Soham: Education

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 10, Cheveley, Flendish, Staine and Staploe Hundreds (North-Eastern Cambridgeshire). Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2002.

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'Soham: Education', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 10, Cheveley, Flendish, Staine and Staploe Hundreds (North-Eastern Cambridgeshire), (London, 2002) pp. 545-548. British History Online [accessed 29 February 2024]


No record survives of schooling at Soham before 1660. (fn. 1) The award which divided Soham's fens in 1665-6 devoted to assisting its poor the income from a nominal '100 a.', really 116 a., in the moor east of the village; part of those funds was assigned for paying a schoolmaster. Although that provision was confirmed in 1687, the costs of recovering the land from the Chicheleys through lawsuits not concluded until c. 1700 meant that only then were funds available to start the school. (fn. 2) Successive endowed schools at Soham thereafter often received over half the rent of the School Moor, called the Free School common by the 1790s. (fn. 3) By 1706 the trustees had erected a schoolhouse on a 1/4-a. site west of Churchgate Street near its north end, rented from Bond's charity for £1 a year until its purchase in 1879. That charity's adjoining 'hempland' served as a playground. (fn. 4) The original school building, a long one with projecting ends, built of brick and tiled, may have had its windows glazed from the first. It included a dwelling for the master. (fn. 5) The building, on whose repair £140 was spent in 1818-19, (fn. 6) was reconstructed in the mid 19th century. (fn. 7) To the older seven-bayed rear wing, gabled to the north, partly occupied by the master's house, was then added a four-bayed wing stretching towards the street, in grey brick partly dressed in red, whose upper floor contained a high schoolroom. (fn. 8)

For a few of its earliest years the school was styled a 'grammar school': it still had a 'Latin seat' in 1722. By 1713, however, it was reckoned a free or charity school, providing more basic education. (fn. 9) Of the pair of masters employed from 1705, the senior ones, paid £25 annually, seldom served for more than two or three years, save for one in office 1709-23. Their assistants, sometimes drawn from Soham families and paid £15-20 yearly, acted as 'masters of the writing school', a position recognized when one was dismissed in 1740. (fn. 10) The under-master appointed in 1741 was promoted in 1749 to be sole master of the school, serving until 1774. His successor, John Aspland, also of a Soham family, served until 1823, having his salary raised from £40 to £50 in 1798 and to £60 in 1807. Active on parish business, he probably sometimes deputed his teaching duties; the next master, who served until 1847, left the work in the 1830s to his son. (fn. 11) Attendance, c. 70 in 1818, fell by the 1830s to 40-50, even that number halving during harvest. Although the school was formally open to all classes and taught reading with writing and arithmetic, a requirement that pupils should read when admitted meant that children of small landowners, farmers, and tradesmen were disproportionately represented among its pupils. (fn. 12)

In 1835 the Anglican-dominated Moor feoffees, to forestall moves plotted since 1832 by the Radical Thomas Wilkin to dispute their control of the school, sought a new Chancery Scheme for its management. In 1841 Soham's dissenters protested vigorously against provisions which would make it effectively a Church school, demanding that their children attending it be spared, as before, religious teaching contrary to their beliefs. (fn. 13) Nevertheless, the Scheme of 1845, finally approved in 1847, prescribed Anglican religious instruction. It assigned two thirds of the Moor's net income, making £106 out of £160, for education and gave the master, to be an Anglican, a house and a salary of up to £80 for teaching villagers' sons aged 4-16 reading, writing, and arithmetic. Fifty boys were to be taught free, others paying schoolpence. (fn. 14) The free school reopened in 1850, after a three-year closure for reconstruction. Although it acquired religious books from the National Society, by 1852 dissenters' children were allowed to attend chapel with their parents without risking expulsion, and unbaptized ones were excused part of the catechism. (fn. 15) The master's salary, then at £60 under half the Moor rents, was raised to £80 by 1873, when 50 of the 185 pupils were still taught free. The master then also kept a night school. (fn. 16)

