©  Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: July 11, 2017
Webpage updated: March 28, 2021




A meeting was held in the Plymouth Guildhall on Thursday June 22nd 1809 to discuss the formation of a free public school.  This resulted in the Public Free School for Boys being started in Bedford Street / Frankfort Place close to the Pig Market in August 1809.  Curiously, the master was Mr William Visick, who was also a butcher by trade.  It was run by the undenominational Lancastrian movement.

On December 10th 1810 a school for girls was also started.  This was in an apartment of the Guildhall, granted by the Mayor of the Town.  The boys numbered about 200 at this time, and the girls about 90.

During 1809 the Old Town Gate had been removed.  This opened up the land to the north, where Cobourg Street now stands, for development.  It was here, in “Old Town Without (the Walls)”, that on June 4th 1812 the schools' president, Captain Richard Creyke, officer in charge of the Royal Naval Hospital, laid the foundation stone of the boys' large schoolroom.  The land on which it was built was held on a 500-year lease for a rental of £10 per year and the building itself was designed by the eminent local architect, Mr John Foulston.  The School would accommodate 320 boys and 220 girls.  The first anniversary of the school was held in that building in 1813.  

A schoolhouse was built in 1817 but removed again in 1880.

The School continued to make steady progress and in 1824 a separate Ladies Management Committee was formed to run the girls' school. 

In 1831 the number of children attending the School were 370 boys and 122 girls.  The following year the annual meeting of subscribers was cancelled due to the cholera outbreak.  In 1833 the momentous decision was taken to charge new entrants a penny a week in order to meet the deficiency in the funds.  Thus it ceased to be a "Free" School.  The resulting school pence raised £30 19s 4d from the boys and £17 6s 8d from the girls.

From 1832 until 1842 the master of the boys' school had been a Mr Saunders, who in the latter year moved to the Borough Road teaching establishment in London.   He was replaced by Mr George Jago (1806-1894).  The receipts of the boys' school at the time of his appointment were only 11s a week whereas by 1868 they were in excess of £10 per week.

It was stated with regret in 1842 that of the 260 boys on the books very few remained at the School beyond the age of 11 years.

By 1847 the number of boys attending had increased to 360 and a decision was taken to accept Government grant aid so as to increase the operation and usefulness of the schools.  This decision resulted in the number of boys increasing to 480 in 1850 and to over 500 in 1851.

A report to the committee of management in September 1857 recorded that there were 632 boys enrolled at the School, from which there was an average attendance of 540.  The receipts of school pence during the previous four weeks had amounted to £14 13s 6d.  There were also 258 girls in attendance, with their contribution amounting to £4 10s 3d.

The infants' school was established in 1860 in a new building and two years later an Upper School was formed in a new large room fronting Cobourg Street.  In 1866 it was found necessary to erect a similar room by its side.

The 1868 survey

When the Western Daily Mercury did their survey of local schools in 1868, it was said that it was the largest undenominational school in the country and was the second largest school after a Jewish one in London.  It must be stated that the buildings as existed in 1868 were not the same as had existed when the school was opened in 1812.  They had been so much improved as to hide the original ones and by 1859 the School had nearly doubled in extent.

The site of the School covered about three quarters of an acre and was central but without being crowded by other buildings.  The frontage was some 230 feet in length and the average width overall was 100 feet.  The buildings had no architectural merit due to the paucity of funds.  They were of varying dates, apparently, with the newer ones being better designed than the older ones, which were erected for a purpose not for looks.

The boys' department had six distinct rooms in use every day, the largest of which was 80 feet by 30 feet and lit by a "lantern" that extended the whole of the length of the roof.  In it were two galleries capable of holding 50 children each for separate lessons.  The room itself had writing desks for 200 children and there was also a 'flat' capable of taking 100 children for reading lessons.   There were two other class-rooms for 80 and 120 boys.

The most recent addition to the boys' department were two rooms facing Cobourg Street, between the large boys' room and the infants' school.  They were built on pillars so as to not encroach on the  playground over which they were built.  One of these rooms was used two evenings a week by the Plymouth Fine Art Society for drawing draped, living figures.

In addition to the above, there was also a committee room that was available for teaching purposes if required.

There was a large playground but it was considered only just big enough for a school of 700 children.  Much of the playground was covered with 'shedding' and in fine weather some of the reading and arithmetic classes were taken out into the playground to relieve the class-rooms of noise and congestion.

The girls' school occupied a large, lofty, square room and one class-room.  There was also a playground.

In what was described as a 'pretty and well-proportioned building' was the infants' school.  Like the other parts of the school it was lit by a "lantern" arrangement.  The school was about 75 feet long by 25 feet wide but it was not sufficient in size to accommodate the number of children who wished to attend.  The management committee had purchased a piece of ground adjoining the school upon which to erect a large class-room and for a playground area.  The work, which was to cost £400 in addition to the cost of the site of £230, was to be financed without the assistance of a Government grant.

At the time of this survey in 1868 there were 745 boys on the books, with an average attendance of 648; 303 girls, with an average attendance of 205; and 350 infants, with an average attendance of 285.  The attendance in the boys school wax seven-eighths of the attendance for the schools as a whole, which was regarded as exceptional.  As usual the girls' attendance figures suffered from the fact that many of the older girls were required to stay at home to help with domestic chores.  The average of the infants' school is also high.

