The Educational Controversy in Brymbo (1907-1912)

Brymbo National School was built in 1850 by the Wrexham Parochial Education Charity. After being rebuilt in 1872, it re-opened as a Church of England School. Thereafter it was referred to both as Brymbo National School and as Brymbo Church School. It was here that Timothy Morgan Owen Shelby took up duties as headmaster in March 1893. The history of the school during his tenure, as presented in the School Log Books, appears here.

Even then, the Church was voicing concerns about interference from the local Education Committee [e.g. here, Rhyl Journal, 5 Aug. 1893]. Once the controversial Education Act of 1902 had created Local Education Authorities (LEAs) there were instances of a power struggle between the Church, historically responsible for education, and the comparatively new LEAs. The 1902 Act granted Church schools extra funding but it also decreed that they had to meet uniform standards. A crisis arose in Brymbo, near Wrexam, in 1907 when the Denbighshire LEA invoked powers obtained through the Education Act to remove the local Church School and to replace it with a new County Mixed School. With his school due to be closed, Timothy accepted the headship of the new school and his fellow teachers were due to move with him.

However, storm clouds were gathering; the resulting deluge would last for more than two years and would involve the Bishop of St Asaph, the President of the Board of Education, a question in the House of Commons, letters to The Times and a High Court judgement. Reports of developments flooded the newspapers. Meanwhile, Timothy was committed to his undertaking to head the new school but, as a devout member of the Church, he must have had enormous sympathy for his former school, its staff and its management.

An editorial in The Welsh Coast Pioneer and Review for North Cambria, 21 April 1910 (view), looking back at what had happened, laid the blame on the "despotism" of the Government's legislative programme, events at Brymbo being just one example of its effect. "In this case, the Denbighshire Education Authority laid claim to the buildings and endowments, and ultimately used its power to close the school regardless of the managers undertaking to provide whatever additional accommodation was needed, and of their request for a brief extension of time for the purpose."

The 1908 campaign began with a public meeting in Brymbo, as reported in the The Denbighshire Free Press, 11 Jan 1908 (view):

The Bishop of St Asaph, speaking at Brymbo on behalf of the National School, which the Denbighshire Local Education Authority has refused to continue to maintain, vigorously Protested against their action and severely criticised the Welsh Education Department at Whitehall, of which he is reported to have said that it was a waste of time for Church Schools to appeal for justice, as in such cases it had invariably proved, not an arbiter, but a narrow and bitter partisan. ...

It was deemed that the Council had been underhand in the way it had manipulated matters to try to force the school's closure; it had been attempting to dictate how the Parochial Charities should spend their money on school improvements and when Charities did not readily comply, the Council dictated that it had to close on 31 December 1907.

Back in September 1886 the school log had recorded a period of difficulty when a significant number of dissenting parents had kept their children away from the Church school. Now, significantly more local people were campaigning in favour of the Church school. Parents clearly supported the trustees of the Church School in wanting religious instruction to be taught in accordance with the doctrines of the Church of England. So great was this support that the Church chose to continue operating their school on a voluntary basis, and, as a consequence, most of its staff chose to remain at the school. The member of the County Education Committee most supportive of the Church's stand was Sir Foster Cunliffe. At the very beginning of 1908 he pointed out: "A considerable majority in the parish had an immensely strong feeling dead against the action of the committee. The old Church schools were still occupied by two-thirds of the children. He compared the attitude of the committee to the mercilessness of the military at the Massacre of Glencoe, and said it was degrading the character of the authority throughout the country." [The Chester Courant and Advertiser for North Wales, 8 Feb 1908 (view)]

A letter from a furious Denbighshire ratepayer, about the composition of the Denbighshire County Council Education Committee, was published in the The Welsh Coast Pioneer and Review for North Cambria, 2 Jan 1908 (view):

At this season of festivity and Christmas bills it is well that the Denbighshire ratepayers should be humble. They must remember that THEY HAVE TO FIND THE MONEY for the County Council Education Committee to spend. The composition of this Education Committee is a public scandal. The ratepayers have no control over the spending of the rates on education for the simple reason that they (as electors) have no control over the Education Committee, as at present constituted. ...

