There were few schools in Norfolk (or anywhere else for that matter) in the eighteenth century. The ones that existed were mostly located in market towns – it was very unusual for the children of a village to have any school nearby. The oldest school in the county is said to be Thetford Grammar School,which traces its history back to AD 631 when, as Bede (d. 735) records in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, St Felix the bishop of East Anglia set up a school to teach boys their letters. Bede does not say where, and Thetford is only a possibility. A later date, 1114, can be taken as the first reference to a school at Thetford; by then time it was already in existence as the manuscript makes plain. Next probably comes Norwich Grammar School, which is its current form was set up in the reign of Henry VIII’s son Edward VI, although it arose directly out of the medieval monastic school attached –as Norwich School still is –to the cathedral. But Thetford as the location of the previous cathedral must be the older school.
Gresham’s School was set up by Sir John Gresham in queen Elizabeth’s reign in 1555, the period which saw the creation of the English Public School system. It was need because the perfectly good educational arrangements of the nation had been thrown into disarray by the closure of the monasteries. There was nothing to take their place. Public Schools were, as the name suggests, originally intended to provide a free education to any intelligent boy of the locality, regardless of background. This free schooling never included the cost of boarding, and as the Public Schools became increasingly boarding schools the free element was lost. Eventually the endowments of most of the schools became inadequate even to provide free schooling for day boys.
Paston School was founded by Sir William Paston of the wealthy Paston family in 1606, and Hammond’s Grammar School was left an endowment by Nicholas Hammond in 1724. The school was to educate 20 local boys in reading, writing and arithmetic. These schools were all in Norfolk market towns; Holt for Gresham’s, North Walsham for Paston School and Swaffham for Hammond’s. There were others. By the early 19th century these schools all took boarders, 40 in the case of Hammond’s School, and up to 80 (in theory) at North Walsham, though the actual numbers were much smaller. Another school was Pennoyer’s, established in 1670 in Pulham St Mary. This was in a south Norfolk village, and as far as I am aware did not take boarders. It was exceptional early for a village to have a school, though it was next to Pulham Market (formerly a market town) and must have drawn many of its children from there.
My Uncle Tony attended Hammond’s Grammar School with his elder brother Eric as boarders in the 1920s. It must have been a good school because he went on to Cambridge to read science. (It is now a ‘failing school’ according to Ofsted; I don’t suppose it produces many Cambridge scientists these days.) Both Hammond’s School and the Paston School went on to be absorbed into the state system and became, in the case of Hammond’s School a comprehensive while the Paston School has become a sixth form college.
The way these various old schools have developed has been very different. Some closed while others became state schools, and others have flourished in the private sector. Pennoyer’s school continued into the late 20th century, finally closing in 1988 when the village lost its Primary School. It had been incorporated into the state system from the nineteenth century. Gresham’s School might similarly have closed or become a state school, only its founder Sir John Gresham left it a block of property in central London. Centuries ago the value of land in London was not vastly different from that in the rest of the country. For hundreds of years this property produced a pittance for the school, but the lease on these houses fell due in the last years of the nineteenth century, and enormous wealth thereupon descended on the small local school, which until then had still been housed in Sir John’s manor house in Holt. It had served the local community, even the boarders coming from North Norfolk. The most notable of its old boys became the first editor of the Eastern Daily Press, a strictly local kind of fame. This sudden outpouring of huge sums of money enabled the building of a large new campus on the Cromer Road, and the appointment of the forward thinking headmaster, G. W. Howson. It took on a national importance, attracting the families of W. H. Auden (born in York) and the Scot John (later Lord) Reith in the first quarter of the 20th century. By contrast the other schools had typically been endowed with the proceeds of a local farm, which became inadequate to support the growing educational demands of the twentieth century.
Thetford Grammar became a Voluntary Controlled school under the 1944 Education Act, resuming its independent (and fee paying) status in 1981. The Guild chapel in Wymondham dedicated to St Thomas Becket became the Wymondham Free School in 1561. Wymondham Grammar School closed in 1903 (until 2008 housing the town library), and five years later Hingham Grammar School (endowed in 1727) went the same way. If they could have held on a few more years they might have been rescued by the Government’s Direct Grant arrangement which in 1910 enabled them to join in the state system at least in part.
