Local History and People

Medieval Penn Floor Tiles

The Penn tileries formed the most extensive, successful and well-organised commercial tile industry in medieval Britain. For over 40 years of the 14th century, between 1350 and 1380s, Penn tilers secured something very close to a monopoly in the South-East of England.  They were manufacturing vast quantities of floor and roof tiles for royal palaces, monasteries and churches, manor houses and rich merchants’ houses, in London and the surrounding counties, including Windsor Castle and the Tower of London. l A gazetteer by Laurence Keen suggests that Penn tiles were used at some 180 sites across 18 counties outside London.  The distances involved and the constant mention of Penn and Penn tilers by name, argue that they had easily surpassed any rivals in both workmanship and price.

No local memory of these Penn tilers, whose industry completely dominated the parish in its day, has survived, other than that provided by the place name Tylers Green and a road name, Clay Street. Nonetheless, we know far more about the workings of this 14th century tilery than any other, both because there are so many well documented royal orders and because tiles have been found in hundreds of different locations.  A good deal of research has been done over the last 70 years, notably Christopher Hohler, who opened up the whole subject with his thorough field work and his two comprehensive articles in Records of Buckinghamshire, in 1941 and 1942. One of his stated purposes was to bring out the importance of the tileworks at Penn and he drew and numbered all the known Penn tiles (in a series beginning with P) and thus laid the foundations for their accurate recognition.

Tile Kiln found at Rose Cottage on Elm Road, Penn 2003

Penn’s only surviving kiln – A 17th C roof tile kiln has recently been found that is very similar indeed to the typical medieval floor tile kiln, except that it is made of flat bricks 9 x 4 x 2 ins (220 x 100 x 50mm) rather than of tiles and the oven is a little longer at just over 7 ft (2.20m) long and 6 ft wide (1.8m) internally. It is aligned east-west, at right angles to Elm Road, the main road (B474) through Penn, in the garden of Rose Cottage (recently badly damaged by fire), next to the entrance to the Penn & Tylers Green Sports Club. The kiln was discovered in June 2001 because a newly adopted planning policy requires an archaeological evaluation before any new building or extensions are allowed along Elm Road and Church Road. The furnace with the oven above was set below ground level, as was usual, and the walls have survived to a height of 4ft 3 ins (1.3m). The kiln bars forming the floor of the oven were supported about 1 ft 4ins above the floor of the furnace. The oven walls would have been higher but had been deliberately collapsed into the furnace chamber after the kiln had gone out of use.

A typical 14th century tile kiln with front wall removed to show the inside. this drawing is an imaginative reconstruction based on all the information available. Tilers are shown preparing for firing by putting firewoood into one of the two stoke holes, bringing a box of tiles and stacking them in the kiln. Drawn by Mike Lamont.

Fragments of eleven medieval Penn tiles were found in the rubble of the furnace and stokehole. Some of them are wasters or unfinished, indicating that they may have been made on or close to the site although they were not found in their original medieval context. Five of them were nearly whole and were recognisably those classified by Hohler or variants of them.

Two separate, tile-built walls were revealed by the same trial trench, both orientated parallel to the main road and at right angles to the kiln. One was unusually wide at 2 ft 6 ins (0.75m) and was well-made of courses of fragments of plain square floor tiles and roof tiles. The report tentatively proposed that the tiles used indicated a 17th or 18th C building used as a drying or storage shed, but a subsequent reassessment has suggested that the wide, well-built tile wall could have been part of an earlier medieval kiln. It may be that the orientation with the stokehole at the west end was with the deliberate intention of taking advantage of the prevailing westerly winds to fan the flames in the fire boxes.

The survival of roof tilers – There is documentary evidence that roof tilemaking survived in Penn after the 14th C, supplying local needs. For instance, the great barn of Bassetsbury Manor in High Wycombe was repaired in 1411 with 1,000 plain tiles costing 3s 4d per 1000 with 12d for carriage from Penn. In 1512, there is a reference to a ‘tyle house lying at tyler-ende’ in Penn. The fact that the tiles were worthy of note suggests that ordinary buildings were not tiled, but probably thatched. In 1552, an inventory of goods in Penn Church untypically ends with the statement ‘The church is tyled’, which probably refers to the medieval floor tiles rather than the roof. The Penn parish register for 1580 records the burial of John Playter, a tiler. Physical evidence of the survival of the industry is provided by the late 17th C roof tile kiln found in 2001 at Rose Cottage, Elm Road