Let the ratepayers examine the names of those forming the Education Committee; let the ratepayers remember the sums of money they have to provide for this Committer to spend; let the ratepayers observe that they have control (as electors) over only 16 out of a total 36 members on the Education Committee. They will thus remark that a non-elected majority of four can spend ratepayers' money without protest or control. [The members are listed]

These co-opted members are supposed to be "Educational Experts". It is doubtful where some of them got their experience from. The most active of them will probably be found to be busy-bodies - people with more time on their hands than they know what to do with. So they devote themselves to spending money (rates) provided by other people, and they have no need to render an account to the Ratepayers], If the ratepayers will seriously scan the above list of members of the Education Committee, they will see by a simple sum in arithmetic that those who find the money for education, both elementary and secondary, are quite unable to check an extravagance in the spending of it. The Education Committee number 36. of which only 16 are responsible to the electors. This leaves an irresponsible majority of four. ...

One suspects the letter-writer became apoplectic at the costs incurred by the Education Committee over the following few years.

At this point The Times published a letter from the Bishop of St Asaph which was reproduced in The Cambrian, 17 Jan 1908 (view). It summarised events, from the church's viewpoint, and sought financial contributions to keep the Church school going:

The Bishop of St. Asaph writes:- Brymbo Church Schools were refused recognition on December 31st by Denbighshire Local Education Authority. These schools were built and kept in repair by an endowment, under the provisions of which the children are to be taken to church on Sunday, unless the parents notify otherwise, and the superintendence of the school is entrusted to the Vicar of Brymbo. The site on which the school was built was given and conveyed to the Vicar of Wrexham by the Marquis of Westminster, Brymbo being a district formed out of the old parish of Wrexham.

The Local Education Authority, desiring to possess themselves of the site, the buildings and the endowment have, with the aid of the Welsh Department, prevented the trustees from using funds in their possession for carrying out the improvements they required. The Vicar thereupon undertook to carry out these requirements. The Local Education Authority, hoping to secure the buildings and endowments by closing the school, refused to maintain the school after December 31st.

I pass by the subterfuges by which the Local Education Authority and the Welsh Department endeavoured to compass their end. Today the matter stands thus: There were 573 children in the school before Christmas. The parents of 421 children signed a petition and protest against the action of the Local Education Authority. The managers, in obedience to the parents' wishes, opened the school last Monday. In spite of all threats and pressure, nine out of fourteen of the old teachers, although offered the same posts and salaries under the Local Education Authority, BRAVELY RESOLVED TO STAND BY THEIR OLD SCHOOL.

Our school opened on Monday with 339 children. Meanwhile the Local Education Authority has transferred the children to two chapel-rooms and an institute. One of these rooms is under the chapel, and, on two sides, below the level of the ground. while the institute room is upstairs. There is no Nonconformist grievance, because there is a council school there already. Brymbo is a parish composed entirely of workingmen. They raise ₤554 a year for their church and school by their own voluntary contribution. As an evidence of the interest taken in these schools, I may mention that a number of these workingmen, entirely of their own accord, gave up half a day s work on Monday, in order to see that the children were not exposed to molestation. The carrying on of these schools is a protest of more than diocesan interest and influence.

I appeal therefore, to English Churchmen to help the managers promptly and generously. I will myself receive and acknowledge any subscriptions sent to me. In addition to generous aid already promised, a sum of ₤2,000 will be required."

A deputation, led by the vicar of Brymbo, went to London and obtained an undertaking from the President of the Board of Education that he would hold a public inquiry.

Chester Courant and Advertiser for North Wales, 10 June 1908 (view) reported:

The following letter, dated June 4, has been sent, from the Welsh Department of the Board of Education to the Denbighshire Education Authority respecting the Brymbo Schools:-
The Board of Education have now received and considered the report of the public inquiry held at Brymbo on the 7th and 8th ult. The decision of the Board is - (1) That the Council School at Brymbo (the necessity of which has already been determined by the Board) should provide accommodation for 400 children. (2) That a voluntary school at Brymbo (of the type proposed by the promoters) for 400 children is necessary. For the purpose of the latter school the Board are prepared to recognise, temporarily, as from January 6th last, the premises belonging to the Wrexham Parochial Charities, in which a school has been carried on since that date; and to consider the claim for grant on an average attendance of not more than 400 scholars in such temporary school.
With reference to the other questions raised by the proposals of the promoters of the last-mentioned school, viz., as to whether a school 'in which religious instructions will be given in school hours ... in conformity with the doctrines of the Established Church, can be carried on in the school buildings belonging to the Wrexham Parochial Charities,' the Board have that matter under their consideration and they hope to be in a position to communicate their decision in regard to it at an early date."
That summer, Timothy, with his wife and son, was visiting Rhyl, enjoying a holiday away from the trials and tribulations of the Brymbo schools issue [Rhyl Record and Advertiser, 15 & 22 Aug. 1908].

