Abraham Cockman by Virginia Silvester
Cockman family of Cheshunt
This outline of their life in Cheshunt encapsulates the experiences of many poor families in the early nineteenth century. Typical also was James’ move from rural Hertfordshire to the growing suburbs of South London, where he found work as a bricklayer. As the improvement of coach and later omnibus services allowed city workers to live further away from their place of employment, building development spread steadily, and there must have been regular work for a bricklayer. Around 1827, James married Lucy Rebecca Willmore, a local girl whose father John was a gardener, probably in one of the market gardens which then occupied much of the open space in Camberwell, once well known for the flowers and fruit grown there.
In about 1837, James and Lucy Cockman moved to 26 Regent Street, off Southampton Street in Camberwell. Lucy’s parents lived next door, at number 25, and later Lucy’s sister and her husband moved in. Regent Street had been developed by 1830, when the houses are shown on Greenwood’s map of London. The street was a cul de sac, and at the end open fields stretched away, already marked in places with the outline of future roads. The houses were small two storied terraced cottages, opening straight onto the pavement. Poor rate records indicate that the houses were owned by several different landlords, and that rents were too low for the occupants to be liable for rates. As in many parts of the country, poor drainage became an increasing problem and health hazard, and it was noted in the late 1850s that Regent Street was one of the areas suffering from overflowing cesspits.
By 1840, although the previous two decades had seen a lot of new building, much of this had consisted of villas for the middle classes, and Camberwell was still thought of as a village, separate from London. Over the next 30 years, most of the open land around Regent Street became built up, mainly with small terraced and semi-detached houses, and shops. The population of Camberwell grew from 28,231 in 1831 to 111,306 in 1871 – an increase of 41% in the first ten years, 37% in the second, 31% in the third, and 56% in the final decade.
Most of the building work in Camberwell was carried out by small builders. During the peak period of 1850-2, over 90% of builders were engaged in building 12 or fewer houses, and none built more than 30. It is for these firms that James Cockman must have plied his trade, ending up as a master bricklayer. Although he had achieved a modest level of financial security for his family, perhaps he held higher aspirations for his children. At any rate, James was willing and able to find the few pence needed each week to send at least Abraham and his younger sister Elizabeth to school. Probably their siblings also attended school, but they did not pursue their education: one brother was working as an errand boy at 14, while two others followed their father into bricklaying.
The original aim in providing schooling for the poor was not to educate them so that they could better themselves, but rather to ensure that they kept to their place in society. The children of the poor were to be impressed with their duty of resignation to their lot. The National Society was created, in its own words, with “the sole object in view being to communicate to the poor generally…such knowledge and habits, as are sufficient to guide them through life, in their proper stations, especially to teach them the doctrines of Religion…and to train them to the performance of their religious duties by early discipline.” Gradually, early teaching extended to the 3Rs and dictation, with perhaps a little history or geography learned by rote.
The method of teaching at this time involved one master teaching the whole class, but assisted by some of the older and more intelligent pupils, who were picked out as monitors. The master taught the lessons to the monitors before school, and they then passed the lessons on to small groups of the other children during the day. This was a relatively cheap way for one master to teach two or three hundred pupils at a time and therefore suitable for widespread adoption in educating the poor. Lessons were reduced to their simplest elements, and the work was written on cards from which the monitors taught. A school consisted of a large room with benches and desks arranged around the edges. The centre was left free for the groups of children to stand around the edge of a rectangle or semicircle drawn on the floor, which is how they took most of their lessons. In addition to teaching, the monitors were responsible for the order and cleanliness of the school, while the master exercised overall supervision. Control was exercised through rewards and punishments. Misdemeanours were punished by shaming the children in various ways in front of the school or by keeping them behind after lessons were over. Rewards for good work or regular attendance might be books (the Bible or a prayer book), medals, or even cash or clothing to be worn on Sundays.
Cockman family of Camberwell
Although the monitorial system was a good way to educate large numbers of children on a limited budget, it had drawbacks. The monitors were not expected to understand the lessons they were giving – they only had to keep to the words written on their cards – and this limited their ability to teach effectively. Younger monitors had difficulties in maintaining discipline in their classes. The mechanical way in which lessons were presented reduced their quality. For example, reading began with making letters in a sand tray with the monitor watching. The children went on to spelling and writing two-letter syllables, starting with monosyllabic words and progressing to multi-syllable words which were broken up and spelt syllabically – such as, “mis-re-pre-sen-ta-ti-on.” This had the effect of destroying any meaning in what the child was reading. The prime books used in National schools were the Bible and the chatechism. Arithmetic lessons were similarly reduced in value. After the individual figures had been learnt and written in a sand tray, the children went on to sums. These were already written out on the cards held by the monitor, and there was no incentive to learn how the completed sum was arrived at – it was simply repeated in chorus by the group. As time went on, the master began to play a more active role in the teaching process, and might give lessons to the whole school together, on secular subjects such as silk, flax, cotton, paper, skins, hemp, corn, glass; or on moral topics such as kindness to animals, speaking the truth, love of brothers and sisters, obedience to parents, the goodness of God; or on Bible stories.
