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Education in Northampton from the 1850s

Between 1920-21, James Ward (1847-1925), a Northampton nonconformist, social campaigner and journalist wrote a series of six articles for the Northampton Daily Echo describing life growing up in the town in the 1850s and 60s.

My first memory of a school is of about the year 1853 when I attended the British School on Campbell Square. That was undenominational. There was the Lancastrian School in St. Giles’ Street, founded by Joseph Lancaster in 1808. All the others were denominational, and most of them exist today. The last school I attended was Horseshoe Lane School (All Saints). I well renumber leaving at the age of 8½ years, and being handed a paper by my teacher to take home, saying, in effect, that it was a pity I could not stay longer. But I had to go to work for bread and butter. That has been the experience of millions of children in this country. Many thousands, owing to the lack of compulsory powers, never went to school at all, the result being (I say it without fear of contradiction) that at that time quite 90 per cent, of the people could not properly read or write.

There were then two libraries in Northampton that of the Religious and Useful Knowledge Society (mischievously called “Religious and Useless”) where the Conservative Club in Gold-street is; and that of the Mechanics’ Institute at the Corn Exchange. No public library. But these collections of books did not affect the lives of the mass of the inhabitants.

Then came the Education Act of 1870. What a fight it was to get it passed! The croakers croaked, as they are doing today against spending public money upon education, forgetting (or being ignorant of the fact) that every State depends for its progress upon the cultivation of the brain power of its future citizens. Where would the Northampton staple trade have been by now if the opponents of education had had their, way? Would Northampton have occupied the premier position it held through the war or as it does today, if the opponents of education had succeeded?

I have before me the draft scheme which I led to the foundations of the present Technical School under the Technical Institutions Act of 1889, as well the Act itself, which was handed to me by the, late Mr. J. B. Hensman, with the remark, “Here, take this, you will do more with it than I can.” Mr. Blakeman has seen it. Of course. there was opposition and I am afraid that at first I was looked upon as a persistent nuisance. I can remember dear old Sir Henry Dryden saying, “But where do you want to go to, Mr. Ward?” “Well, Sir Henry,” I said, “How do I know. But I dream of the day when Northampton shall have a Technical School second to none; When the children can go and find out what they are best fitted for, and not be forced into positions for which they have no taste.”

That, I take it broadly, is the object of all educationalists. Make work a pleasure and not a task. Develop the brain power of the nation, for the nation’s good. As I have said, other nations are doing it. Why not us? “Wake up!” should be our motto.

This needs no proof. It should be common knowledge. But, in proof, I have before me a book handed to me some 26 years ago by Sir Philip Manfield, entitled. “Three Months in a German Workshop” by Paul Gohre. In giving it to me 8ir Philip said: “James, you had better read this. If we do not wake up the Germans will beat us in every market.” Was he not a true prophet? I need not remind your readers of the position before the war, when the Germans were our competitors everywhere. And, as has been said in German papers, “If the mad militarists had not blundered into war they were fast succeeding in capturing the bulk of the world trade.” That catastrophe spoiled their chance and they gave England another opportunity of waking up.

I do not enter into further detail, but am glad to see that you are lending your powerful assistance to the week’s educational movement. Never mind the croakers! Money spent on education always pays. I should dearly love to be in the fight, and – hope that Mr. Fisher will have the united support of every educationalist in the town, for the love of. and the future prosperity of, our native land. We have either to wake up or sink into a position of commercial obscurity.

James Ward
21 March 1921

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