There have been schools for the sons of rich families throughout the centuries, but schooling for the children of the poor was a consequence of the Industrial Revolution.
At the end of the eighteenth century many people thought that educating the lower classes would be unwise, even dangerous, and would give them ideas above their station. In many places, the landowners refused to allow schools to be started on their land. Children were expected to work as soon as they were old enough , in order to bring much-needed money into the family.
In 1780 Robert Raikes founded the first Sunday School in Gloucester. He saw 'wretchedly ragged, at play in the streets' of Gloucester, spending their Sundays in an atmosphere of gambling, noise and riot, and cursing and swearing.' His Sunday Schools taught children the alphabet in order to be able to read passages from the Bible. The Sunday School movement soon spread around the country.
It was from these Sunday Schools that day schools began to develop, mostly founded by the churches. Schools founded by the Church of England became known as National Schools, while those founded by Non-Conformist churches were known as British Schools.
The present primary school has developed from Mersea's National School.
The earliest reference we have found so far for a school in Mersea is in the Tithe map of 1839, which shows a building at the top of what we now know as The Lane occupied by Mr Sadler and marked as a school. This is confirmed by the census taken two years later in 1841 where Mr William Sadler, aged 60, is recorded as schoolmaster. It is unlikely that he would have set up a school so late in life so it seems reasonable to assume that the school had been there for some time. Schooling was not compulsory, and the parents of his pupils would have had to pay Mr Sadler each week for their children to attend. We do not know whether Mr Sadler's school was set up by the church and we have found no further reference to Mr Sadler or his school.
However, in White's Directory of 1844 and 1848 a Miss Overall is shown as school mistress at the National School. The location of this early National School is as yet unknown, unless it was in Mr Sadler's cottage - but this is only conjecture.
In following censuses reference is made to teachers at a National School, but its location is not known until 1861. In 1861 the Methodist church was built with its own school room and the National School moved into the barn which had been vacated by the Methodists. It was situated, 'to the best of their knowledge' near or next door to the site of the present school. A booklet, produced by Sybil Brand in 1961 to commemorate the centenary of the Methodist church, states: 'The barn stood in the garden of the house next to the County Primary School on its west side and was used for seed storage until the early nineteen hundreds.'
Then came the Education Act of 1870, the first time the government had taken a real interest in education. The 1870 Education Act set up the beginnings of the system of education as we know it today. It established school boards elected by local people, and new schools were to be built, paid for out of the local rates, if adequate voluntary schools did not exist. Education was still not free however and children could be required to pay up to 9d per week, although the boards could offer free education to the poorest if they wished. The boards also had the power to make schooling compulsory, usually for children aged between five and ten years, and by 1876 at least half of the school boards had enacted a bye-law to make school compulsory. The voluntary schools did not have such powers and schooling there was still not compulsory.
Mersea school around 1900, with the earliest buildings to the right and the headmaster's house in the centre.
Although a school board was not set up in West Mersea at this time, it seems that this 1870 Act had the effect of focusing minds on the education of the local children as on 3rd June 1871 the Reverend Thomas Ralph Musselwhite of West Mersea,' Clerk in Holy Orders', signed a document granting land to the Minster (sic) and churchwardens of West Mersea to build a school. The land was that on which the present school is built and the first building is that on the west side of the land, together with the school house for the accommodation of the master and his family. This was the beginning of the school in West Mersea that still exists today.
Mr John Thorpe and his wife were employed to run the school and they were to be in charge for the next forty years, during which time the school was extended with the building on the west side of the school house and education became free and compulsory for children up to the age of 10. In 1896 the control of the school passed from the church to a newly-founded school board consisting of five elected members of from the local community.
The school continued to grow and until the 1950s took children from the age of 5 to 15. An interesting, wide-ranging curriculum was provided, using the school grounds for gardening, poultry, bee-keeping and vegetable growing. During the Second World War evacuees were received from West Ham, and the pupils kept pigs which were sold and slaughtered locally.
The Education Act of 1944 put into place free secondary schooling from the age of 11 and the school started to become what it is today.
The 2011 summer exhibition in Mersea Island Museum has many artefacts and photographs relating to the various schools on the island, and visitors were encouraged to try to identify some of their former classmates on the photographs. This proved to be quite a popular feature of the museum!
Published as Museum Piece in the Courier Issue No. 508, 22 June 2011
Schooling in West Mersea in Victorian times