Good better best,
never let it rest,
’till your good is better
and your better best.
This was the Victorian rhyme learnt by heart by pupils visiting the Katesgrove schoolroom. It became our mantra when setting up the Victorian schoolroom. Artefacts and lessons used in the schoolroom had to be thoroughly researched and, as far as the budget allowed, historically accurate.
I visited a number of school museums in England, gathering ideas for what to teach. Fortunately, the Sevington School was also being set up in Wiltshire, so we pooled our ideas and resources and the hour of lessons took shape. Copy books were run off, one for each child to take home, having practiced writing in dip pen and ink, and enough reading books were bought, printed from a facsimile in the Sevington archive.
We decided we would have a dunce’s cap and ‘cane’ a child. The class teacher chose and primed the children beforehand, and swore them to secrecy. The dunce’s stool came from our garage!
The Berkshire education department sent another letter informing schools that pupils could visit the schoolroom for half a day and experience school life 100 years ago at first hand.
The schoolroom opened in October 1988 for two afternoons a week, but slowly the numbers grew. Schools needed to fill expensive coaches so wanted to bring two classes. Two sessions were needed, one in the morning followed by a different one in the afternoon. Richard Ousley, who was already doing similar work with pupils, joined me to run the other sessions to complement the schoolroom experience.
We first wrote ‘Toys through Time’ so children could learn about Victorian toys. ‘Lanes Trains and Motorways’ followed, describing the history and industrial importance of the Katesgrove area. This incorporated a walking trail, so pupils could see first-hand what had been described.
Christmas, of course, meant a ‘Victorian Christmas’ programme which included wassailing the apple tree in the school grounds. And then, with the introduction of the National curriculum, the ‘School time – War time’ programme was introduced, based on the London evacuees to the area.
3,000 pupils visited annually ranging from university students, foreign students to infants. There were six qualified teachers in addition to Richard. Along the way the education department, still doing all the bookings, had decided the Berkshire education library service had the administrative staff more able to cope with the increasing bookings and the schoolroom was under their auspices for a number of years.
Then another change and the schoolroom became part of Reading Borough Council. It was decided the schoolroom should have its own office on site with its own administrator. The office was installed in the old staff room.
The school and children were always very supportive of this odd mixture in their midst; visiting children dressed in Victorian clothes and having to be quiet in the central hall when Victorian lessons were in progress. This didn’t always work, the day when a jazz group came to perform was a bit of a challenge, but on the whole, with a great deal of co-operation from the school staff, it worked remarkably well. The advantage for the visiting children was they weren’t coming into a museum but into a school with the sounds and smells around them.
It was opened for the Heritage Weekend for a number of years when schoolroom sessions were run with guided, historic and ghost tours of the buildings. The schoolroom was used for the filming of two television programmes, one for infants in 1989 and ‘From Butler to Baker’ produced by the Television History Workshop in 1994.
In 2007 it was decided that Reading Museum would be a more suitable home for the schoolroom and in September this year it will move to the Abbey gateway.