King Edward VI Grammar School had maintained its original purpose of providing a free education for the sons of Norwich citizens through the 17th and 18th centuries but, finding its endowment insufficient it became a fee paying school in the 19th. It joined the Direct Grant system in 1910, allowing it to offer some free places once more. This came to an end when the Wilson government ended the system in the 1970s, since when Norwich School has been a fee paying school once again.
From the time of their foundation all these Norfolk Grammar Schools sent a steady if small stream of pupils on to Cambridge University from where they emerged as Anglican churchmen or lawyers. There was of course no tradition of sending boys to Oxford. The Cambridge college with strong ties to Norfolk schools was Gonville and Caius, and this connection lasted well into the 19th century. The Headmasters of these schools were themselves clergy of the established church, and were mostly Cambridge men although a smattering of Oxford graduates appeared in the east. Most of the pupils, the sons of tradesmen, farmers and clergymen went on to similar employments. The Army and Navy also took a number; Nelson had attended both Norwich Free School (otherwise known as Norwich Grammar School or King Edward VI School and now simply as Norwich School) and the Paston School. Although Gresham’s School was considerably nearer to his home in Burnham Thorpe it was ignored in favour of these more prominent schools.
So far I have only mentioned education for boys. This is despite Norfolk having produced a succession of eminent women, from the fourteenth century mystic Julian of Norwich to Harriet Martineau the nineteenth century novelist. During the middle ages women were taught in convents where they had first to become nuns. In this they were no different from the boys who had to enter the religious life to receive an education. When Henry VIII abolished all religious houses in England he also abolished education. It took a several years to start rebuilding the education system for boys, starting under the reign of his successor Edward VI. The education of women was ignored for considerably longer. During the eighteenth century there were some schools for girls, as we know that Mary Sotherton (the daughter of the squire of Taverham) attended a boarding school for girls in Norwich. One of the accomplishments she was taught was to play the harpsichord. Boys would have been taught Latin and maybe Greek grammar and a little arithmetic. Norwich school also taughtg drawing in the early years of the nineteenth century under the artist John Crome. Only the very richest families were able to teach their children at home using governesses and tutors.
Since the Second World War nearly all the remaining private schools have become co-educational, as have the state secondary schools; the primary schools have always been for both sexes, although at Cromer there were separate entrances for boys and girls, as can still be seen on the old building. Gresham’s started admitting girls in the 1970s. Norwich school was still admitting only boys (until the sixth form) when my son was there in the 21st century. Now it is fully co-educational. I can think of only two schools, both for girls, which are single sex in Norfolk; Norwich High School for day pupils, and Hethersett Old Hall for boarders. Many have closed in the last forty years from Sutherland House in Cromer to the convent school in Ditchingham.
Education for either sex was the preserve of the rich and privileged, because even if the schooling was free the poor could ill afford to forgo the income which a child could bring in from an early age. For girls there was not the slightest possibility of free schooling once the nunneries had been closed by 1538. The first schools for the poor had to wait until the nineteenth century, when village schools for both boys and girls began to appear. Compulsory education had to wait until the Education Act of 1880, and even then the children had to pay a small fee until 1891, when free education from the age of five until ten became universal. Much of the pressure for compulsory education came from businessmen, who saw the increasing sophistication of manufacture (the central plank of 19th century economic growth) required an educated workforce.
This brief survey of education covers just one county, but extends to 1,500 years from the 7th to the 21st century. There is much more to say, and a lot of research could be done; I would like to include the neighbouring county of Lincolnshire, where Caistor Grammar school has had a 100% record in GCSE grades A to C for years, and the impressive building of the Magdalen College School in Wainfleet was in use as a school until the 1960s. William of Waynefleet who founded the Oxford College in the 15th century gave this building to the town. Such matters will have to wait; this article just gives you an overview of the many strands that make up the history of education in Norfolk.