The endowed school was again reorganized under a Scheme of 1878, diverting it towards providing a middle-class type of education. It was to take boys aged 7-15, initially 60 dayboys and 10 boarders, to be admitted after examination with a preference, continued in later Schemes until 1916, for sons of villagers. Although a few scholarships were available after two years' attendance, pupils had to pay fees, higher for the boarders, to the headmaster, who was still entitled to up to £75 from the endowment. The curriculum was to include mathematics, history, geography, science, and some foreign languages. (fn. 17) W. H. Mould, headmaster from 1885 until he resigned, aged 78, in 1914, was usually supported by two, after 1890 three, assistant masters whom he paid himself. In the 1880s and 1890s the school also taught the principles of farming. Organized sports, including by 1895 football, besides cricket, were introduced in the 1880s. By 1900 the school was sometimes styled a Grammar school: in 1896 the parish council complained that Soham's 'deserving poor' were virtually excluded from it. In 1904 it had c. 60 pupils, a third boarders, some learning Latin, French, and chemistry. (fn. 18) It then awarded scholarships to boys selected by examination from Soham's board schools. (fn. 19)

Further Schemes of 1909 and 1916 effectively placed the Grammar School, thenceforth officially so called, under the control of the county council from 1916. By then only a fifth, then £110, of its income, exclusive of boarding fees, came from the Moor charity. From the 1910s boys from Ely could take up places at that school, in return for which older girls from Soham could go to the new Ely High School for girls. In 1915 the Grammar School's pupils included 31 boys from Soham, 18 from Ely. (fn. 20) Later, as boarding continued, the proportion of its pupils coming from Soham fell from two fifths in the 1920s to one fifth of the 177 taught in 1938, even though the 1916 Scheme had provided for £40 scholarships for former pupils of Soham primary schools. (fn. 21) Under an energetic young headmaster who served 1916-30, numbers grew to over 120 by 1927, almost three quarters taught free: some classes were held in a disused chapel. In 1926 the whole school was moved to Beechurst, bought in 1925, a large, somewhat Tudorish mansion, standing west of Sand Street. Built of grey brick, stone-dressed, with two massive projecting mullioned bay windows and an octagonal corner tower, it had been erected c. 1900 × 1904 for Charles Morbey. His earlier home, The Moat, to the north-west was also acquired for the school in 1945, after which the headmaster with his 10-12 boarding pupils moved there from Beechurst, (fn. 22) which then provided six classrooms. Its grounds, with 12 a. bought for sports fields in 1930, gave room to add new buildings to the west, including an assembly hall of 1957 and laboratories from the 1940s, when extra classrooms were added. (fn. 23) The Old Grammar School on Churchgate Street, sold soon after 1926 to augment the endowment (fn. 24) and sometimes used for business purposes, though partly derelict by the 1960s, still stood, disused and boarded-up, in 1997. (fn. 25) In the 1930s Soham Grammar School taught 'Rural Sciences', but it became increasingly academic in orientation after 1945 under a new headmaster. Between 1945 and 1960 numbers rose from c. 260 to 400. (fn. 26)

In 1972 the county council reorganized secondary education in Soham. It amalgamated the Grammar School, then with 385 pupils, save for its sixth-form classes which were transferred to Ely, with Soham village college, (fn. 27) which had been opened in 1958, on adjoining land to the north-west by Soham Lode, to educate older children from Soham and the surrounding villages. (fn. 28) By 1975 the village college had c. 800 pupils. Its original, mostly flat-roofed, buildings, later distinguished as Lodeside, added to by the 1990s, stood south of College Road at the northern edge of its 36 a. of grounds, including extensive playing fields and an outdoor swimming pool, also used by villagers. (fn. 29) In 1989 the college had c. 1,000 pupils and by the late 1990s almost 1,200. (fn. 30) It benefitted from substantial charitable funds in the 1990s, when the Moor trustees gave it half their income, the other half going to Soham's other council schools. Under a bequest made in 1945 by Charlotte G. Morris the residue of her estate, yielding over £850 a year by the 1990s, provided scholarships for former Grammar School pupils. Additional sums raised by 1987, partly from 'Old Grammarians', totalling £90,000 in the 1990s, were used for educational purposes not coverable from local taxation. (fn. 31)

