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RHUTHUN LOCAL HISTORY BROADSHEET                                                                            Issue No 61 March 2000




The photograph is thought to have been taken at the official opening ceremony



The Ruthin County School for Girls, with thirty-three on roll and on the site of the present much larger Ysgol Brynhyfryd was officially opened on Friday 23rd September 1899, one hundred years ago. The school under the Headship of Miss Anna Rowlands, and her only Assistant, had been in operation since the previous May. The official opening was delayed so that the pupils could be trained to take part in the ceremonies. The very first name on the register of sixteen pupils who turned up on that very first morning of Wednesday 3rd May was that of fifteen year old Roberta Elizabeth Beech, a name which is well known even today in the memories of those who have resided in the area for a long period of time. Miss Beech was to become the very first Lady Mayor of her Borough as well as the first lady Chairman of the Governing Body of her old School. At the time of her enrolment Roberta Elizabeth Beech was the eldest daughter of the founder of Beech's the Ironmongers. At that time their premises were in part of the 'Old Court House' which later became the 'National & Provincial Bank', now the 'NatWest'.

Although the endowed Ruthin School had been in existence for nearly seven hundred years [no evidence exists for this medieval foundation]for the privileged few boys that could take advantage of it, there was at the end of last century no provision whatsoever locally for the Intermediate Education of the children of the rising new 'middle class'. These were the children of the owners and tenants of the larger farms, professionals such as solicitors and businessmen, together with those who thought that they held a place of standing in local society, the postmasters, station-masters and senior policemen.
After several government committees had investigated the state of education in the country it was not until William Gladstone was returned to power as Prime Minister in 1880 that matters moved forward under Lord Aberdare. Eight years after he delivered his Report the Welsh Intermediate 
Education Act received the Royal Assent. Under the provision of the Act, Denbighshire County Council set up a Joint Education Committee. with the instruction that it prepare a Scheme of
Intermediate and Technical Education for boys and girls of each of the town areas in the County, Abergele, Denbigh, Llangollen, Ruthin and Wrexham. The monies to support the proposed schools were to come not only from existing endowments, but also from the rates, a Treasury grant and the fees imposed on the parents of pupils.

It is not hard to imagine that the then Governors of Ruthin School, amongst them being the Bishop of St. Asaph and Lord Kenyon, were very much against the scheme as it might have diluted their income. These two spoke against the Scheme when it came to be debated in the House of Lords with the result that Ruthin School's inclusion in the Denbighshire Scheme had to be abandoned. When the modified scheme was agreed the new school in Ruthin was to be a girls only school. Four sites were considered. These were Regent House at 6 Castle Street, classrooms attached to Tabernacle chapel, the old Grammar School buildings to the rear of St. Peter's Church and also Brynhyfryd Mansion, the site eventually chosen. (Slight controversy exists as to the actual place name of Regent House - some local historians suggest that it was at 3, not 6 Castle Street. However the size of 6 Castle Street suggests that it was a more appropriate place for a school that was eventually to rise to sixty in number.)

Most of the new schools in the county were designated as day schools, but for reasons such as the lack of public transport, apart from the railway service between Corwen and Denbigh, the Ruthin County School for Girls was to be in part a boarding school. Although some pupils resided during the week in approved lodgings in the town the school continued to have boarding facilities until 1930 when Miss Anna Rowlands retired. Ruthin became a catchment area for girls of Corwen and Denbigh. Boys not able to attend Ruthin School travelled to Denbigh.

At that time she was succeeded by Miss Catherine Parry, fondly remembered as 'Podgen'. Miss Parry, who had been at the school since 1921 as a teacher of Welsh and History, was appointed as Acting Headmistress, initially for a period of twelve months. Before the retirement of Miss Rowlands there was a movement afoot to dualise both the Ruthin and Denbigh County Schools, enabling each to accept both boys and girls with the hope that new schools would be established by 1931. Due to financial constraints, nothing new in the public sector, it was to be September 1938 for the plans to reach fruition. During the whole of this time, Miss Parry continued as acting head. By 1938 when the time came to advertise for the post of head of the new school Miss Parry was not allowed to apply for the post. The ethos of the time designated that because boys were to be admitted a man was required for the post.

