Learning on Exmoor

In the 19th Century, provision of schools across Exmoor was sporadic. Most schools were of a type known as Voluntary Schools, in particular at least in part funded by the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church, formed in 1811 by the Church of England. These included the schools at Parracombe (extant before 1870), Elworthy (built 1839), Countisbury (established 1835) and Lynton (opened 1844).

Allerford School, now a museum (© ENPA)Schools could, however, also be established by private benevolence. A Parish Return of 1818 records three small schools in Selworthy Parish teaching between 50 and 60 children for a fee of 2d as well as a school for "writing and arithmetic" for 10 to 12 children, possibly supported by the Aclands. In 1821 Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, the 10th Baronet also built a school in Allerford, consisting of a thatched L shaped building with a high schoolroom and an attached two storey house for the head teacher and family (see image, to left). At the time of opening, the school had about 36 pupils, but was extended in 1882 with the construction of a School House beside the road, with the original house being adapted as an infants’ room and kitchen. The Aclands also provided schools in Porlock Port in 1876 and Winsford and Luccombe in 1881. Lady Carnarvon was also the main benefactor at Brompton Regis (1861) and Bury (1870s) schools, and the Lutterells were also benefactors of the schools at Dunster and Luxborough (both 1872).

At Yarde, a school room and teacher’s house was built in 1819 for Sir John Trevelyan of Nettlecombe Court, designed by Richard Carver. Carver’s practice was based in Taunton and he was county surveyor for Somerset, retiring in 1857. He is most known for his work on churches and church houses in the area but also designed the school house at Milverton in 1835. Yard school was intended for 150 scholars, even though it is sited in a tiny village, and is characterised by Dutch gable ends on a two storey building, which Villiers suggests may have been intended for boarders upstairs and for the teachers’ accommodation.

Many schools were not housed in purpose built structures. In Porlock, the parvis chamber above the entrance porch of St Dubricius’ Church (originally used by priests to keep vestments and other valuables) was used to teach poor children to read and write in the 18th Century, until the village school was built in 1879. Also, dame schools were often run by elderly women who would teach reading and sewing for a small fee. Several of these are known to have existed across Exmoor, including at 2, Church Lane in Dulverton, where Mrs Bagg ran a school that became known as ‘Baggs Academy’. It has been suggested that this is why the property has two front doors. Schooling was first provided in Simonsbath by a Dame School that was held in two of the rooms within the cottages at White Rock; however, a school was built on the site in 1857, within 12 months of the consecration of the village’s new Church. Much of the teaching at the new school was originally carried out by the Rev. Thornton, aided by an assistant teacher, Miss Emma Reed from Chawleigh. However, there were frequent changes of teachers during the first 40 years of the school’s existence.

The Wesleyan Day School, Dunster (© ENPA)Further provision for education was sometimes made due to a rise in dissenting communities during the 18th Century, to pass on their religious teachings. It is known that Exmoor was an area high in ‘dissenter chapels’ and Sunday Schools and from the late 18th Century, these schools began to teach the basics of reading and writing and the scriptures for around four hours. They were generally small, plain buildings, located close to, abutting or underneath a chapel. Surviving Exmoor examples include those at Dulverton and Dunster, the latter of which is now in use as a private house but still has a dedication plaque on its front elevation (image to left). The Methodist school at Barbrook Mill, however, was quite large. Established in 1870, around 70 children attended in the early 20th Century.


Before motorised transport became usual, the practicality of students getting to school could be difficult due to the remote nature of many of the area’s farmsteads and small settlements. Twitchen, for example, was the last school in Devon where students received a pony allowance. Some of the children who attended Winsford school had to walk from as far as Luckyard Farm and Knaplock. The children who lived at Hoakoak Cottage (situated within Lynton and Lynmouth Parish and one of the most remote farmsteads on Exmoor) were generally unable to attend school regularly because of the long walk home and weather difficulties but those who did would generally have gone to Barbrook Mill School (a Wesleyan school established in 1870 and closed in 1967), Simonsbath or Brendon Schools. David Hobbs, born at Hoaroak in 1915, attended Simonsbath School and lodged with his Granny Jones in the village from around 7 to 8 years old while he studied there. He probably returned home at the weekends, possibly on his father’s pony.

