A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4, City of Ely; Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2002.
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A reference in the Archdeacon's Visitation Book of 1581-3 (fn. 1) to a certain Mr. Belson of Wisbech St. Peter, who had become negligent in his duties as schoolmaster, probably indicates the presence of a primary school. The continuous history of primary education in the town, however, does not begin until a century later. A school for boys was opened in 1707 and one for girls in 1710; both schools were supported by private subscriptions. (fn. 2) In 1709 there were 50 boys at school, who had 'caps and bands &c. given them, to distinguish them from other children', and in 1710, when a permanent school building with a master's house had been built and the girls' school started, there were 63 boys and 40 girls attending. The latter were taught to read, spin, and 'cypher'. There was an unspecified number of other children in the town 'more privately taught by dames'. (fn. 3) Elizabeth Wright, by her will dated 1729, left house property, the rental of which at the end of the century was £70, to the boys' and land worth £12 yearly to the girls' school. (fn. 4) In 1798, when Dr. Abraham Jobson, later vicar of Wisbech and a keen educationist, reported to the bishop on the schools of Wisbech hundred, (fn. 5) there were 250 boys and 30 girls being taught at a cost of about £117 a year, of which rather less than half came from the Wright charity. The boys learnt reading, writing, arithmetic, and the catechism. The girls omitted writing and arithmetic but learnt sewing and knitting instead. In consequence of the maladministration of the charity, a Chancery suit was in progress when Jobson reported. It was settled in 1811, when it was decreed that a further £20 should be allotted to the boys' and £28 to the girls' school from the charity. (fn. 4) In 1847, when the total income was £326, £125 was applied to education, including a gratuity of £5 yearly to one boy leaving the National School. The residue was divided, roughly in accordance with the wishes of the foundress, as follows: £2 2s. for sermons on St. Paul's and St. Barnabas' Days, £85 to 100 aged churchgoing widows, £10 to 15 aged men, and £105 to 344 poor families. (fn. 6)
The schools were successful in attracting many legacies and subscriptions, (fn. 7) and during Jobson's vicariate (1802-28) both were rebuilt and united with the National Society. The boys' school (1811) was in Church Terrace, that for girls (1814) in Lower Hill Street. The cost of the latter building was defrayed by the Corporation, and Jobson and John Edes each gave £400 for the endowment and £50 for the equipment. (fn. 8) The national schools were well attended in the first half of the 19th century. In 1827 120 boys and 104 girls attended. In 1830 the numbers were 130 and 90, in 1846 215 and 160. In 1846 there were also 18 boys and 25 girls attending on Sundays only. (fn. 9)
In 1868-9 the building of St. Augustine's Church made it necessary to consider a Church school for the new parish. In 1874 it was decided to take the town as the unit of Anglican education and not to provide for the education of each sex in each parish. The result was that (St. Peter's) boys' school was rebuilt, at a cost of £1,910, to accommodate 262 boys, and a school for 70 girls and 130 infants was constructed in St. Augustine's parish at a cost of £1,205. Towards these separate costs over £2,000 was subscribed locally and £190 was granted by the National Society. (fn. 10) The buildings of St. Peter's School were improved in 1908-9 and can now accommodate 288 boys from 7 to 11. In 1943 218 were on the roll. (fn. 11) St. Augustine's School had by 1913 become overcrowded. There were 204 on the books but places for only 196. Very young children had to be refused admission. The opening of the Queen's School (q.v.) in 1928 afforded some relief, but St. Augustine's was again over-full in 1939. (fn. 12) The Lower Hill Street school continued after 1874 to be used for girls and infants. It became a Council school in 1924 and was closed in 1928. It was badly sited and throughout its existence its buildings were not altered. (fn. 13) The buildings are now used as auction rooms.