The first Headmaster was Mr. A.H. Williams, already a noted historian, who stayed at the school for the war years and until he became one of His Majesty's Inspector of Schools in 1946. As the school was to cater for over two hundred pupils in total, new buildings were required. Although plans for a completely new school had been drawn-up, similar developments in other parts of the county resulted in only a new 'boys' wing, now incorporated into the present school. This consisted of boys' cloakrooms, two science laboratories, an Art Room, a men's staff room and a Headmaster's study. The school could no longer be called the Ruthin County School for Girls. The headmaster and his governors wished that it be named, Brynhyfryd County School. However the Education Authority flatly refused to allow this, drawing in the then Board of Education into discussions, and insisted that it be referred to as the Ruthin County School.

Mr A.H. Williams was succeeded by Mr Bleddyn Lloyd Griffith in 1946, who through the influence of his American born wife and his knowledge of the American School system set up one of the first, if not the first, parent-teacher Association in the country. By now the other secondary schools within the county which catered for pupils who had passed their 11+ examinations were known as Grammar Schools. Ruthin, of course, already had a school of that name. The first of the 'new' school magazines under Mr Griffith show that his school had become known as the Ruthin County Grammar School. The magazine of 1948 shows another name change, to the Brynhyfryd Grammar School, Ruthin.

It remained under this name until 1954, when it became the first school within the county to become bilateral, a school which accepted all post eleven-year-old pupils, whether they had passed the 11+ or not. Prior to this, pupils who failed this examination continued to attend their local primary school until they attained leaving age or travelled to the 'modern' school at Denbigh. This necessitated another change of name, the school becoming Brynhyfryd School. Preparation for a bilateral school entailed the building of the complex which remains to this day. Work started in 1950 and by 1952, the fifty-year wait for a purpose-built gymnasium was at an end. The official opening by Dame Florence Horsburgh, the then Minister of Education, was carried out on July 9th 1954. At first the Grammar and Modern streams were kept strictly apart, but under the influence of Mr. Griffith they quickly gelled into one unit.

Towards the end of the 1960s Mr. Griffith's health broke and he died in harness. He was succeeded by Mr. Owen Thomas who stayed in Office until 1984 when his health also broke. During his time more improvements, such as the building of the swimming pool, came about. A change in the public perception of schools enabled them to be used very much more as places whose facilities could be used by the public at large after school hours. Society was also changing. The place of the Welsh language in not only Education, but in Administration in Wales, had its effect on the school. Welsh language schools had been set up in various parts of the County and this had an effect on pupil rolls. Mr. Thomas strove to remedy this by pointing out that Brynhyfryd was a 'natural' Welsh School and efforts were made to improve the recognised status of the language, previously taken very much for granted. It was during his time too, after much discussion with other interested parties, that the school, the town and the surrounding community at last had a swimming pool.

Mr. Thomas in turn was succeeded by Mr. John Ambrose. Amongst his many achievements in his thirteen years of Headship, Mr. Ambrose built and expanded on the work started by Mr. Thomas. The school underwent an exhaustive and thorough general inspection resulting in an outstanding report. In a report to the County Council's Audit Committee shortly before Mr. Ambrose's sudden demise, Mr. Edgar Lewis said that he wanted to see the creation of more bilingual schools instead of separate English and Welsh establishments in the county, "In Ysgol Brynhyfryd, Ruthin" he said, "we probably have the best example in Wales of how such a school can succeed.

Ysgol Brynhyfryd has now been led to the dawn of the next century by Mr. Roger Edwards, who has followed many an ex-pupil who subsequently returned as a member of the teaching staff. He is however the first ex-pupil to take on the reins of headship. We wish him, his staff and pupils our best wishes in carrying the traditions of achievement and friendship for which the school has been renowned since its inception those many years ago.  



THE POOR OF RUTHIN, 1851 – 1881

Until 1834 there had been no further provision for the poor since Elizabethan times. The aftermath of the long Napoleonic Wars had a twofold effect. Firstly, there was a downturn in the prices for agricultural products and secondly, the safety-valve of service in the armed forces for the able-bodied poor no longer existed. The local rates in the last century were predicated, there was church rate, the town rate and the poor rate and the amounts raised were not interchangeable. The poor rate had escalated and was amounting to 13s.3d. per head of population nation-wide. Across southern England, the [Captain’]‘Swing’ rioters were burning haystacks and there was an air of general discontent. This was 1830, the memory of the French Revolution, when a whole structure of a society had been destroyed, was still relatively fresh in the minds of the Government, which consisted of the land-owning elites or their nominees. In desperation the Government appointed a Royal Commission to investigate the poor laws and within two years it had produced a biased report in tune with the philosophy of the government of the time. The bill for reform was presented to Parliament in April 1834 and was passed swiftly into law by the August of that year.

