Before the days of compulsory free school education, parents had to provide for their children’s schooling themselves. Poorer children simply learnt skills from family members but from at least the 16th century, parents who could scrape enough money together could send their children to a variety of local fee paying schools. The cheapest were the Dame Schools where children learnt the rudiments of spelling and arithmetic alongside more practical skills. A well-preserved example can be visited at Raisbeck in the Westmorland Dales. The most notorious of these schools in the Dales were the knitting schools where nimble young fingers were put to good use making stockings and other knitted goods which were then traded far and wide. In 1834, Robert Southey published a true story about two little girls who were sent to just such a school in 18th century Dentdale. They were forced to knit long hours and punished if they didn’t work fast enough, “…we were stawed we [full up with] so mickle knitting – We went to a Skeul about a mile off – ther was a Maister an Mistress – they larnt us our lessons, yan a piece – an’ then we o’knit as hard as we cud drive, striving which cud knit t’hardest yan against anudder”. Eventually one snowy night they ran away and walked the many miles home to Langdale via Kendal.
Girls who were wealthy enough not to need to learn a trade were either taught at home or went to a more genteel form of Dame School. Wealthier boys went to locally provided Grammar Schools where they were taught Latin and Greek. A classical education was necessary for boys wishing to go on to university and a career in law or the church. The Dales were furnished with several such schools, all paid for and maintained by local benefactors. Some of them are still running as schools and still relying on funds from these early gifts. Perhaps the earliest still operating as a school is Burnsall School. It was established through the generosity of a local man called Sir William Craven. He was born in nearby Appletreewick in 1548 and as a boy was sent to London. He was apprenticed to a mercer and went on to make his fortune in the trade, eventually becoming Lord Mayor of London in the years 1610 to 1611. Among several local gifts, he endowed the Grammar School in Burnsall, which was dedicated in 1601.
Dent Grammar School was founded two years later but had a rather more complicated story. Money from various old bequests had supported a schoolmaster from at least the middle of the 16th century. Children from both Garsdale and Dent were taught but the two parishes fell out over the fund. They finally took their dispute to arbitration in 1600 and the result was that Dent were allowed to keep the funds if they could build a new school within 15 years. It took them just a year to set up their new schoolhouse near to the church. As a grammar school, just like Burnsall, it taught Latin and Greek grammar to the boys and young men of the dale. One of its most famous pupils was the geologist Adam Sedgwick.
The endowments for these Grammar Schools were not always well managed and the schoolmasters at Dent found that they had to cut back on their free Latin and Greek grammar classes in order to raise their salaries by teaching maths, reading and writing for which there was a much greater demand. By 1834, the governors realised that the school was better off teaching a more general education and they also started accepting girls. It was not enough and by the end of the 19th century, the provision of free compulsory education for all saw the end of Dent Grammar School. The last free Latin lesson was taught in 1897.
Sedbergh School, founded by Roger Lupton in 1525 was better endowed than Dent and survived a highly critical government inspection in 1865. At that time there were just three boarders and seven day boys. The inspector reported that, “In its present state [the school] …simply cumbers the ground”. The school managed to survive however and is today one of the country’s foremost public schools. The development of the town of Sedbergh has been considerably influenced by the presence of such a large fee-paying school in its midst.
The 1870 Elementary Education Act ensured an elementary education for all, taught by qualified teachers and the provision of school buildings of an acceptable standard. It led to the building of many new schools. A particularly fine example still stands in Hardraw possibly designed by the architect R H Carpenter. In Hebden, a school had already been established by 1845 for the children working at the mill. They worked half of each day at the mill, and had schooling during the other half. By the age of ten, most had left to work at the mill or the lead mines. Tradition has it that the school building had once been used for drying corn, then later to house paupers and something of a disgrace. A governing committee took over managing it in 1858 led by the local Vicar. In 1873 following the Education Act, they decided to build a new Church School nearby but controversially raised the money through a local levy on all property owners in the parish whether they were Church of England or not. The row that ensued became national news. Local non-conformists objected strongly and many sent their children to a separate Dame School in protest.
The children of the 19th century rural working class left school early but for the men at least, there were opportunities provided for them to continue their education afterwards. Nearly every village in the Yorkshire Dales was provided at some time with a Reading Room or Literary Institute. Non-conformist communities particularly valued the opportunity for sober education provided by such places and this coincided with the interest of the middle classes in keeping their workers out of public houses.
Some reading rooms started life as humble affairs, a loft or a back room in a mill, but local subscriptions and generous donations usually led to a purpose built structure. Some are rather grand such as that funded by the Duke of Devonshire for Grassington or the Sedbergh Reading Room presented to the town by the Rev J H Evans, the headmaster of Sedbergh School, on his retirement in 1858. At Muker an unusual Flemish style building was erected in 1867 from public subscription and housed a collection of 600 books.
Public libraries have now taken the place of the Reading Room, but many of the original buildings survive as community buildings such as village halls, or in the case of Muker as a practice room for the Muker Silver Band. Schools have been luckier with many still housed in their original buildings. Some have outgrown them though such as in Grassington where a modern set of classrooms was built on a new site in the late 1960s. Others have struggled to survive falling rolls and have had to close. The buildings may have been converted into private homes as in Buckden or have found a new purpose as outdoor centres for visiting children, such as the Old School in Hardraw.
Boulton, David (1997) ‘A Publick and Commonwealth Cause’ The Story of Dent Grammar School Dent: Dales Historical Monographs
Hartley, Marie & Ingilby, Joan (2001) The Old Hand Knitters of the Dales Clapham: Dalesman
Joy, David (2002) Hebden. The History of a Dales Township Hebden: Hebden History Group
Partrick, C (2004) ‘Reading Rooms and Literary Institutes of the Yorkshire Dales’ in White, R F & Wilson, P R (eds) (2004) Archaeology and Historic Landscapes of the Yorkshire Dales Yorkshire Archaeological Society Occasional Paper No 2 pp203-212
Raistrick, Elizabeth (1971) Village Schools An Upper Wharfedale History Clapham: Dalesman
Stockdale, Alan & Townend, John (2002) Burnsall School Burnsall: Trustees of Burnsall School
Southey, Robert (1847) The Doctor Vol 7 London: Longman
Yorke, Peter (1996) ‘The Foundation of Sedbergh School’ Sedbergh Historian Vol 3:5 pp33-38