1. THE EARLY YEARS
In the early days of the village there was little or no education for most children. Families tended to be much larger than they are today and children, especially boys, were expected to start work at an early age to help supplement the family income. It was not unheard of for boys as young as eight to work in the coal mines. Illiteracy within the working classes was exceptionally high.
The only form of education on offer in Somercotes and other local villages in the early to mid-19th century was Sunday School, which took place usually after Sunday morning services. The lessons, however, often tended to concentrate on religious instruction, and not on the need to read or write.
A Children’s Employment Commission was set up, and in 1842 a report was published by John Michael Fellows titled “On the Employment of Children and Young Persons in the Mines & Collieries of Derbyshire & Nottinghamshire and on the State, Condition and Treatment of such Children and Young Persons”. The issue of the welfare of children and their education can be seen very clearly in the report. The commissioner interviewed children for the report and collected evidence on various aspects of their work and welfare, including those working at local mines and foundries. The evidence was included in the report and shocked many people. Each child interviewed was listed, and few are included below:
Interviews at the Somercotes Collieries, owned by the Butterley Iron & Coal Company
George Spencer – He is eight years old and has worked half a year. He comes at six to six with half an hour allowed for dinner. He goes to Riddings Methodist Sunday School and has been there for four years. He reads the Bible and spells pretty well. He drives the gin horse.
John Nitingale – He does not know how old he is and has worked for half a year where he picks over the stones and hammers off the dirt. …He goes to Ranter’s Sunday School at Summercotes. He reads the Testament. He is very ignorant and cannot spell neither cow nor coal.
Interviews at New Birchwood Collieries, owned by Humphrey Goodwin
Richard Gascoign – He is ten years old and has worked for three years for Mr. Goodwin. He goes to Mr. Goodwin’s Sunday School and is in easy lessons. He cannot spell cat or dog.
Hannah Fidler – She is thirteen years old and has worked a year at the pit mouth. She goes to Mr. Goodwin’s school and used to go to the day school in South Normanton. She reads the bible and can write her name and is, in general, more intelligent than any I have met with.
Interviews at the Riddings Ironstone Pits, owned by James Oakes & Company
George Daws – He is 15 years old and has worked for 7 years. He now hangs on and has 2s per day and is paid once a month. He goes to the Calvanist Sunday School at Riddings but cannot write yet, they teach him nothing. He has been four years to Sunday School. He reads the Testament. He cannot spell church or chapel.
John Watts – He is nine years old and has worked half a year driving the gin horse. He works from six to six with one hour for dinner. He goes to neither church nor chapel nor school. Cannot say a letter. He does not know what either bread or cloth are made from.
The above extracts represent only a very small portion of the interviews carried out for the report, which confirmed the shocking lack of education amongst working class families.
The owners of the factories and mines, whilst employing very young children, did understand the need for an educated workforce, and perhaps more importantly, understood their moral duty to the community who depended solely on the factories and mines for thir living. Many of the buildings used for schooling would, in fact, be sponsored or wholly paid for through the auspices of these benefactors.
The first dedicated schoolroom was built within the Methodist Chapel on Birchwood Lane in 1853. White’s Derbyshire History, Gazetteer & Directory of 1857 states “The Wesleyan Reformers’ Chapel, situated in Birchwood Lane was erected by John Smedley Esq., of Lea Bridge. It is a handsome building with tower and one bell. In connection with which is a good school, eligible for all the children in the village. The school-room is lighted with gas and heated with hot water, will accommodate about 200 children; average attendance 126”.
Each pupil was charged a small fee for attending. On the face of it, the school seems to have been well attended, and the appreciation of the local population can be seen in an article published in the Derbyshire Advertiser & Journal on Friday, 22 August 1856, part of which read: “… The inhabitants of Birchwood and neighbourhood have been for some time laid under deep obligation to the above named gentleman [John Smedley] for his munificence in providing a chapel and school accommodation in the village, and for the interest he has taken in the moral and spiritual welfare of its inhabitants…”
In the background to the development of schools within the parish were the Acts of Parliament that were being enacted throughout the latter half of the 19th century to establish compulsory, non-religious education for children, particularly in order to prevent child labour and exploitation. There was a general attitude that education was not only vital to the future of the country, but also a moral obligation. This can be seen even at local level, with the philanthropic activities of the likes of the Oakes and Seely families and the effort that John Smedley made in the design of Birchwood Chapel to include a schoolroom.