Tyler End Green  –  The name Tylers Green still reminds us of the local importance of the tilers. Tyler End, as a hamlet of Penn, is recorded in a 1493 property deed. It replaced an earlier name of Garrett Green or Gerrards Green, presumably in the 14th C.  The name Tyler End Green was used for the next four hundred years until the ‘End’ started to drop out of use during the 18th C.  The 1841 census still had Tylers End Green, but it was Tylers Green, Penn in the 1851 census, although even in 1854, Zachariah Wheeler, who was building St Margaret’s Church, was still referring to the ‘tilend green church’.  As a hamlet grew up on the Wycombe side of the border, it borrowed the name of Tyler End Green from Penn and has now become Tylers Green.  Clay Street and Potters Cross are two more place names in the parish associated with working clay.

1918 Penn Church – The parish register notes that, in 1918, Lord Howe retiled the chancel floor in marble. Hohler recorded that tiles out of Penn Church had strayed into the Herts County museum at St Albans and he drew the seven different designs that he saw there. These chancel tiles are now in the Verulamium Museum. The nave floor was stripped of tiles during the 19th C and replaced by a timber floor between the pews.

The cover of the book ‘Medieval Penn Floor Tiles’ is an artists impression of how the original chancel floor might have looked.

1967  Mosaic tiles in Penn church grave  –  the Vicar of Penn, The Rev. Oscar Muspratt, found tiles lining two graves just outside the door to the north porch of the church, but there was only time for a quick examination of one and a half of them.  He sent 19 tiles to Elizabeth Eames at the British Museum, who was particularly impressed by two of the floor tiles that are now in Penn’s Lady Chapel, because they are totally different from all other Penn tiles.  They seem to have been made by the method which preceded the use of any stamp, that of incising as a freehand drawing, since lines cross eachother beyond the point where they should end.  Both are the central parts of a mosaic and are the first evidence of this earlier mosaic technique to be found in Penn.  The presence of both types together in the grave suggests that both techniques were being used at the same time or had at least overlapped. The much more laborious manufacture of mosaic shapes was finally abandoned after the Black Death in favour of the simpler and cheaper square tiles.

One of the tile fragments is about a quarter of a round tile or roundel, originally about 8 ½ ins (225mm) in diameter, and is decorated with the outlined figure of a pilgrim with staff and satchel with a border inscribed .. M SEMPER A…  The other is a lion’s face in profile on an octagonal tile about 6 ½ inches (160mm) across.  Both had been coated with white slip and the incised decoration appeared as brown lines on yellow.  Both seem to have been wasters as a result of breakage. Their fabric is comparable with that of the usual Penn tiles.

There were a further 17 tiles, of which five were plain green glazed and three were plain yellow.  The presence of stabbing holes on the base of three of the plain green tiles was unusual for Penn but typical of an earlier ‘Stabbed Wessex series’, which Elizabeth Eames had thought might have been the work of an itinerant band of tilers. There were eight decorated fragments, in seven different designs, of which five have not been found elsewhere in Penn and only one is of a design known to have been laid in Penn church itself.

Following the retirement of the Rev, Oscar Muspratt, a further 32 floor tile fragments were found in the vicarage, wrapped up in 1967 newspaper.  He later thought that they must have come from the graves outside the north porch door, in addition to those he had sent to the British Museum.  There was one unrecorded tile of particular interest.  It was a complete polygonal tile with a fabric apparently similar to the other tiles in the grave.  It was decorated with the crudely drawn head of a lion or mythical beast that appears to have been part of a 9-tile mosaic requiring a large octagonal tile at its centre.  This octagonal tile would have had a side of about 2 ¾ inches (72mm), much the same size as the incised example with a lion’s face discussed above, although these two particular tiles are not contemporary.

Apart from the mosaic polygonal tile, there were varying numbers of seven known designs. Altogether, 23 out of the 32 pieces had matching designs with the earlier British Museum collection from the grave, but there was only one shared design with the tiles that used to be in the church itself.

