Rhos Street British School

This unedited article, by A. Fletcher, appeared in the Ruthin Local History Broadsheet nos. 54 and 55, June and September 1998.

This paper seeks to identify the origins of National, British, Board and Council Schools, and to place them into their historical context.

The development of education for the bulk of the population in the nineteenth century had two stimuli. Firstly, the requirement of industry for a numerate, literate, workforce, and, secondly, religion. It might be though that the requirements of industry were not applicable to a rural market town such as Ruthin. The large conurbations were the centre of a vortex of migrant labour, particularly from the rural areas. The more qualified the young worker was, in the simplest terms of that word, the greater the opportunities that awaited him. Therefore, elementary education was an advantage to every son of the soil.

However, religion on the other hand was a poisoned chalice where education was concerned. The established church and nonconformity were at loggerheads until the later decades of thee nineteenth century. All denominations perceived schools as a means of controlling the hearts and minds of the pupils. Initially, Sunday Schools provided the only means of education for the bulk of the population, and that mainly by rote. In the early days the principal subject was reading, but the ability to read and write was thought to be subversive. That said, the Bible was thought to be a mild panacea to revolutionary ideas which were prevalent at that time. This was the era of the French Revolution and the revolt of the American colonies. The great fear was that revolution might spread to Britain.

Teaching in those days was of a most rudimentary form. The monitorial system of education, where the master selected the older, brighter children to teach the young by rote, was practised. This was first tried in India in 1789 by Andrew Bell, an episcopalian minister who went out to Madras in 1787. Two years later he became superintendent of the Madras Military Orphanage. Finding it impossible to obtain staff, he developed the monitorial system. on his return to England he published a pamphlet 'Experiment in Education' and this came to the attention of a Quaker, Joseph Lancaster, who was interested in the education of the poor. In 1798 he implemented the system propounded by Bell. In 1803, he too published a tract advocating the monitorial system and received much publicity. The Royal Lancastrian Society was formed in 1808.In the meantime Lancaster fell upon hard times but the Society evolved in 1814 as the British and Foreign Schools Society. This was a non-sectarian organisation formed to offset the influence of the National Society for promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church.

Initially, both these societies were voluntary bodies but the pressure for education was such that by 1833 the government agreed to fund partly both organisations and £33,000 was allotted for the purpose. What may seem strange today is that in the first half of the nineteenth century, in nonconformist Wales, teaching the catechism was by far the most common form of education. In the first three decades there were 1,400 schools linked to the Church of England and only three British Schools. It is difficult to rationalise the nonconformists' objections to a non-sectarian education. In 1843 Hugh Owen, a Methodist form Anglesey and an official with the Poor Law Commissioners in London published 'Llythyr i'r Cymru' (Letter to the Welsh) in which he proposed a network of schools to be established across the country. He asked the British and Foreign secretary to send agents to Wales to assist in forming such a network. John Phillips from Pontrhydfendigaid, between Aberystwyth and Tregaron, took up this challenge. Over the period 1843 to 1863 he was British Schools representative and under this regime a further 79 schools were established. This is perhaps the moment to consider the differing objectives between the 'National' and 'British' schools, viz.:

In the British schools the sacred scriptures in the authorised version were to be taught and read daily. No catechism or other formulary peculiar to any religious denomination were to be introduced or taught during the usual hours of school instruction. Every child attending a day school was expected to attend a Sunday school or place of worship in accordance with parental preference.

These might be compared with the more restrictive principles of the National Schools, which were:

Children were to be instructed in the holy scriptures and in the Liturgy and Catechism of the established church. These schools were to be subject to the supervision of the parochial clergymen. Children were to be assembled to attend divine service at the parish church or other place of worship under the establishment, except with the approval of the School Managers. The schoolmasters and mistresses were to be members of the Church of England. Reports on the school were to be made annually to the Diocesan Board or the National Society and the schools were subject to inspection by either or both of these bodies. Differences of opinion between the managers of the school and the clergy on religious matters were to be referred to the Bishop, whose decision would be final.

It is evident from the above that the teachings of the established church played a major role in the education of the young people of Wales, albeit the majority of the homes on Wales were, by this time, of nonconformist or dissenting belief. Paradoxically, however, there was firm opposition to the concept of secular, state education, particularly on the pert of the Independents. Nevertheless, the British and Foreign Society had considerable support from the establishment. Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales , for example, were subscribers.

Against this background, the 'British' school in Rhos Street, Ruthin, was one of the further 79 schools established during the initial pioneering period, 1843-1863.

Hard evidence of the date of the foundation of the British School in Rhos Street is difficult to find. Seaborne, in his masterly 'Schools in Wales', dates the building as 1846 and names the architect as Richard cash, son of Thomas Cash, architect and Ablett of Llanbedr Hall's agent. He was also responsible for the Church school in Borthyn. Nonetheless the British School - not the building - predates this by three years, Until then the schoolroom was provided by Edward Jones of Brynhyfryd, a local solicitor.