Eventually the monitorial method evolved into the pupil teacher system, which was made a national scheme in 1846. Under this, selected pupils were apprenticed to the school managers for five years, and were known as pupil teachers or schoolmasters’ apprentices. During the day they acted as assistant teachers, and after school they received special instruction from the masters, following a set syllabus. They had to undergo annual examination by HM Inspectors of Schools, and were paid £10 during the first year with an additional £2 10s for each subsequent year. The intention was for pupil teachers to progress to teacher training college where they would receive specific training aimed at certifying them to a set standard. These changes were designed to raise the quality levels of teaching across the board. Indirectly, the pupil teacher system also offered an opportunity for more ambitious working class children to climb the social ladder, even though their earnings were lower than their contemporaries could gain from manual work. The first group of pupil teachers entered training college in 1852.
Abraham was a pupil teacher at Peckham National School from 1849 to 1853, and very probably was a pupil there prior to that. This school had started in 1813, and in 1829 it moved to new premises in the High Street, Peckham. The National Society applied for government funds towards the costs of building the new school. Their plans envisaged two detached schoolrooms, one for boys and one for girls. The boys’ school was to be 29 feet square and aimed at 140 boys. The school rules set out in 1845 specified that children could be admitted between the ages of 6 and 13, unless they had a brother or sister already at the school in which case they could start at 5, and they must leave before they reached 15. School took place on weekdays between 9 and 12 in the morning, and 2 and 5 in the afternoon (1.30 till 4 in winter). The main holidays were a fortnight at Christmas and again at midsummer, and exams were held before each of these. Days off were also given on 29 May, the Queen’s birthday, 4 September (the anniversary of the school’s foundation) and 5 November. All of these arrangements were typical for a school at this time.
The master, Walter Lynch, was described in a report in 1850 as “intelligent and right minded, and assiduously devoted to his work”. The school was said to be “in a very commendable state of efficiency. Both scriptural and secular knowledge are very suitably combined and the intelligence of the boys seems to be engaged in their employment.” A report 3 years later stated that “The Rev E Lilly, incumbent, takes much personal pains with the school”. Michael Lynch, who succeeded as master in 1852, and the Rev Lilly supplied testimonials for Abraham when he went to teacher training college, and doubtless they had a considerable influence on his development. The average attendance at the boys’ school rose from 86 in 1850 to about 120 from 1851 to 1854, and a classroom was added to the 29 foot square schoolroom, lit by a skylight. The 1853 report concluded that “though the discipline of the boys might be a little more stringent, without inexpedient rigour, their instruction, upon the whole, reflects considerable credit upon their teacher”. It was a good place for Abraham to begin his education.
Abraham became a pupil teacher when he was 14. To achieve this, he would initially have been on a shortlist of potential candidates selected by the local clergyman and the schoolmaster, from among whom the inspector chose the best qualified. Among other things, the inspector checked that candidates were in good health and that their homes, though poor, were decent. Pupil teachers tended to be drawn from the families of tradesmen, shopkeepers, mechanics and the like, so Abraham’s background was fairly typical. At the end of his five year apprenticeship, he passed his final examination; an example of the kinds of subjects this would have covered is given below:
Composition of an essay on some subject connected with the art of teaching.
Rudiments of algebra, or practice of land surveying and levelling.
Syntax, etymology and prosody.
Use of globe or geography of the British Empire and Europe, as connected with the outline of English history.
Holy Scriptures, Liturgy and Catechism.
Ability to give a gallery lesson, and to conduct instruction of the first class in any subject selected by the inspector.
The extent to which education standards had already moved on is illustrated by the range of subjects required for this examination. The inspector was also looking for “attention…to a perfect articulation in reading and the right modulation of the voice in teaching a class. A knowledge of vocal music and of drawing” was desirable, and the successful student was “required to be clean in person and dress”.
Pupil teachers were also assessed annually as to their behaviour – character, punctuality, diligence, obedience, as well as attention to school and religious duties. Almost certainly Abraham was a regular churchgoer; he was confirmed at the age of 16, and in January 1854 he said that he had recently begun to take communion regularly.
One of the first teacher training colleges, St John’s college was established in 1840 at Battersea, and was taken over by the National Society in 1843. It was a residential college, and to meet the fees of £25 per year, students from poor backgrounds had to compete for a Queen’s Scholarship. Abraham did this successfully, and in January 1854, at the age of 19, he began two years at the Battersea college, one of an intake of seventy students.
Battersea Training College, from the Illustrated London News
Vol 2, June 1843
The college occupied an attractive old manor house on the banks of the Thames, in spacious grounds. The interior of the college must have been impressive to the young students. A contemporary description said:
“Busts of eminent men have been placed in conspicuous positions in the hall, lecture rooms and passages. The walls are covered with historical prints, tracings from monumental brasses, philosophical diagrams and architectural models.”
The accommodation was however already beginning to be considered inadequate by the time Abraham was at the college. Living conditions for the students were kept basic and simple, with plain food and only the bare necessities supplied. The junior students were expected to undertake some housework, such as sweeping and dusting the classrooms, lighting fires in winter, and cutting bread and butter and pouring out coffee at breakfast. The daily routine at the college at this time was as follows:
|12-1||garden work or drill|
|2-5||lectures, drawing, music|
There was a regular rota of visits to the practising school where students were assessed on their ability to give lessons. Saturday was a half holiday, after morning tests, and the students enjoyed 12 weeks holiday a year, including six in the summer and four at Christmas. Sunday was devoted to prayers, morning and evening services, and private study in religious subjects. There was little time for sport, which was restricted to occasional friendly cricket matches on Clapham Common, quoits or one-pin in the garden, and boating on the river.
