Friends Agricultural School

Vol. 5 No. 2 - 1986

Friends Agricultural School Brookfield near Moira, 1836-1922

by George R. Chapman

Most of us travelling by car on the road to Belfast (A3), about a mile beyond Moira just after passing Trumra Crossroads, will have noticed a cluster of buildings, including a clock tower, some distance away on the right-hand side of the road. Had we been so curious as to drive along the road leading to Broomhedge, we would have noticed that these buildings must have been an institution of some kind which was now abandoned and was falling into decay.

Had we inquired from a local resident, what these buildings had been used for, we would have doubtless been told that they had been a Friends' School, which had closed down many years ago, but beyond this they could offer no details. The buildings which now seem deserted and dilapidated, had in earlier days presented a very different aspect as then they were bursting with young life and activity.

We naturally ask the obvious question, "Why did the school close?". It is not easy to answer this simple question in a few words. We would parry this question by asking another, "Why was the school there in the first instance?". The purpose of this article is to elucidate why it was commenced, and to give a brief summary of its history. In order to find out the purpose behind its initial opening we have to go back many years.

The Society of Friends or Quakers (as they are generally known) were never very strong numerically in Ireland, although in the early years of the nineteenth century they were well spread throughout the three provinces (virtually none in Connaught). The discipline within the Society at this period was very strict, so between disownments for lapses of the strict rules, and emigration, numbers were steadily being depleted. Economic conditions for many were very difficult, some families were very close to the poverty line, and of course no government aid whatsoever was available.

Disownment and the plight of the children

It was noticeable that a number of families whose membership among Friends had been terminated by disownment continued to attend meetings and had not linked up with any other Church. In some cases the children of such families were growing up almost illiterate, and their plight had touched the hearts of Friends throughout Ireland. The desirability of providing an adequate education for their children had long been an essential practice among Friends, and boarding schools, for both boys and girls, had been commenced at the following locations throughout Ireland - Lisburn 1774, Waterford 1798, and Mountmellick 1786. These were fee paying schools, and were for the children of members only.

For a number of years the plight of the children of former members, who were debarred from entry to any of the established schools, because they were not members, and secondly because they would have been unable to pay the fees charged, had weighted heavily on Friends' minds. A survey was carried out in 1830 as to the numbers involved in Ulster and it was reported that 219 families had been visited in which there were 531 children, and that 50 of these children were in immediate need of education and clothing and many were in want of the Holy Scriptures.

Following this report assistance was given to these families by the distribution of clothing and bibles to the children, and the payment of school fees to such local schools as they could be induced to attend. This was felt to be only a temporary measure until a more permanent solution had been found. A Committee was appointed from Friends throughout Ireland but the majority of whom were from Ulster, and an appeal was made for funds to found an institution to train children, "from this neglected class, in a religious life and conversation consistent with our Christian profession".

Friends Agricultural School, Brookfield

This Committee was given an added impetus to proceed, when a Friend from Limerick, Doctor John Unthank donated £500 towards the objective. The response to the appeal from both Irish and English Friends was so encouraging that the Committee proceeded to purchase a house and farm of 24 acres at Brookfield, near Moira, County Down. Further buildings were added and a school was commenced in 1836.

It was so organised that the boys were expected to work part-time on the farm, helping with the crops, providing vegetables for the school and for sale. The farm animals had also to be looked after. It was thought that by this means the school would be almost self supporting in food and at the same time the boys would have practical training in agriculture and farm management, learn about the rotation of crops and land improvement methods. The school was of course to be run on a co-educational basis. Girls would not be expected to work on the land, their sphere of duty was to be within the household. They were expected to assist in the kitchen, cleaning and in general household management, as well as helping with churning and butter making helping with dressmaking, knitting and similar domestic accomplishments. Elementary school subjects were to be taught part-time, but the main objective was "to train the children in a religious life and conversation consistent with our profession".

Financial support

Friends throughout Ireland and further afield, continued to support the institution financially by annual subscriptions, so that parents were relieved from paying high fees, otherwise many would have been debarred from sending their children. The key figures in an institution of this kind are of course the principal and his wife, as so much depends on the guidance and direction given by them.

After a thorough search had been made, a suitable couple were found who were eminently suitable, and who continued in this position till 1852. Their names were William and Sarah Shannon from County Wexford. In the report for 1853 the Committee paid this tribute to them:

"We believe the fostering care bestowed by William and Sarah Shannon on the establishment generally has been mainly instrumental in bringing the institution to its present measure of usefulness".

