HERE, Vera Brearey gives us a preview of a  new book she has written for Earby and District Local History Society, which delves into the history of schools in Thornton in Craven and Elslack.

One-roomed schools were built in both villages in the middle years of the 19th century. On June, 30 1873 the headteacher at Thornton school, William Lambert, started to keep a log book.

His first entry was an extract from a government inspection report, which read “This little school is carried on in a satisfactory manner. The children are very orderly and sing well.” The positive report must have come as a relief, then as now. And having children that were well-behaved, and willing to take part in things involving the whole school - singing in this case, but there were also exercise drills and reciting poetry off by heart - must have been critical to keeping your sanity in such a job, because Mr Lambert’s title is somewhat misleading. He was the headteacher, but he was also the only teacher for almost 50 children, ranging in age from three to 13 years old.

Sometimes Mr Lambert seemed close to losing his sanity. His log is full of comments reflecting his struggle to keep attendance figures up, at a time when sending your child to school wasn’t compulsory but the government paid grants that were partly based on attendance figures. Try squaring that circle! Children sometimes weren’t attending because they were wanted to help with work at home, or because they were working intermittently as servants for other families. Parents sometimes couldn’t always see the point of school. One entry read that a girl was being kept at home because not much was going on in the classroom.

Another entry read “sent to see the reason for Fanny Riley not attending the school and received the following. She is helping her mother to mind her own business”. And then there was hare coursing to watch and the hunt to be followed. Or the weather might be bad, or the harvest need getting in, or the children were away “playing”, or “running about” or “taking liberties”. But they had to be taught and the inspector was coming.

Years passed and the focus of the logbooks changed, but the entries continue to shine a light on a long-ago world. Inspectors continued to visit, sometimes not liking everything they found. In 1912 there was advice that “one of the two teachers should stay at the school each dinner hour, to prevent the school being demolished”. World War Two saw gas mask drills and air raid warnings – except sometimes the warnings got mistaken. At Thornton in 1939 the teacher mistook the sound of a passing wagon for the air raid warning. The next year in Elslack the children sheltered for two hours before the teacher realised she had heard the 'All Clear', not the warning.

The logs reflect teachers skilled at using the countryside in their lessons. In Elslack in the 1960s and 1970s there were expeditions to sketch tree silhouettes, fishing for minnows and studies of water insects in a farm trough. Scenes from Robin Hood were acted out in a local glade by the beck, with another story then read to the children as they sat among the low branches. The children re-enacted the charge of the Light Brigade in a local field and experimented with dyes made from lichens.

Inevitably for small village schools, the numbers on the roll fluctuated, by the 1960s struggling to get above the mid-teens. There were threats of closure at both sites, but for a long time they were averted. Reprieves were won.

But then in 1978 Elslack school finally closed its doors. The last head teacher, Margaret Lancaster, wrote in her log that on her final day the remaining children were taken to their new school in Thornton whilst she spent the morning supervising the removal of the last bits of equipment from a now empty building. She then waited for the children to be returned to Elslack, to be dismissed for the last time. “This was worse than anything in the past few weeks – sitting on a borrowed chair in an empty school, trying not to let my mind wander over the past thirteen years”.

Thankfully, Thornton school survived and thrived, and the income from book sales will all go to the school.

A history of schools in Elslack and Thornton-in-Craven costs £10.00 (£13.25 if sent by post). To obtain a copy contact