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School Log Books as Historical Sources

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‘Miss Bird is absent after suffering from the effects of gas following teeth extraction.’ (21st December 1906)

This morning, owing to the proximity of hostile aircraft, the children of the boys’ and girls’ department assembled in the hall of this department, and remained here until danger was over. This afternoon only about 50% of the children were in attendance and those present were very inert and nervous, so we sent them home and closed the school.’ (13th June 1917)

‘Dogs have been coming into the school and causing a disturbance amongst the children. One refused to go out so it was locked in a cloakroom until 2 policemen arrived. They removed it. A dog entered the building this morning and stole a pair of gloves…’ (10th March 1943)

‘There was an air raid warning as the children were on their way to school. The staff brought all those in the vicinity into school. As the gunfire was heavy adults brought the children into their houses for safety. The all clear was sounded about 9.10 a.m. and the attendance was affected only very slightly. The piano was tuned today.’

(24th February 1944)

The above are all extracts from the headteachers’ logbooks for Farmer Road School in Leyton, now part of Waltham Forest in East London. The school, renamed George Mitchell in the 1950s after an ex-pupil who was awarded a posthumous VC in 1944, is where I work as a teacher of history. After three years in temporary classrooms, children and teachers moved into the brand new building in 1903 which consisted of three schools – junior girls, junior boys and infants – each on one of its three floors. In 1932 the junior girls moved out to make way for a senior boys’ school. In 1957 the whole building became a boys’ secondary modern and later an 11-14 boys’ comprehensive. In 1987 the school became the mixed 11-16 comprehensive it is today.

We are lucky to have all the logbooks for the schools, fully intact. They were intended primarily as a record of teacher attendance for submission to the school board. According to Leyton School Board Regulations 1896, “the log book must be produced at School Attendance Committees, whose attention shall be called by the Head Teachers to irregularities of attendance.” In fact, however, they often give a fascinating, fresh and sometimes surprising view of community life from 1902 till the ‘fifties.


School logbooks like these are interesting for many reasons. To begin with, attendance and closure information itself tells a story.

22nd February 1905: ‘Advised by Town Hall we must close the school at noon because of the dense fog.’

14th June 1917: ‘We closed the school at 11.55 this morning as there were rumours of an Air-raid and many of the parents were coming up in a very distressed state.’

20th January 1918: ‘Many absentees during the week owing to the difficulties to secure food & the necessity to stand in queues.’

11th May 1926: ‘Council granted permission for children to return to school 1.30 p.m. in the afternoon and to leave at 3.35 p.m. to avoid traffic in High Road owing to General Strike.’

Sometimes the events speak for themselves (21st July 1944):

Alert ‘on’ at (9 a.m) All Clear (10 a.m.)

Alert 'on' at (10.10) All Clear (10.52)

Alert 'on' at (11.10) All Clear (11.12)

Alert 'on' at (11.20) All Clear (2.18)

Alert 'on' at (2.30) All Clear (2.37)

Alert 'on' at (3.25) All Clear (3.37)

They are valuable because while they are written purely as a record (studiedly factual, no hindsight, not expected to be seen beyond the local authority), the views and feelings of the writers keep intruding.

30th September 1938: ‘Owing to the agreement reached early this morning by the heads of the great powers concerned, the whole scheme (of evacuation) is now cancelled. One’s feelings of relief and thankfulness are beyond telling … Thanks be to God for this deliverance.’

Stories emerge that tell us things about the time that we don’t get from other sources.

Calculations in the logbook entry on 4th October 1909 show that, on the basis of classroom capacity (square feet) each pupil is ‘allowed’ approximately nine to ten square feet of air space.

2nd February 1944: ‘Under the Welfare (Foods) Scheme an order has been sent to the Food Office Harrington Road for the supply of orange juice and cod liver oil for all the children under 5 yrs in attendance… The parents felt that they were the best people to administer these supplements and all agreed that they should be given either immediately before or after breakfast or in the home at some time. The Headmistress emphasised that the oil and juice were available free of cost to all children in school but this did not alter the decision of the parents – for the present no parent is prepared to take advantage of the scheme.’

The logbooks show what day-to-day preoccupations actually were, rather than – in some cases – what we may imagine with hindsight.

16th September 1941: ‘Local Post Warden called in after my visit to him last week. He claimed that inspection of gas masks was not his duty. He was shown notes of the meeting with the Schools Director on August 14th – he was going to see his Chief.’

13th February 1942: ‘After considerable difficulty with the local Post Warden all of the respirators were inspected over the weekend.’