The focus of the Penn tile industry  –  The vast majority of tile finds have come from the three gardens, Grass Side, Cobblers and Yew Tree Cottage, all of which back on to the same large clay pit at the end of Beacon Hill.  Two reported kiln sites (T1 & T2) are close by, and it is also noteworthy that Slades Garage, which was formerly a blacksmith, is adjacent.  The record shows that there has been a blacksmith on the same site since the 18th C and it could well be that 14th C blacksmiths were working there making lath nails and iron-bound forms for the tilers, shoeing their horses and repairing their carts.

Chemical analysis of the tiles and other ceramics has not yet been able to distinguish between different clay sources in the same production area and so we have to rely on tile designs for clues about where particular tiles were made. This may seem a hopeless cause but the table below is surprisingly informative:

Site where tiles           No.of different    Same designs in           Same designs in
were found                  designs found   Beacon Hill gardens    Stratfords Cottage

Penn Church (chancel)                7                                5                                     1
Aerary, Windsor Castle             10                                8                                     1
Amersham Church                      3                                3                                     0
Missenden Abbey                       6                                 3                                     2
St Albans                                      8                                 3                                     5

This is only a snapshot, but it does suggests that a Beacon Hill kiln was the source of most, if not all the tiles used on the first three sites and that this area was the main focus of the tile industry, at least in the 1350s when the Aerary floor was laid. The finds at Beacon Hill of the   earlier designs – the St Alban’s type tile and the 6 inch square tile – also show that tiles were being made there before the Black Death.  Only 4 out of 14 designs found at Stratfords Cottage match those from Beacon Hill and this suggests different tileries with different markets, though with some overlap of popular designs as might be expected.

2002 Lady Chapel Millennium floor tile project – There have not been any Penn tiles on display to the public in Penn or Tylers Green, following the removal of those in the chancel of Penn Church in 1918. It was therefore decided that they should be built into the Lady Chapel as part of its Millennium restoration. The British Museum readily returned those that had been submitted for an opinion in 1967 and a local appeal produced a generous response, with a very large number coming from the garden of Grass-Side in Church Road.

25 different designs have been used to make up a mosaic on the altar platform and they are set in a surround of Bath stone. A centre of complete, newly made tiles of a typical Penn four- tile design, gives a very good idea of how a complete floor would have looked when it was laid. Mrs Diana Hall, of Wimborne St Giles, Dorset, made these new tiles, following the same methods of preparation, forming, decorating and glazing as the 14th C tilers, although using a modern gas kiln. The colour and appearance of the original tiles has been captured very effectively and the overall effect is both informative and pleasing.

For more detailed information see Miles Green’s book ‘Medieval Penn Floor Tiles’ available from the  Penn and Tylers Green Website.

This entry was first published by .

Penn’s Economy and the Black Death

Whilst few villages escaped unscathed from the Black Death, which first appeared in 1348, some were affected much worse than others. In Kimble, for instance, in 1349, all the tenants were dead and the land was uncultivated. In the same year, 77 of Buckinghamshire’s clergy died. There is no contemporary record for Penn, but the Poll Tax of 1377 showed there were only 81 adults in the parish. It is likely that about half the population died in the four successive epidemics.

The 1332 tax return for Penn shows there were three tilers in the parish and that their combined wealth almost equalled that of the lord of the manor. Tile-making must have been all the more important to Penn’s inhabitants because even before the Black Death agricultural conditions were dire. A rapidly increasing population was faced with a climate shift bringing cool, wet weather that destroyed harvests and left populations and their animals starving and vulnerable to infection. Loss of cattle to disease and with them the only source of fertiliser for the fields, led to a cycle of reducing crop yields and severe food shortages.

We have a glimpse of these problems from a tax of 1340, levied to pay for Edward III’s wars with France. Penn was required to pay a total of 20 marks (1 mark = 13s 4d), but the inhabitants claimed successfully on oath that almost one third of the land of the parish, ‘which used to be ploughed and sown, lies fresh and uncultivated because many are so poor and impotent that they cannot cultivate their lands’. Their plea was successful and the tax was reduced to 13 marks. The agricultural depression was still a feature of Segrave Manor, one of the two manors in Penn parish, in 1372, since their accounts reported ‘for corn much of the land lay uncultivated’.

The tower and south aisle of Penn Church, which are dated architecturally to between 1325 and 1350, must have been built before this economic collapse since the money would have to have been raised from parishioners, probably heavily subsidised by the prosperous tilers.