Abraham’s student agreement with Battersea Training College
permission given by the College of St Mark and St John, Plymouth
The recollections of a former Battersea student, a few years earlier than Abraham, painted a vivid picture of the life there:
“The word Battersea always brings up to my mind the clanging of a big bell, awakening one from pleasant warm dreams to the chilling darkness of a winter’s morning, with the black fog floating above the river, and the interior…..feebly lit up by bluish-green gas jets which fluttered and sang a doleful song. It meant hurriedly dressing in the cold, ready to get down to one’s place in the assistant master’s room or in the big theatre, ready for the Principal or Vice- Principal…to begin his lecture…The recollections of one’s training days at Battersea, and of the masters, are of arduous times veined with a great deal that was sunshiny and happy.”
The syllabus in Abraham’s first year comprised the following subjects: the Holy Scriptures, the catechism and liturgy, church history, reading, penmanship, arithmetic, mechanics, school management, English grammar and composition, geography, history, Euclid, algebra, drawing, vocal music, physical science and higher mathematics. Students were examined at the end of each year and obtained first, second or third class certificates. The class of certificate obtained in the final year examination determined the level of salary that a newly qualified teacher could expect - £90 for a third class certificate, but only £60 for a first or second class. Abraham was evidently a fairly average student, as he gained second class certificates at the end of each of his two years at Battersea. The exams at the end of his first year included 12 three hour papers, offering one option, between Latin and algebra. The syllabus in the second year built on the first.
At the end of their college course, newly qualified teachers were allocated to schools, for a two year probationary period. In January 1856, Abraham began teaching at St Paul’s School, Bermondsey. In a very poor part of South London, the boys’ school consisted of a room 30ft by 20ft, built in 1848 to accommodate 100 pupils but with an average attendance of 166 by 1858. A new schoolroom twice as large was then erected, with space for 170 boys, plus a classroom. The weekly charge to the children was 2d.
This school was not the easiest appointment. An inspector’s report two years before Abraham arrived stated that “frequent change and the discouraging character of the neighbourhood render it a difficult charge.” By 1858 it was reported that “The school is very well conducted by the master, who appears to discharge his duty with much ability and zeal”. Abraham was assisted by three pupil teachers. During his time at St Paul’s, the average attendance at the school more than doubled.
Abraham’s salary at St Paul’s was £60 a year plus “house”. In this case, the schoolhouse was an apartment, comprising a living room 16ft 10in by 13ft; a bedroom 14ft 10in by 9ft 8in; a kitchen 14ft 10in by 6ft 8in; and a servant’s bedroom the same size.
At the end of his first year teaching, on 27 December 1856, Abraham married in St Paul’s Church, Bermondsey. His wife, Harriet Susannah Groves, was born in 1835 in Camberwell, and probably she also attended Peckham National School. Her father was a carpenter, as were his brother, father and uncle, and the families lived for much of the time in the Meeting House Lane area of Peckham. In 1851 Harriet was a dressmaker’s apprentice, perhaps working with two of her father’s cousins who were dressmakers.
Abraham and Harriet’s first child, Emma Ann, was born in September 1857 at St Paul’s schoolhouse, followed by George Wallace born there in July 1859. Both the eldest children were baptised at St Paul’s Church, but not the third child, Clara Jane, born on their fourth wedding anniversary in December 1860. After five years in his first teaching post, Abraham was ready to move on, and had applied in October 1860 for the vacant position of headmaster of the boys’ National School in Castlegate, Grantham. There can be little doubt that he was encouraged to do this by a friend who was one of the witnesses at Abraham and Harriet’s wedding, Emma Charlotte Fisher. Emma, from Camberwell, was the daughter of a foreman at a gas works. She was also a pupil teacher at Peckham National School, two years’ behind Abraham; the same age as Harriet, they may well have been schoolfriends. Like Abraham, Emma obtained a 1st Class Queen’s Scholarship, and she went to Whitelands Training College from January 1856 to December 1857, achieving a second class certificate in her end year exams. In January 1858 she took charge of Brownlow Infants School in Grantham, where she remained for many years.
Abraham had one competitor for the post at Grantham, who however withdrew his application in November. When the managers’ committee came to consider Abraham’s application, “together with his parchment certificate and testimonials as to character, conduct and efficiency”, they agreed unanimously to appoint him as the new headmaster. At the age of 26, with a wife and three young children, he was set to move away from South London where he had been born, bred and educated, making the break from his working class background to the security of a respected and responsible position in the society of a provincial market town.
Grantham in 1861 was an established and thriving borough in rural Lincolnshire, 105 miles north of London, with a population of 11,000. The town had excellent transport links, on the main road and rail routes from London to the North East, and with a canal to the river Trent. Its industrial activity reflected the predominantly agricultural character of the surrounding countryside, with corn milling, brewing, tanning, malting, and an agricultural machinery works. A fat stock market was held every other week, while two Corn Exchanges, a weekly market and a wide range of shops catered to the people of both the town and the surrounding villages and farms. Grantham could provide services from banking and its own newspaper to regular court sessions.
The town of Grantham had taken early steps to join in the movement to educate the poor. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Grantham had a long established Grammar School, and a charity school for girls. There were also a number of private “academies”, some taking boarders, others more in the nature of dame schools. In 1810, the first public meeting was held with a view to establishing a school for poor boys, “to improve their morals and make them more useful members of the community in which they live”. The school opened in April 1812 with 99 pupils, with a curriculum based on the catechism, the Bible, and arithmetic. This was replaced in 1844 by a new school to accommodate 300 boys, built on land donated by the Ostler family and under the auspices of the National Society.
