The Victorian Schoolroom at Reading Museum was originally housed at Katesgrove School and as it prepares to move again into a new home at the Abbey Gateway, the Whitley Pump looks back to when it was first established.
In the 1980s, at the Victorian Shaw-cum-Donnington Primary School in West Berkshire, teachers were enthusiastically teaching history by involving the children in projects. We realised we had a problem. The cupboards had school equipment going back to the Victorian era but room was needed for the new stuff. We knew other old schools in the area had the same problem and it seemed quite wrong to destroy such a valuable teaching resource.
We wrote a letter to Lawrie Taylor, then history advisor for Berkshire, suggesting a collection be made. He replied enthusiastically, but thought a schoolroom would be needed to house the collection. He then sent out a letter to all the Berkshire schools asking if any had a spare classroom.
Sylvia Warner, of Katesgrove Primary School, was the only head who responded. We visited the school and realized what a gem it was; the ‘Dorothy Building’ was quite unaltered from being built as a Central School in 1891 with many of the original fixtures and fittings.
The Berkshire education department agreed to fund the project and rent two rooms, one for the children to change in and the other to be turned into the Victorian classroom. Since I was the only teacher at Shaw-cum-Donnington working part time, it was decided that I would work on the project.
A committee of interested teachers from Katesgrove Primary School was formed as a link between the school and the project. The school was very proud to have the schoolroom on-site, and had a sense of joint ownership. This bond and expertise proved very valuable over the years.
Museum staff were consulted, the paint taken back to the brickwork to establish the original colours: a brown dado below and cream above, and the exact height of the dado established. There wasn’t a budget to restore the original galleried classroom, i.e. desks on rising steps as in a theatre, enabling the fifty children to be seen by the teacher. Instead, a dais or platform was built for the teacher’s desk.
Another letter asking Berkshire schools for donations of artefacts was sent and I searched in unexpected places. An orchard in West Ilsley had a four seater desk under tarpaulin nestling under an apple tree. Aldermaston Primary School thought it had nothing, but when the head showed me the new improvements, there on a shelf in the cloakroom was a Victorian cane wastepaper basket holding the P.E. bands. He donated it without hesitation. Welford and Wycombe C E Primary School had a shed full of maps. The one of the British Isles was hung behind the teacher’s desk (pictured above).
Tony Higgott, then curator of Newbury Museum, showed me the correct way to create an accessions register and all donations were recorded. This went into their archive when the schoolroom moved to the Reading museum .
I became involved in the International School Museum Group, attending international symposiums and acquiring all sorts of knowledge and expertise which could be fed back into the schoolroom. The fame of Katesgrove Schoolroom and school buildings grew, attracting interest and visits from people running school museums from many parts of the world from as far afield as Norway and South Africa.
I also learnt that when we, in Shaw-cum-Donnington, were worrying about valuable school history being destroyed, we were part of a world-wide concern. Like minded teachers were all busy saving their collections and setting up schoolrooms from Ballarat in Australia to the British Schools Museum at Hitchin, Hertfordshire, where they have the only surviving Lancastrian classroom in the world and a galleried classroom – well worth a visit.
Next week – what was taught in the school room.