PHOTO: Somercotes Infants School, Sleetmoor Lane c.1910
2. THE FIRST SCHOOLS
The first school was built and opened in 1867 as a Church of England Infant School. It owed its existence to the generosity of James Oakes and Sir Charles Seely, who defrayed the cost of the building, and was situated on Sleetmoor Lane, on land opposite to the Salvation Army Citadel originally owned and donated by James Oakes.
A notice regarding the erection of the school was published in the Derby Mercury of 8 August 1866, which read: “TO BUILDERS – Persons desirous of Tendering for the Erection of National SCHOOLS and SCHOOLHOUSE, at Summercotes, near Alfreton, may inspect Plans, Specifications and Conditions of Contract at my office, 12, Corn-market. Bills of quantites may be obtained on payment of 10s., which will be returned to parties sending in a BONA FIDE tender. Tenders to be delivered, sealed and endorsed “Tender for Summercotes Schools”, at my office on or before Saturday the 18th inst. The lowest Tender or any other Tender not necessarily accepted. BENJAMIN WILSON, Derby 6th August, 1866. Architect.”
It was a mixed school, teaching both boys and girls together. Kelly’s Directory of 1895 records the mistress of the school as Miss Elizabeth Jones. The school was typical of the time, with children of different ages all being together in one large classroom. This school would have concentrated not just on reliligion, but also on literacy and numeracy.
The National School League was formed in 1869, its purpose to campaign for free, compulsory and non-religious education for all children. This campaign resulted in the 1870 Education Act, which allowed voluntary schools to carry on unchanged, but established a system of 'school boards' to build and manage schools in areas where they were needed. The boards were locally elected bodies which drew their funding from the local rates. Unlike the voluntary schools, religious teaching in the board schools was to be 'non-denominational', and emphasis would be made on literacy and numeracy. However, the Act did not make education compulsory.
PHOTO: Somercotes Boys School, Class II, taken outside of the School House with the Church of St. Thomas in the background c.1900.
A National Boys school was erected in Somercotes in 1874 fronting Nottingham Road, at a cost of £2500 which was defrayed by Thomas Haden Oakes and Sir Charles Seely. Kelly’s Directory of 1895 records the headmaster at the time as Hezekiah Hicking, who remained there for many years. A School House was also built next to the school. The school premises had a large playground, and for its time, modern facilities. At the time, it was thought that the education of boys was more important as they would become the next generation of workers. The education for girls, whilst learning to read and write, would concentrate more on the domestic aspect of life. The opening of the school generated a short article in the Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald, published on 22 August 1874: “SOMERCOTES – OPENING OF NEW SCHOOLS – The handsome National Schools which have recently been erected to provide a sound and religious education for the rapidly increasing population of Somercotes and Birchwood, were opened on Monday last, under the superintendence of a certificated master and mistress”. Despite the report, however, a dedicated girls school would not be established for some years, and they were educated separately in in a part of the Boys School..
PHOTO: Somercotes Girls School, Pupils and Teachers c.1900
Whilst the Education Act of 1870 had not made education compulsory, a Royal Commission on the Factory Acts in 1876 recommended that it be introduced to stop child labour, and a further Education Act introduced in 1880 finally made it compulsory for all children between the ages of five and ten to attend school. This Act, of course, had repercussions. It meant that the number of children attending school would increase, and in the case of Somercotes and its catchment area, this would be added to an expected increase in the general population. The same year as the new Education Act came into force, an extension to the National Boy’s School at Somercotes was built, after which it had a capacity for 402 pupils.
Although children were now, by law, required to attend school, many, in poor industrial areas in particular, did not. There was still a strong feeling in many communities that boys should work and contribute to the family income as soon as they were physically able. It is not known how many children from the local villages attended school at this time, but nationally, the figure is recorded as 82% of those eligible. Many continued to work outside school hours, and truancy was rife. Until 1891, fees for schooling were often payable, adding to the burden of already overstretched families.