These first two schools were free of charge until 1857, when weekly contributions were introduced. In the same year, it was decided to combine the National School for boys and the charity school for girls on a single more spacious site in Castlegate, next to the churchyard of St Wulfram’s church. The new schools opened in November 1858 and January 1859 respectively. The town had also set up three National Society infant schools – Brownlow (1835), Little Gonerby (1851), and Welby (1857). In 1875, a total of some 750 children were being educated in Grantham’s National Schools. The town also had non-conformist and Roman Catholic schools, and the British School in particular provided some competition to the National Schools. Although by 1870 over three-quarters of the population nationally were literate, the provision of schools, particularly in certain areas, was still inadequate. The 1870 Elementary Education Act required suitable school places to be made available for all children, and provided for school boards to be set up to achieve this. In Grantham, because there was already an effective system of education, the Act had little or no effect.
This picture shows the National Schools as built, in a view from Castlegate. The main school building with its bell tower occupies the centre of the picture. At the far left is the schoolmistress’ house; at the far right, the headmaster’s house.
Permission given by the National Church of England Junior School, Grantham, and by the authors ”Another Time, Another Place“ (see my notes on sources)
Abraham took up his new post as headmaster of the boys’ National School in Castlegate on 1 February 1861, and he remained as headmaster there for over thirty years. The grey stone buildings comprised the school itself, with separate accommodation for boys and girls, and two detached schoolhouses for the headmaster and headmistress. The boys’ school was relatively large, with an average attendance of about 200, and there were one or two assistant masters and up to six pupil teachers. The large main school room contained three sections of banked rows of desks, and there were two separate classrooms. Heating was by means of coal fires, although these were perhaps not very effective when the weather was particularly cold, as one occasion the ink froze. Gas lighting was introduced in 1867, replacing oil lamps. At the back of the school was a playground.
School hours were from 9 am to 4 pm, with a two hour break at noon. The school rules, as laid down by the managers in 1863, were typical of a school at this time:
Children are admissible at 7 years old and upwards; and in special cases at 6 years.
A child, when brought to school to be admitted, must be accompanied by its parent or guardian.
The payments of the children shall be at the rate of 2d, 3d or 4d per week, according to the circumstances of the parents. A reduction may be made in the case of 2 or more children of the same family attending the same school.
The payments shall be made every Monday morning for the current week.
Every child must be in school on weekdays in the morning before 9, and in the afternoon before 2 o’clock; on Sundays before half past 9 and half past 2.
The children are required to come to school clean and neat.
Pupil teachers were entitled to one and a half hours of instruction every day. This tuition had to be fitted within the school day, and, for at least some of the time, Abraham chose to hold these lessons before breakfast. Successful pupil teachers about to go to college were presented with gifts on leaving school; these included pencil cases, dressing cases, and a cricket bat.
The annual reports by HM Inspectors of Schools provide snapshots of the school over time and illustrate the positive impact of Abraham’s leadership:
“Standard of instruction is scarcely in proportion to the teaching power.”
“The state of this school both as to discipline and efficiency is highly creditable to the Master.”
“The condition of the school is highly creditable to both Teachers and Scholars. In the examination but one failure in Reading and one in Arithmetic was observed, while, of the very few failures in Writing, most were for faults in Spelling. Religious Knowledge was fair on the whole. The order observed was very good.”
“This school has done a good year’s work, and the discipline and attainments continue to do credit to Mr Cockman’s powers of instruction.”
“Great improvement is visible this year not only in the actual results [of the annual examinations] but in the style of the work. The weak point throughout the school is the grammar. The general tone of the school is, as it always has been, most satisfactory.”
“The order is good and the general results in the standard subjects creditable. But reading in the third standard is careless, and mental arithmetic should improve. Recitation is good. Singing and drill deserve special praise. The class subjects are well prepared except that map drawing is very poor. The register must be kept free from erasures”.
In addition to the day school, there was an evening school several nights a week during the winter months, from 7 pm to 9 pm, where 70 or 80 older boys and young men, already at work, were given basic education. To encourage regular attendance, at the end of term half the school fees were refunded to those scholars who had attended for 50 nights; 75 managed this in 1864. A revealing comment about the night school is found in a general report on schooling in Lincolnshire in 1867:
“There is little to be said about the night schools in this district….They are mostly in country places and do not in any way realise the idea of being third meetings of the day school. The work done in them is neater than it used to be but very elementary. The Grantham night school is a remarkable exception to the general poor character of these establishments. Its size, the style of the work, and the order and spirit in which it is conducted deserve the highest praise.”
The favourable comments by school inspectors were echoed by the views of local people, expressed here in his obituary:
“As a schoolmaster, Mr Cockman was eminently successful. He had a special aptitude for bringing his pupils forward, and the solid, useful and reliable character of the instruction imparted at the National School under his direction has long been accepted as a truism….The deep interest that he took in his boys is equally well known to the Grantham public…Many young men have reason to be thankful for the interest he has manifested in them, and for the good counsel and encouragement they have received from him”.
As well as the day and evening schools, Abraham was lay superintendent of the boys’ Sunday school, and each year took a day off to go London “to purchase some prizes for the Sunday Scholars”. He also coached the sons of local gentry (who probably attended private schools) in mathematics, and was said to do it well.
