A Dame School of Old Westmorland


L.N.S. Smith

Little remains of the school, which was opened in the 18th century. Ghosts of the past have only an empty shell to inhabit.

At Raisbeck, near Orton, in the old county of Westmorland, there is a small two-storey stone building with a roof of local slate. The building occupies a site on what is known as The Green – land which was, and still is, part of the manorial waste excluded from an Enclosure Award of 1769 for the common use of the parishioners.

Now in a badly dilapidated condition, this small building, which is barely more than 10 feet square inside, with one room up and one room down, was the old Dame School. In it the children of the neighbourhood once received their earliest, perhaps their only, education.

The school building was erected about 1780 by John Whinfield, Robert Bowness, and one of the Cleasbys of New House, all yeoman farmers of Raisbeck. Formerly the school had stood on Hollow Green, part of the common land which had been enclosed under the Award of 1769.

The three farmers, or their representatives or assigns, had acted as trustees and appointed the schoolmaster or mistress. A record of the date when the school on the Hollow Green was founded does not appear to have survived, nor has more than a shred of the school’s vital statistics during perhaps a century of its existence.

In 1857, the school building was declared to be in bad repair and unfit for use as a schoolhouse. Accordingly, on February 25 of that year, a meeting of the inhabitants of Raisbeck was held at the schoolhouse to consider ways and means of repairing the building.

As a result, three new trustees were appointed, and a subscription list was opened. A sum of nearly £30 was raised, which was a a considerable amount in those days, when a day’s labour cost about two shillings, slating could be done for sixpence a yard, and lime cost a shilling a bushel. Thereupon the work was put in hand.

Teacher Sought.  It was agreed that the post of schoolmaster or schoolmistress should be advertised, and the trustees were empowered to appoint the person they considered most suitable. The curriculum for the school as laid down was to cover the church catechism, reading, knitting and sewing, and whatever else the trustees should require.   

Writing is noticeably, but perhaps unavoidably, absent from the list, for in the tiny space available in the school there would have been no room for desks.

In the absence of the school log books and attendance records, nothing is known of the pupils who passed through the school, nor of the teachers. A directory of June 1858 does, however, record that the schoolmistress at that time was a Mrs Alice Whitehead, presumably a local woman, for there have been Whiteheads farming in the parish at least as far back as Elizabethan times.

From 1862 to 1867 the school was let to a local man, one Bryan Theobald, for rent. The reason for the apparent demise of the school so recently and enthusiastically re-opened is not clear, for according to the census of 1861 there was no lack of children of school age in Raisbeck and nearby Sunbiggin.

Orton, the main village in the parish, had had an endowed school since the previous century, but if any Raisbeck children attended there, they had a journey of a mile and a half each way, while the children from Sunbiggin would face a round journey of between four and five miles along field paths and rough country roads.

In 1869, according to Slater’s Directory of Cumberland, Lancashire and Westmorland, a Miss Ann Theobold was a day teacher at Raisbeck, some indication that the school there might be functioning once more. There is, however, no confirming evidence, and the pages of the school’s history are blank until the 1890’s, when the building was again let for rent and some repairs were carried out by the local tradesmen.

A casement window was replaced, a door repaired, and some slating and plasterwork done, work of a kind which suggested that the building had once more become dilapidated through lack of use. The Education Act of 1870 and the subsequent moves towards the provision of compulsory education had no doubt signaled the end of the building as a school.

Used as a Clubroom.  Some subsequent history can be traced. Before the 1914-18 war, the old school building was used as a clubroom by the many hired lads working on the farms in and around Raisbeck, and it continued to be so used, for in the trustees accounts is a record of the receipt in 1918 of the sum of £10 from Orton Manor Court, on whose land the school has stood since 1780, ‘to be spent on repairs of Raisbeck Clubroom'.

As late as April, 1923, repairs were being carried out. According to local recollections the old school was last used as a temporary residence, by an odd-job man and his son, in the mid 1920’s.

A few faint memories dating from about 1860 still stir in the minds of a number of the old people as they recollect a parent or adult relative recounting stories of their days at the school. One old lady in her eighties remembers her father saying that the boys, as well as the girls, were taught to knit, and that he had knitted his first pair of socks so tightly that, as he put it, ‘they had stood alone’. He remembered vividly his first day at school, because at dinner-time he inadvertently sat on an ant-hill!

Another old resident, taken for a walk by a great-aunt as a small girl, used to peep inside the old building.
“The old dame sat with her back to the fire,” said the great-aunt,”while we sat on the forms in front of her.” One informant related: “My father told us he paid sixpence a week to the teacher.” Yet another added that there were 12 scholars in her father’s time.

That six shillings a week would be all the teacher was paid, for the school was not endowed. The teacher would keep hens in the porch so it was said, and no doubt milk and bread was available at nearby farmhouses.

Several years ago the upstairs floor of the old school was removed because it was unsafe and a possible danger to children. Recently the porch was taken down for the same reason. Now, if there are any ghosts of the past, they have only and empty shell to inhabit

Printed in Cumbria Magazine August 1979.
Drawing by Caroline Metcalf-Gibson (used with permission)