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"I heard a noise"

The Reverend Richard Dawes was a fellow of Downing College in Cambridge who might have hoped to become the Master. Unfortunately, he was passed over, so instead he became the vicar of King's Somborne, a village of 1,125 people in Hampshire.

There was no school there, so he set about creating one. He persuaded the lady of the manor to donate a site. To create a building, Dawes contributed £500 of his own money – a considerable sum in those days – and obtained a matching grant from the government. But he wanted the school to become self-supporting. He insisted that the parents, many of whom were far poorer than almost any parents today, all had to pay – and promptly at that. He believed that people do not value what they do not pay for. The amount they paid varied according to their circumstances. Labourers were charged a few pence a week while those who earned higher wages were charged six to ten shillings a quarter. . .The school opened with thirty-eight children but quickly grew. By the end of the fourth year, it had 158 pupils.

What did the school teach? Dawes followed his own ideas and others he had picked up from reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau and William Cobbett. If parents liked what he produced, he had a school. If not, it would collapse.

They clearly liked his regime, which was like this: the children were taught reading as a beginning. He tried to make this pleasurable and relevant for their lives. They had to write down the names of their brothers and sisters and all the things in their house and the names of the birds, trees and plants they knew. . .As soon as they had mastered reading, they were introduced to the finest poetry and prose in the English language.

To teach history he took his pupils to the Roman road from Old Sarum to Winchester. He gave special attention to the way people lived at different periods – what sort of houses they had, what they ate and how they were clothed.

He taught nature through the direct observation of local plants and trees, and through the study of birds and their migration. Under the supervision of the assistant master, the pupils kept records of barometric pressure and temperature. They kept a journal in which they recorded events such as the arrival of the first swallow, the coming of the cuckoo, the earliest pear and apple blossom and the first ears of wheat or barley. . .

In mathematics the older boys learnt algebra and the subject matter of the first three books of Euclid. Again they used actual objects known to them – surveying the land around them and measuring in a carpenter’s shop. Dawes proudly wrote: ‘Writing in my study, I heard a noise of joyous voices, which I found proceeded from half-a-dozen boys, who after school hours, had come to measure my garden-roller.’ They wanted to practise calculating the weight of a cylinder using measurements of the size and knowledge of the specific gravity of the material from which it was made.

The time: Britain in the 1840s. Why did parents value paying Dawes to educate their children and why do parents not feel the same way about paying the government by way of their taxes? That is a question with several interesting answers.

The description of Dawes' school is from The Welfare State We’re In by James Bartholomew.