Education in the Spen Valley
Until the 1800’s, formal education was only for the rich. There were private schools (eg. Hartshead Manor and Healds Hall for boys, or Roe Head (now Hollybank Special School) for girls. Charlotte Brontë attended Roe Head as a pupil 1831-1832 and later as a teacher 1835-1838, using her wages to pay for her sister Anne’s education there. Tutors or governesses such as Charlotte and Anne Brontë also taught well-to-do children at home. The only alternatives were through church Sunday schools or charity-run schools. The Moravians opened a girls’ school in Gomersal as early as 1758. Sunday School was where a poor child could learn to read and write, in order to study the Bible and take part in worship. In the 1860’s, Providence Place Chapel in Cleckheaton (now the Aakash restaurant) had 712 scholars and 161 teachers! A charity Town School operated in Heckmondwike from 1809 -1875. You can still see a cottage where Nanny Wood ran a tiny school at Ladywell Lane Hartshead.
Poor children worked long hours 6 days per week until 1870, when the law made part-time school compulsory from age 5-12. In 1880 the leaving age increased to 13 years but half-time school and work continued in Spen Valley until the early 1920’s.
The first day schools involved competition between Anglican and Non-Conformist churches: Anglicans ran “National” schools whilst Non-Conformists ran “British” schools. The first National School in the country opened in 1818 on Halifax Rd Liversedge, funded by Hammond Roberson, vicar and builder of Liversedge Church. You can still see this building, now converted into apartments. It was followed by Oakenshaw (1822) and Scholes (1837). Classes had 50 children taught by the “monitor” system: older children taught the younger ones, overseen by one teacher.
After 1870 local School Boards built state elementary schools in similar designs – stone, with tall windows and steeply pitched slate roofs, with separate entrances for boys and girls. Most of these buildings still exist: look at Littletown; Hightown; Norristhorpe, Roberttown, Heckmondwike and Millbridge, which are all still functioning as primary schools.
Secondary education began in 1898 with Heckmondwike’s Grammar School. The original building is surrounded by later extensions. Cleckheaton was denied a secondary school by the education authority (the West Riding County Council), but Cleckheaton rebelled. Five men, dubbed the “Cleckheaton Conspirators”, were instrumental in pushing forwards plans for a school. They were John G Mowat, George Whiteley, J Walter Wadsworth, Reginald M Grylls and Will H Clough. These people’s families have played significant roles in Cleckheaton’s history. For example, the Mowat family later built Cleckheaton Library in 1930 and donated it to the people of Cleckheaton. Walter Wadsworth’s son Edward became an internationally famous Vorticist artist. Reginald Grylls maintained his interest in local education and a middle school at Hightown (now demolished) was named after him.
They funded Whitcliffe Mount School by donations from local residents and Cleckheaton council funds, making it unique as the only state secondary school not established by an Education Authority. The Foundation Building was designed by renowned Leeds architect William Henry Thorp F.I.R.B.A. and opened in 1910. Sadly this magnificent building was unnecessarily demolished in 2018.
Mechanics Institutes are important parts of our educational heritage. George Anderton founded Cleckheaton’s in 1838 and inspired Heckmondwike’s (1841) and Gomersal’s (1852, now the Public Hall). They educated adult men in technical subjects, qualifying them to succeed in industry and business. They were accessible to working class people, who became members and had access to their libraries and reading rooms. As such they were the fore-runners of polytechnics and public libraries.