The School Masters

We are not quite sure when the Priest House started to be used as a School House. It was, however, probably in the early 1600s following the death of a local farmer John Puckle in 1617. In his will, Puckle left his farm (approximately 62 acres) to the church for the maintenance of a schoolmaster for teaching the poor children of Laindon and Basildon. The schoolmaster is to have graduated from Cambridge or Oxford and to be no rector or curate or under any ecclesiastical parson whatsoever.

The farmhouse stood opposite Benson’s farm in Wash Road in the area that is now Noak Bridge estate. The farm was sold in the late 1800s and proceeds of the sale were invested. The charity known as the ‘Puckles Charity’ is still in existence today and the small amount of interest received from the invested sum is now made available for local schools to purchase equipment etc.

A tablet commemorating this deed hangs in front of the organ gallery.

For hundreds of years a special sermon was preached in memory of John Puckle every year on St John’s Day, 27th December or the nearest Sunday. Unfortunately this is no longer the case. He is however remembered by a road named after him in Langdon Hills ‘Puckleside.’

The Visitation of 1685 reported that “There is a schoole house joyning to the lower end of ye Church but it is not now used but there is another School-house which is now used.” It would appear that the charity laid dormant for many years because we find that in 1703 it was reinstated by a commission from Parliament.

Although the school operated for around 250 years we are only aware of four schoolmasters.
The first being Hugh (Hugo) Peters, he was born in Foy (Fowey), Cornwall and came to Essex after leaving Trinity College, Cambridge with a BA in 1618. He took up residence in Layndon as its schoolmaster; in fact he may well have been the first.

While here he met a Thomas Hooker a non-conformist (Puritan), at his school in Little Baddow. It would appear that due to his involvement with Hooker that he decided to become a clergyman. He was ordained into the Anglican Church as a Deacon on the 23rd December 1621 at Bishop’s Palace, London. It is assumed that according to the requirements of the charity he had to resign his position, it is understood he then became a curate at Laindon for a short time.

Also during his time in Laindon he married a widow from Wickford, Elizabeth Read(e) whose descendent is George Bush, the President of America (2001-2009). Hugh himself was to lead a very colourful life before being hung drawn and quartered by Charles II for supporting Oliver Cromwell.

The next person was a Samuel Weald who in 1715 took the oath of Allegiance and was recorded as being the ‘schoolmaster in Laindon’.

The third person we know was James Matthews and we only know of him because of an inscription on his headstone that stands just west of the steps at the front of the church:

“To the memory of James Matthews who held the office of Parish Clerk of Laindon for 27 years and that of School Master of the same parish for 31 years and by his conscientious discharge of the duties of those stations, as well as by his general conduct and deportment acquired the character of an honest man and sincere Christian. This stone was erected at the expense of the Rector and Land-holders of the said parish as proof of their regards. He died December the 27th 1809.”

It can only be assumed that James Matthews was a graduate from Cambridge or Oxford but it was becoming more difficult to employ a graduate on a salary of £10 per year which had not changed since the forming of the charity two hundred years previously.

In 1831 it was agreed that the schoolmaster no longer had to be a graduate, he could be a curate and that the salary was increased to £20 per year.

Our fourth known and most famous schoolmaster was James Hornsby. He was to be ‘Puckles Charity School’ schoolmaster for forty eight years and its last. He would have taken up the post when the rules still require it be taken by a graduate but as his first occupation, like his father was a farm labourer, it is doubtful he was a graduate. However, I have not been able to establish where he was educated, although it is possible that he might have been taught at the Puckles School as he was a local from the Great Burstead area.

The Priest House accommodation was made up of three rooms. The ground floor, approximately 5 metres by 3 metres served as a schoolroom and on occasion up to 50 scholars of various ages and both sexes were being taught. With such large numbers, it is possible the nave was also used for teaching. The toilet and fireplace were off this room either side of the staircase, the room opened into the belfry area of the nave which was used as a scullery or back kitchen.

The first floor was possibly where Hornsby had his bedroom and the third floor being the attic, housed up to six boarders during the week.

The subjects taught were reading, writing and arithmetic. Catherine the last of his three wives and an assistant, taught the girls sewing. Religious Instruction was also high on the agenda. Hornsby was also the Parish clerk and church sexton.

The school closed down in September 1877 when St Nicholas School opened ( Later renamed Laindon Park Junior School ). Hornsby died in 1887 and is buried in front of the Priest House with his three wives.

He is remembered by the naming of the senior school in Nicholas Lane, ‘James Hornsby High School.’

Ken Porter. Updated 7th December 2009.

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