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History of Ysgol Parc y Bont school from 1832 to 1872

The first school to be established in the parish of Llanedwen was that which became known as The Duchess of Kent’s School, a deed in relation to which recites that the expenses of the building were defrayed by money charitably given by Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Kent.

The Duchess and her royal companions visited Anglesey in the summer of 1832, being the honoured guests of the Marquess and Marchioness of Anglesey at their stately home, Plas Newydd, where they stayed for several weeks. The National Eisteddfod of Wales, held in Beaumaris in that year was honoured by the patronage of the distinguished visitors. The Duchess’ young daughter, Victoria, was one of the party, hardly realising at the time that within a few years she was to become Queen of England, and remain so for sixty-four years.

The school was erected on land given gratis by Lord Anglesey. The site selected was a piece of land forming part of the farm of Tyddyn Pwyth in a corner of a field astride the Llanfair P.G. – Brynsiencyn road at the junction of the roadway leading there from at Pont Goronwy road. Outwardly, the original school building remains almost the same as originally built. It was much renovated internally after its closure in 1872 when it became a private dwelling is still referred to as Yr Hen Ysgol (The Old School) by older inhabitants of the district.

The school was designed to provide education for poor children of the parishes of Llanddaniel, Llanedwen, Llanfair P.G. and Llanidan. It was to be under the control of trustees elected from each of the four parishes names. The premises consisted of a school, schoolmaster’s house and a few miscellaneous outbuildings.

Of this first school very little is known and even less about the kind of instructions given in it. As attendance at school in those days was entirely voluntary one hardly expected children from such far away scattered homesteads in Llanddaniel and Llanidan to attend. Such an establishment was in no way considered conductive to the enlightenment of children when their needs on farms and other pastoral employment were more in line with their natural inclinations, even at very tender ages.

In 1846 it was decided in parliament that a comprehensive survey be made on the state of education in Wales, This measure was carried out in Anglesey during the autumn and winter of that year and conducted by one Mr. H Vaughan Johnson as chief inspector, together with several assistants. The number of schools then on the island was given as sixty, none of which, including a few “Dame Schools” escaped the searching scrutiny of those sharp-eyed examiners. It is from their Report, subsequently published, that some knowledge comes to light regarding this school in Llanedwen. The report is as follows:

The Duchess of Kent School, Llanedwen Parish
“The new Church School at Llanedwen, Anglesey is in a similar state of neglect (comparison being made to the Union Workhouse School in St. Asaph); the promoters apparently considering that their duties are confined to the payment of an annual subscription. I found the schoolroom used as a receptacle for churning materials, gardening tools and sacks of flour. The master stated that he was very seldom visited. The total number present amounted to 29 out of 49 members. Of these, only 14 knew the alphabet, and none could read a simple sentence in the spelling book correctly. Six were writing illegibly upon paper and one had learned compound multiplication, 12 repeated the Church Catechism imperfectly, and all were very ignorant of Scripture and of the truths of religion, although questioned in Welsh and English. The master was formerly a sailor, he has never been trained for office of schoolmaster and no one assists him to give religious instruction. The attainments of this school reduce it to a level with the lowest description of private adventure schools, yet it is well supported by subscriptions to the amount of 30 guineas annually.”

Though appearing a severe and forthright profile of the condition and state of this school, it was in no way exceptional. The Report enumerates conditions existing very much worse elsewhere. In general throughout Wales the state of its schools was most deplorable. Such was the case also in schools in mid 19th Century England.

In view of the total inadequacy of the schoolmasters themselves, it is small wonder that their depressed and unhappy charges were themselves no better after attending such grim seminars, dismal and worthless as they were.

The position of schoolmaster was at that time considered one of the lowest of occupations. The qualifications necessary were on no way related to scholastic achievements; on the contrary, retired soldiers and sailors were eagerly sought after, as such men were regarded more able to administer discipline by rule of rod and fist. Such qualifications seemed of primary importance to those entrusted with their appointment. The ability of the master to read and write seemed of little consequence, whilst proficiency in speaking good, clear English was considered of even less importance.

Schoolmasters of any description were hard to come by. This is hardly surprising since their stipend was the lowest of almost any calling.

In the enquiry into the state of education in Wales made in 1846, there are references to the income and qualifications of teachers in North Wales. Of 625 teachers employed in 1846, 601 were receiving incomes of less than the wages of the lowest class of skilled mechanics, and of this number, 420 had neither a house rent-free not any other emoluments. It appears further that 401 teachers received incomes lower than those paid to agricultural workers, 305 of whom derived no other benefit from their calling.

Teachers in North Wales were in fact drawn from the lowest class in society. Many of them were only just able to read and write. Even this qualification, low as it was, was often dispensed with. A catalogue of previous occupations of schoolmasters included agricultural worker, quarrymen, miners, weavers, tailors, retired soldiers and sailors. Thus it seems that at that period education was substantially neglected and disorganised, it being considered a matter of little consequence.

The appointment of masters of a school would often be due to some physical incapacity sustained in the wars, and ex-soldiers were frequently found among the ranks of schoolmasters, a pattern which prevailed until almost the end of the 19th Century. Their inability to stand the hard work and long hours demanded on farms often induced them to seek less strenuous callings. The following report made on a National School in Flintshire serves as an illustration: “The master has received but a slender education and no training. His knowledge of the English language does not exceed that of a labouring man. He adopts no system of interpretation, although many of his scholars understand English imperfectly. His total income from the school does not amount to more than £19 in a year and has no house. The loss of one eye appears to have induced him to become a schoolmaster upon these terms.”

