When Charny was too hot for needlework…

If it was too hot for needlework, the summer of 1881 must have been better than the one we’re having so far this year…

I found this cryptic comment in the entry for 5 July 1881 in the Log Book of St Saviour’s Church of England School, one of the schools attended by children from the Charnwood Street area, which was opened in that year on the corner of Grove Road and St Saviour’s Road, next to the church. More and more people were moving into the area by then, and the Charnwood Street Board School was not large enough to accommodate them all – but no matter where the children went to school at this time their parents had to pay for it.

From 'The Handy Book of Object Lessons' by J Walker (1873)

From ‘The Handy Book of Object Lessons’ by J Walker (1873)

In April 1881 the Managers of St Saviour’s School agreed to charge fees of 3d a week for each child in the Infants, with reduced rates when there were three or four children from the same family: half price for the third child, or 3d each for the first three and no fee for the fourth. Threepence was a significant amount of money for a working class family in 1881, and many parents could not afford to pay – or to lose the money that their children could earn outside school. Although school attendance was made compulsory between the ages of five and ten in 1880 it was difficult to enforce, and illness and the weather also played havoc with the figures. On 27 October 1881 the attendance of 193 at St Saviour’s was described as ‘very good’, but on 13 December it was down to 120 ‘on account of fog’, and there are lots of references to absences due to measles, whooping cough, ringworm and ‘fever’.

The Log Books do give a really good sense of what the children were taught – and how. ‘Object Lessons’ were very popular, like the one illustrated above on ‘The Fox’. Those for 1883 included The Ostrich, Whale, Crab, Spider, Flax Plants, Sugar Canes, Day and Night and Thunder and Lightning. Some of the children were only three years of age when they started school, so the lessons to the ‘Baby Class’ were ‘chiefly conversational’. Lessons on form and colour were given every week and ‘Toys are also used for the last lesson on Wednesday’. The Log Book also gives a list of School Songs for Divisons I and II (five to six year olds). These included The Merry Milkmaid, O Dear What Can the Matter Be, Freddie Saw Some Nice Ripe Cherries, The Mill Wheels are Clapping, and ‘marching songs’ like March Away, March Away and A Tommy Was Walking.

In the East Midlands Oral History Archive there is an interview with a man born in 1893 who attended St Saviour’s School. He recalled that:

As an infant we sat on the floor, no desks in those days. The school was financed by the church, and we paid a penny a week towards the upkeep of the school. I enjoyed school. It was a mixed school, and my cousin sat at the side of me. She was clever and I wasn’t, so she told me all the answers! I wasn’t clever, but I was brilliant at Maths, and that stood me all through my life.

At nine o’clock in the morning we assembled in the school yard. A whistle blew at five minutes to nine, and at nine o’clock we marched upstairs, and the first half hour of the day we had prayers, the Lord’s Prayer and a lecture and a hymn, then we dispersed to our classes. The Headmaster, he sat at the desk in the centre of the big room, watching everybody.

In those days there was reading, writing and arithmetic. That was it, really. In the Infants we had slates, and a slate pencil. Then when we got to the Seniors, we had one exercise book that had to last us 12 months. The girls didn’t have the cane. They were stood in the corner for five minutes if they were naughty. You see, the parents of the kiddies were big church people, and it was more or less a family affair (East Midlands Oral History Archive, Anon, 591, CH/086/0210).

He left the school in 1907 and went to work for Faire Bros as a cashier before volunteering for the Leicestershire Regiment at the start of the First World War and being wounded during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. You can listen to the full interview at the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland – see www.leics.gov.uk/recordoffice for details.

Going back to the needlework, it wasn’t just the girls who did this at school. In the St Saviour’s Log Book for 24 January 1882 there is an entry ‘Examined boys’ needlework’ – but it still leaves the question of how it could ever be ‘too hot for needlework’. The only explanation I can think of was that it made the children’s hands hot and sweaty, leaving grubby marks on the needlework… All other theories welcome – but it’s not quite July yet and maybe we will also be too hot by then…    

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