The more detailed records of the tilers all come after 1348 and so relate to a parish with about 40 working men. Three to five tileries with 15 kilns were needed to meet just the royal orders of 1357. If we also consider the many ancillary tasks involved, we must conclude that the tile industry entirely dominated the parish and it is not at all surprising that the tilers gave their name to their part of the parish as Tyler End Green.

So, climate change, pestilence, crop failure and shortage of workers were the dominant features of life in the 14th century.

– ‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’!

Miles Green, December 2022

This entry was first published by .

The French School at Penn

Edmund Burke as a young man

A year ago, I met two senior French civil servants who were visiting Penn, accompanied by the head of the Consular Division of our Foreign Office. Both Frenchmen were devotees of Edmund Burke who wrote passionately and to great effect about the French Revolution, and they wanted to know about the school that he had set up overlooking the pond at Penn, in 1796, for the sons of the émigré noblesse francaise.

The meeting reminded me that although I knew a good deal about the school from archival sources in England, I had no idea what the French boys themselves thought about their time in Penn or what had happened to any of them after they had left the school. I clearly needed to find French sources to bring the school to life but had little idea of how to set about it.

I was very lucky. My Foreign Office Consul acquaintance put me on to a rather bemused Press Counsellor in the French Embassy in London who proved remarkably effective. Within two weeks I was in touch with a General Jean du Verdier in Versailles who had only recently written an article about Le College de Penn.

We started an increasingly animated and cordial correspondence, each keeping to his own language, and it transpired that he was related to the de Genouillac family who had sent two boys to the Penn school in the 1790s.

The family had all returned to France in about 1800 leaving their younger son, nine years old Casimir, to finish his schooling, as they thought, for a few years. However, the war between France and England and the fear of compulsory military service in Napoleon’s army, prevented his return for 14 long years. He was completely cut off since the almost continual blockade of the Channel ports by the Royal Navy meant that letters had to go via Jersey and then clandestinely into Brittany, and so were often lost or delayed for months and even years.

Meanwhile, after leaving the school in 1808, aged 17, with only 12 guineas to see him on his way, Casimir eked out a living as a teacher in small schools around Penn (as his father had done in the 1790s). He had to endure the widespread, undiscriminating and sometimes violent hatred of all things French and Catholic. “No Jews, no wooden shoes, no Popery” was a popular cry of the day. He was also permanently in debt and at times despaired for his future.

He may not have survived without the friendship and support of the Abbe Maraine, the headmaster of the school, known to all the boys as ‘Le Chef’ and thought of as a father. Every Sunday, Casimir went back to Penn which to him was his home and a sanctuary in a cruel world. He and his fellow former pupils formed a close-knit group lending each other both money and moral support.

Some, like Casimir, had become teachers, one became a well-known doctor in Birmingham, another was a musician and portrait painter in Jersey and one of Casimir’s cousins went to Canada, but the majority seem to have been commissioned into the British army, as Burke had intended, and some served under Wellington in the Peninsula.

They were intensely proud of and grateful to their school. A letter describes, “there are several ‘Pennois’ in my regiment. We call ourselves ‘Pennois’. We keep up the name, When we hear that a ‘Pennois’ is to join the expeditionary corps, a cry goes up, ‘Ah, we would be very happy if he came to our regiment.”

Another school friend, Gustave de Roquefeuil, whose father, the Marquis de Roquefeuil was actually living in Penn in 1797, later wrote to Casimir, “England is a country that will always give me infinite pleasure, J’aime John Bull, J’aime les beefsteak et comme dit Lord Byron, ‘Je love a pot of beer as well as any’. He also reminisced, rather ruefully, about playing cricket at Penn.

Almost all their letters to each other were in French but with some franglais and often ending affectionately in English with ‘farewell my old friend’, ‘yours for ever,’ ‘yours my good fellow’.

Casimir eventually found a more agreeable post, at a small school near Newbury, under the Rev. James Knollis who became a good friend and who, by a strange coincidence, was to become Vicar of Penn from 1823 to 1860. It was he who built the Old Vicarage that still stands next door to the church.

In 1814, Casimir was finally able to return home to France and to see his family again including a five year old sister he had never met before, and brothers and sisters who he had last seen 14 years earlier. He was quite nervous about the reunion and one can imagine the profound emotion of it all.

