August 2018 Reviews


1. THE TOLL ROADS OF BUCKINGHAMSHIRE 1706-81 with their connections into neighbouring counties by Peter Gulland Show more → Show less ↓

(Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society 2017 x+318pp ISBN 978-0-9957177-3-2) £12+£3 p&p from Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society, County Museum, Church Street, Aylesbury HP20 2QP

This book deserves the attention of local historians concerned with recent centuries in every part of England and Wales. Rather in the nature of a technical handbook or manual, it provides a clear and concise guide to the turnpike road system, answering almost all the questions that might asked by members of a local historical society following a lecture on the subject. The introductory chapter of 62 pages explains how trusts were established, and how they carried out routine maintenance and minor improvements. It describes their milestones and mileposts, tollgates, weighing machines and toll keepers’ accommodation, and analyses their finance, levels of traffic as reflected by toll receipts, and their long-term impact and legacy. The book is well-referenced but a bibliography would have been a worthwhile addition. The second section examines the 24 individual trusts in Buckinghamshire, describing their historical backgrounds, detailing original and continuation Acts of Parliament, and providing evidence about maintenance and improvements, toll gates, mileposts, finance and winding-up processes.

The roads are very varied. The straggling shape of Buckinghamshire determines that many of the radial routes from London to the north and west pass though the county for short distances. For example, the Colnbrook turnpike dating from 1727 is a 13½ mile section of the Bath Road; the 12¼ mile Beaconsfield-Stokenchurch road, turnpiked in 1719, was part of the route from London to Oxford through High Wycombe; and so was the 7½ mile Red Hill and Beaconsfield turnpike of 1751. Unsurprisingly, the first turnpike road in the county, dating from 1706, was the Roman Watling Street between Hockcliffe and Stony Stratford, later the Holyhead Road. The title rightly emphasises that the book covers roads connecting into neighbouring counties, such as the longest considered in the book, the rambling 50-mile route from Hatfield through Amersham, High Wycombe and Marlow to Reading, turnpiked in 1767. Appendices summarise mileages and toll income in 1836 for each trust, together with the mileage of new-built road, the numbers of toll gates, weighing machines and side bars, and the status of the roads in 1919.

The book provides many illuminating insights into the history of the landscape. On the road from Buckingham through Brackley to Banbury, for example, there is a marked contrast between the sinuous sharply-graded road east of Westbury, which remains in the state in which the trust took it over in 1791, and the easy curves and smooth gradients of most of the route between Westbury and Banbury, a large part of which was newly-built by the trust between 1790 and 1814. The book provides insights into the workings of turnpike trusts that are of national as well as regional significance, and the computations of how many miles were newly-built by each trust are particularly valuable.

There are a few surprising omissions. No use has been made of Thomas Telford’s reports on the Holyhead Road in the Parliamentary Papers, which throw light on the state of the route between Hockcliffe and Stony Stratford in the 1820s and ‘30s, and the author errs in suggesting that Telford standardised mileposts on the English section of the Holyhead Road. It is surprising that the Hockcliffe and Woburn and Newport Pagnell-Northampton roads have not been identified as part of the road from London to Manchester and Glasgow described in C.G. Harper, The Manchester & Glasgow Road (1907), one of several accounts of roads published in the 1890s and 1900s that are nostalgic but nevertheless contain useful information. Nevertheless these are trivial flaws in a book that many local historians will find enlightening.

Barrie Trinder is the author of many books and articles on urban and industrial history, particularly in Oxfordshire and Shropshire, and was a joint author with Jamie Quartermaine and Rick Turner of Thomas Telford’s Holyhead Road: the A5 in North Wales (Council for British Archaeology, 2003). His major work Britain’s Industrial Revolution: the Making of a Manufacturing People was published by Carnegie in 2013. He lives in active retirement in Olney, Buckinghamshire.

2. RECORDS OF HOLTON PARK GIRLS’ GRAMMAR SCHOOL (1948-1972) edited by Marilyn Yurdan Show more → Show less ↓

 (Oxfordshire Record Society vol.71 2017 269pp ISBN 978-0-902509-87-0)

Both female prime ministers of this country attended state single-sex grammar schools. The current occupant of the post went to Holton Park Girls’ Grammar School and this collection of records focuses on the school during its comparatively short life of 24 years. The editor is also an alumnus of the school. The bulk of the records comprise the regular reports written by the headmistresses and the governing body.  There are also some other sources including illustrations and a short series of pupil reminiscences at the end—by no means all complimentary. The final part of the book also provides a series of reports on the amalgamation with another local school and the change from a selective to a comprehensive intake, something that appears to have been done with care and thoroughness as well as some sensitivity.

In many ways this is a fascinating insight into educational change still within living memory. It is particularly valuable for its take on female opportunities, and paints a mixed picture of life. Academic rigour was certainly there and great emphasis was placed on the examination results, initially the school certificate and later GCE O- and A-levels. The destination of sixth-form leavers was also highlighted: many went to teacher training colleges. Lofty ambition was not a hallmark. Comparatively few stayed on to the sixth form and while a broad curriculum was taught, there was still a strong emphasis on domestic science. The headteacher frequently bemoaned those leaving early and failing to fulfil their potential but the social and economic nature of the intake meant that a number simply could not afford to stay on. These were not all from privileged families and the times were not always economically propitious. There are reports of girls cycling to school because of the cost of the bus fare, a significant consideration in this predominantly rural school.