Apart from the endowed school, education was already widely available in Soham from the early 19th century. In 1812 a clergyman, formerly a grammar school master, opened a boys' preparatory school. (fn. 32) By 1818 the 13 schools taking paying pupils, including two with 73 and 55 respectively, had altogether 283 children, (fn. 33) while in 1833 seven day schools taught 90 boys and 140 girls for whom their parents paid. (fn. 34) In the 1850s the number of children from the village and its surroundings being schooled rose from c. 225 in 1851, five ninths girls, to over 400 by 1861 with boys and girls in almost equal numbers. The fen, however, produced barely 12 pupils in 1851 and only c. 60 even in the 1860s. (fn. 35) In 1851 some probably attended up to four dame schools then kept by wives or daughters of labourers or small tradesmen. (fn. 36) Only two or three such schools survived in the 1860s. (fn. 37)

More advanced education was available at the 'Classical and Commercial Academy' run by David Gunton, who was closely associated with Soham's dissenters. From the late 1830s he kept it at his house off the north end of Churchgate Street, where he was boarding 21 pupils in 1851. (fn. 38) The Academy's wide curriculum included classical and foreign languages, mathematics, history, and geography. (fn. 39) Gunton, who had ten boarders in 1861 when he was assisted by his daughters and two other trained masters, one teaching French, died soon after. His widow shortly started a girls' school, closed c. 1870, while a kinsman, perhaps a brother, kept the Academy open until c. 1880. (fn. 40) From the 1850s to the 1880s Soham contained one other private boys' school and two or three, some boarding schools, for girls, one of which survived in 1908. (fn. 41)

Ecclesiastical interest in education developed after 1818. By 1833 the Anglicans and the four main dissenting chapels all had Sunday schools, teaching between them 218 boys and 263 girls. (fn. 42) By 1843 the Church had also opened two National day schools, in which a paid master and mistress taught 150 boys and 120 girls in 1846, when no permanent schoolrooms had yet been provided. (fn. 43) The boys' school was probably abandoned after the endowed one was Anglicanized under the 1847 Scheme, which provoked the dissenters to consider opening their own day school. (fn. 44) The church girls' school, started in 1835, was still being held in a rented barn in 1854, when it had 80 pupils paying schoolpence under a certificated mistress paid £40. The vicar met over £32 of the £59 cost. (fn. 45) In 1856-7 a schoolhouse for it, with a separate teacher's house at its west end, was built near the vicarage, on the south side of Clay Street; it is of flint dressed in stone, to a Gothic design by J. A. Cory. The much-gabled building, which has heavily cusped tracery in its larger windows, provided two classrooms, Pembroke College contributed £1,650 of the building cost. That girls' school, still under a mistress and attended c. 1860 by 120-35 children, (fn. 46) remained under Church control after board schools were established for other children in the 1870s; funds for its running costs were found without much difficulty. Curates still taught there in the 1890s. It had 126 pupils in 1873 (fn. 47) and was usually attended by c. 140 from the 1880s until c. 1910. (fn. 48) The classrooms had to be enlarged c. 1900. (fn. 49) That primary school, long mainly for girls, remained a Church school until the late 20th century. Even though its older pupils, like those of the council schools, were moved to the village college in 1958, it still taught 230 children in 1978. (fn. 50) Its replacement, planned from the 1970s, (fn. 51) was finally effected in 1990, when a new church primary school for both sexes, called St. Andrew's, with high-pitched roofs, providing four more classrooms to take initially 350 children, was opened on a site just west of Sand Street. Its growth already then required mobile classrooms. In 1998 it was attended by c. 450 children. (fn. 52)