It wasn’t always possible for the children to find someone to board with, however, and the long distances involved often meant the earlier children at Hoaroak Cottage did not attend school at all, though some received home tutoring. Even without these issues, children were also often kept at home to help on a farm with tasks such as sheepshearing, digging and planting crops, haymaking and harvesting. More broadly, parents often required their children to be working at home, thinking they had no business sending their children to school when they had better things they could be doing. This was partly solved with the provision of Sunday schools, which taught on a day that the children’s labour was not required. In certain areas of Exmoor, the children might also have gone to follow the stag hunts instead. In 1882, several parents of children at Allerford School appeared before Dunster Magistrates to account for the irregularity of their children’s attendances.

The late 19th Century

In 1870, the Education Act was passed. This established a system of school boards to build and manage schools in areas where none were otherwise provided. The Act allowed voluntary schools to carry on unchanged but in board schools, religious teaching was to be ‘non-denominational’. A further Act followed in 1880 that made school attendance compulsory between the ages of 5 and 10 and by 1899 this had been raised to 12. This was not always fully respected, as parents often could not afford to give up income earned by their children. Fees were also payable until the law was changed in 1891. More legislation followed in 1902, when another Act abolished school boards in favour of county and borough councils, as well as giving them responsibility for voluntary denominational schools. The voluntary school at Martinhoe, first established in 1873, was recognised as a public elementary school in 1903.

In 1871, the school in St George’s Street at Dunster was built. It was designed by the architect JP St Aubyn in a roughly ‘Z’ plan, on a site donated by Mr George Luttrell, and was the idea of the Reverend TF Luttrell, who supported and taught at the old school as well as running a night school for boys and young men where they could learn to read. It opened in 1872 and was first attended by 130 children.

Reading Rooms

Reading Room at Dunster, situated upstairs in building to left (© ENPA)These were usually community buildings, generally funded by a local benefactor and situated in larger settlements. Burton suggests that nearly every village in the country set up a reading room in the early 1970s, where for a small subscription members could come to read the daily papers and popular magazines of the time. They were an important recreational space that allowed local people to socialise outside public houses. There are several examples known to have existed on Exmoor, including at Brendon Hill village, a mid 19th Century settlement built by the Brendon Hills Iron Ore Company, and in Luccombe, where the school became a reading room after a newer school was built. In 1903, a reading room was added to the Working Mens Club on Lady Street in Dulverton (eventually serving as the library until 1995) and another reading room in Dunster was provided by the Church, housed upstairs from the butchers’ market (see image to left). At Simonsbath, the Reading Room was sited within the northern section of what became Boevey's Tea Rooms.


While some school buildings on Exmoor are still in use for their original purpose, many schools have closed or relocated to newer buildings. Many have been converted into private houses, such as those at Countisbury, Martinhoe, Lynmouth, Dulverton and Monksilver. However, several have been converted for more community purposes. The old school in Porlock, for instance, is now in use as a thriving visitor centre, and the school buildings in Allerford now houses the West Somerset Rural Life Museum. As well as a fascinating photographic collection and range of social history objects, the museum also includes a recreated Victorian Schoolroom, including the original desks and benches from 1821.

Winsford School was closed in 1995. One notable ex pupil includes The Rt Hon Ernest Bevin, wartime Minister of Labour, British Foreign Secretary 1945-1951, architect of NATO and world statesman. He entered on 26 May 1884 and left in 1889. As the school had been founded by the Aclands in 1881 with the expressed wish that it should always be used for educational purposes, a charity was set up to keep the building in community use. It was then opened as a community education centre in June 1998 with a focus on computer training, also housing a doctor’s surgery and complementary health care centre. However, this centre eventually closed and the building was eventually converted into a house.

Commemorative window at Parracombe School (© ENPA)The school housed in White Rock Cottage in Simonsbath closed in 1970, subsequently becoming a field studies centre for Somerset County Council. However, it more recently fell into disuse and was acquired by Exmoor National Park Authority in 2013. The building now forms part of a larger project looking at the use of heritage assets held within the village by the Authority.

Finally, even when a school is still in use, there can still be issues in its conservation. In 2011, approximately three quarters of the school at Parracombe was destroyed by fire, including a classroom, staff room and kitchen area. Thanks to the firefighters attending the scene, however, the oldest part of the school was saved. After restoration work was undertaken, the school reopened in 2014 and is still in use for its original purpose. A stained glass window has been installed within the school in the form of a phoenix rising from the building to commemorate the event (picture, to left).

Catherine Dove


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