Even though these records relate to a period within living memory, they are sufficient to demonstrate how education has changed, and this is their real value. They give insight into the minutiae of school life (admittedly largely from the perspective of those in authority) in a particular type of education now largely gone—although a number of single sex grammar schools survive—and at a particular time in educational history which is not as well covered as, for instance, the Victorian period. This reveals both more and less freedom than today. Now, schools largely control their own budgets but then there was heavy reliance on the local authority. To compensate, there was less accountability with more freedom over the curriculum and less monitoring.  HMIs seem to have been much more supportive than current Ofsted arrangements. The rural girls’ grammar school might sound idyllic but there is evidence that it was not always. The buildings and facilities were not always suited to modern education. Smells, rats and floods all feature, as well as cramped conditions as the numbers increased. The reports sometimes contain a long list of buildings that needed decorating or updating. The teacher turnover was high and there was difficulty in attracting new staff, including cleaners and caretakers.  There was also a high incidence of staff illness.  Behaviour is rarely mentioned—an exception was concern over smoking—and attendance also seems to have been good,

The documents are arranged chronologically which makes it easier to spot changes and developments, beginning with the predecessor fee-paying Thame Girls Grammar School. The last headmistress from there seemed most reluctant to relinquish her grasp on the successor Holton girls. Pupils are usually referred to by initials but teachers and governors are identified. As the records progress, the changes towards a more familiar system become apparent—more facilities such as a swimming pool, the acquisition of technical equipment such as film projectors and epidiascopes and the use of broadcasting, more extra-curricular opportunities including visits that became more international, and loans came from libraries and museum services. Overall there were considerable opportunities for many of the girls—exchanges, residential visits, trips to industries and businesses, and a wide range of music, film, drama and sporting events.  Some prominent people visited the school to talk to the pupils, such as Gladys Aylward.  

Most girls arrived via the 11+ selection process but there were some exchanges both ways with local non-selective schools. The school was thus far from isolated and there were also more formal links with neighbouring schools—particularly the boys’ grammar school for some courses and plays. Work experience and volunteering locally was available to pupils in the later years. There was a great deal of careers advice and guidance from bodies such as the civil service, nursing, teaching and the WRAF. In time, visits became longer and often to London venues such as Wembley, Wimbledon, Heathrow airport, the Old Bailey or the Stock Exchange. Also increasing was the number of societies in the school, including history, first aid, international, debating and science clubs, all helped by the school’s minibus. The first mention of a Historical Association lecture was in 1962. Given its relatively late arrival on the educational scene, citizenship-type activities seem to have had some prominence at Holton Park with an emphasis on equality, human rights and service. Christian values were heavily promulgated despite this being a non-denominational school.

It is fortunate that a considerable archive exists for the school and that the Oxfordshire Record Society saw fit to publish this collection, and especially the reports by the headmistresses. Although largely designed to paint a positive picture of the school, they are not short on the problems and difficulties faced by pupils and staff.   They add human detail to events such as the bad winter of 1963. It was never a large school—only latterly did it have two-form entry—but its records are extremely readable. For those of us who went through a similar type of education in the 1960s, they provide memories both good and bad. 

Until June 2018 Tim Lomas was chair of the British Association for Local History. He was formerly an education inspector and adviser.

3. A VILLAGE OF SCHOOLS A study of education in the village of Combe Down, Bath 1727-2000 by Jill Woodhead Show more → Show less ↓

(Combe Down Heritage Society 2017 111pp ISBN  9 780955 065552) £6

Many school histories have at least one illustrious former pupil who can be called upon to provide memories. In this case it was the last surviving First World War Tommy, Harry Patch, who recalls some of his school days.  This book was clearly a labour of love for the author, recounting chronologically the educational history of a community which changed rapidly—from its early focus on quarrying to its more recent role as a suburb of Bath. The chronology is divided into periods, each covering a phase of school development. Attempts are made to link the provision of education with the social and economic changes taking place. The book is amply illustrated, although the images tend to be rather small and are not always related to Monkton Combe (some having captions on the lines of ‘this is not XX but it is like it’.

The early developer of the area was Ralph Allen, who opened many quarries locally and showed an interest in education. Early schools were the dame schools and Sunday Schools attached to chapels in which, it is interesting to note, writing and arithmetic were sometimes rewards for good behaviour. The range of provision, especially after the early nineteenth century was very varied – infants’ schools, upper schools, commercial schools, private schools, special needs (in the earlier days referred to in terms now unacceptable), workhouse schools, schools for ladies and schools for maladjusted boys.

Considerable attention is paid to the teachers and the contrast in quality and commitment over the last two centuries. The latter chapters have nothing but praise but five teachers in the upper school in the mid-nineteenth century were unsatisfactory. They were unqualified and advice was sometimes proffered on how they could improve: ‘Quit the Volunteer Rifle Company as it is the cause of expense and a temptation to overmuch festivity’.  Not all saw teaching as a vocation for life—one woman, for instance, was a teacher between working as a dressmaker and becoming a lodging house keeper. 

There are many interesting snippets and the author is well-versed in educational changes. The story is largely brought up to date, covering changes such as the national curriculum. The effect of war is also embraced, with interesting detail such as the effect of Circular E80 about blackberry picking during the First World War. As with many school histories, there are descriptions of challenges in more recent times. Overcrowding was a particular issue.

There are a couple of niggles.  Some points lack substantiation (‘one must assume that ...’) and sometimes there are subjective judgments about people (terms such as ‘diligent’ or ‘wayward’) and over-broad generalisations such as ‘the school entered the century in good heart’. Some sections are a little brief, being little more than captions, while the analysis of more recent times could be rather more evaluative, although this is always a challenge with very recent local history where there is a justifiable desire not to offend. But there is much of interest and value in this well-produced addition to the Monkton Combe Heritage Society series. Its detail about locations and individuals means that it will be of greatest value to people who know the community well, but there is plenty to interest local historians more generally.

Until June 2018 Tim Lomas was chair of the British Association for Local History. He was formerly an education inspector and adviser.