Although Soham's Church party narrowly defeated late in 1870, by 211 votes to 196, a demand from its dissenters for a School Board and non-denominational, rate-supported schools, (fn. 53) the dissenters had that decision reversed within months. A Board of five was elected in March 1871, on which, however, the vicar with two other Churchmen outnumbered the two dissenting ministers. (fn. 54) In 1875 the Board opened two schools. One for boys, under a certificated master, at the north end of the village was called officially the Townsend school, but normally the Shade school after a common nearby. The other for infants under a mistress stood on Clay Street. Each had a large schoolroom and a classroom, and the boys' school a teacher's house. (fn. 55) The Board added two other purpose-built mixed schools in the 1880s, both with teachers' houses, one, required by the Education Board, in 1886 west of Great Fen Drove for c. 60 Soham Fen children, the other at Barway in 1889. (fn. 56) In 1911 the county council built, on a site leased from the vicar, a junior girls' school to supplement the church one. (fn. 57) At the Shade boys' school, enlarged in 1906 when its first master left after thirty years' service, and again in 1927, attendance, until the 1890s often lower during harvest, (fn. 58) was raised, including that at the infants' one, from only 234 in 1885 to c. 350 in the mid 1890s. (fn. 59) In the early 20th century the boys' school had c. 245 pupils before 1914 and the Clay Street infants' school c. 260, falling to 115 in the mid 1930s. (fn. 60) The new council girls' school took 70-90 pupils, reducing attendance at the church girls' school from the 205 of 1910 to 140 or less from the late 1910s, but its younger girls were sent to that church school after 1958. (fn. 61) The number at Barway school, never more than 50, halved in the 1910s to 23 by 1919; it was closed in 1923. (fn. 62) Those attending Soham Fen school usually numbered c. 40-50 until the 1930s. It was kept open until 1968. (fn. 63)

Evacuee children from East London brought to Soham in 1939, initially taught in its church hall and Conservative clubroom, had the separate Hoxton House school with c. 60 pupils started for them in 1940. Most left in 1945, and that school was closed in 1947. (fn. 64) The county council reorganized and rebuilt Soham's schools in the late 20th century to accommodate its growing population. In 1971 a new infants' school, mostly flat-roofed, with eight classrooms to take 240 pupils was opened on Kents Lane east of Pratt Street. (fn. 65) By 1976 it had c. 300 pupils, a third in a nursery school. (fn. 66) The Shade school, whose numbers were reduced by c. 1975 to 150-60, (fn. 67) was closed in 1991, its buildings being shortly afterwards sold, and by 1997 replaced with housing. A new mixed council school for over 360 older children was formally opened in 1992 in newly erected buildings on a site at the Weatheralls, selected by 1976. By 1998 it had c. 465 pupils. Another new school for children aged 3-11 had in 1991 succeeded the infants' school in the Pratt Street buildings, then extended. (fn. 68)


