TitleOur Village Schools - Birch Centenary Chronicles 7.
AbstractOur Village Schools

Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History

Centenary Chronicles - No. 7.

Published in Parish News - May 1997

During 1997 Birch School will be celebrating 150 years on the present site. This is slightly different to saying that the school has existed since 1847 - it has but there was a school in Birch before that time. The Tithe map, drawn in 1841, shows a school and garden on a small area, owned by Martha Digby, on what is now 1, The Street. The occupier is shown as Henry Underwood who may have been connected with the Hare and Hounds next door. At about the same date the census shows Sarah Bacon as a "Teacher in parochial school" living near the Rector and so quite near the present school building. Nothing more is known about Sarah except that she was in her thirties and was not born in Essex. Martha Digby, however, had a daughter who married a Mr Harrod, in Birch, and their son founded the famous store as mentioned in an earlier Chronicle.

Even though we know of a Birch school in 1841 this was not the earliest in the area. The honour for this seems to rest with the Layer Breton school of which all physical trace has long gone. In 1823 the Rector of Layer Breton, Rev J T Benwell, wrote to the National Society to seek assistance for the erection of a building and providing daily instruction for 100 children. There were some 70 children in the parish and it was thought that the building would cost no more than £120. A teacher, and his wife, would cost "about £40 per annum"! Advice from the Society was to the effect that neither Glebe land or Copyhold land was advisable and the Lord of the Manor gave a small plot - local support was unlikely as "our population are in husbandry and all our farmers are Quakers".

The correspondence goes into some detail as to the construction - local timber was available at a good price - the wall a half brick thick and waving along the length to give strength! A thatched roof would cover it all in. The school was duly built and a return to the London Diocesan Board of Education in 1839 states that it was not in union with the National Society although their books were used - any suggestion of union would be opposed by the Quakers. There was also a small Dame school of 10 pupils, 6 of whom came from Layer Breton, in existence locally. By 1841 there were 27 boys and 36 girls looked after by a master and his wife as teachers at a total salary of £50 per annum. A schoolhouse was provided on the same site. There is no mention of teachers in later census returns and it seems that once the new Birch school was opened pupils moved there.

A petition was lodged in 1887 by the Rev W. Earle, two of the patrons and Mrs Blow, widow of the previous Rector, to have the building demolished as "for upwards of 15 years the school has been closed and the inhabitants have availed themselves of the school in Birch" - the walls had sunk (not surprisingly) through defective construction and all had become dilapidated and a "burden to the incumbent". The petition stated that the school had been built about 1844 and local interest was so little that no one seemed to know that it was 20 years older than thought! Demolition took place and the land returned to the Lord of the Manor and consolidated with the Rectory - now Shalom Hall. No trace exists of the buildings, which were at the far end of the present grounds on the left hand side of the road going towards the reservoir, which is not surprising given the passage of time.

Layer Marney School lives on in the memory of former pupils still living and a few bricks can still be seen on the site. We do not know when it was built but in 1841 there was only a Sunday school in the parish with 40 pupils. It was built before 1856 as it was felt then that the school should be united to the National Society. Throughout its existence it seems to have had a chequered life as it was in constant need of repair and teachers came and went very frequently. The main problem was lack of funds and managers. In 1891 only one of the managers was a communicant regularly attending Church and he called himself a Presbyterian! The Rector stated that the other managers would probably be "a Swedenborgian, a Congregationalist and a nondescript, I could do without a Scottish Presbyterian".

Things did not improve and in 1904 the school was overdrawn at the bank, and attempts to rebuild in 1905 were thwarted by the builder breaking the contract. Temporary closure during 1916 cannot have helped and by 1925 the building was deemed dangerous and the senior school closed on 1 January 1926 with complete closure only months later. The final teacher, Miss Dorothea Hockley, is remembered by her last class as a good teacher who helped them along. She lived in a small one up one down cottage in the school grounds during the week and cycled home each weekend to Dunmow. On closure pupils moved to Birch the youngest going by 'bus while the older ones either cycled or walked across the fields.

The building, although dangerous, continued in use as a Village Hall for many years and this will hopefully be covered in a future issue. If there are any other former pupils of Layer Marney we would like to hear from them and if there are photographs of the school or the pupils we would like to hear of them.

Our thanks for the information in this issue go to staff at the Church of England Record Society, the Essex Record Office and Mr Olley of Layer Marney.

PublishedMay 1997
SourceMersea Museum / Breton Heath