A Short History of The Old School House in Somerton
“I shall give and bequeath to my said Executors, and to their heres for ever the Castell yarde in Somerton aforesaide, and the Chappell therein standing…and my will that they with the rents issues and profits of my lands and leases shall procure obtain purchase a good and absolute estate in fee simple of lands, tenements, or rents to the yearly value of 10? over and above all charges; and that they shall procure lycense and erect a common Scowle in the said Chappell for the instruction and bringing up of children in virtue and learning.”
The above extract is from the will of Thomas Fermor in June 1580, and describes his endowment for a free boys’ school at Somerton. Fermor would die a few months after making his will, but his instructions were observed and the school which was built forms the centrepiece of the present Old School House, now a residence and believed to be the oldest home in Somerton. This building—used as a school until the ‘mid 20th century’—embodies many significant aspects of the history of Somerton, with architectural details that reflect the social, political and religious movements of the parish from the Norman Conquest to the present. 
Thomas Fermor (b. circa 1523, d. 1580) was a wealthy wool merchant who had served as a Knight for Shropshire in Queen Mary’s first Parliament. The Fermors were leading Roman Catholics, ‘Lords of the Manor of Somerton from 1512 to 1815’ and played an influential role in the ‘strong Roman Catholic tradition in the village’. Local historians have speculated on Fermor’s intentions in bequeathing the school. J.C. Blomfield, a rector in the late nineteenth century, perhaps exaggerates when he describes Fermor’s beneficence as a reaction to ‘the spread of a great social degeneracy over the whole nation, especially in the character and conduct of the young.’ The Victoria County History is closer to the mark when it presents the idea that ‘Fermor’s original intention was to found a grammar school for the sons of neighbouring yeomen’, but this too underplays the details of Fermor’s will which indicate strong political motives for founding the school. Bindoff’s History of Parliament notes the importance of Fermor’s will as an example of ‘seigneurial Catholicism’ at work. Firstly, the will stipulates ‘that the schoolmaster should be nominated by one or other of the ecclesiastical, secular or academic dignitaries of Oxfordshire or by the lord of Somerton.’ In this respect, Fermor could have envisaged his school as a means by which the Catholic influence upon Somerton could be covenanted for generations to come. The Fermor family retained lordship and possession of the whole parish between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, while the Roman Catholic community benefited from the tolerance of Somerton’s post-Reformation rectors. It is known that Fermor ‘left rent-charges or leases to a number of servants who, or whose families, can be traced among Oxfordshire Catholics for some years afterwards.’
Apart from the political and religious implications of the construction of the free school, Fermor’s will also outlines the medieval origins of The Old School House. The ‘Chappell’ in the ‘Castell yarde’ refers to the medieval manor house of the De Greys. When Robert Arsic died in 1230 the barony of Somerton was divided between the De Grey and the De Gardinis family through Arsic’s two daughters who were his coheiresses; Joan, wife of Eustace de Grenevile and Alexandra, wife of Thomas de la Haye. The chapel in the castle yard which Thomas Fermor bequeathed for use as a school is thought to be the last remaining part of the original castle and the Victoria County History endorses the view that ‘the present school-house stands on the site of this chapel’. The 1996 Conservation Area Appraisal undertaken by the Cherwell District Council tentatively judges that ‘elements of the chapel may have been incorporated into the 16th century building’. Evidence for the geographical placement of The Old School House on the site of the medieval chapel is strong. The ‘mounds and fishponds’ mentioned in an extent (land valuation) of the castle in 1295 can still be discerned to the north east of the church. Pottery from the thirteenth century was dug up nearby in 1954, and ‘several skeletons and a silver cross were unearthed in the 19th century’, giving weight to the belief that the site was once used as a Roman Catholic burial ground. Despite these tangible details linking The Old School House to the medieval chapel, proving the architectural composition of the building is a more difficult task, as a detailed investigation of the building in 1999 observed: ‘While it is possible or even likely that some at least of the bases of the walls may include parts of the old castle chapel, there is no specific evidence of that.’ However, the report does state that the old chapel ‘may have consisted of the Southwest end of the house and part of the old schoolroom’.