Such a stipend, even in those times (circa 1846) was indeed very low. During the same period the average income of schoolmasters in Anglesey was £24 7s. 8d. from salary and £13 2s. 9d. from school pence: a rather generous stipend it appears, in comparison with the master from Flint. The average annual income in other North Wales countries were: Caernarvonshire, £27 18s. 2d.; Merionethshire, £24 13s. 9d; Denbighshire, £25 18s. 4d; Flintshire, £24 0s. 11d; Montgomeryshire, £20 1s. 5d.

It may be well at this stage to describe briefly the social conditions prevailing in mid 19th century Anglesey. Peeping behind the curtains of the times, grim scenes are revealed of a peasantry swamped in extreme poverty, bereft of many necessities conducive to a rational standard of living. Wages were a mere pittance on farms, whose tenants themselves found living an extreme burden. Adult servants could barely command ten shillings for a week of 70 hours, and often more in toil and sweat. As there was but little alternative by way of employment other than on local farms they were compelled to bend to the harsh conditions offered.

These were times of large families, housed in virtual hovels, affording but little room for healthy living and comfort. It was not uncommon for the whole family, often of ten and more to sleep in the same chamber. The husband and wife in one bed with their small babes, the boys in another and the girls in a bed to themselves, though there were several variations to such arrangements. Small wonder that in such unhygienic conditions the mortality rate of the period was high. Are not the sunken memorial slabs of simple design sufficient testimony of this?

Grim indeed was the lot of the poor, bearing heavy burdens upon shoulders braced with determination to meet the challenge of the utter squalor about them, with poverty forever lurking at the doors of their simple dwellings. What purpose or meaning had a school for them, even less so for their offspring, for were not school pennies, earned by such resolute toil required for more ready purposes than to fill the pockets of ignoramus schoolmasters?

What other than a state of illiteracy should prevail when conditions were so low in establishments designated schools? Tales of woe from pupils who irregularly attended would reach the ears of those yet to attend, tales of iron discipline, thrashings, cold rooms and scanty furnishings, for such was the state prevailing in most schools of the time. It is no matter of surprise that parents and children age schools a wide berth.

As attendance at school was voluntary and conditions in them most distressing, one readily understands the reluctance of children to attend. The extent of the poverty prevailing in Anglesey at the time was most acute, a realisation of which can be learnt from charitable endowments made by several bodies and individuals towards easing the lot of the poor, such as gifts in money for the purchase of bread and clothing, and cloth for the making of clothes. Another indication of much poverty among the peasantry was the accepted practice of begging, usually from the more affluent members of the community. Imagine a devoted mother with two or three toddlers, and more often more, about her, ill clad and poorly shod, tramping miles of country lanes on chill winter days seeking for anything that would lessen their plight. Alas, such tragic scenes being only too common, became an accepted and distressing feature of 19th-century rural Anglesey. Conditions such as these elicit one’s deepest feelings of sympathy and compassion, though far removed from us today.

Other indications also appear, portraying those hard and bitter times. Many removed themselves from the scenes of their wretchedness by emigrating to America, seeking a new Utopia, a land, so it was thought, flowing with milk and honey. Others, incited by the knowledge of the discovery of gold in the hills of Melbourne took passage to that distant part of the world in quest of that which would make their heaven on earth and vanquish poverty forever. Thus did the Royal Charter ply to and from that gold-laden port to find its tragic doom on the rocky coasts of Anglesey, its gold weighted human cargo ruthlessly denied the rich fruits of a harvest so hastily gathered in.

Other emigrations of lesser distances were made. The booming industries of South Wales claimed many a hardened soul from the North, to extract coal from the mines to keep the fires burning. The building boom in Liverpool and elsewhere in the northwest caused many to trek there, incited by the high wages offered. The Dinorwic and Bethesda slate quarries absorbed all and sundry in order to meet the unprecedented demand for slates at home and abroad. Other avenues of employment close at hand were realised with the construction of the Britannia Tubular Bridge. Railway tracks were laid the whole length of the island, to which, attracted by generous wages, the men were drawn. Local farmers, unable to compete with the contractors’ wages were very much displeased, damning the era of rail transport with its iron monsters despoiling the peace of the land, apart from depriving them of cheap labour.

Thus, the farming fraternity, losing most of their skilled adult servants had recourse to juveniles to toil in their fields. This, naturally caused an already diminished interest in school to abate still more, with less pence coming the way of schoolmasters’ pockets. Lads of eleven and twelve, and even younger were eagerly sought after. Young girls were likewise absorbed for domestic chores in the farmhouses. Though paid rather meagre wages they were at least housed and fed, an important consideration since it much lessened the strains on their own family budgets.

Before 1843 it was the landowners and the clergy who were mainly responsible for providing schools for the education of the poor. By 1829 fifteen schools had been established in Anglesey, five more being added by 1843, of which The Duchess of Kent’s school in Llanedwen was one.

The medium of instruction in almost all schools was English. Woe betide any child who was so bold as to speak Welsh at any time whilst on the school premises, even if they were an entirely monoglot Welsh child. Punitive measures employed to discourage the speaking of their native language were both stupid and humiliating. One method used was a board suspended by a cord around the neck of the unfortunate transgressor on which was written in bold letters W.N. (WELSH NOT). Several children would wear the board by the end of the day, and the last one in possession of it when the school bell rang would receive a sound thrashing from the master. I do not think that the “Welsh Not” as in general use in schools of the times. It was confined to a few in the larger towns of North Wales; the use of this disgusting punishment will ever remain to the shame of those who resorted to it.

The Duchess of Kent School in Llanedwen was finally closed in 1872. If the stones within its walls could only speak, what tales, one wonders, could they relate?
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