“Oldest primary school in the district closes“,
wrote the Beccles & Bungay Journal half a century ago. Due to close in 1960 Geldeston village school kept open , thanks to a “a determined fight by managers and parents”. (The B&B then cost fourpence a copy; the district was the Loddon Rural District Council, not South Norfolk.) The school was reprieved for another six years until the new St Michael’s School behind the Boundaries was ready.
Gillingham Primary School also closed in April 1966. Like those in Ellingham (still active) and Stockton, its building was of a standard type erected around the time of the 1870 Education Act. Not so Geldeston. There an elementary school appeared 45 years earlier in a warehouse donated for the purpose by Benjamin Dowson.
Opened in 1825
A corn merchant and maltster from Yarmouth, Dowson bought the Wherry Dyke, the maltings, and the staithe as a going concern in the late 1700s. He and his wife moved into the maltster’s grand residence (today known as The Old House) in the very centre of Geldeston. At first Mrs Dowson taught some of the village children in her kitchen. Soon more room was needed, and on 1 March 1825 the old warehouse became a school run by Sam Clark. Children from surrounding villages (Gillingham, Stockton) also attended and forty years later there were 68 girls and boys there (White’s Gazeteer, 1883). Registers showed, commented the Journal (Friday, 7 April 1966), that over 1,500 children had been educated at Geldeston Primary School during the past hundred years.
The wonderful photo repays closer examination. The strange structure on top of the School building does not house a bell, as you might suppose: horses were stabled beneath the warehouse and the “tower” provided ventilation for the stables. This was confirmed ten years ago by Nick Winzor, when he converted the Old School into two dwellings.
The Village Hall, completed in 1924, is clearly visible in the background. That and the state of the roads (no pavement nor, it would seem, any tarmac) suggest a date in the late 1920s or 1930s.
Like most village children I attended the school. I well remember Miss “Topsy” Burslem, the headmistress: she lived in No 16, next door to the School. And of course I remember our class teacher Miss Thirtle (Mrs Horsham), and our dinner lady, Mrs Lennie Smith.
There were 18 boys and two girls then. Lizzie Sutton, Jenny Spink, Derek Easey, Leslie Riches, Philip Dobson, Peter Etheridge — I can’t recall them all now. Each day we let off steam in a large asphalt playground behind the Village Hall and if we really couldn’t wait we used the unspeakably smelly toilets in the sheds below: a wartime evacuee Robert White once asked if I remembered them — did I not (it must have taken many years for them to reach that condition!)
If my schoolmates passed the 11+ exam they went to the Leman School in Beccles; if not, they were sent to the County Modern. In 1960 I began travelling to Norwich each week, including Saturdays, to attend the cathedral school, a long and lonely journey for a nine-year-old …
Thanks to Mr Stephen Lane for loan of the clipping from The Beccles & Bungay Journal that provides most of the information here; the Journal was then edited by Mr Lawson. Thanks to Mr Les Walker for tracking down the wonderful photo.
If anyone has information about the school, or old photos, it would be good to hear from you. We could reprint and share them here [JC]