Whitehall Infant School (part 1): Founding, 1899

While generally hated as a sprog, nostalgia eventually takes hold and one tends to look back with fondness and affection at the schools that were seemingly endured when young.  I attended the Bromford Infant and Junior Schools in Birmingham, which are 1950s builds and so fairly devoid of architectural character. Of course, a school simply mirrors the community it serves and so grows and adapts to the changing population and educational theories over time. A pupil will not necessarily see this, instead they will see just a snapshot in the life of the school; the only changes at Bromford in my time, other than the staff, were the occasional lick of magnolia paint and the inevitable arrival of prefab classrooms that ate into the playground space and accommodated the rising population of Hodge Hill. One thing that most former pupils will agree on is that they went to the school when it was at its best.

In this two-part article I want to take a look at a Walsall school, not a 1950s one, but one built in the Victorian period. The one I have chosen is the Whitehall Infant School, which is sandwiched between the West Bromwich Rd and Weston Street in south Walsall. I am not going to cover the whole history, just around the first 25 years. This first part will cover the period up to the opening of the school in August 1899; it will look at the historic background, the reason why the site was chosen, the design of the school and the opening ceremony. The second part looks at the period from 1899 to 1923, which is the tenure of the first headmistress, Sarah Jane Woodward (nee Parker). Set against the context of her life, this covers the school’s experience, including the harrowing time of the First World War, through her eyes – as she detailed them in the school log book. It will become evident in just how much the school, education and society have changed.

Whitehall School, one a Junior and Infant School. It is a listed building. 2014.

Whitehall Infant School, showing the former girls’ wing of a mixed Junior and Infant School. It is a listed building. 2014.

The Educational Background
State involvement within ‘education’ really arrived in the form of the 1870 Education Act and it had been a long road to this achievement. In 1807, Samuel Whitbread raised a bill in Parliament about the then current Poor Law and linking the parish to the provision of some form of education for each child. This was eventually written into the 1834 New Poor Law Act. From 1837 schools could get state grants, but would be required to be inspected and so two HM Inspectors were appointed by 1840. Slowly, between the 1830s and the 1860s, a series of Factory Acts were passed that limited the hours of child labour. At the time, less child labour led to public fears of increased crime and pauperism and the Industrial Schools Act was passed in 1857 in an attempt to curb ‘vagrant children’. Finally, in 1869 the formation of the National Education League in Birmingham introduced the the concept that universal education was for the ‘collective good’ and further, there was a strong awareness that we were lagging behind Europe in the provision of education.

Of course there were schools in existence prior to 1870, but the provision of education was a mish-mash of differing institutions with different agendas. The first generic group were the charity schools, that is schools that are established and maintained by charitable donations. These could go back centuries and the children would often be ‘badged’ by the name of the founder or an item of uniform – a good local example would be the Blue Coat School in Walsall. There were also ‘Ragged Schools’: these institutions provided not only a limited education for poor children, but lodging, food and clothing. Walsall had a school c1850, but it is alleged to have closed as ‘the smell of the children was such as to impair the health of the teachers’.

Private schools existed in a plethora of forms, so I shall only give a rough account. Grammar Schools were set-up by wealthy patrons in the wake of the dissolution of the monasteries; originally they were free schools that taught Latin and other languages, but by 1870 charged and had a far more rounded syllabus. Queen Mary’s Grammar School (1554) was ran by Governors and funded by land gifts from Mary I. Other private schools or classes were set-up and run by various institutions (such as the Walsall Library and Philosophical Institute), altruistic and enlightened employers, as family concerns (the Mount School) or by single ladies like Miss Beetlestone (often called dame schools).

The third group were the church schools. Initially pioneered from the 1780s by Robert Raikes through the Sunday school movement, they were concerned more with religious doctrine then a rounded education. In 1811, the National School movement was set-up to establish schools based on Anglican teachings, but with a wider syllabus. Bloxwich is a good local example, being re-founded as such a school in 1828 . Other denominations followed.

Bloxwich National School, attended by Philip 1869-1875

Bloxwich National School (Walsall Local History Centre)

The final group is those with state involvement. Under the 1834 Poor Law Act Union workhouses were required to provide some education; Walsall had the Wigmore School, set-up jointly with the West Bromwich Union. Also, there were Industrial Schools. The 1857 Industrial Schools Act was intended to solve problems of juvenile delinquency by removing disorderly, poor and neglected children from their home environment to what was effectively a boarding school (Walsall, West Bromwich and Burton operated the Midland Truant School, later Beacon School in Lichfield).