More personal comments by head teachers are especially interesting when more than one is reporting on the same event.

Emily Bell, the head of the infants school is quoted above as saying about a 1917 air raid that ‘those present were very inert and nervous, so we sent them home and closed the school.’ Mary Hart, head of junior girls, though, comments that ‘The teachers and children behaved admirably and implicit obedience and discipline was maintained.’

There is often a real feel for the actuality, the lives of children and teachers – the more so because of the usual sparseness and simplicity of the entries.

13th June 1917: ‘Notice was recd. at 11.15 a.m. of an Air Raid by the bursting of a bomb... The teachers and children behaved admirably & implicit obedience & discipline was maintained … Knitting, Needlework & Net-Ball have been substituted for some other lessons.’


There are many reasons why school logbooks can be good to use with children.

Language and content are generally accessible to most ability levels. They are real, tangible primary sources. There is a direct personal connection: it happened here, in these rooms to people who lived in my streets, maybe even my house!

Unusually for a primary source children can have direct access to, they show change over time (up to 60 years!). They can give children a concrete sense of change and continuity.


Changing attitudes

Empire Day celebrations in 1906 included the unfurling of the flag and patriotic songs including ‘I’m going to be a soldier’. By 1932 the emphasis was on ‘peace lessons’.

In 1924 the infant head teacher writes that ‘Dr Taylor visited to examine the various defective children’ and that ‘this school’s problem … has been increased by the admission of a number of children through the closure of a neighbouring school, most of whom are dull and backward.’ These children were later sent to the Town Hall ‘for examination’.

A changing school.

By 1950 it had become a boys’ school and clearly the focus was on finding employment for the 14-year-old leavers. Most of the entries in 1951 and 1952 concern trips to Ever Ready Works, Hitchman’s Dairy, Magnet Laundry, Ford’s Works at Dagenham; or sporting achievements.

On 25th May 1960 the head reports that the school had its first Black head boy, Harold Lisk.

Changing events: world wars, school reorganisations and huge social and population change.


Some things hardly change. In 1900, when the brand new school was still in temporary classrooms, the head complained of ‘lads of perhaps 15 years of age, lounging and playing in the playground and using offensive remarks.’

The books can spur children on to carry out real investigations that haven’t been done before, such as tracking reasons for poor attendance over time; comparing references to bombings (for example, the bombs that landed in the school playground and a V2 hit on a nearby street) with coverage in the local press at the time; or compiling – with help from archivists in the local museum - a bombing map of the area round the school.

The many references to air raids in 1917, for instance, led us to wonder how air raid warnings worked in the First World War. Looking back through council minutes in the local library we discovered that the council considered buying a motor ambulance and installing telephones but decided both would be too expensive. The actual air raid warning system was more rudimentary. The head teacher of each school chose reliable boy scouts or scholars to help deal with fire or damage. They had to ‘be in attendance in relays at the nearest fire station from 8.45 to 1 and 1 to 4.15.’ The scout, based at Church Road fire station, was told by the fire brigade when a warning came and had to run from there to the school to tell the head. The same happened with an all clear signal. In case of bombing the head was told by the council to move children from the top floors to lower floors and advised that ‘one or more teachers with experience and tact should be deputed to deal with any parents who may come into the school.’ The school was given a supply of surgical dressings.


Schools founded before the ‘sixties will have had log books, though whether they still exist will depend on local factors. If they were not lost during reorganisation or inadvertently thrown out, they could be with the local authority or in a local museum or library archive.


A very good question. In our digital age, are records of day-to-day events being stored anywhere, or are they lost in cyberspace?


January 1901:

‘Charles Chester sent home bad head. Sent for caretaker to hold a boy while he was caned. Boy refused to hold out his hand and then started kicking. Name: Herbert Smith. Well caned afterwards.’

July 1902:

‘Margaret Hardy a girl sent home with dirty head in the afternoon. Mother returned with her at 4.30 and was so unreasonable that the caretaker had to turn her out.’

February 1917:

‘This morning we had a little ceremony to celebrate the hanging up of portraits of Jack Cornwell, V.C. the boy hero of the battle at Jutland. Jack was a scholar in this Dept from 1st May 1905 until August 1908. Mrs Cornwell, Jack’s mother, was present.’

(The school had two posthumous VCs: George Mitchell in 1944 and the far more famous Jack Cornwell whose body had been disinterred from Grimsby and re-buried in the City of London Cemetery at Manor Park. He must have been present for the Empire Day events in 1906 referred to above and have sung ‘I’m going to be a soldier’!)

