by Bob Dobson (Pupil No 5723 1952-57)


In the beginning

JUST AS EACH DAY AT ACCRINGTON GRAMMAR SCHOOL commenced with a religious service, in accordance with the law of the land, it could be said that the school itself had a religious aspect to its foundation. For if we look back at the history of secondary education in Accrington, in the beginning there was ‘nowt, or next to nowt’. It was only in the l840s that an educational body arrived through the efforts of Dr Jonathan Bayley, who was minister of the Swedenborgian New Church in Abbey Street during the last half of the nineteenth century. He ran a ‘Mutual Improvement Society’, the forerunner of the Mechanics’ Institution, where young men attended evening classes held in a room in the Sunday School; he also founded the Holland Bank Grove Academy, a going concern by 1844, in which he taught pupils, possibly as a way of augmenting his inadequate salary.

There were others in the blossoming township who recognised this need for ‘higher’ (rather than elementary) education and they all worked together to establish the Mechanics’ Institution in 1845. It started life at 18 Blackburn Road before moving to the new Peel Institution, which was, however, required for a Town Hall in 1878 when Accrington became a borough. The Mechanics’ Institution, therefore, removed to a new building on Willow Street at its junction with St James’ Street over a century later in 1989, the first floor of this building again acquired an educational purpose as the only staffed Local Studies Department in the Lancashire County Library service.

It must be realised that the Institution was seen as being for mechanics — i.e. those involved in the engineering and textile trades of the town for, by educating these people, the lifeblood of the companies employing labour could be protected and their future ensured. Most of the town’s elders were connected in some way with its industries and they, together with its ministers of various denominations, were the driving force behind the movement to educate its youngsters and future work force. Initially, the three ‘Rs’ were the core subjects and sciences and art (drawing) were added later.

Another movement involved in the nineteenth century drive for education was the Accrington and Church Industrial Co-operative Society. That body worked alongside the Mechanics’ Institution in providing evening classes and higher grade education and was later to play a part in the foundation of the grammar school.

Long established towns, such as Blackburn, Burnley and Clitheroe, were endowed in Tudor times with grammar schools for their sons (but not daughters), but Accrington had no such institutions. It was a relatively new town with two separate townships, Old and New, until 1878 when the two areas were combined and the resulting borough incorporated. However, as the turn of the century approached and the benefits of education became more widely accepted, the town corporation became wealthier and it was realised that Accrington ought to have an establishment to provide the sort of higher education needed by its next generation of engineers and artisans.

The Technical Instruction Act of 1889 enabled local authorities to rate themselves for technical instruction purposes. In the following year the placed Local Taxation (Customs and Excise) Act placed funds at the disposal of councils so they did not face the unpleasant necessity of levying a rate — an extra duty on spirituous liquor paid for this. The Technical Instruction Committee of the council, therefore, decided in 1893 to build a school on what was in reality only a small piece of land, 6,145 square yards, on Blackburn Road, a rapidly growing part of the town. The three storey stone building cost £13,000 to build, of which Accrington Corporation borrowed £10,000. There was a playground but no playing fields for exercise and sport in fresh air. However, there were many who saw the new building as ideal, for all its staff and pupils could either walk to it or be transported on the steam-driven trams which passed by every few minutes.

Accrington Technical School, as it was so named, was officially opened on 28 August 1895 by Alderman Snape, chairman of the Lancashire County Council Technical Instruction Committee. The education bias was — technical. I quote from a contemporary source,

The main object is to provide complete courses of instruction, especially connected with the industries and occupations of the neighbourhood which the school serves, and by this means afford students a good all-round preparation for their daily work.

The total population of the catchment area for the school in the 1891 census was around 70,000.The total number of all students of whatever age in Accrington was 1,508. Six others attended schools outside the district.

The 1902 Education Act formally declared that the town councils were to be recognised as the local education authority - a heavy responsibility but one which was to have enormous benefits to the town in that it enabled the purchase of Spring Hill Council School, followed by others at Hyndburn Park, Peel Park and Woodnook. The Technical School, the only one providing higher education, was controlled by the town as agents of the county.

