience of its general location particularly its proximity to London and to the “seaside” at Southend and so on, the one thing that was seldom mentioned was the availability of adequate facilities for educating one’s children.
(I am indebted to Mr W H Diment of Church Road, Laindon for his assistance in the preparation of this essay JCB)