When two of the first three teachers at Burwash Charity School were asked to sign receipts for their wages in 1727, they could only ‘make their mark’ as they could not write.
Fascinating historic documents from the school have come to light which cover the period from 1727 to 1877. They are now being held at county archive centre, The Keep, Moulsecoomb and are thought to be the earliest school records in Sussex.
Burwash Charity School was first set up with a legacy of £100 from the Revd George Barnsley. The documents list the first 24 children to attend, the payments made to teachers, local builders and craftsmen and the amounts received from wealthy residents who subscribed to keep the school open.
Councillor Chris Dowling, East Sussex County Council’s lead member for community services, said: “These books allow us to identify everyone involved in education in Burwash over 150 years, and are a very exciting addition to the collection at The Keep.
“They offer a fascinating insight into how society’s expectations of education were very different to those we hold today. The fact that, in the early days, even some of the teachers lacked basic literacy skills suggests schools of this period provided little more than a child-minding service.”
In the 19th century, children were expected to contribute ‘school pence’ – a penny a day – towards their education.
Bills were paid by the school in 1853 for whitewashing, bookbinding, coals and needles, while the children’s handiwork was regularly sold and the money put towards the school’s running costs.
By this time, numbers had risen to 74 boys and 84 girls, although children were often absent during the harvest or hop-picking season.
The final account in 1877 shows that the school operated under a system of two teachers, who taught the older children, and pupil teachers and monitors – all of whom were paid for their work – to teach the infants.
Today’s Burwash School occupies the same site - overlooking the Dudwell Valley which is an area of outstanding natural beauty close to Batemans, the home of Rudyard Kipling and next to St Bartholomew’s church. A new extension was built in 2000. Teachers now clearly face no literacy problems - the school was graded ‘Outstanding’ by inspectors during its last Ofsted report.
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