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0LDHAM CENTENARY : 1849 - 1949
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OLDHAM CENTENARY : 1849 - 1949
Oldham County Borough publication to celebrate its Centenary in 1949.

Maurice Harrison, MA, MSc, BSc, Director of Education


ALTHOUGH the activities of the Education Department did not begin until 1870 with the formation of the School Board, education for children in Oldham had existed in some sort from the 17th century. At the beginning of that century a group of public spirited men in and around Oldham met and, through their efforts, a small grammar school was erected alongside the market place where the present Peter Street is. Fees were charged at this Grammar School which were quite beyond the reach of working class parents.

Towards the middle of the 18th century, under the wills of various benefactors, some charities were created which provided for the education of a few poor children at the grammar school. One benefactor had his own idea of the importance of things and his will stipulated that £3 be left every year to keep the church chimes in good order and "if they be not so kept then the money be diverted to poor children to pay their school fees." About 1787 another grammar school was opened by public subscription at Hollinwood.

Education on a substantial scale came to Oldham between 1780 and 1850 with the industrial revolution. During this period, the Established Church and dissenting bodies provided Sunday Schools. Reading and arithmetic were taught, but the subject of writing aroused controversy and was eventually removed from the curriculum of some of the Sunday Schools. Up to 1833, it was left entirely to religious and other bodies to provide some kind of education for poor children and others who could not afford to attend a grammar school.

The Factory Act of 1833 restricted the hours of child labour in factories and laid down that a child so employed must receive at least two hours per day schooling. Superficially, it was an attempt to secure some measure of education for children under eleven years of age, but the Act failed in practice. Some of the so-called factory schools which the millowners established were indescribably wretched. Most millowners met their obligations by sending the children to private dames' schools, i.e., schools conducted in their own homes by women, who often had few or no qualifications and less equipment. Other millowners were content to regard attendance at Sunday School as a sufficient education for the children.

In 1833, Parliament for the first time accepted the principle that the State had a direct responsibility for the financial assistance of education. £20,000 was voted for educational purposes and the money was allocated chiefly to the National Society (for Church Schools) and to the British and Foreign Schools Society. St. Peter's School on Union Street was established in 1835 with the aid of such a grant and was known as a "national " school. Incidentally, this school in its original premises, still functions as a voluntary school.

The Oldham Blue Coat School, opened in 1834, was a notable exception to the new system and was a foundation which belonged in principle to the philanthropy of the early 19th century, being provided through the generosity of a local industrialist, Thomas Henshaw. 102 poor boys between the ages of nine and eleven were admitted to the school.

As always, the demand for education grew with its provision. In 1870 public opinion would be baulked no longer and the first Elementary Education Act was enacted. This Act authorised the formation of School Boards and in Oldham, after much preliminary and often heated discussion, the first School Board was elected in January, 1871. Elementary education became a universal provision but Parliament did not compel its acceptance. Local School Boards could, at their discretion, make bye-laws enforcing school attendance for their areas and the Oldham School Board made such bye-laws. It was not until 1880 that Parliament made school attendance compulsory throughout the realm.


The School Board was an ad hoc body which was charged with the task of developing elementary education and remained the responsible local body until 1902. The Board was entirely separate from and independent of the Town Council, but the Council was responsible for raising the money which the Board required of it by precept and there was no limit to the demands which the Board could make. The first Chairman was the Rev. R. M. Davies and the first Clerk to the Board Mr. W. Mellor, with Mr. James Rennie as his office boy. Mr. Rennie eventually became Clerk to the Board and Secretary for Education, holding these offices for many years during a period of rich development.

The Board proceeded to their task with vigour. Taking the question as a whole, there was in the town an adequate supply of school places, but these were ill-placed in relation to the homes of the children. Some districts had many children and no schools. The Board reviewed the requirements of the town and decided that it would be necessary to build a number of schools. Smith Street Board School and Westwood Board School were opened in 1873. Their premises were far better school buildings than had ever existed in the neighbourhood, but the plans of the Board to build more schools of similar type met with opposition from the economically disposed, who saw no need to improve on the barn-like buildings of their own early days.

Despite opposition, other schools followed speedily and the Board were determined to make improvements with every school they built. Roundthorn, Waterhead, Watersheddings, Hathershaw and Beever Street Board Schools were opened between 1873 and 1885. Waterloo and Northmoor Board Schools followed and in 1894 Wemeth School, with its famous central hall, at the time a notable feature, was opened. In face of a rising education rate the Board persevered with the policy of better schools, and those built after 1894 were modelled on the "central hall" plan, each school having, according to then existing standards, a spacious playground, gymnasium, manual and cookery rooms. Schools of the type were Werneth, Hollinwood and Derker

Although busy with the material side of things the Board were yet concerned with the development of the curricula of the schools. At first little beyond the rudimentary three "Rs" had been attempted but by 1902 the scope of subjects taught had widened beyond the dreams of the reformers of 1870. The School Board, like some of its successor Education Committees of a later day, did not wait for instructions from above and often anticipated national developments. Drawing, for instance, was introduced at Wellington Street School as early as 1880, ten years before the subject was made compulsory. By 1891, cookery was taught in all Board schools except two and later manual instruction was also introduced.

The School Board were ahead of their time and determined to have their way. The Government grants for cookery and manual work were partially withdrawn in an attempt to enforce a curtailment of their "modern" developments, but the subjects were continued by the School Board and the cost met wholly from the rates.