November 1921:

‘A portion of the Sports Drill Girls are giving a display at the Town Hall on Saturday at a bazaar in aid of the ‘Un-employed’’

Entries in 1939 are dominated by evacuation, plans for which were shared with parents as early as May, when the school registered mothers with young children under 5 who wished to be evacuated. In late August initial attempts to get parents and children to turn up for evacuation met with low turnout, but the school finally closed on 1st September, ‘needy children’ having been given shoes, and reassembled in North Weald Bassett. The school was then occupied by troops and ARP wardens until it re-opened on 1st April 1940. From then on some children and staff carried on in Leyton while others were in Essex or in a former Canadian army camp at Sheephatch.

11th October 1940:

‘School closed owing to raid damage. Two bombs fell in playground during the night. Windows in all classrooms broken, one pane only in Nursery Room. Staff helped getting hot water for the Salvation Army Mobile Canteen which was serving tea. They also served breakfast to a family of five who were homeless.

6th November 1940:

‘During the past two weeks the children have spent 5 & a quarter hours in shelters.’

26th October 1942:

‘Alert 11.30 am – 12.05 pm. Shelters in nearby Rec. ground used. Conditions very bad and we are informed the Boro Surveyor has condemned them. Alert 3.45 pm – 4.05 pm’

13th –24th November 1944:

‘At about 9.10 this morning Mrs Jackson entered the nursery classroom and assaulted Miss Bloomfield by striking her on the head and shoulders mistaking her for the teacher who was concerned in an incident on Friday afternoon… A full account of the above incident has been submitted to the legal department of the N.U.T …Fred Jackson the son of the above Mrs Jackson has been removed from the school roll as the child has been sent to Aldersbrooks Homes to be cared for..’

18th October 1946:

‘Caretaker found a War Dept box with 6 bottles of fluid in the coke bunker. Police said it was a ‘Molotov Cocktail’, the later of the incendiary devices issued to the Home Guard.’

Interestingly, for all the air raids and alerts during World War Two, only two issues cause the headteacher to say she is close to being unable to cope. One is the V1 and V2 rocket attacks near the end of the war; the other is milk.

21st January 1942:

‘Today the milk arrived very late and had to be thawed before it was fit to drink … Sent requisition for 15 doz beakers as the drinking vessels supplied by the parents are not satisfactory. Many are too small other cracked or chipped…’

23rd May 1941:

‘The work of the school is greatly hampered by the milk being supplied in pint bottles. At the meeting this p.m. the Headmistress invited mothers who could spare an hour a day to send in their names so that a rota of volunteers could be prepared for washing bottles. An epidemic of measles and whooping-cough has persisted for weeks. Owing to illness in the homes and mothers going out to work the response for volunteers to wash bottles has been poor.’



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Thanks Martin for revealing these fascinating insights into the history of your school. I have done a similar thing using the log book for my school, Henry Compton, formerly Fulham Central Secondary. I was able to scan in part of the log book showing the Air raid Drill during the First World War and together with a variety of other extracts was able to produce some teaching material. You can find the worksheets here: http://www.comptonhistory.com/yr9work.htm and if you scroll down and look for the PDF file called Henry Compton Log Book you can download it. Some of the highlights included:


August 28 - Instructions on Air Raids. If there is ample time the class … to be brought into the lower hall; if not to remain in the Centre

October 22 - Officer H fetch the 40 bedrests made to instructions of Mr Caroline for

wounded soldiers

- Letter to the Headmaster re the above , expressing thanks of the committee

to the boys and instructors for making the bedrests from the Wounded Emergency Fund

November 8 - close after morning session for three half days holiday in honour of three ’old boys’ earning military distinction: E Green, military medal; George Brown, military medal; V Craft, military medal


May 14 - “On the morning after an air raid, when the all clear signal is given after 10 pm:

school opens at a quarter to ten instead of quarter to nine” Note from Headmaster

November 11 - Signing of Armistice: AM half hours play, national anthem sung and theLord’s Prayer. PM work as usual 1.30-2.30: Play 2.30-3.00: Songs 3-3.30: Dismissal

November 28 - Visit of Mr Saunders to the school after 4 years internment as a prisoner of war in Germany. He gives a short account of his experiences to the assembled staff and scholars.

I was fortunate enough to be lead a session on the impact of WW1 on my school at a workshop held by Villiers Park Educational Trust in Foxton, Cambridge and it worked really well.

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