Lizzie Atfield &
The Blackheath School
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Prior to the school opening in 1892 the village children had the long walk to Shamley Green, Albury Heath, Chilworth or Wonersh for their education – and pay 2d per week per child. Considering that some families had ten or more children, and that a workman’s wage stood at about 9/- per week, this was quite a challenge for all concerned.
Henry Prescott, a retired banker who lived with his two unmarried sisters at “Brantingeshay” had, with Sir William Roberts-Austin, already been involved in the construction of the church. Once built, the vestry afforded a temporary room for a small infant school to be established.
Elizabeth Charlotte Fuller, a seventeen year old pupil-teacher at Bramley School was “headhunted” as an ideal young woman to employ - and so began her thirty years of educating every village child up to the age of eight, when they went on to Chilworth “big” school. When the village hall was built (also created by the same group of benefactors), the school was moved there and remained so until 1922. At that time, a larger school having been built in Chilworth, and the number of Blackheath children dwindling, the decision was made to close it. Circa 1897/8 the average attendance had numbered 27.
In 1897, Lizzie married and became the wife of Arthur Atfield, at that time a gardener for Sir William and Lady Roberts-Austin. Arthur was born in the village; son of Jonas and grandson of William, one of the original settlers in Blackheath. Arthur and Lizzie remained deeply involved in village life. Arthur as special constable, choir member and cricketer. The couple raised a family of three children – each, amazingly, born during the school holidays! Lizzie took each of her babies to work with her, placing them in a Moses basket under the table. No maternity leave in those days!
Lizzie was required to visit Henry Prescott once a month to report, on attendance numbers and report progress, and to receive her wages. These were ten shillings per week, eventually ending as £1 per week by the time the school closed thirty years later. Corrie Atfield, Lizzie’s younger daughter, remembered that she and her sister Evelyn sometimes accompanied their mother on those visits and said that Mr. Prescott and his two sisters were very kind, gentle people. While Lizzie was “reporting” the elderly ladies would entertain the girls in the kitchen with milk and biscuits – and with the fact that they directly descended from Oliver Cromwell. When deemed able to appreciate the historical significance they were shown the family heirloom of a pair of bootees, which had been worn by Cromwell as a baby! Hopefully these still remain somewhere in the Prescott family!
“Teacher”, as Lizzie was known (and still called by those she had taught right into her old age), became a natural conduit between villagers and gentry. Those in need through illness or unemployment would come to ask her to approach the gentry for help. Mrs Margaret Hodgson (wife of Hugh Hodgson of the Kingston Brewing family) was a very generous benefactor, not only to individual cases, but also at Christmas, when she funded a party in the village hall for young and old alike. Lizzie was the obvious choice of organiser and was given money to buy each child a gift. This fact made her own girls go-betweens, as longed for toys would be secretly requested in the weeks before Lizzie took them with her to “Drewetts” in Guildford, where they would be given the run of the store room to select each pupil’s gift. At the party the old men would be given tobacco and the old ladies tea. The Hodgson’s sons would help with decorating both the hall and the huge Christmas tree.
Two of the Hodgson boys were killed in the First World War, as were many other village sons, and the Christmas party was never revived. The youngest son, Harold, eventually sold “The Hallams”, and went to live in the New Forest. Whenever he and his wife visited Blackheath, they always called in to see Lizzie and Arthur.
Even after the school was closed Lizzie continued to be asked for help, whether for advice on a difficult child or on almost anything else for that matter! She eventually died in 1952, and Arthur in 1960. They are buried in the cemetery by Barnett Hill, sadly in unmarked graves. I am glad that the history of Blackheath School, and therefore my grandmother, is not to be forgotten. Lizzie was at the hub of village life for thirty hard-working years, and both she and it deserve to be remembered.