Despite this uncertainty surrounding evidence of the old chapel in the present building, there are tangible extant features which reflect the history of The Old School House from at least the mid seventeenth century. The earliest visible feature is the ‘timber mullion and transomed window in the northeast wall of the old schoolroom’. This is thought to belong to the early to mid seventeenth century, and in the southwest wall of the kitchen of the present house (which is contiguous with the old schoolroom) there is also a seven light mullion and transomed window with a timber frame, typical of the seventeenth century. The prosperity associated with the size of the former mullion window is expressed in a Victorian novel aptly titled The Heiress of Somerton, which contains a description of ‘a large ancient house, whose hard outlines were pleasantly broken to the eye by…immense stone mullioned bay-windows—rooms almost in themselves’. The cellar door is identified as a ‘late seventeenth century ledged and battened door’.
During the seventeenth century the small grammar school taught ‘the sons of yeomen of the parish and neighbourhood.’ The masters were generally clergymen, and the names of several seventeenth and eighteenth century schoolmasters are known. The gravestone of Richard Todhill (d. 1656) is found in the parish church along with that of Thomas Dutton, M.A. (b. 1608, d. 1691) who served as ‘Schoolmaster of ye free school of Somerton’ for fifty-two years. The eighteenth century witnessed the rebuilding of the school in 1750. The present kitchen in The Old School House is thought to be an eighteenth century addition. It also saw an event of great significance for the parish, as William Fermor obtained an Act of Parliament to inclose the open fields in 1765. The Inclosure Acts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries received many critics; the poet John Clare famously expressed his dismay and anger upon seeing the profit making Act of Enclosure applied to his local parish Helpston, in Northamptonshire, in 1807. His sense of a ‘violation of his natural and social environment’ is articulated in the poem ‘Helpston Green’:
“But now alas your awthorn bowers
All desolate we see
The tyrants hand their shade devours
And cuts down every tree”
Before Clare, Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘The Deserted Village’ (1770) epitomised anti-enclosure sentiment and the associated rural depopulation. However, the effect of enclosure at Somerton was probably neither so poetically destructive, nor so vehemently resisted. Pastureland had already been quite extensive in the parish, and according to the Victoria County History, ‘one effect of inclosure was probably to accelerate the process of increasing the size of farms, which was already under way.’ The population of Somerton grew in the second half of the eighteenth century and reached four hundred by 1821.
Despite the lack of evidence which attests to a predominantly detrimental effect of the enclosure on Somerton, the profit-making and exclusive ethos behind the Act did seem to affect the school. Although the Fermors maintained the schoolmaster’s house, as well as appointing and paying the master’s salary of ?10 a year, the running of the school in the eighteenth century seemed to move away from Thomas Fermor’s original intentions, and the family had ceased to live in Somerton in about 1625. They had also sold the Somerton estate to the Earl of Jersey for ?90,000 in 1815. For part of the eighteenth century, ‘only reading, writing, and arithmetic were taught’, and by 1787, ‘most of the village children were excluded, as only children who could read were admitted.’ The declining efficiency and number of pupils at the school was compounded initially by the ineffectiveness of the rector’s protests to William Fermor. By 1815 four local boys attended the school in the summer and about a dozen in the winter. Twenty fee-paying boarders supplemented the master’s income. In 1837 the curate of the parish, Mr. Jordan, found that ‘only five children were receiving free education, and that no child under seven years old was admitted, so that the village was not profiting sufficiently by the foundation.’ The master at this time, John Hore (d. 1861) seems to have benefited from the increased land available to him from enclosure, as the Charity Commissioners (1815-35) reported: ‘There are also a garden and orchard, and four small pieces of pasture land, containing in the whole about two acres, which were awarded to the schoolmaster upon an enclosure…All these premises are in the occupation of the schoolmaster.’ Although receiving generous privileges from Fermor’s school, Hore neglected to maintain high standards of education.
