City of Ely: Schools

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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'City of Ely: Schools', in 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, (London, 2002) pp. 87-88. British History Online [accessed 1 March 2024]


Catherine Needham, by her will dated 1730, left to trustees lands and tenements in Witchford, Wentworth, and Downham; the White Hart Inn, Ely, together with a cherry orchard; 12 acres in Further Middle Fen, Ely; 6 acres in Burnt Fen; a tenement in Newnham, Ely; and a close of pasture, for the provision of a school and school-house for Ely boys. In 1741 funds derived from her estates amounted to nearly £900 and with them school buildings, which still stand, were erected in that year on Back Hill. (fn. 1) The scheme provided for the teaching of English, writing, and accounts, for 8 hours daily, to 24 Ely boys, not under 8 years of age, 'born of poor parents'. The boys were not to remain at school above 4 or 5 years. Surplus funds were to go to the maintenance of the boys and to apprenticing them.

When the Charity Commissioners reported (1837) the master was receiving a salary of £20 and his house, and the boys still numbered 24, though in 1819 there had been 36, some of them no doubt fee-payers. (fn. 2) By 1846-7 they had increased to 50, of whom 30 attended both weekdays and Sundays. (fn. 3) In accordance with the will of the foundress, the boys received a suit of clothes every year, (fn. 4) and were, when leaving at 14 years, apprenticed with a premium of £20; nothing, however, was taught except reading, writing, and arithmetic. (fn. 5) In 1872 the (uncertificated) master received a salary of £55 a year. The school was enlarged to take nearly 150 boys, and by a revised scheme of the Charity Commissioners of 1909 the managers were authorized to charge a fee of 6d. a week, reserving 25 per cent. of free places, and to provide a modicum of higher education in a 2-year course for boys of 12 years of age and upwards. At the same time the buildings were enlarged to take, on the revised scale, 102 boys, and a science laboratory was provided. (fn. 6)

Efforts were made from time to time to convert the school to secondary status, but it was considered that secondary education was sufficiently provided for by the King's School, the Girls' High School (1905), and Soham Grammar School, to which boys from the south of the Isle were admitted in return for similar facilities for girls at Ely High School. The somewhat anomalous position of Needham's School, intermediate between primary and secondary, was rectified in 1933, when it was enlarged to take 160 boys and all those of 11 years and upwards in Ely were transferred to it. Shortly before 1939 there were 115 boys on the roll, 45 from outside the city. The school became a Secondary Modern school under the 1944 Act, but is handicapped by its obsolescent, if picturesque, buildings. The trustees still endow apprenticeships.

In 1813 the dean and chapter granted a building in the College, formerly used by the King's School, (fn. 7) as a school for 200 boys to be conducted in union with the National Society. One of the lay clerks of the cathedral was engaged as master. The corresponding girls' school, which in 1813 held 20 children and was run in connexion with a Sunday school of 40 girls, was in 1814 moved to a room over the Shire Hall capable of accommodating 100. There was already a satisfactory mistress (fn. 8) who undertook to make herself familiar with the 'Madras system'. In 1816 there were 50 boys and 80 girls attending these schools, and £130 was subscribed locally for their upkeep. (fn. 9)

In 1820 the Shire Hall was replaced by the present building, and the girls were removed to a new school in Market Street, towards the cost of which the National Society granted £100. The boys remained in their building in the College until the Silver Street schools (see below) were erected in 1859. (fn. 10)

Progress was not very rapid. In 1820, when the new girls' school was built, 500 Ely children were going untaught, and a generation later (1846) the number was no smaller. At the latter date about 650 to 700 children (in a total population of over 7,000) were getting some kind of education, but half of the children were at dame schools, of which there were said to be some 20 in the city. (fn. 11)

At this period some of the National School children were, like those at Needham's School, provided with free clothing. Sums of £30 and £10 were appropriated from Parsons's Charity for the boys' and girls' schools respectively. (fn. 12) In 1851 70 of the 150 boys and 80 of the 100 girls at the National Schools had free suits or 'cloaks, frocks, aprons, tippets and bonnets'. (fn. 13)

The next step forward was taken in 1859, when new National Schools for boys and girls were built in Silver Street at a cost of £2,577, about half of which was subscribed locally. (fn. 14) This school has remained the principal primary school in Ely to the present time. The buildings were enlarged by additional classrooms (1888) and technical instruction rooms (1892 and 1901) and accommodated 678 children in 1904, reduced to 538 (268 boys, 270 girls) after 1909. In 1933 it was reorganized for boys from 7 to 10 and girls from 9 to 14 (now 7 to 11 and 11 to 15 respectively). There were (1949) 184 boys and 134 girls on the books. (fn. 15)

The Broad Street school was built in 1859 for infants, and enlarged to 200 places by a new classroom in 1900. The accommodation was scaled down to 177 in 1910. Under the 1933 reorganization this school was allotted to junior girls. There were 101 on the books in 1936, increased in 1950 to 155, as the older girls were not able to proceed to the Silver Street school owing to congestion. A temporary hutted classroom was built (1947) at Broad Street to accommodate them. (fn. 16)