Physical training was, as the provision of gymnasia indicates, a subject about which the School Board were particularly enthusiastic. About 1880, all schools were staffed with Drill Instructors from the Volunteer Corps, and a minute of 1887 records that 1,384 pairs of dumb-bells were purchased, together with Indian clubs. The method was different from that of to-day but the aim wholly praiseworthy. This was the time when the central education department could issue the following memorandum:—•

"In the vicinity of a great number of schools . . . there are now detachments of Volunteers drilled once or twice a week. These drills take place in the evening, and the instructors have little to do in the daytime. By going to the villages a few hours earlier, they would be able to drill the boys in the afternoon, and be ready for the Volunteers in the evening. The elementary drill which would be suitable for boys is capable of being imparted by instructors of either Artillery, Engineers or Rifle Volunteers, and would be sufficient to teach the boys habits of sharp obedience, smartness, order or cleanliness. In some districts there are many schoolmasters among the Volunteers, who frequently rise to be non-commissioned officers. If the Government instructors were employed in the first instance, those schoolmasters who passed a sergeant's examination before an Adjutant of Volunteers might, after the first year, be made drill instructors of their schools. Where the demand for instructors was great, the permanent staff of the Militia might also give assistance, as during the greater part of the year they have not much to do. The payments to instructors would probably be sixpence for each day of actual drill"

The then position of physical training in the eyes of legislators, and of the teachers in the eyes of society, are equally the subject of clear implication. Amid such thinking, before the century closed, the education authorities in Oldham had appointed Mr, A. G. Wynne as their first Organiser of Physical Training. His title was at first not Organiser but Chief Instructor of Physical Training, and he served the Committee from 1898 to his retirement in 1932. Afterwards, from 1935 to 1943, Captain A. G. Wynne was a member of the Education Committee.

There is evidence also that the Board were concerned with what are now known as "out of school activities." A Brass Band was sponsored and formed at Derker School and the extent of its success may be judged from the fact that in 1903 it had provided itself with instruments costing £308. There is no doubt that the Oldham School Boards were constantly endeavouring to provide a comprehensive educational system and their minutes are characterised by a broad humanism, which far exceeds the normal expectation of the period. The following are some examples of this attitude:

In 1886 corporal punishment was abolished in infant schools. In 1889 the Board were represented at a conference on "Pictures and works of art in elementary schools." In 1897 the Board discussed methods of educating epileptic children and also in that year a specialist was engaged to attend to children with defective eyesight. In 1888 the School Medical Officer was appointed.

The next important advance by the Board was the establishment of a Science School at Waterloo in 1892. " Half-timers " were an educational hindrance, and a full-time school was opened where children might receive further instruction after reaching school leaving age. The venture was extremely popular with parents and the accommodation was soon exceeded. There was again much criticism of this advanced and "costly" policy : one School Board election was fought with this as a leading issue. The school, however, continued to prosper, and a strong desire began to show itself in favour of a Municipal Secondary School for the town. It must be remembered that not until 1902 did Parliament permit the spending of public money on secondary education as opposed to elementary education. A number of authorities were rebelling against this limitation and in 1901 the members of the London School Board (the biggest rebel) were surcharged for aiding the provision of "higher elementary" education. Oldhamers may be proud to know that their forebears were numbered among the rebels who won public provision of secondary education for the nation's children, as at a later day they were among those who defied to the last the Government's order to charge fees in secondary schools.

In 1902, the year of the first Education Act (the earlier acts were Elementary Education Acts) the Oldham Municipal Secondary School was established at Waterloo School. Eventually, in 1909, the school was transferred to its present premises in Greengate Street.
The School Boards from 1873 onwards had been granted increasing powers to prosecute parents who failed to send their children regularly to school. In cases where prosecution failed to achieve its purpose, the Board could establish an industrial or truants' school. Apparently such a school was found to be necessary in Oldham and in 1879 was built in Gower Street. The log book records of pupils' misdemeanours at this school make a story in themselves but, whatever else their failings might have been, it cannot be said that the pupils who attended were without spirit. The school was closed in 1900 and the building used as a pupil teacher centre: to-day it houses a large central school-kitchen and various school clinics.

The School for the Deaf was opened in 1890 and the School for the Blind in 1895. These were really progressive measures and the Oldham School Board was among the first in the country to establish such schools for physically handicapped children. Classes for mentally defective children were established at Derker and Scottfield Schools in 1898 and, largely through the pioneering efforts of the School Board, a special school for physically and mentally handicapped children was opened in Chaucer Street in 1904. The School Board Offices, the present Education Offices in Union Street West, were erected in 1893.

In 1891 the Oldham School Board abolished fees in all elementary schools and the only school in which fees were charged was the Waterloo Science School. Evening Schools were established in 1890 and by 1902, 29 such schools with 3000 students on the books were in existence. 25,173 children attended full time school in Oldham in 1903. Today (1949) there are 15,558.

thumbnail links to larger image:

One of the First Board Schools 1873

One of the First Board Schools

One of the First Board Schools 1873

One of the First Board Schools

Oldham School Board - 1889

Oldham School Board

Maurice Harrison, MA, MSc, BSc, Director of Education

Maurice Harrison, MA, MSc, BSc,
Director of Education

Derker School Brass Band - 1899

Derker School Brass Band

From the Oldham County Borough publication to celebrate its Centenary in 1949.
Scanned by Jeremy Sutcliffe with thanks given to Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council for granting permission.

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