Wearside Echoes: Spare the rod and rod and spoil the child

BYGONE SCENE: The old National School in Church Street, Seaham, in about 1960.
BYGONE SCENE: The old National School in Church Street, Seaham, in about 1960.
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SPARE the rod and spoil the child was a phrase East Durham pupils learned to fear in Victorian times.

A log book unearthed from the archives of Sunderland Antiquarian Society reveals three boys were beaten for throwing stones at Seaham’s National School in 1868.

But the teachers of the Church Street school institution often showed great kindness too, dipping into their meagre wages to buy treats for poor children.

“The book provides a remarkable insight into the lives of our ancestors,” said forensic artist Norman Kirtlan, the map archivist for the Antiquarians.

“It contains hundreds of entries from 1868 to 1898, revealing stories and events that would not be amiss in the novels of Charles Dickens.”

The origins of the National School date to the mid-1840s, when hundreds of miners flocked to the town to seek work at the new Seaham Colliery.

Pubs, churches, houses and an infirmary were all provided for the new residents by the Marquess of Londonderry, who owned the flourishing pit.

But it wasn’t until 1848 that vicar Angus Bethune, of St John’s, managed to persuade the wealthy landowner and businessman to build a school close to his church.

“Most of the pupils were miners’ children, and many found it hard to pay the penny a week that was charged for their education,” said Norman.

“Lists of debtors were given to the local reverend, who would visit the parents and attempt to extract monies owed from hard up families.

“But records show that, in April 1879, many children had to be kept at home because striking miners could not afford to pay the school fees.”

The “Three R’s” played an important part of everyday life at the National School, with lessons in geography, grammar and scripture also provided.

An 1853 inspection revealed the boys’ department contained a “good-sized room” with four blackboards and two card stands – but no classroom.

And, while the 186 girls educated at the National enjoyed the use of their own classroom, they only had one blackboard and easel between them.

Strict discipline when teaching classes of 100-plus pupils was obviously necessary, although corporal punishment appears to have been rather frowned upon.

“On April 21, 1868, the headmaster received a visit from an angry parent, demanding to know why his child had been beaten,” said Norman.

“The teacher made a conciliatory note in the log afterwards, which read: ‘I spoke afterwards to the teachers and told them not to strike any child.’

“He had to break his own rules a few days later though, when punishment had to be dished out to three lads throwing stones in the school yard.”

Unemployment, strikes and even the weather often played havoc, however, with the education of even the wealthiest children.

“There are many entries that reflect those dark days,” said Norman. “Sometimes, the poor teachers must have felt like giving up.

“On June 9, 1868, one of the children left school as her mother wanted her to go into service. Another was forced to leave and become a dressmaker.

“The school was often evacuated during storms too, as smoke from the school-room fire blew back down the chimney and all but choked the poor bairns.

“On February 22, 1870, all hell broke loose. Lessons were stopped and a search made of every nook and cranny after poor George Boggon lost a glove!

“And a entry in May 1895 tells, in utter resignation: ‘Gave a holiday as only 34 children turned up’. There was a circus in town that day!”

Contemporary events also played a big part in the attendance of children at the school, as an entry on September 10, 1880, records:

“There was a half holiday on Wednesday, as the flower show was postponed on account of the explosion at the colliery.”

And even the most basic of entry requirements, a birth certificate, proved beyond the reach of many parents.

“Sadly, many struggled to pay the few pennies required for a certificate, preferring to keep their children off school instead,” said Norman.

“In 1878, one desperate teacher revealed he was forced to travel from house to house, inspecting family bibles, just to get the necessary details.”

With poverty so widespread, it was often left to the teachers to bring a little joy into their pupils’ lives.

“Christmas times especially were marked with acts of kindness that modern children could not possibly appreciate,” said Norman.

“Teachers would dig in to their meagre wages and buy oranges for the youngsters. For many, it would be more than they would receive at home.”

Of all the entries in the log, however, it is a series in 1881 which serves to best highlight the uphill struggle for survival the school faced on a daily basis.

“The cause was Grace Aird, undoubtedly one of the naughtiest and most disruptive people ever to have frequented the National School!” said Norman.

“The log for May 26, 1881, shows that ‘Grace Aird was absent for the most absurd reason – that she had to stay at home and cook the dinner.’

“When told she couldn’t stay away again for the same reason, she replied she would stay at home ‘as and when required.’.” said Norman.

On August 12, 1881, the log reveals: ‘Grace knew nothing whatsoever of her history. Since midsummer she has seldom learnt her lessons properly.’

And on December 8, 1881, Grace was again absent, after taking time off to visit a school in Pittington – where she had been appointed headmistress.

“If Grace was one of the National’s teachers, then heaven help the kids!” said Norman. “Mind you, pupil teachers like Grace were paid a pittance.”

l The National became St John’s C of E (Junior Mixed) School in 1930, but closed in 1973. It was demolished in 1980. View more old photos of Seaham on www.east-durham.co.uk or contact Norman on 416 8840 if you have old stories you would like to share.