The Market Street school, on the site of the old girls' National School, was rebuilt as a mixed school for 135 at a cost of £430 in 1868. (fn. 17) It was enlarged by the conversion of an adjoining house in 1886, and in 1910 was an infants' school with 246 places. It has an awkward site surrounded by higher buildings and has long been due for closure, though it was re-equipped with new desks and chairs in 1938 for £128. The average attendance in this year was 152. (fn. 18)

No provision was made in the city hamlets until the middle of the 19th century. At Prickwillow, the largest of them, a temporary mission church and school was put up about 1855, but soon became unsafe owing to the sinking peat soil. A permanent school with 150 places was built in 1862-3 at a cost of £1,018 including a teacher's house, to which £691 was subscribed locally and £40 received from the National Society. The building was enlarged in 1871 and at the turn of the century accommodated 220 children, reduced in 1910 to 179 (130 mixed, 49 infants). It was reorganized as a junior mixed and infants' school in 1945 and granted controlled status in 1948. (fn. 19)

Prickwillow St. James (formerly Mildenhall Road) School stands in a very isolated position, near Shippea Hill Station but 8 miles from Ely city and 4 miles from the nearest schools at Prickwillow village and Kenny Hill over the Suffolk border. It was built in 1870 for £926 (128 places, reduced in 1910 to 102). In 1932 a parish room known as the Burnt Fen Institute was approved as temporary accommodation for an extra 40 children; the school was at that time overcrowded. (fn. 20) In 1943 it became a junior mixed and infants' school with 49 pupils, 12 boys and 11 girls aged 11 and more being moved to Littleport. The teacher's house was badly damaged in the great gale of 16 March 1947 and the school accepted controlled status in that year. (fn. 21)

Stuntney School dates from 1864, when the National Society granted £12 towards the total cost of £321. The land was given by the dean and chapter. Originally it held 60 children; in 1886 it was enlarged and in 1900 a teacher's house was built; the school now has 75 places (51 mixed, 24 infants). It became a junior mixed and infants' school in 1946, and a controlled school in 1950. There were 32 children on the books in 1948, all present when the school was inspected; this school has a long-standing reputation for high average attendance. (fn. 22)

A school was built at Chettisham in 1880 for 30 children at a cost of £479 including the teacher's house. The National Society granted £42. It was enlarged in 1897 to take 48 children and closed in 1934, (fn. 23) when only 21 children were on the books.

Adelaide Bridge School was built in 1872 for 64 infants and enlarged in 1885 (new classroom) to provide 82 places. In 1893 a teacher's house was built. It became a junior mixed and infants' school in 1935, and in 1944 had 46 on the roll. Since 1950 it has been a controlled school. (fn. 24)


  • 1. See V.C.H. Cambs. ii, 342, 349.
  • 2. Rep. Com. Char. (Cambs.), [103], pp. 217 et seq., H.C. (1837-8), xxiv.
  • 3. Archives of Nat. Soc.
  • 4. Boys on the foundation continued to be clothed until the late 19th century (V.C.H. Cambs. ii, 342). A photograph dated 1871 of a boy clothed in uniform still (1951) hangs in the schools.
  • 5. Gardner, Dir. Cambs. (1851), 481.
  • 6. M. of Ed. file No. 12/22.
  • 7. At this time the National School was drawing boys away from the grammar school on account of its more practical curriculum (V.C.H. Cambs. ii, 322).
  • 8. 'A person much approved' (2nd Ann. Rep. of Nat. Soc., p. 112).
  • 9. Archives of Nat. Soc.
  • 10. The Silver Street school was 'about to be erected' as early as 1850 (Gardner, Dir. Cambs. (1851), 481).
  • 11. Archives of Nat. Soc.
  • 12. Rep. Com. Char. (Cambs.), [103], pp. 217 et seq., H.C. (1837-8), xxiv.
  • 13. Gardner, Dir. Cambs. (1851), 481.
  • 14. Archives of Nat. Soc.
  • 15. M. of Ed. file No. 12/16.
  • 16. M. of Ed. file No. 12/17.
  • 17. Kelly, Dir. Cambs. (1900).
  • 18. M. of Ed. file No. 12/18.
  • 19. M. of Ed. file No. 12/23.
  • 20. It had been proposed to move the older children to a new senior school at Littleport, which was not built owing to the economy campaign of 1931.
  • 21. M. of Ed. file No. 12/24.
  • 22. M. of Ed. file No. 12/21.
  • 23. M. of Ed. file No. 12/20. The extension of the footpath along the Lynn Road to Chettisham was made for the benefit of the children, as the County Council were not at first willing to provide conveyance. In the end, after strong local protests, they made arrangements for taking the younger children by bus to Ely.
  • 24. M. of Ed. file No. 12/19.