It is interesting to look at what happened to the boys when they left the School.  Of the 413 boys who left during 1867, two became engineering students at Keyham Steam Yard, five became shipwrights at the Royal Dockyard, 37 gained employment in various trades, 12 became clerks, 40 became errand boys, 15 went to sea and 39 were employed by their parents.

Of the remainder, 22 boys were struck off for irregular attendance, 24 were struck off for disobeying the rules of the School, and 28 were struck off for truancy.  It can be mentioned that there was no corporal punishment of offenders at the School, only dismissal.  The school could afford to weed out pupils like this because there were always scholars waiting to join.

During the same period, 214 girls left the School, of which 9 went into service, 10 left to learn trades, 74 were wanted at home and the large number of 50 were compelled to leave because of illness.

The infants' school is of course a feeder to the other two, and 85 of their pupils went to the boys' school and 49 to the girls'.

Staff and curriculum

Staffing was large as it was, of course, a large school.  In addition to Mr Jago there were two certified assistants, two non-certified assistants, 9 pupil teachers and 7 monitors in the boys' school.  Under Miss Edmonds in the girls' school were one non-certified assistant, 4 pupil teachers and 4 monitors.  The infants' school was run by Miss Moysey and comprised one uncertified assistant, 6 pupil teachers and 6 monitors.

The curriculum was equally large.  Reading, writing and arithmetic formed the usual basis, with geography and grammar being added in the seventh standard. 

However, in each of the boys' and girls' schools there were upper and lower schools, the fees and lessons being different.  In the upper classes, the boys paid 6d per week and the girls 4d.  The lower classes of both paid 2d per week.

Laurie's Graduated Series, as adapted to the various standards, and the Bible were used throughout the school for reading.  The more advanced of the boys varied their reading by using the Epitome and Compendium of Geography, Poetical Selections, Sullivan's Literary Class Book and Goldsmith's History of England.

Newspaper reading had been introduced in 1866 to meet the requirements of the higher standards, in which the boys were expected to read and write from dictation, before the inspector, a paragraph from a newspaper.  (Considering the paragraphs often comprised 27 lines of text, this was not so insignificant as it may seem today).

Besides the usual copy-book writing, the older boys also wrote short essays as home lessons on subjects previously learnt at the school.

Slate and mental arithmetic were taught and the boys in the upper school received additional lessons of grammar, geography, history, mensuration, geometry, book-keeping and algebra.  Drawing was taught by Mr C S Jago.  The boys in the upper school spent longer at school than those in the lower classes.

On Saturday mornings many of the older boys attended a voluntary class, for which no extra charge was made, where Mr Jago used to give lectures in elementary science or lessons in water-colour and mechanical drawing.  Some of these boys went on to obtain employment in the Devonport and Keyham Yards while the lessons in drawing resulted in a wonderful exhibition of excellent drawings in crayon, water-colour, sepia, Indian ink, and pen and ink, on each school anniversary day.

The Girls' School

In the girls' school the Bible, Laurie's Graduated Series and newspapers were also used, along with slate and mental arithmetic.  About 70 girls also received instruction in geography, grammar, history, and domestic economy.  All the girls learned needle-work and the older ones also were instructed in cutting-out plain garments and in knitting.  Plain needle-work was taken in and done by the girls at a moderate charge.  Plain garments for the poor were made and could be purchased.

The Infants' and Evening schools

The infants paid a penny a week and for that were taught reading, writing and arithmetic.  There were also object and singing lessons and some of the children learned needle-work.

There was an evening adult school at which about 50 males and females attend, with ages ranging from 12 to 30 years.  Many of the older students had children currently attending the day school.

It was interesting to note that the children attending the Public Free Schools did not just come from within the parish, like other schools in Plymouth.   Boys travelled from East Stonehouse, Devonport, Compton and even Oreston and villages around.  Indeed, one of the students in about 1866 came from Plympton, some five miles away, from which he travelled daily and was seldom late.

Of the total expenditure of nearly £1,500 a year, £859 was paid in salaries of the staff.  Expenses had risen from £1,254 two years previously and £1,466 in 1867.

The Schools' income

Income was derived mainly from school fees and the Government Grant.   The former amounted to £625 5s 4d in 1867, £467 9s 1d from the boys, £98 7s 5d from the girls and £59 8s 10d from the infants.  The adults evening school earned a further £49 0s 9d.  The grant from the Government was £429 7s 2d.  There was also a donation of £20 from the Admiralty in respect of children whose parents were employed in their establishments.

Subscriptions amounted to £65 6s 6d and there were endowments totalling £64 10s.  The needle-work done by the girls, as mentioned earlier, earned a further £1 11s 4d.

The Headmaster for over forty years between 1842 and circa 1885 was Mr George Jago (1806-1894).  His son, Charles, worked with him for many years before taking over as Headmaster.  He lived at Number 1 Rowe Street, along side the School.

Transfer to local authority ownership

In 1908 the School was transferred to the new Plymouth Local Education Authority although the legal date of the transfer was not until March 15th 1909, when it became the Plymouth Public Elementary School.