In 1893, the age at which children were required to attend school was raised to 11 years, and in 1899, to 12 years.
With the increase in population and the extension to the school leaving age, the small school on Sleetmoor Lane was unable to cope, and plans for new premises were drawn up. A dedicated National Girl’s School was built on Victoria Street, and opened in April 1894 at a cost of £2000. It was built at the expense of James Oakes & Co. and the Babbington Coal Co. (at the time owned by the Seely family). A year after opening, Kelly’s Directory for 1895 recorded the mistress as Miss Mary Jane Heath. At the time this school was built, Victoria Street had only been developed on the west side. It was the ideal place to build the new school, as it backed on to the National Boys School. A small unadopted right-of-way was left between the two schools, so that the main entrance to the boy’s school could still be accessed.
PHOTO: Somercotes Girls School, date unknown
With the increase in leaving age and the new school being built, changes were made by the local education board. The school on Sleetmoor Lane became an infant’s school, educating five to seven year olds, whilst the two boy’s and girl’s schools catered for those from seven to the leaving age of twelve.
In 1903, the schools became Council Schools under the control of the Derbyshire Local Education Authority. The effect of compulsory education can be seen in the census return taken in 1911. At this census, a document was filled in by the head or member of the household, not by the enumerator. In the returns for Somercotes and district, nearly all of the documents have been completed and signed by a member of the household, implying that the vast majority were literate.
3. THE SECONDARY MODERN SCHOOL
The Fischer Act of 1918, a further Education Act devised by Herbert Fisher, enforced compulsory education from five years to 14 years, increasing the minimum leaving age by two years. Once again this put pressure on the local education board to find the necessary places for pupils. The population of the area, Somercotes in particular, seemed to still be growing at an increasing rate and it was becoming an important village in the industrial and economic welfare of the county. It was agreed that a new school should be built and land, originally owned by Joseph Bown, was purchased off Bank Street, Somercotes. It would cover a large area, backing onto the recreation ground, and include a separate field within walking distance that was converted into a sports field with football pitch and running tracks.
PHOTO: Secondary Modern School, the inner quagrangle. The photograph is thought to date from the 1940s.
Originally titled the “Modern Central School”, the first pupils were transferred from the older schools in the January of 1933. It was officially opened on 2nd March that year by Professor H.A.S. Wortley MA of University College, Nottingham. The Belper News reported on the event, and an extract from the article is transcribed below:
“MOST MODERN SCHOOLS
Opening of £22,686 Building at Somercotes
Accommodation for 640
Derbyshire’s most modern elementary schools – Somercotes Senior Council – which have been in use since the Christmas vacation, were formally opened on Thursday by Professor H.A.S. Wortley MA of University College, Nottingham. Unfortunately, due to the heavy snowstorm which blotted out the landscape, it was not possible for the visitors to see properly the beautiful building and the grounds, which cover about 7½ acres. It is, perhaps, one of the most complete elementary schools in Derbyshire and the Midlands, and Somercotes and Riddings have justifiable pride in this enterprise of the Derbyshire Education Committee. It has been erected for boys and girls aged 11 years upwards. The contract for the building was £22,686, and, in addition, there is the cost of furnishing, which is on the most modern lines. Mr P. G. Feek (County Director of Education) expressed the view that it was a big amount, but well worth the money. The schools are in the centre of Somercotes and within easy reach of Riddings for which children a dining room is included in the block.