They’re off’

Amongst the first set of 21 pupils at the new school were Oliver Bulleid, fourteen years old, who would become a famous railway engineer; Sarah and Henry Pilkington, the children of a Church mill manager of Peel Bank, Church - at thirteen years of age, Sarah was the youngest pupil on the register; Leopold Cheney, fourteen years, a dentist’s son, destined to be a famous pictorial designer; Vaughan Sandeman, an accountant’s son, who lived at The Chestnuts, Church with his cousin Oliver Bulleid. The first pupil listed alphabetically was Stephen Ashton, fourteen years of 379 Blackburn Road. His father was a draper and he became a railway clerk.

The new school’s first headmaster was Henry Hills BA, BSc, who came from a senior position at a Dulwich school and was appointed at a salary of £250 per year. The school secretary was John Rhodes, who had made an enormous contribution to the foundation of the school. He had written to Lancashire County Council, reporting the meeting of 19 June 1891 which had proposed a new school, to be called ‘Accrington Higher Grade and Technical School’, for boys and girls aged ten years and above who had passed an examination. The attendance fee was to be nine pence per week plus three pence for stationery and books. Rhodes was a great force for good in the life of the school. He died whilst still serving in 1911.

Another driving force had been the Town Clerk, Arthur Henry Aitken. He sat with Rhodes and members of the boards of Howard and Bullough, the Accrington and Church Industrial Co-operative Society and the Church and Oswaldtwistle Local Boards to discuss the new school.

The second phase

A girl pupil at the school at this time penned some verses about the school. It began;

There is a school in our town

built by the Corporation.

It is a quarter of a mile

From Acc-er-ing-ton Station

And in that school are girls and boys

A credit to the nation

The Head Master is Mister Hills

And he our ev’ry hope fulfills.

The Head Mistress is dear Miss Hodges

And she is up to all our dodges.

The Assistant Head is Mister Court-ice,

And lie is considered, by the girls, very nice.

The drill-instructor, tall, erect, stiff

Is Sergeant Bezzell of the twenty-fifth.

Henry Hills remained as headmaster for the first four years of the new school’s life. He was replaced by Frederick Bastow who was to stay for 22 years. Bastow, a tall, lean man, highly respected in the town, developed the social as well as the academic side of the school, introducing Christian socials and literary, debating and dramatic societies.

Another of Bastow’s ideas for the development of his pupils was the introduction in 1909 of The Acorn, the magazine of the renamed Accrington Municipal Secondary School, which was:

intended to give an incentive of that pride that we all feel for the old school and will make (the pupil) strive to achieve something for the honour of the school, which so largely contributes to the moulding of his character during the most important part of his life.

It seems likely, however, that the outbreak of the First World War brought about the demise of The Acorn.

In 1911, an Old Students Society was formed. This and its successors of various names was to become a very strong link between the school and its old scholars and the old scholars themselves. I am pleased to say that, although lacking in some formalities, the old boys still dine together twice a year and at least one group of boys who sat and played together in their spring now meet informally once a month in their autumnal years.

In the school’s early years, maximum use was made of the facilities in terms of time and space. Evening classes in art, science and technology were held and a School of Art was started under a separate principal, Mr Dawson. This was later to become known as ‘The School of Arts and Crafts’. In 1911 Mr Bastow was appointed as Principal and Organiser of Higher Education in the borough as a whole, a sign of satisfaction with his work. When he left in 1920, the day secondary school had 282 boys and 257 girls, a total of 539 pupils. It was said that, ‘whether Duke’s son or cook’s son, they received the same equal treatment from him’.

In his 22 years, Bastow was never absent through illness. A bachelor, he disapproved of boys and girls walking together to and from school and pupils were segregated in assembly. They were marshalled in different corridors prior to assembly and kept separate in classrooms. His pupils, however, liked the old boy - although I suspect that a head having BAST within his name was liable to have his name mis-used! He had an unfortunate glide or cast in one eye so that, when he exclaimed ‘That boy over there, stand up!’, half the class did so!

Following Bastow’s resignation, the corporation advertised his post and received 108 applications. They chose Dr William Catterall Edkins. He was headmaster of a Nottingham School and had previously held the headship at Hindley Grammar School, Wigan. He was a member of the Executive Committee of the Decimal Association, He let it be known that he would be referred to as Doctor C.W. (not W.C. for some reason) Edkins.


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