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Denham’s education history on the national scene

In this supplement to the August 2020 education theme “The Happiest Days of Our Lives”, we take a long ago look at how education developed in Denham against the background of national developments.

The earliest known organised school in England was established at the end of the sixth century by St. Augustine.  His church in Canterbury included a school for the study of religious texts. As it was not until many centuries later, at the time of the 16th century Reformation, that these texts including the Bible itself were published in the languages of the “common people”, it was necessary that priests and religious scholars should be able to read and write in Latin.

More church based schools followed in the seventh and eighth centuries. As they taught Latin grammar, they were known as “Grammar” schools. It is a term that has survived to the present day.

By the end of the 11th century there was a university in Oxford, the second oldest in the world. Cambridge followed in 1209, the second oldest in the English speaking world after Oxford.

It was the English Reformation in the mid-16th century that was the catalyst for an expansion in educational provision as the need arose to educate the priesthood in the new ways of the Protestant religion. New colleges were established in Oxford and Cambridge. Grammar schools were established as foundations endowed from the fortunes of merchants taking feesand run on commercial lines, advertising their services in newspapers. They saw themselves as part of a growing market for education. A reformed system of free grammar schools was established during the short reign of the boy king, Edward VI (1537 – 1553).

The period towards the end of the 17th century in England was one of rapid change with a population drift towards town and cities. With this drift came much urban child poverty, a perceived moral decay and increased religious diversity which threatened the established church. It was all a cause of great concern to Christian minded philanthropists and reformers.  They looked to education as a response and a Charity School movement began at the end of the 17th century, continuing into the 18th century. Charity schools were less formal than grammar schools. Many of them in fact owed their existence to the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SPCK), founded in 1699. It was an expressed aim of the Society to spread Christian knowledge as a form of missionary activity.

During the 18th century the Society's leaders created schools for the poor in the 7-11 age group wherever it could. It is from these schools that the modern concept of primary and secondary education has grown. The SPCK also concerned itself with the training of teachers, and to some extent introduced a sense of professionalism to teaching.

There were others - to the modern reader rather idiosyncratically called “dame schools”. These were often run by elderly ladies or retired soldiers who for small fees taught the basic 'three Rs' - reading, writing and arithmetic - to the children of poorer tradesmen.

It is against this background that in 1721 Sir William Bowyer, Baronet of Denham Court and then remarkably for his times a grand old man of 81, established a Charity School. A plaque on the wall of Bowyer House in the village still records:

"In the year of Our Lord 1721, This Charity School was Erected by Subscription of ye Inhabitants of this Parish and Other well-disposed Persons and is perpetually Endowed by Sir William Bowyer Bart, of Denham Court with Thirty Pounds Pr. Annum. Go and Do Likewise."

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries the people’s education progressed. However, education for the poor and “labouring classes” was not universally favoured. As late as 1807 when the Parochial Schools Bill was debated in the House of Commons, MP Davies Giddy,then President of the Royal Society, warned the House ….:

However specious in theory the project might be of giving education to the labouring classes of the poor, it would, in effect, be found to be prejudicial to their morals and happiness; it would teach them to despise their lot in life, instead of making them good servants in agriculture and other laborious employments to which their rank in society had destined them."

We do not have information about how well the Bowyer Charity School thrived, but we do know that it survived. Its first schoolmaster was one Thomas Singleton, who in 1722 successfully appealed against his liability to pay the six shillings per year Window Tax for his accommodation at Bowyer House – a small but worthwhile saving (£70 today) to his disposable income.

By 1841 the school was still fully functioning. Fortunately, Davies Giddy’s views had not prevailed. Spurred on by the Industrial Revolution with its demand for new skills, education had been secularised and made more accessible to the poor. In 1818 John Pound established the “ragged school” in Portsmouth to provide free tuition in reading, writing and arithmetic for poor children. In 1820 Samuel Wilderspin opened the first infant school in Spitalfields in London. In Denham in 1841 William and Sarah Alsop were in charge of the Charity School, assisted it seems by Mary Ann Atkinson, schoolmistress and John Cheesman, schoolmaster.

It is an interesting feature of these records that there were two female teachers in the village in 1841 one of them clearly Mrs. Alsop. As the public education service developed throughout the 19th century in England and Wales, it became the practice of many education authorities in England and Wales to ban married women from teaching and it was not until 1919 that this practice was abolished by Act of Parliament. Wisely Denham’s Charity School would have none of this.

In 1851, the village boasted 46 “scholars”, the large majority of them clearly of what Giddy had described as the labouring classes.

Mary Ann Atkinson was clearly a village stalwart. Still identified as a schoolmistress Mary Ann appears, aged 70, in the 1861 census, now it seems assisting Samuel and Elizabeth Mason alongside their daughter, also Elizabeth, as a pupil teacher. The village then had 46 scholars, two of them the Mason children.

In 1833 the Government had, for the first time, provided money to build schools for poor children in England and Wales. In the eight years beginning in 1844 over 200 new schools providing free education were established. By 1870 2.3 million children in England and Wales were in school.

But 2 million others were not. The Elementary Education Act 1870 then began the process of mass state funded educational provision. In 1878 the new Elementary School opened in Cheapside Lane. The Bowyer Charity School had served the village very well. In 1881 it was still remembered as “The Old School House” though now occupied by Carpenter George Williams, his wide Eliza and their seven children, three of whom Kate, William and Algernon were scholars then  presumably at the Cheapside school.

The second Mary Ann Atkinson, daughter of the schoolmistress of 1841, carried on, proudly entering her profession in the 1881 census return as “formerly a teacher”.

The influence of the churches, particularly that of the Catholic and Anglican churches on education in England and Wales has survived to the present day and indeed, it must be said. has contributed to the sometimes confusing multiplicity of types of school which confronts parents making choices about their children’s education. It was in 1944 that Parliament legislated to create a full, state funded, national education service and this meant bringing the long-established church based schools into the national structure. For their part however the church authorities were rather less than enthusiastic about losing control of their schools to the secular state. The differences of view were however further complicated by the fact that the churches could not always afford to continue maintaining all their schools.

The differences were reconciled by what has been called the “religious settlement” creating “county” schools (managed by local authorities - many of which were not in fact counties), voluntary aided and voluntary controlled schools (mostly church based schools but with different financial arrangements) and foundation schools (supported by foundations topped up with state funds). Now of course we also have academies which are state funded but not run by public authorities and the anomalous phrase “county school” has been replaced by the term “community school”. Denham Village School is a community school contrasted with the Denham Green school which converted from Tilehouse County School to become the Denham Green Academy.



1. The Bowyer Charity School is of course not the only school to have come to, to have served, and then to have gone from the village. Denham had its own secondary school in the form of the Alderbourne County Secondary School on what is now the Lindsey Road estate off Old Mill Road. Opened in 1956, the school was short lived and closed in the late 1970s. However former pupils and students do have their own Facebook page which has some fascinating stories and photos. It can be found at

2. Many of Denham’s pupils and students attend schools in Amersham, Beaconsfield, High Wycombe, Chalfont St. Peter and Gerrards Cross. We wouldn’t want to leave them out, but telling all these histories is beyond the scope of this project. However we will welcome story contributors with “Comments” on this post or by email to


Buckinghamshire Records Society - Buckinghamshire Sessions Vol. 5 1718 to 1724

Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

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