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BENSON SCHOOLS

Benson education in the 19th century by Peter Clarke
 
 
Reading both Tiller and Ditmas histories of Benson (pages 114 and 142 respectively) in the first half of the 19th century any children’s education seems at best sporadic. There seem to have been “Dames” schools for the lucky few, whose parents could afford the cost of a few pennies a week. In 1808, Benson had three day schools and four in 1815. There were also two Sunday Schools in 1815, one of them Methodist. A school was established in 1822 for the "poor boys of the parish". As this was supported by subscription, it was free to the pupils. By 1830, there were two "academies" listed in the Benson Trade Directory. The Rev. William Oram was the master of the "Gentlemen's Boarding and Day School and Catherine Oram was the mistress of the Ladies Boarding and Day School. 
 
 
The underlying motive for an [Anglican] education was given by the perpetual curate of Benson in 1849 when he wrote despairingly, “The Parish is over-run with Dissent.  Education is chiefly in their hands – the only thing to meet it is a school where the truth and Church principles are taught by an efficient master”.  The population was impoverished, “having of late years lost the chief source of employment through the railways, which have led to the entire discontinuance of 30 coaches that formerly changed horses here daily.  The people here are also much demoralised and careless about religion.”  A good school was thus essential “on every count.....if there is to be any hope of training up the rising generation in better ways”.
 
 
Needless to say, the Nonconfirmists didn’t think much of this approach!  The upshot was that in 1851 in Benson two schools opened.  The British School opened in Watlington Road, favoured by the Dissenters, whilst the National School was the Church of England’s school, as it remains to this day, now much extended.  Over the years, the existence of two such schools proved untenable, the British School finally closing in 1901.
 
 
Patrick Henry Clarke, Headmaster of Benson School
 
Readers are asked to excuse a personal aside at this stage.  Quite unbeknown to me until a few years back, I discovered that my Great Grandfather, Patrick Henry Clarke, accompanied by his wife Sarah Jane, occupied the School House in Benson in the early 1880s.  Having been a military schoolmaster in various Colonies (hence the uniform in this picture) he became, first, Headmaster in Tackley, north of Oxford, then Benson, before finally finishing his years as Headmaster at Stockcross near Newbury.  They seem to have produced a child everywhere they went.  They had ten in all, the first in Barbados! 

 

The schoolmaster's house at Benson School 

Patrick Henry Clarke

Frances Jane Clarke was born in Benson in 1883.  All this was quite unknown to me when as a child I first went to school here in the early 1940s, nor to my wife and I, when we had our first child, born in Wallingford Hospital in 1962, nearly 80 years later.  We christened her Francesca Jane!  How about that for coincidence?
 
 “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform”, as we recall from William Cowper’s hymn!
 
Peter Clarke 2012