From 1863, it became compulsory for every head teacher to keep a log book, recording significant events in the life of the school. Abraham’s notes in the log book provide invaluable detail about everyday school life in the second half of the nineteenth century, as well as insights into the character of the man.
This view of the National Schools from the churchyard shows the headmaster’s house on the right.
Permission given by the National Church of England Junior School, Grantham,
and by the authors ”Another Time, Another Place“ (see my notes on sources)
The annual examination of pupils by HM Inspectors of Schools had been introduced in 1853, and the regime gradually became more prescriptive and rigorous. From 1862, the government grant to schools was paid only for those children who passed the relevant exam for their standard. This “payment by results” made it highly important that pupils turned up on exam day and that they were thoroughly prepared for it. To achieve this, Abraham examined the boys himself to make sure that the lessons given by the pupil teachers were up to the mark. Where necessary, he arranged additional instruction for “backward” pupils, even teaching them himself. Regular attendance throughout the year was also important, as attendance on 176 days (out of 220) was required to be eligible to sit the annual exam.
Schools were divided into six standards according to the age and ability of the children, and the level of attainment in reading, writing and arithmetic expected for each standard was laid down. At the lowest level, Standard I, a child - who would typically be 8 or 9 years old - should be able to read a narrative in monosyllables; from dictation, write capital and small letters, and figures up to 20; and add and subtract figures up to 10, orally, from examples on the blackboard. Standards I to III used slates or blackboards to write on, while Standard IV and above were considered to be “higher” education, and the children were allowed to use paper. Relatively few children would have stayed on in these standards, and those that did would have been aged about 12 to 14.
The examination for Standard VI, the top level, demanded the following:
Reading: A short ordinary paragraph in a newspaper, or other modern narrative.
Writing: Another short ordinary paragraph in a newspaper, or other modern narrative, slowly dictated once by a few words at a time.
Arithmetic: A sum in practice or bills of parcels.
By 1870, the standards set had become more rigorous. The previous requirements for Standard VI had become those of Standard V, and a Standard VI child was now expected to read with fluency and expression; to write a short theme or letter, or easy paraphrases; and in arithmetic, to use proportions and fractions. At the bottom level, Standard I, a child should now be able to copy in manuscript character a line of print, and write a few common words from dictation; to carry out simple addition and subtraction of numbers of not more than 4 figures, and know their multiplication table to 6 times 12; and to read a short paragraph from a book used in school, not confined to words of one syllable.
A page from a school reading book, the “New Illustrated Primer”, 1870, by Old Humphrey. This would have met the requirements for Standard I.
The inspectors were advised to examine reading in Standard I by asking each child to read from two places in the book, selected by the inspector. It was suggested that the inspector would hear the reading while marking the writing and sums presented on the slate, the children having formed a line to be examined in turn.
This basic curriculum would have been supplemented by lessons in history, geography, natural history and religious instruction. As the century moved on, curricula generally tended to widen in scope. Grants from the Department of Science and Art, particularly from 1872 onwards, encouraged schools to teach drawing, and science subjects such as animal physiology; electricity; sound, light and heat; botany and physiography. Abraham specialised as a science teacher, with a particular interest in chemistry and geology, and he obtained a government grant for a science laboratory to be built on the inner playground in 1877. Drawing was taught at Grantham, and the recitation commented on in the 1891 report included such poems as Milton’s “Paradise Lost”. In order to encourage the literary interests of his senior boys, Abraham set up in 1869 a small circulating library consisting of “suitable Magazines and Periodicals”.
In 1876 it was made compulsory for children to attend school between the ages of 5 and 13, although they could obtain an exemption certificate to leave school once they were over 10, provided they had passed Standard IV or V. In the mid 1870s Standard IV required a child to “read with intelligence a few lines of prose or poetry, to write eight lines slowly dictated once from a reading book, and work the compound rules [money] and reduction [common weights and measures]”. By 1878 the basic examinable subjects included grammar, history, geography and plain needlework as well as the 3Rs.
The main annual holidays were for harvest and Christmas. The summer break of 4 or 5 weeks was designed to free the children to work in the fields at harvest time, and consequently varied in timing from year to year but usually began in early August. Abraham recorded that he set homework to be completed during the summer holidays. A fortnight was given at Christmas. An additional holiday in the fifth week in Lent marked the annual Grantham fair, an important event in the lives of the townspeople in the nineteenth century. Good Friday, Ascension Day and Whit Tuesday were also marked with holidays, and occasional whole or half days off were given for a whole range of events. These might be national events such as Royal birthdays, weddings, christenings or funerals. Or they might be local happenings, such as the “Temperance Gala and Odd Fellows’ Fete”, the steeplechase, the Militia Sports, Sunday school treats, a “Balloon Ascent and Fete” in the town, even by special request of the Vicar returning home from his honeymoon. In July 1864, the “Annual Treat” for 900 Grantham children comprised a church service, tea at the school and a procession through the town, headed by the Militia Band, to fields where sports took place till 9.30 at night, when the children were sent home and the teachers were given supper at the vicarage. Less happy holidays included “a day of humiliation for the cattle plague” in 1866, and two months closure in the summer of 1878 because of scarlet fever.
On other occasions the children took a “holiday” without permission. Attendance was particularly bad at the end of the summer holidays, when the children were out in the fields gleaning, and at the beginning, when they were haymaking; during bad weather in the winter; and on 5 November. An indication of the poverty that must have affected many Grantham families is found in this extract from the log book:
“Friday morning the usual bad attendance for the first hour on account of many boys fetching bread from the Union”.