Miles Green, Village Voice 63, October/November 1997.

The French School at Penn (Part 2)

When Napoleon escaped from Elba the following year, Casimir immediately joined the royalist army of Brittany and served as a Captain-Adjutant. One of his duties was to make contact with the Royal Navy off the Brittany coast and collect the arms sent to support the royalist cause. After Waterloo (in which he did not take part) he qualified in law but never practised it as a profession. He didn’t need to. His father was now a Comte (Count) with over 4,000 acres in Brittany and Anjou and Casimir himself was a Viscount and a Baron.

When he married, in 1827, he inherited the Chateau du Rox in Brittany as part of his marriage settlement. His wife was equally aristocratic and wealthy. Amongst the many distinguished wedding guests was a certain Viscount de Roquefeuil, Casimir’s old friend Gustave. How they must have relished the change in their fortunes.

However, not all his relatives had been so fortunate. An uncle had faced a firing squad, a 71 year old cousin died in prison, one of 30 starving men crammed into one room and another young female cousin died after enduring brutal treatment. Another unfortunate relative had been arrested en route to England and had to feign madness to escape the guillotine.

The school at Penn stayed open for a further five years after Waterloo. Casimir stayed there in 1819 when on a six month tour of all the places in England that he wanted to see. When the school was finally closed, in 1820, Casimir hastened back to be present at the last prize giving and to thank his old masters. The head master, the Abbe Maraine, now 74, was awarded the decoration of the Order of the Lys by Louis XVIII. Two years later, the school was pulled down and carried away.

Casimir, naturally enough a staunch royalist, was put in Rennes jail for six months in 1831, on a charge of treason. The Bourbons had been exiled to Scotland in 1830 and Casimir had travelled to see them using a false passport and disguised as an English gentleman called Mr Algernon Stewart. He could, of course, easily pass for an Englishman.

After his release he was out of sympathy with all the successive administrations and spent most of his energies raising his family of five boys and restoring and improving his neglected chateaux and estates.

This year; (1997) one of Casimir’s direct descendants, General Jean du Verdier, has completed an article on the school based on the extensive family archives carefully assembled by Casimir in the library of the Chateau du Rox in Brittany, still owned and occupied by his great grandson, the present Comte de Genouillac.

I was pleased to be invited to stay at the chateau for a few days to see the archives at first hand and to get a feel of the ambience. I accepted with alacrity and like Casimir, went via Jersey and thence by ferry to St Malo and car to the chateau.

I found a chateau full of period furniture and family portraits. The Comte, knowing my interest, had already taken some 30 of the portraits off the wall and had them professionally photographed in Rennes. Copies of the portraits of Casimir, his forebears and his descendants were set out for me on the desk in the library, together with all the bundles and boxes of family papers likely to be of interest to me. A photocopying machine was at my disposal and the Comte himself was at hand to answer any questions. It was a historical treasure trove.

The system of inheritance or ‘partage’ as it is called, in France, introduced by Napoleon, requires any inheritance to be equally divided between all the children, both sons and daughters. It is therefore, apparently comparatively unusual for old houses and estates to survive in the same family for many generations. Le Rox (pronounced Rhow) is an exception and still sits amidst 300 acres belonging to the estate.

The Comte, aged 75, is a very considerable personality, a former army officer and engineer completely down to earth and combining a high degree of practical skills with a very knowledgeable and academic interest in his archives. He and his wife look after the chateau almost entirely by themselves and he is devoted to it. He regards Casimir as perhaps his most important forbear in that they both shared a passionate interest in the chateau which is still much as Casimir left it. He has five children and many grandchildren for whom the chateau remains the focus of family reunions.

All the marvellous materials gathered from General du Verdier and from the chateau, were integrated (with indispensable help from Jean Rollason who has impressive French) into a dramatic presentation which the Penn and Tylers Green Society put on in Beaconsfield Church on July 6 to celebrate Burke’s bicentenary. The photographs of the chateau and its rooms and of the portraits, together with the more interesting documents, formed part of a splendid exhibition about Burke, put together by Elizabeth Scott-Taggart of the Beaconsfield Historical Society.

My own interest in the de Genouillac family has not yet run its course. I have been asked to read a paper to an international conference on French émigrés which is to be hosted by the French Institute in London in 1999. My contribution will be published as part of the proceedings of the conference and so the de Genouillac story will be recorded for international posterity.

