A history of West Blackdown School

In the 1880s the cottages and scattered farms of West Blackdown were in the parish of Mary Tavy but West Blackdown children were being taught at the church school near Christchurch in Brentor.  In the 1880s the Mary Tavy School Board somewhat reluctantly started looking for a site for a new school in West Blackdown because  the Education Department had decided that a separate school should be provided for West Blackdown children.  The land chosen was owned by Mr Francis Buller of Morval in Cornwall, who gifted it to the Board on 5th November 1889.  The site was common land on the side of Gibbet Hill, close to Brentor railway station.  There was no road to the Gibbet Hill side of the school until after the school was closed and the school was accessed by a right of way across the common land to its front gate.

The site plan for the school in 1889 – click to enlarge
The school is on the left, Brentor Station to the right, about 1900

Plans were drawn up by the Launceston architect Otto Peter and the builder Mr G H Strike of Launceston was appointed to build the school at a cost of £225.  The sloping site required considerable excavation and the building of retaining walls which still exist today. The funds needed to build the school were borrowed from the Public Works Loans Commissioners at an interest rate of 3.5% over 35 years – the school actually closed down before it was fully repaid!  There was a single storey classroom, 26 ft (7.8m) long, 18ft (5.5m) wide and 16ft (4.9m) high with a strong wooden-beamed roof supported on granite quoins and a pine floor.  The school was substantially built, with local stone walls almost 30 inches (75cm) thick and incorporating a pitch damp proof course. The sand for the mortar came from the Wheal Friendship mine in Mary Tavy.  The walls incorporate very large granite corner stones and lintels. A 40ft deep well was constructed to provide a water supply for the school and the building was enclosed by high stone walls.  The large leaded windows had sloping windowsills and were high enough from the ground to prevent the children being distracted by the view to Bren Tor.  There was little room for a playground on the small site but it was surrounded by open moorland.

Evidence for the original colour scheme of the classroom

Traces of wear on the floors from countless small hobnail boots, in rows where the children sat at their desks were discovered during building work in 2003.  There was also evidence that the interior cement-rendered walls were painted dark cream, with a red horizontal stripe an inch wide about 45 inches from the floor.   The classroom was heated with a stove that sat on a concrete hearth, and the building had a single chimney.  There was a small entrance vestibule to the left hand side, with a slate floor and coat racks for the children’s wet clothes, and outside toilets to the right hand side.

Slate pencils found hidden in the school

By June 1890 furniture and equipment (24 each of slates, notebooks etc) was being ordered.  Slate pencils and uniform buttons were discovered in an air vent by the entrance door about 2010 – mischievous children obviously causing trouble for their friends!  An advertisement for a teacher was placed in the Tavistock Gazette and Mrs Annie Gerry was appointed in October 1890 at a salary of £30 per annum.

The school opened on 3 November 1890 and the final cost was £335.7 shillings. Unfortunately the church school in Brentor was closed unexpectedly for a year and all the children from there also started to attend the Blackdown school, leading to overcrowding and a lack of writing material and other equipment.  There were about 70 children on the register and Mrs Gerry had to cope with them alone, although no doubt many of the boys failed to attend since they were often needed to work on the local farms.  Children paid one penny a week to attend.

In 1892 Mrs Gerry’s salary was increased by about £8 but she was still the worst-paid Board headmistress in Devon.  In 1894 Lily Mashford was employed as a ‘monitoress’ on a salary of £10 per year, although this was later reduced to £6.10 shillings!

Later the Board decided that an infants’ classroom was needed, but to save money an area of the classroom was curtained off and the number of children limited to 46.

In 1904 Mrs Gerry left and Miss Mabel Spurr became headmistress.  She left in 1912 and the last headmistress was Ethel Tapley, whose final salary was a more respectable £80.  In December 1918 the school was closed down due to boundary changes which meant that West Blackdown children could attend the Brentor School instead.   For a short while the school building may have been used by the Salvation Army as a home for destitute children.

The school has had a number of owners since it was closed.  On 12 December 1921 the school building was sold to Mr George Herbert Bawden for £200 and in 1925 he sold it to Mrs Mary Elizabeth Bruford (a widow, later married to James Raymond Brock) for £400.   In 1930 she sold it to Mrs Ann Ellen Wotton of St Budeaux Devonport  for only £150.  Some time later it was owned by Lilian Nita Nicholls.  It was probably used as a holiday cottage. The property was renamed Furzleigh at some time.

The school in 2020

Since the 1970s the former school has been occupied as a family home, a first floor having been inserted into the school room.   A commercial garage was run from the site by Mr Dennis Baskerville for some time, who extended the building in 1990.  The present owners extended the building again in 2005, but the form of the original school building is still clearly visible.   In 2003 the property was renamed again, to ‘The Old School’,  to reflect its original use.

Below is a selection of photos of the school classes.  Click on the pictures to view the gallery.

For a more detailed history of the school see Old Dartmoor Schools Remembered by Mary Stanbrook.