Abraham clearly did not approve of all the events that tempted his pupils to stay away, as in October 1864:
“A very attractive Circus has come into the Town today, and as usual with these rubbishing things the attendance both of Day and Evening School has suffered considerably”.
Bad behaviour by the boys was by no means a rare occurrence. The log book records a variety of misdemeanours including laughing during prayers, impertinence to teachers, being late for lessons, destroying trees in a nearby street, telling lies, poking other boys with a stick during class, throwing stones, teasing an old man, ringing the school bell without permission, and being found in the girls’ school closets. The night school offered similar examples of rudeness and misconduct. Sometimes the problems were more serious. The police were involved when several boys kicked fireballs along the street as they left school, and others were expelled for bringing fireworks into school and throwing them in the playground. In 1867 Abraham had to meet the headmaster of the Grammar School to try and stop snowball fights between boys of the two schools, because these were becoming a nuisance. A disturbance in the night school in 1871 involved several pupils pelting teachers with stones.
Use of corporal punishment was an important way of maintaining order. It might be administered for such misdemeanours as fighting, as for example when a boy was “severely reprimanded” for beating another and promised “a sound thrashing” if he did it again. A “severe” flogging was given for truancy, and once for “robbing a poor woman’s Garden of Peas”. A more serious theft (of some knives) resulted in expulsion. Sometimes when punishment was being meted out, a boy was accidentally injured by the cane. Abraham recorded cuts to the nose and eye; on one occasion, it was feared the boy might lose his sight. Corporal punishment was however accepted, even welcomed; a comment after Abraham’s death said, “those whom he taught respected him and have spoken with fond remembrances of the lickings received at his hands”. Parents generally supported Abraham in his efforts to instil discipline. In one notorious case of an “incorrigible truant”, the nine year old boy escaped from a school shed where he had been locked after being thrashed for playing truant, only to be flogged again by his father when he caught him, and then handcuffed and placed in a cellar – from which he duly escaped!
Abraham did nevertheless have some difficulties with excessive corporal punishment administered by his pupil teachers, who sometimes found it hard otherwise to keep order among children only a few years younger than themselves. On one occasion he noted, “Destroyed the pointers in school in consequence of the frequent complaints by the parents that the pupil teachers flog the boys with them. The pupil teachers were well scolded for knocking the boys about”. He also had to censure them at an individual level, sometimes repeatedly, as in this case: “Maltman has been constantly reproved by me for striking boys in a violent manner”. Another pupil teacher, who had boxed the ears of a boy for being “saucy”, was asked by Abraham to report future incidents to him.
Teaching was not a well paid job. Abraham’s starting salary at Grantham was £70 a year, plus a capitation grant (dependant on attendance) of perhaps a further £10, and rent free accommodation for himself and his family. By 1872 his basic salary had increased to £90. In 1882 he had a £15 increase because the capitation payment for each boy was doubled, and in 1889 this increased still further. Occasionally he might receive an additional one-off payment from the school managers, as in 1873 when he was paid an extra £50. He was also paid for the tuition given to his pupil teachers, and for any private tuition he gave. These earnings did not mean Abraham was wealthy; when average wages in 1855 were £116, rising to £133 in 1870, he may well have been taking home less than an artisan like his father or father-in-law. However he would have been able to enjoy a degree of comfort that his grandparents in Cheshunt could never have dreamed of. Nevertheless, after his death the School Managers recorded that his salary “had not been an excessively high one”, and meant that his widow and younger children (one still at school, another a pupil teacher) were left “with but little provision”. They therefore started a subscription fund for the family, to which they contributed £100, and which reached some £500 in total. In fact, Abraham’s estate was valued at about £200.
A schoolmaster’s income reflected the position he was expected to hold in society – above the poor whose children he taught, but deferring to the existing social order. This caused tension for some, but not apparently for Abraham. Despite his modest background, he seems to have fitted smoothly into the level of society in which he found himself in Grantham. He was Secretary to the Grantham and Spittlegate Coal Club, which helped the poor of the town to put money aside for winter fuel, and Auditor of the Grantham Savings Bank from 1876. He was a prominent member of the Town and Country Club, and generally involved in good works in the town. His position as headmaster brought him into close contact with other local worthies, with whom he seems to have enjoyed genuine affectionate attachments. A vicar of Grantham in the 1880s, son of a canon of Salisbury and educated at Oxford, came from a very different background to Abraham but was sufficiently moved to send a wreath to his funeral some years later. Abraham’s second youngest son was given the middle name Ostler after a prominent local family who contributed actively to the boys’ school. The Mayor and the Town Clerk led the mourners at his funeral, which also included the local JP and the county coroner. As a final symbol of status, a commemorative brass plaque in his memory was put up inside the church.
Abraham maintained contacts among others in his profession. As an old boy of Battersea Training College, he was a member of the Battersea Club for former students which started in 1871. The club held a yearly reunion dinner in London about Christmas. He also joined the Sheffield and District Branch of the club, formed in 1885, which held their annual dinner in May. At a gathering of “Battersea men” in Bradford in 1886, during “Conference week” (presumably trade union conference), Abraham proposed a toast to the Club.
As a long serving and experienced headmaster, Abraham developed a strong reputation. It was said that he “always remembered an old boy and an old teacher, and they always remembered him…School Managers throughout the neighbourhood came to him to find them Masters and Mistresses, who in their turn came to him for advice and help.” He was an official of the Elementary Teachers Association, and representatives of the National Union of Teachers attended his funeral.
