Talgarth School 1910 to 1921
This article was written as part of the research project into the effects of WW1 on Talgarth and its people. This is why the text tends to concentrate upon the 1914 to 1918 period, but it also provides important contextual information which relates to the early years of the school.
The overriding impression is just how little Talgarth School, if not Talgarth itself, was touched by the First World War. As described below there are some references to war-related issues, (three former pupils killed in action, the visit of a soldier to the school to talk about the geography of the Western Front and possibly the reason for the headmaster’s delayed retirement), but there are no other references in the school’s log book to the effects of the war and life seems to have progressed pretty much as normal, normal that is for a rural Welsh town in the early 20th century. This is hardly an earth – shattering revelation, but nonetheless it is hard evidence of what might otherwise be just anecdotal evidence or conjecture.
The early years of the school
The Education Act of 1870 created a national system of funded Elementary Boards or National Schools. This Act was followed in 1876 by another requiring compulsory attendance at school by all children. Following the passing of the 1870 Act, Talgarth British School was built in the same year and was one of only ten such schools in Wales, being non-denominational, teaching a British curriculum in English. Many voluntary Church schools existed and were not funded by the Elementary Boards. The Bethlem, Bethania, and Taberbacle Congregational and Methodist churches in Talgarth operated such a school, but this closed in 1875.
Initially the school had two classrooms, with a third classroom being added in 1878, allowing the number of pupils on roll to reach 150, but with a number of children being refused admission at this time due to overcrowding. In 1902 an Education Act established Local Education Authorities in Wales, and Talgarth school was renamed Talgarth Council School, with 138 pupils on roll. In 1906 a small piece of land behind the school was purchased for future additions. However, it was not until 1918 that the school leaving age was raised from 12 years to 14 years of age. Both before and during the war years conditions in many nineteenth century schools were poor, such as fireplaces for heating, gas or oil lighting, and outside toilets with no flushing system. In January 1910 the temperatures in the classrooms in Talgarth School is recorded as 27 degrees, the lowest on record (Hughes, 2015). One later a temperature of 28 degrees is recorded in the school and in 1913, several pupils were diagnosed with tuberculosis and three with ringworm. Electricity was not installed at the school until 1921.
Notwithstanding the passing of the legislation in 1876, making attendance at school compulsory, the months of September and October were particularly challenging ones for the school. This is the season of harvests, from the obvious hay and cereal crops through to acorns, potatoes and whimberries (all mentioned in the log book). Pupils were prone to take time off from school, either to work on family farms or to work on harvests on surrounding farms or woods, earning money in the process. Alternatively, lack of attendance was sometimes ascribed to children ‘beating at local shoots’. Interestingly a number of these activities were seen as permissible, even within the compulsory attendance legislation. There are a number of references, in different years, to the headmaster writing to The District Committee to enquire as to whether a particular pupil’s absence due to, say, whimberry picking, acorn picking, or beating at a shoot’, was allowable. The responses of The District Committee were never recorded, but this committee appears to have been the arbiter of what was and what was not and an allowable absence.
An example of the frustration the headmaster felt over this issue is reflected in his entry of June 1st 1917, the first day of school following the half-term break. Mr. Davies, the headmaster, observed that a number of the children had stayed away as local tradesmen still required their services. Similarly, on the first day back following the summer half-term break, the headmaster notes that a number of the children have not returned because their presence was required at whimberry and corn harvesting.
The impact of fairs was also significant at different times of the year and when one particular fair visited Talgarth each year, the school would close for that day, a formal acknowledgement that the attraction of that particular fair was just too great for the school to compete.
As well as fairs and harvests being major distractions for the pupils at specific times of the year, the weather could also affect attendance numbers significantly. The winters in most years had severe periods of bitter cold and snow and on a number of occasions children were sent home from school because there feet and legs were ‘extremely wet’ following their respective treks from home to school, no doubt in short trousers and dresses. To be sent home suggests that the legs and feet of the children were not merely wet, as described in the school log book, but the children were bitterly cold, possibly wearing no shoes at all, or their footwear was totally inadequate for the weather. Whatever the reason, the school was often not a place for the children to warm themselves as the heating at the school appears to have been old and unreliable. On 3rd February 1917 the temperature in the school classrooms is recorded as, ” not rising above 48F on any day during that week”.
On March 9th 1917 the headmaster observes that severe weather had reduced attendance to just 70% of those on roll and some four weeks later, on April 5th, a severe snowstorm reduced attendance to only 66 pupils out of 147 (45%) and ten of these children were sent home because “their feet and legs were so wet”.
The issue of parents taking their children away on school holidays is an issue of modern times, but so was it during the period of WW1. On September 1st 1916 the headmaster remarks that on the first day of school after the summer vacation a number of pupils were absent due the children being ‘away on holiday’. It is well recorded that at about this time of year hop picking in the Kent countryside was a ritual for families living in London and the South-East of England, being treated as both a holiday and way of earning money. Whether the fruit fields of Hereford held the same attraction for local families is not clear.
