Life in St. Martin's School : Before 1900

Rita Lynn Jacob

St. Martin's Infant School appeared more forbidding in the 1950s; the windows covered in wire netting to prevent vandalism!
Photo John Palmer 2014

Although outside the period covered by the Milford Street Bridge Project, entries in the first school log books give an insight into the poverty that existed in Salisbury during the nineteenth century. Moreover, the conditions that the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church in England and Wales attached to school places, indicate that well-meaning voluntary groups did not always understand the implications of being ‘poor’!

As the city of Salisbury had raised the funds, the 185 pupils who attended the school in 1811 were probably drawn from a wide area, an infant school founded in Gigant Street in the early nineteenth century being named the Salisbury Infant School. Also, if the regulations regarding cleanliness, punctuality, regular attendance and the payment of weekly pennies were rigidly enforced, it is unlikely that the children came from the lowest strata of society.

From the earliest days, there was an emphasis on hard work and high standards; St. Martin’s being described ‘as a school setting a high moral tone, a good standard of discipline and high academic attainments.’ The school was inspected at least once a term, the work being assessed and, the progress of the pupil teachers, monitored. Throughout the period, there was a concentration on literacy and numeracy, the curriculum not being broadened until the early 1920s.

The Free School had to work under more difficult conditions, described as ‘the worst of any school in Salisbury.’ Without weekly pennies, they were reliant on donations of school equipment and clothing, the pinafores that the girls wore being made, by them, from gifted material. The log books of the boys’ department are particularly reflective of the poverty that existed at the end of the nineteenth century; there being ‘a constant story of boys being taken to the Workhouse, of being unable to come to school due to sore feet and of boys being sent to the Reformatory for offences such as stealing.’ The boys’ lives were enriched, however, when Canon Myers provided a regulation football, enabling games to be played on the Shady Bower field for an hour after school.

Absence was a problem in both the schools; fifty five pupils at St. Martin’s being dismissed for irregular attendance. In some cases, children were ‘bunking off’, truancy being particularly rife in the Boys’ Department of the Free School. As a deterrent, punishments were harsh; pupils being kept in school at lunch time without food or deprived of recreational periods for several months. Meanwhile, other boys were working up to five hours a day for an employer as well as spending the same amount of time in school, one Headmaster remarking that they were ‘in need of rest when they came to school.’

Before vaccines became available, outbreaks of illness often decimated classes; diseases like chicken pox, measles and whooping cough necessitating a number of weeks off school, even in the 1950s. In addition, parents sometimes kept their children away from school to look after younger siblings or to work on the land during busy times in the farming calendar. When education became compulsory, these practices were firmly discouraged, long periods of absence incurring fines of five shillings, a substantial amount for low income families!

 On page 39 of his autobiography I Remember, Arthur Maidment, describes how many of his fellow pupils wore ‘hand-me-down’ clothing; large safety pins pulling in ill-fitting jumpers and studs covering the soles of previously owned boots. Arthur attended St. Martin’s during the 1920s, abject poverty not ending with the nineteenth century but perpetuated in the following decades!


Much of the information in this post comes from St. Martin’s Bicentenary Publication; the latter containing acomprehensive history of the school and a description of present school life.




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