The 1870 Act didn’t change everything overnight. It set up semi-autonomous School Boards (for which women could be elected) that were part state funded. They looked at education provision in areas where there were no or insufficient schools already. It would be the Walsall School Board that would build Whitehall in 1899.

The School Board crest and date stone on the front gable at Whitehall School. 2014.

The School Board crest and date stone on the front gable at Whitehall School. 2014.

Initially education wasn’t necessarily free, the Board could charge fees if it wanted and it did. Education, though not completely compulsory, was aimed at the 5-13 year olds. A by-law was passed in Walsall making school attendance compulsory in 1872, however, it seemed not to be a priority and Walsall had a poor record for attendance; saying that, the Board did prosecute parents for failing to ensure their children went to a recognised school. The schools were non-denominational and religious instruction was not compulsory, although it seemed to be on the syllabus. The Act established School Governors and made the first provision for school meals for poor children.

In 1902 the School Boards were replaced by Local Education Authorities. Within their lifespan the had overseen education for 5-10 year-olds being made compulsory (nationally) in 1880, better technical and industrial training from 1889, school education becoming free in 1891, the raising of the leaving age to 11 in 1893, the provision for education for the blind and deaf in the same year, the 1897 act where private schools could become voluntary aided or voluntary controlled if they began to fail, the raising of the leaving age to 12 in 1899 and in 1900, the appearance of higher elementary schools that catered for pupils up to 15.

Why Whitehall?
The first question is more, why build any school? When Whitehall was opened in August 1899, a statement was printed in the Walsall Observer as a part of the review. This statement made it quite clear that the population of Walsall was rising by 1,200 people per annum and that the School Board was required to provide school places for one sixth of the population, either through Board or voluntary schools. They estimated, back in 1899, that 1000 school places had to provided every 5 to 6 years.  To do this, the Boards had to look to the developing suburbs of Walsall, where no educational facilities existed currently.

Whitehall School, upon opening in August 1899. Note the fields opposite, from where the drawing was made as they were once home to Walsall FC (Walsall Local History Centre)

Whitehall School, upon opening in August 1899. Note the fields opposite – from where the drawing was made – as they were once home to Walsall FC
(Walsall Local History Centre)

The area to the east of Palfrey and what was then called Whitehall, just south of Doveridge and Highgate, was fairly undeveloped back in 1887. There was an existing school fairly close by, as the Victoria County History points out: Palfrey Junior and Infants’ Schools, [between] Milton Street and Sun Street, were opened in 1884 as a board school for boys, girls, and infants. The boys’ department was housed in a building in Sun Street and the girls’ and infants’ departments in a building in Milton Street; the school’s playgrounds lay between the two streets. A senior mixed school was added in Milton Street in 1906. By the late 1890s, Whitehall and Doveridge were beginning to be developed

The site of Whitehall School on the 25" OS map, 1885 (Walsall Local History Centre)

The site of Whitehall School on the 25″ OS map, 1887
(Walsall Local History Centre)

In 1896 the Board looked at the developing suburb area of Whitehall with regard to school provision. The 1901 25″ OS Map (below) shows that Weston St has been laid out and the first phase of the school has been erected. What is interesting is the football ground shown over the road from the school, as it wasn’t on the 1887 map; indeed, the drawing of the school (above) is taken from a perspective between the two. This football ground was actually the home of  Walsall FC (then Walsall Town Swifts) from 1893 to 1895, which was prior to their move to Fellows Park (then called Hilary Street). The pitch had a running track around it. Visitors to this ground included: Liverpool, Newcastle United, Newton Heath (Manchester United) and Arsenal. Gates of around 3000 were not uncommon. Walsall returned to the ground for a short spell in 1901, so when the school was in operation – I wonder if a crafty teacher used the tower to watch and avoid paying 🙂 .

