Llansawel School – The Early Years

Llansawel School today

Llansawel School today

Llansawel is fortunate that its School Log has survived intact. It was begun in December 1869, about seven years before the present building was erected, and was faithfully maintained until 1997, when the government relaxed the legal requirement to maintain one.

The teacher was required to record events of importance to the school, and generally entered a short weekly report, as well as hand-copying each annual HM Inspector’s report into it.

The teachers were preoccupied with attendance levels – only pupils with a good attendance record could be presented for examination. The attendance of the children at Llansawel was erratic and the teacher regularly records the reasons in a mood of despair – “many children detained at home because of the hay making” or “the harvest” or “the potato planting” or “they are helping their parents in the garden” and so on. The log thus gives a vivid picture not only of the school but of the village too, and of agricultural life. The special attraction of our school log is not that it is unique but that it portrays a typical Welsh rural community and follows its history through times of great change.

Llansawel School Beginnings
Until the Education Act of 1870, all schools were organised privately and paid for by parents or endowed by benefactors. Llansawel school was run by a Board of local businessmen and religious leaders, who employed the teachers and were responsible for all aspects of the school, including the building. The teacher collected fees (School Pence) from the children.

Teachers varied in their enthusiasm for collecting fees – parents often complained and even kept their children away from school to avoid paying. There was a crisis in September 1875 when Lady Williams of Edwinsford, who had been paying the School Pence for many of the poorest children, died and the payment stopped.

In 1873 the charge was sixpence a week each for the oldest children and twopence for an infant. In 1876, in a successful attempt to improve attendance, this was reduced to fourpence for the oldest and a penny for infants.

St Sawyls Church Vestry

St Sawyls Church Vestry

The school started in the church vestry. It is frightening to imagine what this must have been like as even at its most poorly attended the school numbered between forty and fifty children. By December 1869, it had moved to the Town Hall, later known as The Old Court House, (see picture) which stands between The Black Lion and The Angel Hotel. It was still used as a magistrate’s court in the 1960’s and is now a private dwelling.

As a school, it was not much better than the vestry. Forty children age five to thirteen, many not very interested in self-improvement, all in one room (fifteen by thirty-five feet), were taught by one teacher with the help of two monitors and a pupil-teacher, chosen from the upper standards. In 1874, the teacher, Mr Hubert, became distressed about a pupil-teacher, Margaret, who had no control over her charges and resisted all of his attempts to “improve” her. He complained often to the School Board but they would not replace her and he had to put up with it until she went of her own accord.  
There were other problems. The village did not stop using the Town Hall when the school moved in and whenever the hall was required for other purposes, the school was closed. There were frequent Wool Fairs, Rent and Club Dinners, Auctions and Petty Sessions. Often when open, the school was ill attended because of other attractions. A pig fair in the village, a ploughing competition, a travelling menagerie – all of these could find the teacher mournfully recording the absence of a large fraction of his pupils, not playing truant but kept off by their parents.  In defence of the parents, their lives were hard and they were often dependent on the labour of even quite young children to help care for cottage gardens and perform essential chores.  Nevertheless, to make up the time, the teacher had to open the school on Saturdays, making himself even more unpopular with parents and children.

The Town Hall

The Town Hall

Further woes included the absence of “offices” from the building. To relieve themselves, the children (and presumably the teacher) had to go downstairs and walk a hundred yards or so to the bank of the River Marlais, just about where Glanmarlais’ yard is now. There stood two small draughty and very smelly timber latrines which were condemned by inspector after inspector right up to the time (1876) when the school moved to its present building and comparative luxury.

The Town Hall from the business end, showing the stairs and door to the schoolroom, court or dining hall, according to need.

The Town Hall from the business end, showing the stairs and door to the schoolroom, court or dining hall, according to need.

When the teacher tried to enforce discipline, the parents sometimes confronted him or took their children away or both. There were rival schools in Caio, Crugybar, Talley, Abergorlech and Rhydcymerau. In October 1874, a Dame’s School opened in Llansawel, just across the street from the Town Hall. When, in May 1875, Jonah Evans, a member of the School Board, decided to start his Academy or grammar school, to prepare the more likely pupils for college and the ministry, it must have been a blow to the teacher, Mr Hubert. He records mildly in the log for that week that Mr Evans had taken his best pupils away.

The first few teachers were:

  • William Franklin Dec 1869 until May 13 1872
  • James Joseph Kerr Jan 6 1873 until May 29 1874
  • Arthur Hubert Jun 29 1874 until May 5 1876
  • Edward Preece May 19 1876 until March 15 1878

The Great Move
The school moved to the present building in Mr Hubert’s time. Like his predecessors (and the inspectors – see the report extract below), he frequently declared the children to be “backward”, but soon it occurred to him that the blank looks which his questions often met arose, not from stupidity but because the children had to struggle with the English – everywhere else they spoke Welsh while the school was taught strictly in English.

When the school we now know was finally opened on Monday June 12, 1876, the number of pupils almost doubled. They still had attendance troubles at harvest and planting times of course but at least the school was now serving the whole community – as it has done to the present day.

Extract from the School Log,  Week Ending June 16, 1876
“The new school room was passed on Wednesday June 7th and opened on Monday morning.
Mr Jones (Member of the Board) attended at the opening accompanied by several new scholars. Three of them although over seven, are unable to accomplish Infants’ work. The opening of the new room has induced several of the former scholars (who I think were grown tired of the former room) to attend this week, thereby raising the average this week to 85.3. The school is in great need of a pupil-teacher.

A woman named “Margaret Jones” has been appointed by “The Board” to act as sempstress.
  Mr Williams (Member of The Board) called in on Thursday morning and on Friday afternoon. The Revd C.H. Chidlow & Revd W.G. Williams.   The former gave out Dictation to the first class and the latter heard the second class read.

Examined the classes on Friday morning.
Number of scholars who attended at all during the week 94.”

This surprisingly terse entry records the move to the present building, then quickly moves on to everyday matters.

The Inspector’s First Report on the School, 1871
“This school is at present held in a temporary room in the centre of the Village. This room is also used as a Town Hall and for holding Wool Fairs. The offices which are of wood are near the river side and at a great distance from the school room. They cannot be considered satisfactory:- proper School buildings with convenient yards and offices should be provided with as little delay as possible. No Religious instruction is given at the School. The acting teacher reads from 10 to 20 verses out of the Bible at the beginning of the School without note or comment and this is the only Scripture read. The School was opened last November. There were present on the day of inspection 62 children. 49 of these were above six years of age (and?) had qualified themselves by attendance of examination. The number present was 42 or deducting the absentees 38. The general order and discipline of the School was very fair, the character of the Instruction also, considering that the School is comparatively a new one, was satisfactory and augurs well for the future. The weak part of the Instruction was that the children showed very little intelligence when very easy questions were proposed to them arising out of their Reading-lesson; the same defect was visible when simple questions in Mental Arithmetic were given to the First Class.”