Why were they not at school? - a look at Hitchin's historical absence reports

Highover Log Book

Highover Log Book - Credit: Hitchin Historical Society

Simon Walker of Hitchin Historical Society explores the reasons why children were absent from school in the 19th century.

Things have changed a lot since the 1800s, and that includes the reasons – or excuses – for not attending school. 

Readers of earlier articles will know that Walsworth School, founded in 1852, and open for more than a hundred years, left behind log books. They were at one time at Highover School, but they seem now to have gone astray.

Simon Walker, who edited Hitchin - Glimpses of the Past and The Hitchin Journal

Simon Walker of Hitchin Historical Society - Credit: Hitchin Historical Society

Fortunately, before they disappeared, they were painstakingly copied out in longhand, and from that archive we can look at absenteeism from Walsworth School.

It has to be remembered that Walsworth was very much a rural, outlying hamlet, and not part of Hitchin as it is now. That's reflected in the log book entries.

Disease was a major reason for children's absence, and included in the list are:

Chickenpox 1888

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Influenza 1890; 1898

Lice [?] 1884 ("Sent one boy home to have his head cleaned.")

Measles outbreaks 1878; 1883; 1890; 1894; 1897

Mumps 1887

Quinsy 1879

Ringworm 1883; 1890 ("Three children absent on account of ringworm on their faces and hands."); 1891, 1892

Scarlatina, also called scarlet fever: 1884, 1886, 1888,1892 ("The Rev. G. Gainsford came into the School this afternoon to tell me of a case of Scarlet Fever, and to warn me not to allow the other children of the same family to attend school.") Then again in 1892, when 12 children were off at the same time; 1897

Smallpox 1886 ("Ada Wilmot still absent as the doctor thinks she ought not to mix with the children yet on account of the case of small pox in the family.")

Typhoid fever 1894

Whooping Cough 1884;1887

On February 20, 1895 poor Gertrude Cannon returned to school "after nearly 7 weeks absence having been very ill."

The summer holidays – always referred to as "The Harvest Holiday" – were affected by changes in the seasons.

On one occasion the harvest was early, so children were away gleaning before the Harvest Holiday began; more often the holiday was over, but gleaning was not, and gleaning comes up over and over as a reason for absence.

Some of the older lads took part in the harvest itself; and smaller children were affected by the harvest too, and were sent with food for men working in the fields rather than going to school.

There is more than one entry concerning children leaving school to go collecting blackberries!

Apart from the standard holidays, there were quite a few days off granted for ad-hoc reasons. These included the children going to watch the Wild Beast Show or the Circus as they progressed from the station to Butts Close.

Children went to town to see the goings on at elections, and to attend Sunday School Treats (not to be held on a Sunday!)

Anyone who doubts the reality of climate change need only look at the number of times heavy snowfall stopped children getting to school - on average the school was badly affected at least once a year between 1873 and 1898.

And the Common was frequently impassable because of flooding, cutting the school off from many of its pupils and sometimes its teachers…