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History of St Oswald’s School, Bellingham

The main story of St. Oswald's School is a hidden one:  laying the foundation of skills and knowledge and the formation of faith of four generations of children in Bellingham.  Gifts of land, schedules of grants, correspondence with Whitehall and the County Council in Newcastle, employment of staff and the rest of such matters constitute the public record, but the preparation of children for their future lives was what was important, and most of that must inevitably pass unrecorded.

The land had been gifted to the new parish of St. Oswald's in 1839 and on this a school was built in 1849. W.H. Charlton made the gift, but it seems that Frank Charlton, a civil engineer, took a specially close interest in the foundation. The Charlton family were generous patrons of the school till its final closure in August 1946. From that time to the present, it has been used for functions, bingo, play-school, aerobics, dances and ecumenical gatherings. On July 17th we will be celebrating having this building at our disposal for 150 years.

Here are half a dozen things you probably didn't know about St. Oswald's School:-

  1. It was the first of the denominational schools to be built at the top end of the North Tyne valley in the building bonanza of the mid-nineteenth century.  The Reed School dated from 1736 and was rebuilt in 1857. However, in mid-century St. Oswald's was built (1849), then the Presbyterian School at Smalesmouth - the Hott (1851),  the British School in Otterbum Road (1857) and the Church of England School at Thorneyburn (1862). Provisions for the expansion of school building were included in the Finance Bill of 1833. At that time education was funded not by an Education Department but by the Treasury. The Privy Council delegated its responsibility to the Committee of Council on Education. In its turn, this Committee administered capital and expenditure grants to the representative bodies for the churches, who were considered to be the most suitable agencies to provide education. The National Society represented the Anglicans, the British & Foreign Schools Society represented the Non-Conformists, and the Poor School Committee the Roman Catholics. The Committee of Council on Education also appointed and had oversight of Her Majesty's Inspectors Schools. Part of the interest in the history of St.  Oswald's School is that it illustrates the change of attitude within a century (1849-1944) of the Church giving way to the State in the formation of young minds.

    The middle years of the century were a boom time in other ways. Hareshaw bridge had been built (1826) and roads were constructed to Troughend and West Woodburn (1854). The fine bridge over the Tyne was built (1834/5) and the Hexham to Bellingham road re-routed (1856). The Border Counties Railway connected Hexham to Bellingham (1862), and later onwards to Scotland. Hareshaw Iron Works with three blast furnaces and associated quarries operated from 1838-1848, and subsequently the Tile Works. A colliery (1851), gas works (1864) and later the piped water supply provided more employment. Manchester Square was rebuilt, and the Town Hall was erected with an accurate clock (1862).

    St. Oswald's and the other schools served this dynamic population.
  2. St. Oswald's was the only Catholic parish school in the country to return the capital grant for its construction. In 1848 the grant had been made to W.H. Charlton towards the construction of the school; in 1852, it was returned. That St. Oswald's School owed nothing to the State for its construction preserved its independence for many years. There was, however, a small community of parish and school to support. The priest and housekeeper occupied the presbytery, the head teacher may have been in one of St. Oswald's cottages, with sometimes a caretaker and his wife, and from time to time a gardener. A monitress (£8 per annum) was needed to assist the headmistress (about £70 per annum).
  3. The one-room school provided education for children of both sexes, from three-year-olds to fifteen-year-olds. This was a challenge in keeping discipline and also ensuring that none of the age groups was overlooked. The one room holds 60 children, but the actual number of children was usually half that figure. Because there was such an age range, the book inventory shows many single copies of school texts or small multiples.
  4. St. Oswald's School had a good academic standing. In the early years of denominational schooling, there were few courses available for teacher-training. Teachers could gain a certificate by examination. There were examination centres in many parts of the country- in the North East, for example, in Sunderland and Newcastle. The examination took three days, and teachers were often grant-aided to travel to take the examination. At a time (1851) when only eleven Catholic schools in the country had a certificated teacher, St. Oswald's was one of them. St. Oswald's could thus have had an assistant pupil teacher on the staff who was also preparing for certification.

    There were sometimes twice as many non-Catholics attending St. Oswald's as Catholics. St. Oswald's was a very small parish. The census records show that the increase in Bellingham's population from the 1820's onwards was at the expense of the other townships in the Bellingham Union. The presence of Irish families attracted by the building works and heavy industry in the North Tyne swelled the parish numbers temporarily. Nevertheless records for 1878 show that there were 11 Catholic children and 27 non-Catholic children attending the school.

    Teachers applied for the headship of St. Oswald's from far and wide. For instance, the managers in December 1910 appointed, out of 18 candidates, an applicant for headmistress from Canterbury. In the following January she withdrew. Another applicant, from Burnley, was appointed.
  5. The school was closed down in June 1914. The head teacher from 1897 to 1910 was a Miss Graham, certificated and college-trained. The school flourished under her headship, the H.M.I's commended her work. But from 1910, the Board of Education became increasingly critical of the running of the school, and Miss Graham resigned and numbers declined. Matters continued to deteriorate and Fr. Murphy, the correspondent for the managers, wrote (1913) to the Board as follows:

    "In view of the foundation and maintenance of the school during
    a long period of years, and in view of the possible increase in the attendance in the event of the Squire's return, and in view of the fact that there are no facilities for Roman Catholics within a radius of twelve miles, and in view of the fact that if the school be closed it will be morally impossible for it to be re-opened, the Managers cannot agree to the closing of the school, and they request the Committee to continue to maintain it as a non-provided school."

    It was to no avail. It is not known on what date the school reopened.
  6. We do not have good records of the school between the wars, but we know from the diary Fr.Delaney kept that he invited the Sisters of Mercy to take over the school, but they were unable to do so. In 1946 the school was given up, and Catholic children in Bellingham began travelling to Hexham to the Junior School of St. Mary's.