In 1845 there were 205 boys at the school. It was to be another two years before it was opened to girls. The Denbigh and Caernarvon Herald of 30th August reported the second public examination of the children. The chairman on this occasion was T. Downward of Bathafarn Hall and in his introductory speech he regretted that a more competent Welsh speaker had not taken his place. These public examinations, for master and pupil alike, must have been harrowing experiences. Initially, the boys read from the gospels and then spelt words from the reading. This was followed by questions on the life of Christ. Next, there were questions on 'Natural Philosophy', or 'science' in modern terminology. Answers to questions on mathematics were calculated on their slates and then presented to the local dignitaries. Mental arithmetic questions then followed. There was a brief pause in the ordeal while the boys entertained the audience with a song. The examination resumed with questions on geography, history, grammar and , finally, drawings made by the pupils were exhibited. The whole event was conducted not in the familiar surroundings of the school but in the County Hall.

Probably the most notorious examination of schools in Wales was during 1847 which resulted in a report that became known as 'Brad y Llyfrau Gleision' (The 'Treachery of the Blue Books'). William , MP for Coventry, born in Llanpumsaint, Carmarthenshire, was a successful businessman turned politician and in 1846 he proposed a government enquiry into the state of education in Wales. His motivation was a genuine concern over the neglect of formal education in the Principality. The commission was organised under the auspices of James Kay-Shuttleworth, physician, educationalist and civil servant. Sadly, he appointed three commissioners who were young Oxbridge scholars, monoglot English with the built-in prejudices of the establishment. 

The result was that a long and detailed report, generally objective, was marred by a short section of about ten pages devoted to the opinions of embittered Anglican clergymen. The resented inroads into their congregations made by the nonconformist evangelists. The impression given was of the Welsh as uniquely lax in their sexual behaviour and it was this brief section that attracted attention and resentment. Nevertheless the bulk of the report is valuable testimony to the state of education at that time. Rhos Street came out of the examination with comparatively glowing praise. The school was reported as a boys' school of 173 pupils. The master was a farmer who had six months training. One comment made about him was 'A Welshman not yet perfect in the English language'. The report continues: 'Great pains are taken, and with success, to teach the English language - an exercise that calls into practice their knowledge of interpretation, writing, spelling and grammar...... the Master has inspired his pupils with a desire for knowledge.' Great praise indeed. However there was a sting in the tail. Regarding the discipline of the school, it tells how they were pushed pell-mell and were ill-mannered.

The fees at that time were 1d. to 6d. per week. In those early days money was a difficult problem. The governors were committed to a new building and this was completed in 1846. However in 1847 they were borrowing money to pay off the costs.

A great deal has been written about the dichotomy between the established church and nonconformity in Wales. In Ruthin there was a different ambience. What was basically a nonconformist school was supported by Anglicans. The chairman of the Governors was James Maurice, confidante of the Wests of Ruthin Castle, Churchwarden and Mayor of the town - a pillar of Anglican rectitude. When they were in debt to the builder, who bailed them out? The local landowners, Anglican to a man. Later this shortage of money became acute.

The 'monitors' were paid a small (even by the standards of the time) salary. There ids an entry in the minute book that reads 'The committee will assist the parents of pupil-teachers as may be unable to wait until the government money id received'. Clearly, the school had insufficient funds to meet its obligations to pay the youngsters. Their pittance would make a difference to family budgets which were nearly always at breaking point with the spectre of the workhouse ever present. Again,Anglicans were helping. Yet if the rhetoric could be believed, they would have closed the school.

About this period there was a number of Dame Schools. These were unsupervised and uncontrolled but provided some form of education for the 'petite bourgeoisie'. The cost of attendance was of course beyond the purse of the labouring poor. In 1844 there were six schools other than the British School. These were - the Grammar School, the National School in Borthyn, William Davies' School in Upper Clwyd Street, Mary Ellis' in Mwrog Street and Re. William Williams in Borthyn. In 1856 there were eight schools, and in 1868 there were seven. With 200 pupils at Rhos Street, coupled with those at Borthyn, it might be argued that education was provided for the poorest sector of the community.


This is emphasised by the fact that in January 1849 the children from the workhouse were admitted to Rhos Street School. It was, of course, another way of gaining funds for the school. The chairman of the Governors was able to negotiate a fee from the Poor Law Board. The same gentleman was also chairman of the Board of Guardians - further evidence of the toleration of the Anglicans towards the British School. There was no evidence of any attempt to segregate nonconformists and Anglicans.

In December 1847 a tea party marked the opening of the Boys and Girls School. Two hundred handbills were printed , half in English, half in Welsh. Thirty 'special' invitations were provided for the gentry and admission was one shilling or six pence. The minutes are not explicit as to what this difference in price implied nor have any of the handbills survived. Sufficient to say that in 1847 the school became coeducational.

It was indicative of the quality of the teaching at that time that when the master resigned - and it was one master to 200 pupils - applicants for the post had no training but were willing to study for their qualification whilst teaching. This, of course, was of little use as the British and Foreign Society would not grant aid the salary unless the master was qualified, basic though this was.

The school struggled on until 1870. The Education Act of that year, the Foster Act, allowed the creation of school boards and the raising of funds on a separate rate. This scheme was opposed by nonconformists and Anglicans alike. A school board was elected in Ruthin but the National School in Borthyn opted out even though the Rev. Bulkeley Owen Jones, the Warden, served on the Board. This struggled on until the 902 Act when the County Councils took responsibility.

A. Fletcher  1988