Village History in the Staploe Hundred - The Grammar School at Soham 

Stephen Martin (1962) writes: This is an extract from a local history book Village History in the Staploe Hundred.  This was compiled by Lionel M Munby and is the "work of a group of local people from several villages who came together in Soham Village College in the winter of 1965-6 to study their village history in a class organised by the University of Cambridge Board of Extramural Studies."  Mr Munby was the tutor and edited the work.  Staploe Hundred consisted of Burwell, Chippenham, Fordham, Isleham, Kennett, Landwade, Snailwell, Soham and Wicken.  I purchased the book several years ago.  It is now out of print.



Soham Grammar School was founded in the seventeenth century. Ironically the foundation of the school was a by-product of a 1658 dispute over the rights of common between the lord of the manor and the inhabitants. The dispute was referred to arbitration; the award, made in 1664, allotted the rents of certain lands, mainly on Soham Moor to “the raising of a Common Stocke to sett the poore of Soham att worke, binding out apprentices, or for raiseing a Revenue to a Schole Master, as the Lord of the said mannor and major part of the Tenants of the said Mannor shall order and sett downe”. It was not until 1687 that a legally binding decree was issued ordering this award to be carried out and appointing the Master of Pembroke Hall, the Vicar and twelve other people as trustees. Whether the school then commenced is not known, but a specific school building was not built until 1699; it cost 284-7s-6d. The numbers soon increased so that a second master was appointed.

The School began as a Grammar School, that is one committed to teaching at what we should today think of as the secondary level. There may well have been a parish school in existence teaching reading and writing, or the second master may have been appointed to teach those who wanted education but had not reached the ‘grammar level.’ The S.P.C.K. report of 1713 claimed that the school was converted in that year from a grammar school into a ‘charity’ school for 100 children; in effect this meant it became a primary school. Various eighteenth century writers confirm this change. A guidebook of 1801 refers to the ‘children of the poor inhabitants’ being ‘educated in a large Charity School under two masters’. The Feoffees’ accounts for the end of the eighteenth century contain items like the following:

“March 23 1789.

June 19 1789.

June 18 1797.

June 16 1798.

for 8 pound Candles School Lumination etc.
for a large Hair Broom with Stick
Mop and Stick 1s. Brush 9d.
Double Wire Brush

Mop and Stick
Lynn Head 9d. Hair Broom 1s-6d.
Mop and Stick 1s. Lynn Head 9d.
Hair Broom
for 6 pound Candles for Illumination the school.
5 : 4
1 : 8
1 : 9
0 : 6
0 : 9 : 3
1 : 0
2 : 3
1 : 9
1 : 6
4 : 6
0 : 11 : 0

The Feoffees, however, seem to have begun to spend some of their trust money on themselves, as the following account for 1807 suggests :-

“Red Lion Soham at a meeting of the School
Feoffees February 2nd.
Dinner for 12
Wine 13 Bottles
Beer and Tobacco

carried forward
Carrying Box

Widow Sanders

s d
1 16 0
0 2 0
2 19 0
0 10 0
5 7 0

5 7 0
2 6
1 0
5 10 6
3 0
5 13 6

The Report of the Charity Commissioners of 1837 shows the school in decline and brings out the difficulty found in getting working-class children to school in hard times, before schooling was compulsory: “A school house was erected on a piece of copyhold land vested in the trustees of Bonds Charity. It is in good repair but much too small. The Schoolmaster receives 60 pa. and 3-3s-0d as clerk to the trustees. He also gets 5-5s-0d altogether from other charities. 40-50 Boys attend - who must be able on admission to read the New Testament. They are further instructed in Reading, Writing and Arithmetic - the latter subject advancing to the rule of Three. The Farmers’ and Tradesmens’ sons attend more regularly than the children of the poor who are frequently called off for field labour. In the summer months there are no more than 20 pupils - in winter the room is filled. They are requested to pay 1/-- p.a. for fireing and there have been instances of exclusion for non payment. Girls are not admitted. When the Schoolmaster was absent on his other work - his son taught the boys. In 1818-19 140-4s-0d was paid in repairs”.

For some years the school was closed and then reopened as a result of substantial pressure by local people who petitioned the Feoffees. The terms of their petition follow: “To, The Reverend Henry Tasker, John Dobecle Esquire, Messrs. John Hatch, William Jugg, Ellis Staples, William Staples, and Julius Cesar Martin Feoffees of the School Moor Charity in the parish of Soham, Cambridgeshire.

We the undersigned, being owners of Freehold and Copyhold Property and Inhabitants of the said Parish, do hereby respectfully request, that you will reopen Free School for the education of such children as may apply for admission to be taught therein, without any distinction of Sect or Party.
“The property from whence the Income is derived for the support of the said School and a Master was not given by any individual, but decreed by the Court of Exchequer for that purpose.
“That the funds of the charity are sufficient to carry on the design as previously or upon any improved plan, to which we shall not object, if the rights and privileges of the children, who may be entitled to receive Instruction therein, are not infringed upon.
“As many children are at this time without the means of education, inconsequence of this valuable Institution being closed, we earnestly solicit your immediate attention to, and compliance with our request.”

Number of signatures :-- 201
of these 18 have:- “mark X”
13 have:- “X”

The mystery which we have not solved is exactly when the school was closed and when it was reopened. The petition unfortunately is not dated. The Victoria County History states that the school was reopened “as a National (Church) School about 1847”. An article in the Independent Press and Chronicle in December 1961 stated that “it was reopened in 1847 and the following year established under the Endowed Schools Act as Soham Moor Endowed School”. The Victoria County History states that this, latter development took place in 1878! The School Feoffees’ account book ends in 1847, although the book was not full, and the next records begin in 1855 with references to items carried forward from 1854. Either the closure was very brief or 1847 was the date of closure not of reopening.

A printed prospectus of about 1880 shows the school at work again and in new buildings: “The School will be opened on April 25th. The new School buildings are in the centre of the town. The School will provide a thoroughly practical education; much attention will be paid to Natural Science and Land Surveying. Boys are received from 7 years of age. No boy can remain after the age of 15 years, save under special circumstances.”

Fees were
under 10 years 1-10-0d per term.
over 10 years 2-0-0d per term.

There was provision for boarders (at 30 p.a.) who had to bring with them 2 pairs of sheets, four towels, four table napkins, a fork and a dessert spoon!”

In 1902 a Laboratory and Workshop was added. In 1903 Vol. 1, No. 1 of the Soham Grammarian was published, but the Victoria County History states that “in 1909 a new scheme came into operation and the foundation recovered its old name of Soham Grammar School”; once again this seems to be the wrong date! In 1916 the School was transferred to the County Council and in 1926 it moved into new premises and admitted boarders.