  • 1. e.g. no schoolmasters mentioned in visitn. returns, 1619-33, in Norf. R.O., VIS/4/3; VIS/5/3; VIS/6/1, 4.
  • 2. 31st Rep. Com. Char. 164-9; cf. above, econ. (fen. incl.); below, char. (Moor.). For an earlier, summary acct. of the Grammar School, V.C.H. Cambs. ii. 331-2.
  • 3. C.R.O., P 142/2/3, p. 48; cf. C.U.L., E.D.R., G, tithe award 1845, p. 32.
  • 4. W. Suff. R.O., 800/1/131 (terrier 1706); 31st Rep. Com. Char. 167; J.B. Browning, Hist. Soham Grammar School (1972), 71; cf. C.U.L., E.D.R., G, tithe award 1845 (p. 30), and map (no. 1933); Char. Com. file 202479, Orders and corr. 1878-9.
  • 5. Browning, Hist. Grammar Sch. 36-40, and plan opp. p. 14.
  • 6. 31st Rep. Com. Char. 157.
  • 7. Browning, Hist. Grammar Sch. 35-6.
  • 8. Illus.: Cambs. Colln. Y Soh. KO. 6525; cf. plate 55.
  • 9. Browning, Hist. Grammar Sch. 32-3.
  • 10. Ibid. 42-9. Masters from 1705 listed, ibid. 102.
  • 11. Ibid. 50, 56-60; 31st Rep. Com. Char. 157.
  • 12. Educ. of Poor Digest. 64; 31st Rep. Com. Char. 157.
  • 13. Camb. Chron. 13 Feb. 1841, pp. 2, 3; 27 Feb. 1841, p. 2; 6 Mar. 1841, p. 2; Camb. Ind. Press, 20 Feb. 1841, p. 3.
  • 14. Browning, Hist. Grammar Sch. 61-5.
  • 15. Camb. Ind. Press, 27 July 1850, p. 2; 20 Mar. 1852, p. 2; Camb. Chron. 6 Mar. 1852, p. 4; 31 Mar. 1866, p. 8; Gardner's Dir. Cambs. (1851); Browning, Hist. Grammar Sch. 66-9.
  • 16. C.U.L., E.D.R., C 3/24; C.R.O., P 142/8/1, pp. 17-21, 221-2, 309-10.
  • 17. Browning, Hist. Grammar Sch. 70-4, 102.
  • 18. Ibid. 75-7, 79; Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1883-1912); Camb. Chron. 5 Aug. 1881, p. 4; 24 July 1885, p. 8; 30 July 1886, p. 8; 12 Apr. 1889, p. 8; 11 Oct. 1895, p. 8; Camb. Ind. Press, 31 Jan. 1901, p. 7; C.R.O., P 142/AM 1, pp. 14-15.
  • 19. Camb. Ind. Press, 17 Mar. 1901, p. 5; 9 Aug. 1901, p. 5.
  • 20. Browning, Hist. Grammar Sch. 78-84; C.R.O., P 142/25/13; cf. V.C.H. Cambs. iv. 87.
  • 21. Browning, Hist. Grammar Sch. 84, 89.
  • 22. Ibid. 84-7, 95; Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1879-1922); Ely Standard, 13 Nov. 1976. For Morbey and The Moat, above, manors.
  • 23. Browning, Hist. Grammar Sch. 85-7, 93-6, 98.
  • 24. Cf. ibid. 85-6.
  • 25. e.g. Camb. News, 13 Nov. 1962; Newmarket Jnl. 14 Aug. 1975; 16 Nov. 1995.
  • 26. Browning, Hist. Grammar Sch. 87, 90-9.
  • 27. Ibid. 100; Camb. Evening News, 16 June 1972.
  • 28. Black, Cambs. Educ. Rec. 72; Camb. Ind. Press, 8 Dec. 1961.
  • 29. Soham Village Guide, 1975, 4; Ely Standard, 19 Feb. 1976; 26 Mar. 1981; 17 Nov. 1991.
  • 30. Educ. Authorities Dir. (1989), 286; inf. from Cambs. Cty. Council Educ. Dept.
  • 31. Char. Com. files 296504, 311421; inf. from the vicar; cf. above, ch. (bldg).
  • 32. Camb. Chron. 3 July 1812, p. 3.
  • 33. Educ. of Poor Digest, 64.
  • 34. Educ. Enq. Abstract, 60.
  • 35. P.R.O., HO 107/1763, ff. 145-290v.; ibid. RG 9/1035, ff. 98-119v.; RG 9/1036, ff. 1-78v.; RG 10/1601, ff. 52-81.
