The Methodist-led religious revival of the 19th century attached great importance to Bible reading, and this resulted in the establishment of many Sunday Schools, some of which developed into full-time day schools, funded by the Church. Widespread illiteracy among both children and adults was condemned in parliament by the powerful religious lobby, and eventually the government was forced to legislate. The 1870 Education Act encouraged the establishment of schools in areas not yet covered, through state grants. The Church of England was a particularly active school-builder in Devon, and a letter of 20 September 1870 from the Vicar of Branscombe, the Reverend Henry Tomkins (1868-1872), to the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette and Daily Telegram, announced plans to build a school.
A meeting of parishioners was held in Church House (now demolished), which resolved to establish a Public Elementary School in the village, to be supported by voluntary effort, aided by annual grants from the Government.
The last village patriarch, Henry Ford, donated the land for the school. It had formerly been an orchard. It was made over to the Vicar and Churchwardens forever. A relative of the new Vicar, Robert Swansborough (1872-1910), designed it and drew up the plans. The cost was estimated at £1,100. Henry Ford was a churchwarden for more than 30 years, served on the County and District Councils, on the Honiton Board of Guardians and as a Justice of the Peace. He died in 1908.
In the event, a government building grant was refused, the first blow in what has proved to be a complex and sometimes acrimonious relationship between the Branscombe community and education authorities over the years.
Undeterred by the setback, the community went ahead anyway, and built the school entirely by public subscription. It was completed in 1878, when the population of Branscombe was just under a thousand. The school would accommodate 150 boys, girls and infants. The first class was held on the 15th of March 1878. 52 children were present - this would rise to 100 within a year.
"The children are in a very backward state" reported the Master, "not more than one half are able to make their letters or figures."
The Reverend Swansborough taught Religious Instruction and helped in discipline. He was described as a formidable figure who "... put the fear of God in us." Sadly, a few pupils were deemed incorrigable, and expelled.
At first, lace-making was included on the curriculum, continuing the tradition of the dame schools which had now ceased in the village. Mrs Swansborough conducted needlework classes.
Under an 1876 Act, grant-maintained schools adopted a policy of compulsory attendance for all children over 5, but this was widely ignored, at least until the end of the century. Branscombe School, being private, had its own rules about attendance. Children in rural communities like this had an important economic role to play in their families, especially if they were farmer's children. They were expected to put these responsibilities before their school attendance, and so were often absent. Typical excuses found in the attendance register for these early years are:
`Had to help with ploughing and harvesting ... with the animals ... with planting and lifting potatoes ... fishing ... picking apples, blackberries, dandelion flowers for wine ... harvesting seaweed.'
A shipwreck or foxhunt would also see most of the older boys go missing. Younger children might be asked by their family to walk to Seaton and back to fetch a bottle of medicine, or to collect rabbits from farms for sending to market. All were considered, by parents who were themselves uneducated, to be more important than the child attending school.
Local festivals would close the school entirely for days at a time. There were the Beer and Seaton regattas, the Methodist Sunday School outing, Branscombe Village Fair in September (recently revived), Colyton and Honiton Fairs, and Bonfire Night (November 5th - Guy Fawkes' Night).
A new distraction arrived in 1907, when the first cars came to the village. It's said the boys would use any excuse to desert their desks at the first sound, so they could help push them up Bridge Hill.
Not all interruptions to lessons came from outside. On one occasion when Mrs. Ford, wife of the school's patron, was sick, the children were marched over to Lower House to sing beneath her bedroom window. Absence due to bad weather was also common, especially in winter, through flooded roads and snow. Many children walked at least 2 miles to school (and 2 miles back). There was no other form of transport. Roads were of rough flint and would be knee-deep in water after rain. The low-lying land near the old ford where the village hall now stands was prone to flooding. Children had to be carried across, or miss their lessons. There were no school dinners or any kind of refreshment. The old bakery near the smithy used to sell "tommy loaves", miniature cottage loaves with currents, especially for children's lunches. But not all children could afford them. Occasional thefts of food were reported in the school Log Book.
Coughs, colds, and even bronchitis were not unusual. The school was heated by open coal fires, and coal was in strictly limited supply. There were sometimes epidemics of mumps, measles, whooping cough or scarlet fever, which would close the school for as long as a month or more. In 1900 an epidemic of diptheria resulted in three deaths in two months. The wartime coal shortage of 1917 resulted in the following entry in the Log Book:
`It is so cold the big girls were unable to put on their boots owing to chilblains.'
Elementary education did not become free until 1891. Parents paid a penny a week per child. Farmers, regarded as wealthier, paid tuppence. By the end of the nineteenth century, it was common for children to attend school from the age of 3, until an Act of 1918 set the minimum age at 5. Up to 1891, for government grant-aided schools, a system of inspection ensured only the three R's, "Reading, Riting and Rithmetic", were taught.
As the twentieth century got under way, the school toilets, called "offices" became an embarrassment and, eventually, a health hazard. As late as the 1950s, they were still the original earth-dug closets. On rare occasions, a "scavanger" would come along and clean them out. Water had to be carried from the old post office until a well was dug, although the water from this was declared unfit to drink, in 1937.
Until the village hall was built, the school was the only public room for business and pleasure. Concerts and whist drives, dances, council meetings, were all held there. When the church was being restored 1910-11, it was used for services. All the names recorded on the war memorial are old scholars.The Education Act of 1944 demanded upgrading of the facilities, as a result of which the school managers decided to give up their independence and apply for grant-controlled status, under the local education authority. Consequently, the school became a government one from October 1952. In 1956 electric lighting installed, and in 1957 the old earth closets were finally filled in, and the water buckets hung up for good, when the school was connected to the sewerage and water systems.
On three occasions since 1965, the school has faced threats of closure by the education authority. It has always been defeated by local opposition, but each new round of Council spending cuts raises the spectre once more.
Branscombe School celebrated its centenary in 1978 with the publication of an excellent booklet, "One Hundred Years of A Village School", by Ethel McWilliam, from which most of these notes and anecdotes have been taken.