Two hundred years ago, ‘National Schools’ set up by the Church of England provided the only real chance of elementary education for most children in England until the 1870 Education Act brought the start of a system of state education. The Bonchurch National School building still stands next door to the Church on Bonchurch Shute, although the school closed nearly a century ago.
The school was a central part of village life – and although this role has now gone, the uncertainty of the weather is still the same as it always was, as this report from the IOW Mercury in August 1860 shows:
“Children had their annual treat provided by Rev Jocelyn Willey, who most liberally invited the families of a great number of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood to share in the amusements and hospitalities of the day. Clergy and many of the gentry were present. The grounds of Orchardleigh and Mountfield were the scene of the festivities. The tea tables and grounds were plentifully adorned with evergreens and flowers and, mingled with the joyous countenance of the children, it was altogether a gratifying sight. Unfortunately heavy rain curtailed the evening’s amusements.”
In 1883 Thomas Stears took over as headmaster of the Bonchurch Schools, and he and his family were to play a large part in the education of Bonchurch until the Schools closed in 1919. Thomas arrived in Bonchurch with his second wife Susannah, his first wife Emma having died in 1875 leaving Thomas with four young children – Susanna and Thomas went on to have eight children of their own. As well as raising this large family Susanna worked alongside her husband as a teacher at the Bonchurch School for many years, as did at least one of their daughters, Annie, who moved on in 1914 to become Headmistress of Albert Street School. The photographs attached here show Thomas and Susannah with children Annie (on Susannah’s right), Frank and Elizabeth (taken outside the school in about 1900) and children dancing round the maypole at Bonchurch School.
Thomas was clearly an energetic and sociable man. He had an excellent voice, and belonged to several Choral Societies as well as being the choirmaster at Bonchurch Church; he was also a member of the Ventnor Bowling Club, and an Isle of Wight Rifles Volunteer, serving as Sergeant in the Nunwell Company for seventeen years. When he died, the IOW Mercury described with admiration how “Throughout the Isle of Wight, we may say, Mr Stears was well known, his unbounding spirits, humour and good nature endearing him to all with whom he came into association . . . At Bonchurch, whenever anything was undertaken in the shape of celebrations or sports, it was the most natural thing possible to turn to Mr Stears when a secretary or helper was required . . . He was an active and useful member of the Ventnor Amusements Committee and those associated with him in this work will have very tender happy recollections of his whole hearted camaraderie . . . ”
When Thomas died in 1903, the National Schools were closed for the day so that the children could attend his funeral, and the same thing happened in 1919 when daughter Annie died. She died of influenza in 1919, presumably one of the millions of victims of the Influenza epidemic that followed the first world war, when more died than had on the battlefields. The IOW Mercury reported that: “The National Schools were closed for the afternoon, and several of the pupils attended the funeral . . . The service was intensely impressive and deep emotion was manifested especially by the children present . . . A pathetic incident marked the close of the obsequies, when the children of Bonchurch and other Schools passed in front of the grave and threw posies of flowers on.”
Thomas, Susannah, Annie and another daughter Winifred are buried at Bonchurch Church, and their gravestone can be seen just to the right of the entrance to the churchyard. After the school closed in 1919, the building was used for many years as a parish hall, but is now privately owned.
Lesley Telford, Ventnor & District Local History Society, photographs from our collection, and information from Fay Brown’s indexes. This article originally appeared in the South Wight Chronicle in 2016.