Whitehall School, West Bromwich Rd/Weston Rd, 1901. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Whitehall School, West Bromwich Rd/Weston St, 1901.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

Planning, Building and Opening
The Board minutes show that they looked at a number of potential sites within the area, but drainage seemed to be an issue. Eventually, in June of 1897, ‘site 1’ was chosen to be investigated further. Designs were submitted by local firms and at a Committee meeting on 25 November 1897 the Board elected to accept the plans drawn-up by architects Bailey and McConnal. The firm was based at Bridge St, Walsall. These plans were submitted to Walsall Council in 1898 and were approved. The school would be built in two phases. First, a mixed Junior School would be built with its frontage on the West Bromwich Road. Initially this would also act as the Infant School too. Phase two would involve a new Infant School being built directly behind the first phase school, with its frontage on Weston Street. The main school would then be turned over exclusively to Junior use.

The school only makes sense if you appreciate that, at junior level, it operated a sexual segregation policy, as Board schools generally did. Below is the block plan submitted in 1898 and it shows that the school was, in essence, symmetrical. The girls had the left side and the boys the right, with the infants in the middle.

Block Plan of the school built in 1899, before the Infant block was added. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Block Plan of the school built in 1899, before the infant block was added.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

The girls and boys also had separate gates into the school precinct, as well as separate entrances into the school from the front and to the rear. At the rear were separate playgrounds (the girls being trusted with the welfare of the infants, fostering that mothering instinct), which were pretty much visually cut-off from each other after the new infant school was built in 1902.

The view across the old girls' (and infant) playground to the cookery classroom and the later infant school. 2014.

The view across the old girls’ (and infant) playground to the cookery classroom and the later infant school. 2014.

There were also separate outside toilets and covered play sheds in case it was raining. Below is a photograph of the former boys’ play shed, housed in the boys’ playground. On the far right, with the blocked window, is the former boys’ outside toilets. The playgrounds were originally ‘tarred’ by Mr W Shepherod, of Rochdale.

The Boys' play shed and outside toilets, now a car park. 2014.

The  boys’ play shed and outside toilets (far right), now a teachers’ car park. 2014.

The main building was described in the Walsall Observer as being in a ‘free Renaissance’ style and the building has subsequently been Grade II listed. It was seen as a flagship of the School Board; indeed, Mr A Jefferies, Clerk of the Board, remarked in his opening speech that is was the eleventh school built by the Board and as the best and most expensive, at some £8500, it warranted its own opening ceremony. The building of the school was contracted to a W Wistance of Sandwell St, Walsall and is in English-bond red brick (sourced from Leicestershire), with terracotta dressings (supplied by J King & Co, Stourbridge) and a plain tile roof (sourced from Staffordshire). The iron railings and gates were supplied by Johnson Bros of Walsall.

Despite appearances, the school is a single-storey build, with a tower added by the boys’ department. The school was intended, when complete, to house 390 boys, 330 girls and 350 infants. This made a total of 1,070 pupils. The school opened without the infant department at the rear, so initially it could only accommodate up to 310 boys, 250 girls and 205 infants. A total of 750.

Whitehall Mixed School, 1899. Now just for infants. Shows boys' entrance and tower. 2014.

Whitehall Mixed School, 1899. Now just for infants. Shows boys’ entrance and tower. 2014.

The school was described in the Observer upon its opening as having a girls’ wing, which was separated from the boys’ wing by a general classroom for 60 scholars; this classroom can be seen in the plan of the girls’ wing below, with the general classroom being housed in the room projecting from the frontage of the building. At the rear, 4 classrooms for 60 pupils (two intended for 80 pupils) had been turned-over to the infants. There are spacious corridors at either end and in the middle to provide access to the classrooms, as well as to toilets, cloakrooms and the staff rooms. The report goes on to eulogise over the light and airy spaces, with careful consideration being given to the ‘natural’ ventilation. The heating system was fitted by Harlow & Sons of Macclesfield and this supplied hot water for heating on a low pressure system; as we shall see in the next article, this was a constant cause of complaint by the headmistress. The gas fittings were supplied locally by WJ Chesterton.

Airy, high ceilings in the former boys' department. 2014.

Airy, high ceilings in the former boys’ department. 2014.

If we look at the internal layout for a moment, we see the girls’ department as planned for 1899 (below) comprised of four classrooms and the corridor range (with entrances). The classrooms appear well lit (the two at the back having dormer windows too). The fact they are an example of changing educational theory can be seen by the class-size there were intended for, for if each desk is for two scholars then three of the classrooms are designed for 60 children and the other for 70 children.