Miles Green, Village Voice 64, Christmas 1997.

One of the French boys is buried at Penn Church and there is a long account of his funeral in Beaconsfield.  Since they were all Catholics, I suspect that it was ‘faute de mieux’ (‘for want of anything better‘), as they might have said!.  MIles Green

The Holy Trinity, Penn burial register records:  Jan 3, 1806,  Ferdnand D’Aguisy, “one of the young Gentlemen at the French School, aged 16 years & 5 months.  He had lately been appointed to an ensigncy in the 60th Regt.”

Note: Holy Trinity, Penn was founded as a Catholic Church and remained so for four centuries until the Reformation, when Penn Church, and every church in England, effectively became Church of England.  From the Reformation, and the death of Mary Tudor in 1558, until after the Catholic Relief Act of 1829 there were no ‘Catholic’ Churches in England.

A stone throwing revolutionary mob comes to Penn

We have already noted that the school was at first described as a royal school with  the Comte d’Artois, who was to succeed to the throne of France as Charles X, as its patron.  The Comte greatly admired Burke, as is evidenced by these extracts from two letters he wrote to him in 1795 and 1796.


Please allow me, in my capacity as the first subject of the King of France, to express to you from the bottom of my heart the powerful sense of gratitude felt towards you forever more by the noblesse française.

Heaven may grant that the memory of our misfortunes will in time fade, but the memory of the great Monsieur Burke will live forever in the hearts of all true French patriots and their descendants.

Charles Phillippe, Comte d’Artois.

 It was this strongly royalist aspect of the school which resulted in an attack by a stone-throwing mob of English Jacobins, sympathetic to the French revolutionaries, nine months after the school had opened.  The mob pulled down part of the wall, and broke every window in the house, presumably by throwing the bricks and flints from the wall.  The housekeeper was wounded near her eye.  Threats of violence were sent to Burke at Gregories, but he was not well and the news was kept from him.

Jacobins took their name from the Jacobin Club in Paris, the home of the revolutionary political movement which overthrew the  French monarchy and directed the French Revolution. This movement followed closely on the American Revolution and initially attracted considerable support from English thinkers and politicians searching for an ideal society, including the Whig opposition led by Charles James Fox.  There was a real fear of revolution in England and in 1791, Burke wrote a pamphlet, Reflections on the Revolution in France, arguing powerfully that it was folly to discard the constraints of established institutions which would inevitably lead to individual barbarism and the destruction of civilisation.

The French School therefore represented everything the Jacobins wished to destroy.   It must have been a terrifying experience for the boys and their masters who had only recently faced the same terror in France.  There is no record of how the mob was restrained from further violence. There was no national police force, just parish constables, who could not have dealt with a mob.  Perhaps the army was called in to restore order although the Royal Military College was not established in Wycombe until three years later.   I have yet to check newspapers for any reports of the attack.

The Penn Church register records the burial there in August 1802 of Mary Edwards, “Housekeeper at the French School, aged 62 years, a Roman Catholic”.  Burke refers to Mrs Edwards in his letters and it must have been her who was wounded in the attack.

Miles Green, Village Voice,  November 2013

This entry was first published by .

The Almshouses 1830-1967

In 1830 there was a labourers revolt in the southern counties born out of unemployment and poverty. Following serious rioting by labourers in neighbouring Loudwater and Wycombe Marsh, “an asylum for the indigent poor of the parish” later to be known as the Almshouses, was built in 1831, opposite Penn Church adjacent to the parish workhouse, (replaced in 1839 by a working school for girls, now the present church hall). The almshouses were paid for by Earl Howe and Thomas Grove of Watercroft. They were pulled down in 1967 and replaced by the present Penn Mead flats designed by Sir Hugh Casson who came to prominence when he was appointed Director of Architecture for the 1951 Festival of Britain on the South Bank. Vehement opposition to the destruction of the Almshouses was the reason for the formation of the Penn and Tylers Green Society in 1965.

This entry was first published by .

Penn Church School Memories – Part 1

Did you know that Penn Church Hall opposite Penn Church
(and next to the Crown Pub) started life as a school?

