Shortly after he became vicar in 1850, Canon Ellacombe made an unsuccessful appeal for the wealthy of the village to contribute to a new school because of: ‘…the great ignorance in which a large portion of the children of this parish are sunk. I speak now solely of the hamlet of Bitton (including Swinford, Upton, and Beach), and almost solely of the boys. The girls are not much better, yet their condition is somewhat better than the boys, and is in a fair way towards improvement. Of the boys I can scarcely speak too strongly. Their ignorance and idleness is most deplorable their manners are rough and uncouth in the extreme.’
The first school open to girls was Bitton Boys and Girls National School, in the same building in 1876, but this was still at first fee-paying and opened as a result of the Education Act of 1870. Pupils had to bring twopence each, every Monday and drop it into an oak table with a slot, which is possibly the table now in St Mary’s church. Repeated entries in the school log show that many children were absent probably because the families had no money. An entry on December 21st 1876, by Miss Mary Cullen the headmistress, states ‘only 25 children present this morning, the rest collecting gifts on St. Thomas Day, according to an old custom.’ This is remembered as ‘Gooding’ when children would knock at doors in the village saying ‘Please, I’ve come a-gooding to buy my mother a Christmas Pudding’.
St Mary’s Church Hall
The Village School and Parish Room, now referred to as the Church Hall is a grade 2 listed building dating from 1830.
Commissioned by Rev HT Ellacombe, it cost £360.00, raised by voluntary subscriptions added to a grant from the National Society.
It replaced the school located in the Lady Chapel of St Mary’s Church. There remains on the chapel wall a dark mark showing where a stove was installed. Schooling at that time placed greater emphasis on reading than on writing.
With the opening of the Meadows Primary Scholl in the early 1900s, ownership of the church hall reverted to the diocese of Bristol. St Mary’s congregation raised money to purchase the building. It is now well-used community resource.
The building was originally intended to be a school. The first day school was set-up just for boys in 1831 (girls were not permitted) – Bitton National School for Boys. The pupils (aged between 5 and 12 years) were required to attend every day, except Saturday which was a holiday. They also had to attend church services on Sundays in both the morning and the afternoon. It was a fee paying school – the entrance cost was 6d, reading 2d, reading and writing 3d, with reading writing and ciphering at 4d.
The school was inspected in 1844 by the equivalent of OFSTED and found to be wanting: ‘Children of the first class did very well but there was room for improvement in all the rest.’ The recommendations included procuring a blackboard, slates, books, maps, a long writing desk against the wall, cupboards and good ventilation. In addition it recommended that the teachers, Mr. and Mrs. Bryant, should be sent for a month’s training at the London Central School.