  • 36. Ibid. HO 107/1763, ff. 146, 162, 226, 248.
  • 37. Ibid. RG 9/1035, f. 109; RG 9/1036, ff. 19v., 23v.; RG 10/1600, f. 105; RG 10/1601, ff. 6, 21v.
  • 38. Camb. Chron. 6 Jan. 1837, p. 3; 21 Sept. 1850, p. 2; 14 Dec. 1850, p. 2; 7 May 1853, p. 4; Gardner's Dir. Cambs. (1851), 394-5; P.R.O., HO 107/1763, f. 235v.; C.U.L., E.D.R., G, tithe award (p. 40), and map (no. 1876).
  • 39. Camb. Chron. 20 Dec. 1856, p. 5.
  • 40. Ibid. 31 Mar. 1855, p. 5; P.R.O., RG 9/1036, f. 4v.; RG 10/1601, f. 13v.; RG 11/1681, f. 8v.; Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1864-79).
  • 41. Gardner's Dir. Cambs. (1851); P.R.O., HO 107/1763, ff. 188, 192, 231, 248; ibid. RG 10/1601, f. 23v.; RG 11/1681, ff. 13, 19; Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1864-1908).
  • 42. Educ. Enq. Abstract, 60.
  • 43. Nat. Schools, Inquiry, 1846-7, Cambs. 6-7; Camb. Chron. 12 Aug. 1843, p. 2.
  • 44. Camb. Chron. 14 Oct. 1847, p. 2.
  • 45. P.R.O., ED 7/5, no. 104.
  • 46. C.R.O., P 142/25/38. Designs and plans in ibid. 391/P 52; cf. C.U.L., E.D.R., C 3/24; P.R.O., RG 10/1600, f. 116v.; RG 11/1680, f. 110. See plate 57.
  • 47. C.U.L., E.D.R., C 3/24; C 3/31; C 3/39.
  • 48. For school attendance figures, 1875-1937, parl. papers cited for next para.
  • 49. E.D.R. (1900), 158.
  • 50. Black, Cambs. Educ. Rec. 72; Newmarket Jnl. 21 Sept. 1978.
  • 51. e.g. Camb. Evening News, 21 July 1972; Ely Standard, 1 Jan. 1973; 12 Jan. 1987.
  • 52. Camb. Evening News, 25 July, 29 Nov. 1990; Ely Standard, 2 Aug. 1990; Newmarket Jnl. 11 Feb., 2 Dec. 1993; inf. from Cambs. Cty. Council Educ. Dept.
  • 53. C.R.O., P 142/8/1, pp. 197 sqq.
  • 54. Camb. Ind. Press, 11 Feb. 1871, p. 5; 18 Mar. 1871, p. 5.
  • 55. Camb. Chron. 31 July 1875, p. 4; P.R.O., ED 7/5, no. 105; cf. Black, Cambs. Educ. Rec. 72-3.
  • 56. P.R.O., ED 7/5, nos. 106-7.
  • 57. Ibid. no. 105B.
  • 58. For school life there, Centenary leaflet, 1975; 'Shade Sch. Memories': copies, Cambs. Colln.
  • 59. For attendances of all village schools c. 1880-1900, e.g. Rep. of Educ. Cttee. of Council, 1885-6 [C. 4849-I], p. 487, H.C. (1886), xxiv; Schs. in receipt of Parl. Grants, 1895-6 [C. 8179], p. 24, H.C. (1896), lxv. For teachers, Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1875-1925).
  • 60. For school attendances c. 1910-40, Bd. of Educ., List 21, 1910, 25; 1919, 16; 1932, 18; 1938, 20.
  • 61. Black, Cambs. Educ. Rec. 72.
  • 62. Ibid.
  • 63. Ibid.
  • 64. C.R.O., C/ES/142C/1 (from cat.); Shade Sch. Centenary leaflet, pp. 10-13.
  • 65. Ely Standard, 17[-18] Dec. 1970; 30 Sept. 1971.
  • 66. Ibid. 19 Feb. 1976.
  • 67. Newmarket Jnl. 6 June 1975; Ely Standard, 19 Feb. 1976.
  • 68. Inf. from Cambs. Cty. Council Educ. Dept.; Newmarket Jnl. 12 Feb. 1976; 20 Feb., 2 Apr. 1992; Camb. Evening News, 27 July 1987; 18 Feb. 1988; 20 Feb., 2 Apr. 1992; Ely Standard, 2 Aug. 1990; 5 Sep., 13 Dec. 1991.