Modern photograph of the schoolmistress’ house.
Abraham’s house was identical in style, but has been more altered subsequently as it was incorporated into the school buildings. The door on the right is not original; this was the kitchen, while the parlour was to the left.
Abraham and his family lived in the headmaster’s house, a detached stone house across the playground from the boys’ school and adjoining St Wulfram’s churchyard. The ground floor comprised a kitchen overlooking the churchyard and a bay-windowed parlour, each twelve feet square, plus a scullery and pantry, and a privy and coalshed across a small yard. Upstairs were three bedrooms, two twelve feet square and the third twelve feet by ten feet. With a fireplace or range in each of the living and bed rooms, this accommodation was modern and probably comfortable and to a good standard. But the house must surely have felt cramped as the family grew in size.
When the family first moved in, they found room for a thirteen year old girl as a servant to help Harriet with the three young children. Ten years later, they no longer had this luxury as the family now numbered six, with Frank born in 1864, Charles Johnson in 1867 and Mary in 1869. At least two of the children began their education at Brownlow Infants School, where family friend Emma Fisher was headmistress, and when older they attended the Castlegate boys’ and girls’ schools. Robert was born in 1872, but then the family began to diminish. In 1873 fourteen year old George left home to become an apprentice in the Merchant Navy. The following year Clara died at the age of thirteen, from typhoid fever, of which there seem to have been regular outbreaks in Grantham. Sydney was born in 1875, and less than a year later Emma left for teacher training college in London, attending Whitelands like her namesake Emma Fisher. By the time Bertram Ostler was born in 1879, Emma was already teaching at her own school, at New Fletton outside Peterborough. The last child of Abraham and Harriet, Harry, was born in 1881, but was born with hydrocephalus and lived for only 21 months. In 1883 Emma married William Moss, another schoolmaster, and moved live in Folkingham, a large Lincolnshire village thirteen miles east of Grantham. In 1884 a second child succumbed to typhoid fever, which claimed the life of fifteen year old Mary.
One of Abraham’s daughters, either Emma or Clara.
The late 1880s saw happier times. Emma was settled and gave birth to four sons in quick succession, first grandchildren for Abraham and Harriet. George was progressing in his career, achieving promotion to Second and then First Mate and joining P&O; he married in 1891. Frank worked as a clerk, and he too married in 1891. Charles also joined the Merchant Navy, working for the British India Steam Navigation Company. Mary had followed her sister Emma to become a pupil teacher, before her early death, and Robert did likewise. Only Sydney seems to have given cause for concern, as there is evidence to suggest that he joined the East Kent regiment under the name Frederick and a false age in 1891, going absent without leave just over a year later.
Cockman family of Grantham
In contrast to the formality shown by his son-in-law William Moss when referring to his family in the school log book, Abraham’s entries were always affectionate and relatively informal, and show that he made time for his children. This is evidenced in the following examples:
17 September 1868: “I was not in School this day as my little boy had an attack of Scarlet Fever.”
December 1868: “I was absent today having Fever in the house.”
30 November 1874: “I was not in School this day nor the remainder of this week on account of the death of a dear daughter aged 14.”
8 October 1877: “I was not in School this day having gone on Friday last to see my Son George start from Liverpool to San Francisco.”
4 June 1883: “I was not in school this afternoon on account of attending the Funeral of my little Son Harry.”
When Abraham gave a book on flowers to his daughter Emma at midsummer 1876, he inscribed it “from her loving Father”.
Abraham maintained contact with his family in London. In the 1860s he made three trips to London following the deaths of his father and other relatives. Harriet too kept in touch with her London family; her six year old nephew came to stay in Grantham in 1871. Abraham’s youngest sister Elizabeth also became a schoolmistress. In 1871 she was teaching in Somerby, a village just outside Grantham. She later taught for some time in Hawarden, Flintshire, before returning to take over the National School in Manthorpe, another village on the outskirts of Grantham. Another sister, Hannah, worked as a seamstress and married a porter; they moved with their two daughters to Bristol, where she remained after her husband’s death. In 1881 Abraham’s son George was staying with her on a visit, while her younger daughter was staying with Elizabeth Cockman in Hawarden. Both Hannah and Elizabeth attended Abraham’s funeral, but it is noticeable that their brother William was neither present nor recorded as sending a wreath. A blacksmith, he had settled in Blackburn, Lancashire, with a wife and family, and later opened an ironmongers’ shop.
Despite the demands of a busy job and a large family, Abraham found time for many outside interests. He had a fine singing voice, and he was choirmaster of the Parish Church and a popular singer at local concerts; it was said that “the success of a town or village concert was assured if Cockman was among the performers”. He had learned to play chess in London, and was described as a “first rate” chess player and “champion of the Midlands”. A founder member of the town chess club, he travelled with their team to other towns to play opponents, and played matches against 20 or so at the same time. As an “ardent fisherman”, he kept a rowing boat on the Grantham canal, where he went boating most evenings in summer, and fished in the Grantham reservoir at weekends. In his younger days, he played cricket, and he would occasionally absent himself from school to play in a cricket match, sometimes taking one of the pupil teachers with him. He supported the town football club, and in their next match after his death, the team wore black armbands in his honour.