Mr. Jordan made notable efforts to check the abuses of the foundation under Hore and to counter the ‘inefficient’ running of the school and ‘slovenly’ reading and ‘poor’ religious instruction. He began a system of halfyearly examinations (including tests of ‘writing…writing from dictation…arithmetic…spelling, reading, and questions on the Bible’) which allowed for the fluctuation in pupil numbers in the summer due to harvest work.
Several other general improvements to the school were undertaken in the nineteenth century. The school was repaired in 1850 at a cost of ?75, using a portion of the ?200 paid by the Railway Company (Somerton’s railway opened in 1855) for a small piece of land belonging to the Free School. In 1864 a further ?200 was spent on improving the schoolroom and its fittings and furniture. In 1870 Lord Jersey gave ?60 to ensure the school met the requirements of the Elementary Education Act of the same year. Significant modernization of the school was carried out in 1894 at a cost of ?200. Extant plans describe alterations made ‘to provide two dwellings and an up to date schoolroom.’ These included the insertion of two Yorkshire stone hearths to new bedrooms, the roofing of new bedrooms and the addition of a brick upper floor. The roof structure and positioning of the dressed stone quoins also suggests that the whole area of the building was raised in height. Many of these details are still noticeable in the present Old School House, along with the L-shape and the coursed rubble.
Between 1864 and 1871, the two other schools in the parish were merged in Fermor’s school. Fermor’s school was reorganized as a junior school in 1930, and it was controlled in 1951. The Old School House is one of the treasures of Somerton and reflects the rich history of the parish from medieval times to the present.
Cherwell District Council, Somerton Conservation Area Appraisal, (March 1996),
The Victoria History of Oxfordshire (OUP)
-Cormier, Josephine M., The Old School House, Water Street, Somerton, Oxon, Report on Building Investigation and Recording (Oxon., September 1999),
-History of Middleton and Somerton, compiled by J.C. Blomfield (London: Parker, 1882).
-The House of Commons 1509-1558, Volume IV, ed. by S.J. Bindoff (London: Secker and Warburg, 1982).
-Victoria County History: A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 6 ed. by Mary D. Lobel (1959).
 Fermor, Thomas, bequest dated June 15, 1580 in History of Middleton and Somerton, compiled by J.C. Blomfield (London: Parker, 1882), p. 152.
 Cherwell District Council, Somerton Conservation Area Appraisal, (March 1996), p. 4.
 Ibid., p. 4.
 The House of Commons 1509-1558, Volume IV, ed. by S.J. Bindoff (London: Secker and Warburg, 1982), p. 126
 Ibid., p. 127.
 Victoria County History: A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 6 ed. by Mary D. Lobel (1959), pp. 290-1.
 Cherwell District Council, Somerton Conservation Area Appraisal, (March 1996), p. 3.
 Ibid., p. 3.
 Cormier, Josephine M., The Old School House, Water Street, Somerton, Oxon, Report on Building Investigation and Recording (Oxon., September 1999), p. 15.
 Ibid., p. 15.
 Ibid., p. 15.
 The Heiress of Somerton: Volume I (Oxford University: 1854), p. 51.
 Cormier, p. 5.
 Blomfield, p. 153.
 Paulin, Tom, ‘Introduction’ to John Clare: Major Works (Oxford: OUP, 2004), p. xix.
 ‘Helpston Green’ in John Clare: Major Works, p. 62.
 Victoria County History, p. 294.
 Victoria County History, p. 294.
 Victoria County History, p. 295.
 Blomfield, pp. 153-4.
 Victoria County History, p. 295.
 Blomfield, p. 154.
 Cormier, p. 12.
 Lady Jersey’s school for twelve girls was opened around 1815, and another school had opened by this point which provided for twelve children.
Michaela Rees Jones – May 2010