Another charity school had been opened in Deadman's Lane in 1803. Its original promoter was James Hill the Unitarian, who intended 'to carry out a system of training similar to that proposed by Robert Owen, of socialist notoriety, but failing in his [i.e. Hill's] object, it was purchased for its present purpose', (fn. 14) and conducted on British and Foreign Schools Society principles. James Smith, the first master, received a salary of 80 guineas, and the school became popular, with an average attendance of about 240 boys. In 1814 31 were admitted and 32 left. In the same year 230 were 'learning their letters', 100 were taught to write, and 84 were 'cyphering'. In 1815 it was decided to appoint one or more monthly visitors from among the subscribers 'whose occasional presence may invigorate the attention, and thereby accelerate the improvement, of the children'. (fn. 15) A separate British School for girls was built behind the Crescent in 1834 and provided education for about 100 children in its first year. (fn. 16) In 1840 a new boys' school was built in Victoria Road. The old boys' school was thereupon given over to infants. (fn. 17)
The numbers at the boys' school kept up fairly well in comparison with those at the National School for boys in Church Terrace; there were said to be 300 in 1841, the first full year of the new British boys' school, and later figures were 261 (1858), 254 (1859), 310 (1869), and 292 (1870). (fn. 18) In 1858-9 about threequarters of the boys were being taught to write and about half were learning arithmetic. Eighteen were learning 'mensuration and algebra'. All the boys learnt geography and 'object drawing', and nearly one-half were instructed in history and in grammar and composition. (fn. 19) The average school life seems to have been about three years. It is noteworthy that nearly half (48 out of 102) who left in 1858-9 took up 'field work'-even in a town of 10,000 population. Two became pupil-teachers. (fn. 20)
These British Schools were not so successful as the National Schools in raising subscriptions, and it was partly their failure to do so that led to the establishment of a Wisbech School Board in 1876. (fn. 21) The Board took over the British Schools, replacing those for girls and infants by a new school in Elm Road in 1878- 9; (fn. 22) it also opened a small school 3 miles out of the town along the South Brink. (fn. 23) The old infant school building, 'a fair room but in an inconvenient part of the town', was converted into a school for art, science, and technology. The girls' school, which stood next a graveyard, was condemned and demolished in the late 1870's. The boys' school was enlarged in 1880 and 1895 to a capacity of 300. It was closed in 1928, but reopened in 1930 as an annexe to the Elm Road school and so remains. (fn. 24) The Elm Road school was twice enlarged in the 'nineties to accommodate about 350 children. In 1929, in spite of the opening of the Queen's School (q.v.), numbers had exceeded this figure. (fn. 25)
In 1913 it was revealed that the recognized accommodation in the five primary schools of the town exceeded the numbers on the books by only 2 per cent., a dangerously small margin in a growing town. The County Council proposed to build new schools for boys, girls, and infants, to close the Lower Hill Street and Victoria Road Schools, and convert the St. Augustine's School into one for girls only. In 1915 a site was obtained by compulsory purchase at the north end of Queen's Road but the war stopped the scheme. The project was revived in 1925 and after some local opposition a senior school was erected. The plans provided for 320 boys and 320 girls of 11 and over, and the new school was completed, at a cost of over £20,000, in 1928. It was named the Queen's School, after Queen Mary, and was the first of its kind in the Isle. New classrooms for handicrafts and domestic science were added in 1947 and the school now takes the senior children from Leverington and Gorefield as well as Wisbech itself. (fn. 26)
The county boundary of the Isle and Norfolk, based on the old course of the Well Stream, ran through the built-up area until 1934 (see above). Such streets as Norwich Road and Bowthorpe Road were divided haphazard between the two counties. In general the numbers of children resident in the area of one local education authority but attending the schools of the opposite authority roughly balanced each other, and no financial adjustment was ever made. (fn. 27) But at intervals considerable local feeling was aroused owing to a temporary disturbance of the balance. For example in c. 1907 some 40 more Wisbech children were attending Walsoken schools than there were Walsoken children in Wisbech schools, and this fact was brought forward against the proposed new school in Ramnoth Road (see below). Again, St. Augustine's School in Wisbech was for a long time specially attractive to Walsoken children, who contributed to its chronic overcrowding.
The following three Walsoken schools were brought into Wisbech Borough under the 1934 boundary changes.
Kirkgate Street School, Walsoken, (fn. 28) was opened in 1858 as a National School. The cost, including the teacher's house, amounted to £458, towards which the Society made a grant of £30. The site (part of the glebe) was given by the rector. The original accommodation was 116, increased by enlargements in 1891 and 1896 to 169, and reduced by the 1910 reassessment to 130. It was transferred to the Walsoken School Board in 1891, and became a junior and infants' school in 1927.
The Walsoken School Board was established in l875, (fn. 29) and the following year built a school in Norwich Road. (fn. 30) By this time most of the population was concentrated in New Walsoken on the Wisbech border. This school was a large one. There were originally 345 places, to which 100 were added in 1906. Expansion, however, did not keep pace with the increase in the population. The Norwich Road site was too small for any further enlargements, and in 1909-11, after much controversy (see above) the Norfolk County Council built a new school in Ramnoth Road (fn. 31) for 220 boys. Thereupon the Norwich Road school was reserved for girls and infants, for 310 of whom there was accommodation in 1942. Between 1927 and 1948 Ramnoth Road also took the senior boys from Kirkgate Street, but from the latter year all senior children from Walsoken have been taken by the Queen's School.
At the end of the 18th century there were also about five dame schools for boys, and the same number for girls, in the town. (fn. 32) In the late 'forties there were 15 private academies in Wisbech, 7 of which took boarders. (fn. 33) In 1868-9 there were 5 dame schools in St. Augustine's parish. (fn. 34)
A Sunday school, to which the capital burgesses granted £20 a year, had been set up in 1786 for children unable to go to the charity schools. (fn. 35) It was rebuilt in Deadman's Lane (Alexandra Road) in 1809 and liberally endowed by Jobson.
In 1835 the ratio of children at school to the total population was 1 in 9.6 in Wisbech-slightly below the county as a whole (1 in 9.4) but well above the country at large (1 in 10.7). (fn. 36)
It is noteworthy that except for the Girls' High School (1904) on the North Brink, all the Wisbech schools are on the right bank of the river. This was used as an argument against the Queen's Road site in the early 1920's. (fn. 37)