However, it was not just the start of the autumn term that proved problematic in terms of attendance. There are frequent references by the headmaster to the school’s ‘attendance officer’. In the early years this was ‘Mr. Stuart’, who visited the school from time to time. Mr. Stuart’s attendance at the school is recorded as having a positive effect on attendance and this comment is repeated a couple of times, yet in 1917 responsibility for attendance appears to have been transferred to a central body, presumably the local authority at Brecon,. The log book records that under the new regime attendance improved significantly. It is not recorded as to how attendance monitoring and the actions taken to address poor attendance changed, but significant improvements are recorded as having been experienced.
Pupils on roll
The number of pupils on roll during the war years varied, the lowest being 137 whilst the highest number recorded was 161. The pupils were taught in 3 classrooms, with a further room allocated to the infants’ school pupils, but the latter was regarded as a separate school for administrative purposes. Clearly class sizes were large by modern standards and it is unlikely that the three classrooms would have had an equal number of pupils. So at its lowest the average class size would have been 46 and at its highest it was 54, although, as mentioned above, there is likely to have been an uneven split. A class size of 60 or more would have been likely from time to time, with the attendant challenges for managing the pupils, as indicated below.
The quality of the classrooms was giving cause for concern during this period and the headmaster notes in November 1916 that recommendations had been made regarding structural changes to the school’s accommodation reflecting the number of pupils on roll. Further critical comments were made regarding the inadequacy of the school’s accommodation in the report of the Schools’ Inspector for 1916-17, but no improvements were recorded during the period covered by this research project.
Bringing the war to the attention of the pupils
As mentioned above the war appears to have intruded only marginally into the life of the school, but one such occasion was the visit of Corporal Ivor Powell on 3rd November 1917. Corporal Powell gave, “… a very vivid and interesting address to the children on the geography of the Western Front and also showed the two kinds of respirators used by the soldiers”. The impact of the talk on the children was unrecorded, as was how, if at all, the talk was used in subsequent classroom work to help the pupils understand the conflict.
The only other formal mention of the war in the school log books is the entry on 2nd March 1917, when the headmaster records the death of a former pupil, William Williams, who was killed in action in France. The headmaster, in the same entry, then observes that Mr. Williams is in fact the third ex-pupil of the school to have died in action, the other two being David Phillips of Llanfilo and David Morris of Talgarth.
On 2nd September 1915 the Brecon County Times records that the Headmaster of Talgarth Council School, Mr. William T. Davies, had compiled a Roll of Honour of boys who had been educated at the school under his tuition. The list contained two Majors, one Captain, four Lieutenants, a Chief Engineer, and a large number of non commissioned Officers, with the Roll of Honour containing 75 names in total.
The entry by the headmaster on April 27th 1917 shows the teaching staff to number 4, including the headmaster, who appears to have taught the older pupils.
Reference was made above to the large class sizes which must have prevailed at the school and the challenges this was likely to bring in terms of classroom discipline. On 16th November 1917 the headmaster notes that he had received a complaint against one of the teachers that she had “disciplined a boy severely”. Following his investigation of the incident the headmaster wrote the following entry.
“I advised her to be more careful in the future as a repetition might endanger her position and lead to court proceedings. The discipline in her class is not satisfactory.”
This is a chilling entry. Following what appears to have been a review of the behaviour of the pupils on February 15th 1918, the headmaster notes that discipline remains “rather weak”. He continues, “I have spoken to her about it, asking for improvement”. However, on 8th and 11th March, less than four weeks later, the headmaster makes further critical comments of the teacher and the punishment she had inflicted on another pupil. Yet again on 27th April, the headmaster is moved to write in the log book, following further critical comment of the teacher,
“The pupils, on the whole, are fairly bright and intelligent and under a firm teacher would do well.”
This is the final entry in the log book on this teacher, although the list of teachers on September 8th 1919, shows this teacher to still be a member of staff, responsible for the pupils “coming up from the infants’ class”! An interesting postscript to the above is that the teacher at the centre of the headmasters concerns had previously been a teacher at the school, but in 1913, had been replaced by another teacher. No explanation is given to the reason for the replacement, but during the war years this teacher clearly returned to the school, only to become the cause of much consternation on the part of headmaster and parents alike.
The headmaster, Mr. W.T. Davies, was first appointed to the school in 1872 and he finally retired on 3rd July 1920. He had been due to retire on 14th December 1917, but, probably due to chronic teacher shortages had been requested by the education authority to extend his period of office, despite suffering from acute rheumatism. His contract was renewed a couple of times before he finally retired, having been in post as a teacher and then headmaster for 48½ years at Talgarth School.
Talgarth Council School Log Book Three – Powys County Archives
Talgarth Council School Log Book Four – Powys County Archive
Hughes, C – “The Talgarth British School and the development of a system of Education”.
The Journal of the Brecknock Society Volume XLVI, 2015, pp.
Various articles from the Brecon County Times and Abergavenny Chronicle