A little while ago, I was hugely fortunate to be in conversation with some of the former pupils of this school, known as Penn Church School. They generously shared their memories and anecdotes of day-to-day school life pre-war and during the war years when evacuees joined local children. In the next newsletters I will document some of these wonderful stories. This edition will focus on the school in the 1920s.

A quick introduction to the building

The eagle eyed might spot the initials H.G.H and the coronet above the gable window. The initials are those of Harriet Georgiana Howe in whose memory a Girls Working School was built by the 1st Earl Howe in 1839. In Tudor style with imported yellow bricks, it was designed by Edward Blore, who later designed the front of Bukingham Palace for Queen Victoria.  From 1870 when their school at Church Knoll was dismantled, and until 1949 when the school closed due to dwindling numbers, boys joined the girls at what became known as Penn Church School. The school was extended in 1910 (probably just after the photo of the children gathered by the door). Just as a note, it seems apt that the Hall is now home to another school, Little Oaks One Nursery.

The school day in the 1920s

At this time Penn Church School was attended by around 60 children from the ages of 4/5 to 13/14. Everyone walked to school without their parents and in all weathers – indeed this was the case throughout the school’s history. The group from Forty Green would walk through fields except when it was very muddy when they would use Paul’s Hill – either way quite a distance for a 4/5 year-old to walk! Some might wear the “Penn C of E” school badge on a blazer if they had one. One contributor recalls that the only day they missed was when the path by the Vicarage was like a “sheet of ice”. The day started at 9, sometimes with “drill” (physical exercise). At mid-morning break, on a very cold day, cocoa and sugar was mixed together by one former pupil and brought from home in an OXO tin. There was no running water. Water was either pumped from a well or drawn from the storage tank in the loft, which “tasted horrible” but on a more positive note a hot lunch of stew, shepherd’s pie or sausages and mash (a favourite) would sometimes be served at the Parish Rooms, no. 4 Church Cottages, adjacent to the Church on Paul’s Hill. This would be organised by Mrs Murray from the big house close by, The Knoll.

The schoolroom and lessons

The main room in the now Church Hall was then the large schoolroom, partitioned so that infants were separated from the slightly older children. The older children would be taught by the then Headmistress, Miss Dawson. They would sit two to a desk, backs to the partition and facing the fire which would be lit in the morning by the caretaker and then taken care of by older boys. Miss Summers was the infant teacher where there were “scribbles and painting… to get us into the hang of being away from home.” Children graduated from writing in pencil to pens with detachable nibs and inkwells. T he older children, “as they got on” would help with the youngsters. There was no homework. Children who misbehaved might be sent into the North Room (a smaller room at the back of the building), but generally behaviour was good.

A Church school at the heart of the community

The decade before, the headmaster would live in, in rooms above the school (now the Parish Office.) Miss Dawson would lodge at the public house next to the school, The Crown, and be taken by “taxi” (usually the Baker’s van) to stay with her sister at the weekend. Other notable figures at the time were the attendance officer on his bike, the inspector Mr Mumford, later the vicar of Holy Trinity, and the nurse, “the bug nurse!” Naturally, for a Church School, links with the Church were strong. Mrs Winter, the organist’s wife, took Sunday school and children might also be involved in bell-ringing or choir and a nativity, attending Church several times on a Sunday (and walking there). One of the accompanying photos shows that the children took part in a local fête, making costumes for the occasion. There was scripture and a hymn over at the school each morning, accompanied on the piano. Some sports, including “baseball” and  football, formed part of the boys curriculum whilst girls did needlework. There would be coveted prizes for different school subjects including the best kept garden patch (round the sides of the school site), a drawing prize and the Bishop’s Prize for Scripture.

Penn Church School pupils, some reluctantly, dressed as shepherds and shepherdesses for a local fete in the early 1920s.

An evocative school photo from Edwardian times, before the 1910 extension.
(Thanks to Eddie Morton & Miles Green for finding this).


Particular thanks to Mr Herbert Druce, a parishioner, who recently celebrated his 104th birthday and who attended from 1921. Parts of our conversation are directly reported above and he shared with me the fête photograph in which he appears. Herbert’s memories of Penn Church School are overwhelmingly positive, “I enjoyed it… the teachers were so caring.”

Memories from other contributors to follow!

If anyone has association with Penn Church School please do contact me, Zoë Clark, via the church office on 01494 813254, or office@holytrinityandstmargarets.co.uk

This entry was first published by .