As a result of the Board of Education's decision, the local Education Committee reluctantly passed the resolution: "In the interests of peace this committee agrees to the payment of the teachers' salaries of the Church of England Brymbo School as from the 6th of January last at the rate in force at that date." ... "The Chairman said the committee had dealt with the managers of the school in the most lenient manner possible time after time. Any steps the committee had taken had been taken in no vindictive manner." [The Welsh Coast Pioneer and Review for North Cambria 3 Dec 1908 (view)] However, there does appear to have been an undercurrent of vindictiveness; the LEA had inflicted, in effect, a pay cut on those staff who had remained at the Brymbo Church of England School (Brymbo NP School, 'NP' meaning 'non-provided'), as Col. Sandbach pointed out in a letter published in The Welsh Coast Pioneer and Review for North Cambria 1 April 1909/ (view):

"The case of the headmaster is peculiarly hard. He has received from the managers ₤120 a year as headmaster, yet because two years ago as second master his salary was ₤100, the committee refuse now to pay him more than ₤100 and actually assert that it is no reduction to be reduced from ₤120 to ₤100. This sum is less than the average head teacher gets in small county schools, and is utterly inadequate for the head of a large and important school. The reductions in the cases of the other teachers mount up to over ₤40.

It comes to this: the teachers of the Church of England school have been educating 70 more children than attend the Council schools, and have been content to receive for the past ₤70 less in salaries than the Council school teachers; and now the Local Education Authority have reduced their already smaller salaries by another ₤70. Comment is needless."

Just weeks later, the LEA were discussing a proposal about salary increases for local teachers and Col. Sandbach asked why the teachers of the Church School had not been included. A member of the Committee concerned argued that the teachers were not complying with the instructions of the Board of Education and "When they defied the direction he did not consider it right and proper to advance their salary." Col. Sandbach stated: The Education Authority had no right to interfere with the religious teaching ordered by the managers of a N.P. School. He therefore moved that the question of the salaries of the teachers in the Brymbo N.P. School be referred back to be revised by the Committee in the same way as the others. [The North Wales Weekly News, 25 June 1909 (view)]

In the summer of 1909, the trustees were about to take the issue of religious instruction to court, when the matter of the fabric of the school building was raised in Parliament. [The North Wales Weekly News, 16 (view) and 23 (view) July 1909] The Bishop of St Asaph summarised the later sequence of events: "... after communication with the Education Department, a public inquiry was held at the County Hall, Wrexham, with the result that recognition was granted to the school. Notwithstanding this, the Local Education Authority informed the teachers in the school that "they could not, under the scheme of the Court of Chancery, under which the (school) charity is at present administered, teach to the children in the school the doctrines and tenets of the Church of England, and farther that their engagements were continued upon their strictly conforming with this decision."

An appeal to the Courts followed, with the result that on April 13th Mr Justice Swinfem Eady declared that "there was no doubt that this was a Church of England School, that the teachers could give the religious instruction, that the contention of the Local Authority was untenable, and that they must pay the cost of the originating summons." The Welsh Coast Pioneer and Review for North Cambria, 21 April 1910 (view).

As the Bishop of St Asaph commented in a further letter to The Times, if the Courts had not so found, "then all our efforts to maintain these schools were in vain". He also stated in that letter that, when the Church school had reopened on 6 January, 1908: "Temporary Council Schools were opened on the same day with 229 pupils, while there were 362 in the Church schools." [Rhyl Record and Advertiser, 23 April 1910 (view)]

Throughout these turbulent times, Timothy Morgan Owen was trying to run the 'rival' Council School, under extremely difficult circumstances. He would remain Headmaster there until 1933.