The Prescotian Webzine

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Pupil's school books turn back the pages 200 years

Mar 2 2005, By Andy Kelly, Daily Post

THE beautiful script, finally crafted from quill and ink pot, are testament to a bygone age, rarely seen until now. The discovery of 12 wonderfully preserved exercise books belonging to a Merseyside schoolboy almost 200 years ago are offering a unique insight into education in England in the early 19th century.

Master Thomas Green was a pupil at Prescot Grammar School in the 1820s, later enjoying a successful life as a Liverpool draper. Now his exercise books, lovingly crafted from 1823 to 1826 - when the author was 13 to 16 years old - have been donated to a local museum. They are helping provide one of the first ever detailed pictures of Regency education in England and are considered a find of national significance.

Prescot Grammar in Knowsley - now known as Prescot School - was originally founded in 1544. It has survived the 180 years since Thomas Green's departure and was handed the incredible book collection by the pupil's great granddaughter 10 years ago. They have now been passed to Prescot Museum for safekeeping and further research. Rosemary Tyler, curator at Prescot Museum, said: "We can only guess at how rare these schoolbooks are. For them to survive so long, and in such wonderful condition, is amazing. It is especially surprising considering the books were stored for decades in an attic and even survived when that house was hit in an air raid in 1941. They are a fascinating insight into what Regency education was like - something we don't know enough about. These books are not only of obvious significance on Merseyside but are of national importance because Liverpool was very much at the heart of the economy nationally at this period and so the same would have been true of education."

Of the 12 exercise books, four were for maths, seven copy books (where poetry would be repeatedly written out) and one penmanship book, for practising handwriting. Diagrams appear to show actual street scenes of Prescot at the time, and examples of typical Regency dress. Much of the maths seems to be vocation based and involves writing receipts, buying stock and insurance problems. One question reads: "What will the glazing of a sash frame come to at 1s 6d per foot which contains 12 squares each measuring 1ft 1in in length, 11ft 6ins in breadth?"

The pupils would have been expected to become small businessmen or join the professions of law or medicine. Ms Tyler said: "Prescot was very much an area for artisans and craftsmen. You can see in the maths books the pupils were given practical-based problems which they might encounter in later life.

"For instance, a lot of the work is on exchange rates and there are lists of every country Britain traded with. They were training them to be good businessmen. It is no wonder Thomas Green went on to be a successful tailor with his own business - these books show that throughout his schooling he learnt how to handle all aspects of business, right down to writing out beautifully presented receipts."

Much emphasis was also placed on the presentation of work and writing was practised repeatedly. This gave the teachers the chance to instil morals into their pupils, giving them inspirational phrases to copy out including "avoid lying, it leads to every other vice" and "indolence should always be guarded against". Rosemary Tyler said: "The phrases that Thomas and his classmates had to write out are intriguing. They're certainly not as 'stern' as the harsher Victorian teachings which were to follow. In fact, most of them concentrate on themes of integrity, friendship, honesty and just being a better person to your fellow man."

Thomas Green would have done all his schooling in perhaps just two classrooms with less than 100 other pupils. All students would have been boys as girls were not accepted. Today, Prescot is home to around 900 pupils of both sexes across scores of classrooms. A grammar school in 1823, it is now a comprehensive.

Rosemary Tyler said: "Prescot Grammar was not what we'd know as a public school. A fee was payable for the pupils who would have been the sons of tradesmen and artisans, but there was also a tradition where if a child was poor the town might pay his fees for him.

"The school day would have started much earlier than now, with just a quick break for lunch and then either going on longer into the afternoon or with the pupil being sent off to work later on.This is a new field of study really, but the school day would almost certainly have been much tougher with more silence and discipline than today. It is interesting that the vocational type of studying used then seems to be coming back into fashion now."

The curator at Prescot for 17 years, Ms Tyler, 55, will take early retirement next month when she intends to use her time conducting further research into the school. "As well as these books, the school records are currently being catalogued and will become available as well. It's in the blood now," she said.

* ONE of Thomas Green's exercise books will go on display at Prescot Museum soon. The full collection will be available by appointment.


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