Under the new system it was not sufficient merely to be poor to qualify for relief, the able-bodied actually had to be destitute and the mechanism for distinguishing between these two states was the workhouse. There was the illusion that there was a significant number of able-bodied labourers who would prefer to accept poor relief as an alternative to work. The workhouse was to create a regime so harsh that the preference suggested earlier did not become an option. The man behind this inhuman system was Edwin Chadwick (1800-90), a Benthamite lawyer, a self-educated man who served on several commissions dealing with social and administrative problems. He was knighted in 1889, just before his death. It may be recalled that Britain in the 1830s was governed by the Justices of the Peace, local landowners, but Chadwick was a centralist wishing to control the poor house system from the capital. This centralist principle proved unenforceable and led to him being removed, but the concept of the workhouse and the Poor Law Union lived on.

Ruthin Poor Law Union Workhouse was the centre for poor law relief for a population of 13,464 in 1851. This included the parishes of Llanrhaeadr, south down the Vale to Efenechtyd, Derwen, and Nantglyn. Chadwick's aim was to eliminate outdoor relief for the able-bodied. but in this the system failed. The capacity of the workhouse in Ruthin was finite at 110 but the numbers requiring relief varied greatly. The economy of the area was heavily dependent on agriculture, a highly seasonal industry and during the three decades under consideration there was a marked swing from arable to pastoral farming with the resulting reduction in the requirement for agricultural labour. Over the thirty years under consideration there was a steady decline in the number of male paupers by 1851. The ratio of male to female was 1.5:1; by 1881 it was 1:1. During this period the railways arrived in the area and of course, young men sought their fortunes in areas where there was a need for labour, the South-west Lancashire conurbation and the mining area of Flintshire and Wrexham. The number of paupers receiving outdoor relief fell from a peak of 1,200 in 1870 to about 450 by 1880, although throughout this period the Workhouse was full.

Thomas Griffiths the Relieving Officer, who was, by the way, father-in-law to Sir Hubert von Herkomer, the artist, reported to the Board of Guardians a particularly sad case in October 1878. The story is told to illustrate the dread in which the workhouse was held by the poor of the Union. A widow, Hannah Jones of Llanarmon parish applied for outdoor relief. Since her husband's death she had given birth to four illegitimate children. This must have prejudiced the Board from the outset of the hearing. She apparently lived in a wretched tenement and her latest child had been born in the open whilst she was gathering nuts. When only six weeks old the child had been left on the bed in the house whilst the mother went out in search of food. On her return she found the child's face had been partially eaten away by rats. The Relieving Officer had allowed her relief during her confinement, but this had now been stopped by the Board and the woman offered a place in the workhouse. She had steadfastly refused to come into the workhouse; such was her dread of the place she preferred her filthy unsanitary hovel. The Board on their part were equally unrelenting, the chairman ending the matter with the remark 'she ought to be only too glad to come in'.

It is stories similar to this, that underline the perceived harshness of the workhouse. As Anne Digby states:
The cruelty of the workhouse did not reside in its material deprivation but in its psychological harshness. Indeed the Poor law Commissioners themselves appreciated that it was through psychological rather than material deterrence that the workhouse test would operate.

The incident above did not happen under the regime of the Poor Law Commissioners, but the Poor Law Board which made many concessions, which was marginally more liberal and Chadwick would not have approved. The Workhouse would have been relatively warm, the food, perhaps not very appetising but adequate; it was the stigma, the psychological brutality of the regime that made the woman prefer the filth to the relative safety of the Workhouse.




References: Anne Digby, ‘The Poor Law in Nineteenth-century England and Wales’, Historical Assoc., 1982; Wrexham Advertiser 18 October 1878; Sir Llewelyn Woodward, The Age of Reform, Oxford, 1962; A. Fletcher, ‘Ruthin 1851-61: A Social and Administrative Study’, Transactions, Denbighshire Historical Society Vol.32 1983.

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