Abraham would have known many of the local teachers well, and some of them became good friends. Emma Fisher, the London friend who had been instrumental in bringing him to Grantham, remained headmistress at Brownlow Infants School until 1871, and when she then took over at Welby School, she was replaced by her sister Sarah. Robert Fishenden was Abraham’s assistant master from 1864 to 1878, and still lived in Grantham afterwards. It was to Robert that Harriet turned for help when Abraham was suddenly taken ill. One of Abraham’s pupil teachers in 1871, seventeen year old George Osborn, was obviously sufficiently trustworthy that Abraham allowed his six year old son Frank to stay overnight with George and his family in Manthorpe, where George’s father was a gamekeeper. There must also have been close contact with the occupants of the schoolmistress’ house, on the opposite side of the school. Sarah Bird was the headmistress of the girls’ school when Abraham arrived; she taught the Cockman girls, and Emma and Mary served under her as pupil teachers. Although she resigned in 1886 and moved to Derby, she returned to Grantham for Abraham’s funeral in 1891. Her replacement was her niece Agnes Taunt, who had lived with her as a child and subsequently trained at Whitelands College before returning to Grantham to teach. Agnes was another of the chief mourners at Abraham’s funeral.
Obituary on Abraham Cockman, from the
back of an “In Memoriam”card
The obituaries written after Abraham’s death give many clues to his character, which reinforce the impression gained from his entries in the log book. He was described as “honest, straightforward, and thoroughly genuine…although of a most unobtrusive nature, we question whether anyone in the town was more popular and more highly esteemed.” He was said to have a “robust look...invariable cheerfulness and buoyancy of spirits”, “valued, trusted and beloved by all who knew him for his gentle courtesy and ready kindness”.
Abraham died very suddenly, of a stroke, on 6 December 1891, aged 57. It was a Sunday, and he had been to the 8am service at the neighbouring parish church, with his wife and one of his sons. He had returned home and eaten a hearty breakfast, and was preparing for Sunday School. About 10am he started to feel ill, and although the doctor arrived quickly, Abraham was dead before midday.
Abraham’s funeral was a major event, attended by an estimated 5,000 people, who formed a procession from the church to the cemetery, where over 50 wreaths were placed on his grave.
His widow Harriet had to move out of the schoolhouse, and she settled in a small house in the town with two of her sons. But she survived Abraham by a mere four months.
Abraham came a long way in his life, and his career illustrated the significant developments in education during the nineteenth century. This Victorian schoolmaster is best summed up in the words of one of his obituaries:
“He had taught, drilled and caned two generations, and they loved him dearly for it…Cockman was not only a man of parts and gifts, he was an institution in the town to which all consorted for some purpose or other. Cockman was a household word in almost every home in Grantham… His frank and honest heart, his genial manner, his ready kindness, and his gentle courtesy endeared him to all; and when he died, strong men wept”.
The basic family history research was undertaken using ONS records of births, marriages and deaths; parish registers; census returns; probate records; and monumental inscriptions.
Details of the lives of the Cockman family of Cheshunt were researched through the extensive poor law records for Cheshunt, Quarter Sessions records and other Hertfordshire records at the Record Office in Hertford; and at the National Archives in their records for the Hertfordshire Assizes, quarterly returns of prisoners on the prison hulks, and other Home Office records.
Background information on Camberwell was drawn from:
“Victorian Suburb: A study of the growth of Camberwell” by H J Dyos, published 1973
“Collections, Illustrative of the Geology, History, Antiquities and Associations of Camberwell and the Neighbourhood” by Douglas Allport, published 1873
“The Parish of Camberwell” by W H Blanch, published 1875
“The Streets of London: The Booth Notebooks – South East” edited by Jess Steele
parish poor rate records
Greenwood’s Map of London 1830
General background on the history of education was obtained primarily from:
“The Education of the Poor: The History of a National School, 1824-1874” by Pamela and Harold Silver, published 1974
“The Education of the People” by Mary Sturt, published 1967
“Education in Evolution” by John Hurt, published 1971
“The Victorian and Edwardian Schoolchild” by Pamela Horn, published 1989
a pack of teaching material on the 1870 Education Act, prepared by the Department for Education and Science, published 1970
The archives of the National Society provided details of their schools in Peckham, Bermondsey and Grantham.
Much general information about syllabuses and examinations; details of inspectors’ reports; the names of teachers and pupil teachers assigned to schools; and details of training college exam results, were drawn from official reports held by the Department for Education, up to about 1865.
Information about Battersea Training College was obtained from its successor, the College of St Mark and St John, now in Plymouth, and includes:
Extracts from The Illustrated London News, from “The History of St John’s College Battersea” by Thomas Adkins, from recollections of St John’s in 1851 by George Manville Fenn which were published in “Notes on College History”, and from the Battersea Club yearbook.
Entries for Abraham Cockman in the Students’ Register and the student Agreements.
Background information on Grantham and some details of schoolteacher appointments were sourced from Post Office and similar directories.
Information about Grantham National School was obtained from:
The school logbooks, minutes of the school managers, and other school records.
“Grantham Church Schools” by G H Mitcham, published for the National Schools’ centenary in 1959.
“Another Time, Another Queen: the Early History of the National School, Grantham” by Barbara Jefferies and Ruth Crook, published 2002.
Recollections of Abraham Cockman’s life were taken from notes by one of his grandsons, and also – together with accounts of his death and funeral - from obituaries published in the “Grantham Times and South Lincolnshire Gazette” and the “Grantham Journal”.