The girls' junior wing, 1899.  (Walsall Local History Centre)

The girls’ junior wing, 1899.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

Generally, the school rooms had a lower-wall (dado) of cream glazed tiles. They had solid wood floors in the classrooms, whereas the corridors and other rooms had hard-wearing floors of granolithic cement. The fixtures and fittings were of red deal including all the school desks, which were supplied by the Bennett Furnishing Co, London & Glasgow.

The front class-room, now partitioned off - showing how the school is constantly adapting to latest needs. 2014.

The front classroom, now partitioned off – showing how the school is constantly adapting to latest needs. 2014.

If we turn to the boys’ department, we see pretty much a carbon copy. The projecting classroom on the plan above is described as being for boys, whereas in the Observer report this was described as just a linking classroom: it really must have been for boys, as the intention was to provide more spaces for boys than girls (even from 1899, when the back classrooms were occupied by the infants). The other class sizes are the same, the only difference really is the tower; this can be seen on the plan below as the re-enforced corridor area adjacent to the teacher’s room.

The boys' junior wing, 1899. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The boys’ junior wing, 1899.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

The final area to look at is the infants’ department, well at least until 1902. It is a block of four classrooms, winged by corridors. The corridor to the right has another cloakroom for the boys’ department and allows boys to egress to their playground. That to the left is for the infants to hang coats and egress to their playground. This is the modern school entrance. There is a linking corridor between these two corridors and the whole department stands upon the boiler room – the stairs being outside in the playground.

The original infant school, before the new one was built behind in 1902. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The original infant school, before the new one was built behind in 1902.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

There are four open-plan classroom areas; two accommodated 60 pupils, the others appear to accommodate 50. The intention was to convert these to classrooms that could hold up to 80 pupils after they were vacated by the infants upon completion of their school. These classrooms were well lit, having windows in their upper walls that were above the height of the surrounding corridors. The photograph below is of class III of Whitehall Junior School and dates to the early 20th century. I have a problem with it. The decor (cream tiled dado wall) looks to be correct and while I cant place it to my satisfaction within the plans already shown, I think, looking at the blackboards and the position of the teachers desk, the furniture has simply been rearranged. What I have a problem with is that it is a mixed class and as we have seen the sexes were segregated. I would suspect it was an infant class, and indeed the only 4 by 6 desk room on the plan is one of those set aside for the infants, but the children look too old. It may well be two classes together, after all, some are standing at the back (it looks as if it caters for a class of 48): if so, this may suggest that there were many pupil absentees that day.

Whitehall School, one of the  mixed infant classes? containing 80 children. Early c20th. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Whitehall School, class III, containing  around 60 mixed-sex children. Early c20th.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

On Monday 21 August 1899 the good and respected gathered in the afternoon for the opening ceremony. The opening was officially declared by Mr J Thorpe, chairman of the Board. The special guests invited included the other Board members, along with their wives, as well as members of the clergy. The architects, the building contractor and some of those that provided specialist equipment and plant for the school also attended. Mr H Bompas Smith, headmaster of Queen Mary’s Grammar School, was also present along with ‘many of the chief teachers of the Board schools’; surely this must have included Sarah Parker, the first headmistress of the infant department. The following day, Tuesday 22 August, she made the first of many entries in the school log book….

Headmistress Sarah jane Parker completes the first entry in the Whitehall Infant School log book, 22 August 1899. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Headmistress Sarah Jane Parker completes the first entry in the Whitehall Infant School log book, 22 August 1899.
(Walsall Local History Centre)


Coming Soon…. Whitehall Infants 1899-1923, covering the life of Sarah Parker (Woodward), teething problems, the new infant school and World War I .

My thanks to:
Walsall Local History Centre
Whitehall Infant School – especially Marie Poole

This article is dedicated to all those, loving or hating, that have trod the educational path to enlightenment at the Whitehall Infant School.

  1. wyrleyblog says:

    I would like to highlight this great little article from Johny G’s Walsall Lives blog – take a peek – https://walsalllife.wordpress.com/2014/11/12/whitehall-infant-junior-schools-an-ex-pupils-memories/

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