Parent power - 250 years ago

Blanchland class photograph of the early 1900s=
A Blanchland class photograph of the early 1900s Picture supplied by the late Ronnie Short

For the generations alive today, education is taken for granted. But right up until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, parents only sent their youngsters to school if they could afford the weekly payments – and provided the child didn’t need to contribute to the household budget by earning a living.

As early as the 1700s, there is evidence to suggest that education was highly prized by the people of Blanchland, as indeed it was throughout the North Pennine lead mining area. The Quaker-owned London Lead Company ran the Blanchland lead mining operation up until around 1800, and saw education as an important aspect of the workforce’s welfare provision, as did the Lord Crewe Trust. Together, the Anglican landlords and the Non-conformist employers ensured that Blanchland was a literate, highly skilled and self-confident community.

Blanchland certainly had a school by the mid-1700s, but perhaps because of its remote location, there was a constant problem of attracting good teachers - and hanging on to them. One of the earliest incumbents could have been a man called John Himers, schoolmaster of Throckrington, Northumberland; a 1758 note to Himers from Thomas Hudson, the vicar of Blanchland, now held in Northumberland Archives says: “As the Schoolmaster of this place is not expected to return, I have recommended you to the honourable Trustees of the late Lord Crewe.”

Mr Himers sounds as if he was one of a long line of teachers – of varying ability - appointed by the Trustees to instruct the village children. By 1778 the parents of Blanchland were on the warpath, fed up with the low calibre of the masters teaching their boys. A petition to the Trustees complains that the school has suffered from years of neglect, several of the children… “not being able to read and write fit for business.” The better-off parents have voted with their feet; young Joseph Makepeace, Joseph Watson, William Routledge and John Dixon have all gone 15 miles away to Frosterley in Weardale to be taught by Mr Bonny. The poorer people and their children are … “left un Instructed.”

The problem of finding a committed and able master continues; a series of letters in the archives shows in April 1780 that yet another teacher, Richard Taylor, relinquishes his role at Blanchland and a man from Alston, Andrew Sessford, is strongly recommended to replace him.

Transcripts of the documents referred to in this article can be found here. The originals are held at Northumberland Archives, ref NRO 452/D/8/4/13. You can read more about Louise Post's ancestor Andrew Sessford here

A lot has been learned about Andrew Sessford, thanks to one of his descendants, Louise Post of British Columbia in Canada, who contacted the Blanchland History website earlier this year to find out if there were any details about her ancestor. A transatlantic exchange of information has built up a much richer picture of teachers and teaching in Blanchland and the North Pennines in the late 1700s.

Born in Roxburgh, Scotland in 1733, Louise thinks Andrew may have trained as a teacher in Jedburgh, and gone on to further education in Edinburgh or Glasgow. He had taken up the post as teacher in Alston around 1770, where he married 21-year-old Margaret Wiley, started a family, and spent nine years teaching the town’s children – and possibly some of the adults – the ‘Three Rs”.

But not content that the locals should learn the basics, Andrew Sessford had an enormous range of knowledge that he wanted to pass on to his pupils. A notice he published in December 1778 advertising his intention of opening a night school shows he was not only teaching Reading, Writing and Arithmetic, but was also offering Book-keeping, Geometry, Mensuration, Conic Sections, Artificers works, Gauging, Surveying, Geography, Navigation, Astronomy, use of the Globes, Dealing, Algebra – and so on!

In the summer of 1780, Andrew Sessford answered the desperate pleas of the parents of Blanchland and moved his family to the village to take up the schoolmaster’s post. He taught in Blanchland for seven years, so must have surpassed the villagers’ stringent standards with his amazing knowledge of Artificers’ Works and Conic Sections. And some lucky Blanchland boys will have had the benefit of spending their entire school life learning from Mr Sessford. But eventually the attractions of the big city beckoned, and the family went to live in Newcastle, where he opened a new school in Castle Yard. Louise Post’s research into her ancestor shows Andrew Sessford’s Newcastle school was still running 18 years later, when he died aged 65 in 1798.

Newspaper advert
An 1819 Newcastle Courant notice for Blanchland teachers Click on image to enlarge.

What is clear going back to the parents’ petition of 1778 is that it was only the sons of Blanchland inhabitants who received an education at that time; the daughters presumably stayed at home and helped mother with the household chores or looked after their younger siblings. By 1819, though, girls were also being taught in the village – a note of the scholars at the time records no less than 38 males and 21 females. But a newspaper advertisement for a new schoolmaster and mistress which appeared in the Newcastle Courant in 1819 shows that apart from literacy and numeracy skills, the subjects the girls studied were very different; in addition to being “… of irreproachable moral character and a steady member of the Church of England…” the mistress of the girls’ School of Industry must also… “teach spinning, knitting and sewing in the most perfect and neatest manner.”

There was still a long way to go before boys and girls had equal opportunity in the classroom. Nevertheless, this was education at a time when other parts of the country had no school provision at all, and a full 50 years before compulsory primary education was even a national aspiration.