Mr Feek presented a statement and a description of the building, and expressed regret at the absence owing to indisposition of the county architect (Mr. G H Widdows), who was responsible for the design of the school. The action of the Education Committee had not been precipitate, because the scheme was first discussed in 1924, and in December 1925 they purchased 4½ acres of land for the school. Then, recently, they added three acres of land, so that with the public recreation grounds quite near there was plenty of space and accommodation for sport. The school had accommodation for 640 children – 16 classes for 40 pupils. Mr Feek explained how the other local schools had been reorganised. In the old Infants School handwork and practical science would be taught, and they would one of the best manual training schools in the county. The new block, he continued, embraced an assembly hall, 16 classrooms, cookery and laundry departments, a dining room for children coming from a distance for whom meals would be provided, but not free. There was accommodation for gardening, games, and the school provision was as good as any in the county…
“You are in the school of today here” said Prof Wortley, “I wish Mr Widdows [the architect] had been here for many reasons. I am never tired of telling people that Mr Widdows has done much, if not more, than any other man for the boys and girls of Derbyshire in planning beautiful schools. This is one of his latest and probably one of his best schools. To my mind it represents an up-to-date ideal in the development of schools, and one of the best designs.”
The above transcript is only a part of the article that was printed. The newspaper goes on to report that the headmaster was Mr. E. Best and the headmistress was Miss Riley. The article refers to the school in plural, due to the fact that there were in fact two schools within the one complex. It was built in 1930s art-deco style with two wings with a dining room and gymnasium at either end, forming a quadrangle in the centre. One wing was the Girls School, and the other the Boys School. The two long sides housed the 16 classrooms, eight on each side. The gymnasium, sports field and other facilities were shared. In addition to the main school, a further long prefabricated type building was erected to one side, which accommodated the woodworking and metalwork classrooms.
PHOTO: Secondary Modern School, the Boys Classroom Wing. The photograph is thought to date from the 1940s.
The opening of this school once again affected the other existing buildings. The old infants school on Sleetmoor Lane was closed around this time. On its closure, it was refurbished through the generosity of W. H. Abbott, and converted into a Church Hall. It became a dance hall in the 1940s, making it a popular venue throughout the following years. The Girls School on Victoria Street became a mixed Infants School, catering for five to seven year olds, and the Boys School became the mixed Junior School, for eight to eleven year olds.
Under the Education Act of 1944, the Modern Central School became a Secondary Modern School. Not all pupils would move directly from the junior school to the senior school. This Education Act also brought in the “11-plus” examination. Those few who passed the exam would be sent to a Grammar or Technical School, while those who failed, the vast majority, would attend the senior school.
During the 1966/1967 term, the school made a fundamental change, and became a mixed school, with both sexes attending the same classes. Exactly what pupils thought of this new arrangement can only be guessed, but certain changes had to be made, especially to the operation of the boys school. For example, until this integration of the schools, the boys used to line up in the playground before assembly to be “inspected” in class order. This was stopped with immediate effect once the classes were mixed. The headmaster, Mr Henry Redfern became the master of the new combined school, while Mrs, Gledhill, headmistress of the Girls School became Deputy Head.
PHOTO: Secondary Modern School, Boys Class Photograph, c.1962
In 1969, the school changed its name to Somerlea Park, to more readily reflect that pupils from Somercotes, Leabrooks, Riddings, Ironville and Codnor Park where all included within its catchment area.
Preparations had begun to raise the school leaving age to 16 years as early as 1964, although these were delayed. In 1968, the age was raised to 15 and eventually the decision was taken in 1971 that the new upper age limit of 16 should be enforced from 1 September 1972 onwards. Other changes in traditional family life, with women working and contributing to family finances meant that infants would also need to be catered for
A fire in 1973, caused by an act of arson, destroyed half of the school (originally the Girls School) and the gymnasium. The classrooms and gymnasium that had been destroyed were never rebuilt, and the school merged with Swanwick Hall, which by then had changed from a Grammar School into a Comprehensive, and all senior pupils were transferred. The school at Somercotes was downgraded to a Junior School.
Changes again occurred to the structure of education within Somercotes. The Infants School on Victoria Street and the Junior School on Nottingham Road became a Nursery and Infants School, with the old senior school remaining a Junior School.
PHOTO: Somerlea Park School, aftermath of the arson attack, 7 May 1973.
In 2000, the Junior School had nine classrooms and a hall, used for assemblies, physical education and as a dining room. On the school site is a county library, and all the school children are members and encouraged to visit regularly. The school also had a community room that was used by a mother and toddler group. In 2000 there were approximately 235 children on the school roll.