Where did your ancestors go to school?

By Matthew Jones, Assistant County Archivist

If you’re someone who enjoys researching your family history, there is a huge amount of archive material available at West Sussex Record Office and it’s not unusual for people to trace their roots back to the 1700s or earlier still.

Black and white school photograph. Four rows of boys, front row sitting cross legged on the floor, second row sitting on a bench, third row standing, and fourth row standing on a bench.
Boys at The Lancastrian School, Chichester, 1914 (WSRO E35/19/20)

But once you’ve compiled a list of names and dates, and drawn up a family tree, you may want to find out where your ancestors lived, where they went to school and what they did for a living.

Where they survive, school records are one of the sources that can help to put some “flesh on the bones” and tell you more about the day-to-day lives of your ancestors. They survive particularly well for the Victorian and Edwardian era, thanks to the Education Act of 1870 which placed new demands on schools to record information.

The admission registers are especially useful because they record every child enrolled at a school. They vary in the level of detail, but will usually record a child’s name and date of birth, date of admission, the father’s name and address, the name of any previous school, and the date of leaving.

Black and white photograph of school boys working at individual desks, five rows of five in total. Some faces are blurred, as if they moved when the photo was taken. The walls are bare, and a light from the ceiling is also exposed.
Children at Midhurst Grammar School, early 20th cent (WSRO E138/19/7/3)

They may also tell us why a child left the school and where they went. When a family moved away, the register may say that the child ‘left the parish’ or it may be more specific, saying ‘gone to Brighton’ for instance. A register may also record when a child started work, went into domestic service or, as was common in one register I looked at, ‘left to help mother’. Or it might simply say ‘age’, which indicates that the child had reached the school leaving age.

But it can be quite difficult to find out where an ancestor went to school, especially if you have no idea where the family was living. If it happened to be a large town, you would need to look up the names and addresses of all the schools in the area at the time, see whether any records survive, and then search each of them in turn for any evidence of your ancestor.

Thankfully, this task got a little easier after the Record Office took part in a national project to digitise and index the pre-1914 admission registers and provide access to them on the family history website Find My Past (www.findmypast.co.uk).

If you would like to use the website but don’t want to fork out on a subscription, you can take advantage of their two-week free trial or, better still, you could visit the Record Office or any of the libraries in West Sussex where it’s available free of charge.

And for those who are able to visit the Record Office, there may be other school records, such as photographs, magazines and reports. The most popular records, aside from the admission registers, are the log books compiled by the headteacher. These are freely available once they are over 100 years old and provide a day-to-day account of what was going on in the school: anything from the effects of bad weather or sickness on attendances to the school’s performance in teaching pupils how to read, write and add up.

The log book of Cocking National School, for instance, makes for fascinating reading. Average attendance in early February 1881 was 88 children, but things were very different just a few weeks earlier. On 21 January, it records: ‘There has been but one day’s school this week owing to the severe snowstorm which commenced last Tuesday morning. On that morning only 10 children presented themselves; the next day 4; the next 2; and the next none at all.’

Black and white school photograph. Three rows of children, sitting, standing, and standing on benches.
Children at school in Camelsdale [1907-1911] (WSRO PH 17448)

On 13 June 1881, it reads: ‘The Rev R Drummond Ash visited the school this afternoon and distributed rewards to those children who passed successfully in the Three R’s at the late examination. In the future, rewards will be given only to those children who, in addition to passing the three subjects successfully, have attended school at least 350 times during the past school year.’

Occasionally, the log books mention pupils, as in the case of George Woodford who attended Cocking National School in 1880. On 8 October, he was ‘punished for committing a dirty trick on another boy’s head….the same boy punished this afternoon for writing indecent words on his slate.’

On 2 August 1881, Flora Burroughs ‘was dismissed from the monitorship of the 3rd Standard as she was eating apples whilst in charge of the class.’

All in all, old school records are a wonderful resource and if you would like to know what documents survive for your area, try the Record Office’s online catalogue. You can find it using the link on our website (www.westsussex.gov.uk/ro).

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One thought on “Where did your ancestors go to school?

  1. Thank you, this sounds great – I will put school records on my list for when we are able to visit your office to find out more about the Bridger family. Regards Venessa Bolton



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