Local historians, Charles Tebbutt and Rosa Young, have published extensive research into St Neots’ history. What follows has largely been gleaned from their work.
The first school
It is said that the monks at St Neots Priory supported schools for boys as early as 1260. Anglo-French would have the language they used as the monks were from Normandy. Latin, Greek and Divinity would have been studied.
Richard, the Prior at Bushmead, applied for a license to open a school but he died during the Black Death in 1438. Many of his potential students likely perished too.
The first school in St Neots opened in 1556. Classes were held in Jesus Chapel inside St Mary’s parish church in St Neots. Revd. Faucet was the priest and schoolmaster, living in the 15th century building on the corner of Church Street. His pupils were the sons of the local gentry, wealthy landowners, and the clergy. John and Francis White (1570 – 1615), sons of the vicar of St Neots’ sons are recorded as attending St Neots Grammar School. John became Bishop of Ely and Francis became the chaplain to James I.
In 1658, during the Commonwealth, £20 of the church’s money was used to pay for a schoolmaster.
By the 18th century people thought that education should be for all classes of society. In 1736 a Charity school for ’35 poor boys’ was opened in St Neots. Classes were also held in the Jesus Chapel of St Mary’s Church, St Neots but after 1745 they moved into another building, probably rooms in the vicarage.
In 1757 Loftus Hatley left £40 in his will to educate poor children who were constant attenders at church. His son Richard, who died in 1789, left £400 to help pay £10 a year for a schoolmaster and £10 12s. 6d for clothing for seven poor boys from St Neots and three from Eynesbury.
In 1760 Alderman Newton of Leicester left £26 a year for the St Neots school ‘for the clothing, schooling, and educating of 25 boys of indigent and necessitous parents of the Established Church, between the ages of 7 and 14.’ Their clothing had to be green jackets, breeches and waistcoats with brass buttons, pale blue stockings and a green ‘Tam o’Shanter’ hat with a red tassel. The school then became known as Green Coat School.
Between 1780 and 1803 one of Newton’s heirs claimed that the money should not be given to St Neots School. He lost the case and, in 1860, the arrears, then worth £598, were used to build a new schoolhouse on Church Walk.
The headmaster lived in a medieval half-timbered house nearby and took in boarders. He was very strict, actually chaining boys to desks as a punishment. There is a story of one smuggling in a file with which he managed to escape.
At first it housed pupils of both sexes but later it was only for boys. Another ‘Girls and Infants School’ was started in premises in Huntingdon Street from 1840. The ‘green linnets’ as the boys were sometimes called, were made fun of as ‘charity boys’.
There was a school in Eaton Socon in the late-18th century but where it was is not certain. James Livett was described as the schoolmaster.
In 1865 Walter Cooper was the headmaster of ‘St Neots Charity and National School. At an inspection in 1870 there were 140 boys aged between 7 and 15 taught by one teacher, an assistant and three pupil teachers. The 85 girls had one teacher and two pupil teachers. The 200 infants had one teacher, one assistant and three pupil teachers.
It became the National School in 1854.
There are no references to a Charity school in Eynesbury. Boys had to walk into St Neots for classes. Reverend Palmer, the rector between 1808 and 1851, set up his own school for the poor. It was in a building at the south end of Luke Street, facing the village green. An inscription over one of the doorways read ‘Suffer little Children to Come unto Me’.
With more students attending the school it became too small and in 1818 the children were moved to the coach and stable-block in the rectory on Montagu Street.
The infants attended classes in a ‘rod barn’, thought to be on Luke Street. The ‘Old School Yard’ was converted into low-cost, two-room, terraced cottages. (These were pulled down in 1960.)
In 1854 James Phillips was the headmaster of 90 pupils of both sexes, whose parents made a weekly contribution to their children’s education.
It then moved to a new building erected next to it in 1868 with 80 juniors and 75 infants. The school bell still hangs in the bell-cote.
By 1884 one Eynesbury Junior School teacher complained about having one class with over 80 pupils.
During the 19th century those members of the Non-Conformist (Independent) churches (Quakers, Wesleyans/Methodists and Presbyterians) were concerned about sending their children to the Church of England school. They were being taught the catechism which was the set beliefs of the established church. So they arranged Sunday School classes for them in their chapels or, if they could afford it, sent them to private schools.
In 1844 they opened a school in the disused chapel behind 20 High Street beside the ‘New Inn’.. This ‘British School’ was run by a committee of Independents, Baptists and Wesleyans. With alternative non-conformist schools available, it closed down in 1862; the children were transferred to the Methodist School.
The Wesleyans had became more well-known as the Methodists and in 1852 converted the old golf club headquarters on Huntingdon Street into a chapel. They already had Sunday School classes and started their own Day School. It was run by Mr A. Arundal.
By 1858 they had raised enough money to build a new school on land to the north of Priory Road.
The cost of maintaining the school was high and in 1926 it was taken over by Huntingdonshire County Council becoming the town’s first ‘Council School’. The former Wesleyan School continued in use as Priory Road School until the 1960s when it sold and demolished. The students moved into a new church school in Church Walk.
Eaton Socon’s National School was erected in 1832 to the east of the parish church. It had 54 boys and 63 girls. By 1860 it was too small and a larger building was constructed on the site.
Adults’ education was not ignored. The Public Rooms were opened in 1855 next to the bridge where meetings and concerts were held.
The Corn Exchange was opened in 1863 on the corner of High Street and South Street. It was designed as an indoor farmers market but also held concerts and meetings. After 1887 it held the Victoria Museum which had mostly stuffed animals.
In 1868 Eynesbury had a Reading Room in the school.
In 1880 education became compulsory for 5 – 14 year old children.
Eaton Socon had a Workmen’s Club in 1880 which met at the National School.
The Library and Literary Institute was founded in 1881.
The Liberal Club and the Conservative Club opened in 1895.
With the dramatic 400% population increase caused by London Overspill during the 1960s and 70s there was a need for more schools.
New Infant and Junior Schools were built at Crosshall, Bushmead, Pepys Road, Winhills and Middlefield.
Two new secondary schools, Ernulf Community school in Eynesbury and Longsands Community School in St Neots, provided education for 11 to 18 year olds as well as adult evening classes.
The Pavilion Cinema closed down in 1968 but other clubs and societies provided leisure and recreation facilities.
An open-air swimming pool was built on Huntingdon Street and another pool and recreation centre built at Ernulf.
St Neots Players performed at Longsands school and the Black Box Theatre Company at Ernulf. The Stablehands performed Shakespeare plays in the yard of The King’s Head.
Musical entertainment was supplied by the Choral Society and the Music Hall Society.
(Young, R. (1996), 'St Neots Past', Phillimore, pp.47,68,68,94,96-97,112,121-2; Tebbutt, C.F. (1978), St Neots – History of a Huntingdonshire Town, Unwin Brothers, pp. 50-58)