Thursday, 26 December 2013

Elmley School

It's becoming increasingly sad to see the old Elmley Schoolhouse now pretty much in it's last death throws before it finally falls down, or has to be knocked down for safety's sake. It now looks even worse than this photo, taken a couple of years ago.

 It is some way from it's former glory, as this faded photo taken in the 1920's shows and in those days it still stood alongside the long-gone Elmley church.

But how did it all begin.
Well in 1872, schooling had become compulsory throughout the country and to accommodate this upsurge of children being forced into the classroom, new schools began to spring up in towns and villages everywhere. In 1841 the population on Elmley, Sheppey, was recorded as just 42, being made up of the main Kingshill farm and numerous small labourers' cottages dotted around the marshes. However by 1851 it had shot up to 131, the result of a short-lived brick making factory that started alongside the Swale there. By 1860 the brickworks had ceased to be, being taken over by a cement manufacturing factory on the same site. At it's height the Turkey Cement works had spawned a mini village alongside with a main street, numerous cottages and some houses, a pub-come grocers and a small dock. It meant that by 1891 the total population living on Elmley had risen to 219 people. This growing population, coupled with the farming inhabitants nearby, clearly needed the addition of a proper school out at Elmley. There are various dates given for when Oxford University, the owners of Elmley, built the new Public Elementary School (mixed) at Elmley, with 1885 being the most prominent. Whatever the actual date, the school was built around that time and was built on the high ground above the cement works, alongside the recently re-built Elmley church, midway between the works and Kingshill Farm. The school had a teacher's office, room for around 86 pupils and a small, separate toilet building.
A slight query to the above date concerns the 1881 Census, because recorded as living at Kingshill Farm that year were the family of  Thomas Goodwin, the farm bailiff and a 31 yr. old National schoolmistress Amy Wells from Deal. So either the school was built earlier than suggested or Miss Wells was already teaching from the farm or another building.

Clearly the living arrangements for the new school's mistress weren't appropriate because a budgetry inventory for all the buildings on Elmley through the years had this entry for 1885,  under  the heading -The School House.
1885 - 22 October; estimated cost of necessary repairs and alterations to north portion of farmhouse (Kingshill) in order to convert it into a residence for the schoolmistress - £53.10.0. Estimated cost for sundries, i.e. wicket gates, posts for new footway from farmhouse to church £3.5.0.
I understand that a concrete path was eventually laid from Kingshill farm to the school and church in order to make it easier for the schoolmistress to walk there and small lengths of the edging can still be found along there.
Although they don't appear to have been happy about it, local Rates for the schoolmistress's house had to be paid for by the various tenant farmers at Kingshill until 1913, when the tenant that year declined to do so, and so in the April of that year the Kent Education Committee finally agreed to pay them themselves.

Going back to there being room for 86 pupils, it's doubtful that an attendance figure of that magnitude was ever reached. Despite schooling being compulsory, children were still in the habit of "bunking off" at harvest time in order to earn a few coppers in the fields for their families. Sometimes school start times in September were even delayed in order to facilitate these needs. The highest average attendance that I have seen recorded was 49 in 1891, at the height of Elmley's population figures. Thereafter, with the closing of the cement factory by 1908, the population on Elmley dwindled as people moved away to find other work and by 1907 it was down to 146, 1911 - 50 and 1931 - 19. A school attendance figure for 1907-8 shows between 8 and 14 pupils and so the school was clearly feeling the effects.

Following on from the first schoolmistress, Miss Wells, the schoolmistress by 1891 was a 44 yr old widower by the name of Mrs Jane Beeby, originally from Essex. She had been replaced by 1904 by Mrs Jane Harris, a widower. She was still there in 1911 when the National Census recorded her as aged 60, a Certified Elementary Teacher born in Bloomsbury and living in the Kingshill School House.
From then on it has been difficult to find out the names of future teachers, although the school clearly remained open for many years after, despite the fact that it must of been reduced to educating just the few children of the farm labourers out there. The Gransden family farmed on Elmley for 45 years from the 1930's and the first four of their eventual 14 children were taught in the Elmley school until it's final closure in the early 1950's. After that, schooling for the Elmley children was given at Murston on the mainland side of The Swale and this involved the youngsters trecking across the fields to the Elmley Ferry and enduring the return trip across the tidal Swale in the rowing boat that served as the Ferry. Not an ideal situation, especially in the winter months and many days schooling were lost when adverse weather conditions made the trips impossible.

The Elmley church was pulled down in the 1950's and with the closure of the school around the same time, the school building quickly became little more than a storage building for the farm and even at one time, a chicken shed.


  1. It's a shame to see the schoolhouse in such a state of dereliction now, once the chimney stack falls, as it must surely do soon, there will be virtually nothing left. I don't know where I got the information from but I did hear that at one time Elmley was the smallest school in England with an attendance of just three pupils, two of which were the offspring of the Vicar who was also the teacher there!?I

  2. Mike,
    I've just had it made known to me by a guy on the Kent History Forum that the Western Gazette 7th Feb 1919, reported that KEC were considering closing the smallest school in England because it only had 5 children on its books, 3 being children of the teacher.

    1. I think that May have been my grandmother.

  3. Chinese whispers then but not too far off the mark!

  4. More very interesting Sheppey history, many thanks.

    I hope if the school has to be pulled down for safety reasons an owl box or two will be placed very close by to provide alternative nesting sites. There is at least one person on Sheppey making them at present, as you probably already know.



  5. That would certainly be the case, there are already owl boxes being occupied at Kingshill. I doubt any owls are currently using the school house though, its too open to the elements, a Little Owl perhaps.