The school became a closely knit community and this fact is amply borne out as in the early reports it is referred to as, "The family at Brookfield". It was run as simply and economically as possible. Each year a printed report and statement of accounts was issued. A separate account was kept for the farm, and looking at the Report for 1869, it is noted a small profit was made off the farm in that year. There were 66 children in the school, 37 boys and 29 girls, all of whom were boarders. Following the Shannons' outstanding service at the school, it was several years before suitable replacements were found to succeed them. One or two stop gap appointments followed in the interim and still the position was not filled.

Teachers and Staff at Brookfield School about 1895

Some few years previously a young man called William W. Davidson had come to the school as an assistant teacher. Prior to this he had taught at the Church School, in Moira. He was not a Quaker when he came, but after attending Meeting, and acceptance of Friends' principles, he became a member.

It was evident that he had outstanding abilities as a teacher and as an organiser. The Committee offered him and his wife the position of superintendents, which they accepted. As was to be expected, the main management of the school fell on the shoulders of William Davidson, which he carried out with great earnestness, and marked ability, and with a sincere desire for the best welfare of the children. Being himself largely a self-educated, and self-made man, he was specially fitted for training others who had their own way to make in the world.

Eeminently successful

In the three principal departments of his work, agricultural, literary and spiritual, he was eminently successful. His interest in agriculture led him to try many new experiments on the school farm, and for his valuable scientific investigations, along this line he was made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. On the other side of the coin was the undeniable fact, that he got the name of being a stern disciplinarian, who on occasions punished severely any breach of the regulations. Some of the boys who were at Brookfield with him carried these memories with them to the end of their days.

The Dining-Room and Boys Wing

When William Davidson retired at the end of the century (1899) he had been at the school altogether for a period of forty years, an outstanding achievement by any standards. The age of admission was from eleven to thirteen years and pupils were expected to leave when they became fifteen. Printed rules for the government of the school were issued in 1863 and these seem to have been observed throughout its existence. It was laid down that an Annual General Meeting was to be held at the school, when all departments were to be open for inspection. The children were to be examined as to their progress in educational pursuits. Reports were to be prepared regarding all aspects of this inspection which were afterwards presented to the Yearly Meeting which met in Dublin and under whose auspices the school was run. Additional buildings were provided as the numbers of children increased and the needs and scope of the school developed. Funds for this additional expenditure were provided by Friends throughout Ireland and several valuable contributions were received from English Friends.

In 1871 Joseph Pease of Darlington, who has been described as the father of the railway system in England, donated money for a turret clock, which was mounted in a specially designed turret or tower. This was a feature of the school buildings and residents in the area depended on the chimes from this clock to regulate their daily routine.

The site for the school and the farm was well chosen, it was located in the Lagan Valley, a noted productive area. It had the additional advantage of being close to the main road from Belfast to the west of the province. Almost within sight of the school was the Lagan Canal, which was opened in 1794, reaching the peak of its trade about 1840. This waterway provided cheap transport from Belfast to Lough Neagh and vice versa. The lighters or barges which were used on the canal were propelled by horses along an adjoining tow path.

It must have been a source of interest for the children to watch the boats navigating this route. The construction of the railway line within the sight of the school must have provided an additional topic of interest. Within a few years the railway system was extended to cover virtually all parts of the country providing the opportunity of quick travel for the children to and from home, as the local station was only a short distance away. Although the school was in the heart of the country it was within one mile of the village of Moira, which provided facilities such as shops, doctors, postal services etc.

Memorising scripture passages

The school committee repeatedly stressed the fact that the main objective in having the school was to train children placed in their charge in moral and religious principles as held and practised by the Religious Society of Friends. A knowledge of the Bible was considered essential and memorising selected passages of scripture was one of the methods employed.

Regular attendance at Meetings for worship was also considered as a means of Grace, which all in the household were required to observe. The nearest Friends' Meeting was held at Maghaberry (near to the site of the new prison now under construction [1986]) which was located over three miles from the school. Walking there and back was the only means of transport, and this meant travelling in all weathers and conditions. Meetings were held on both "First Day" and "Fifth Day" mornings, to use the old Quaker phraseology, or Sunday and Thursday as we now say. It was quite a journey for some of the younger children especially when we remember weather conditions were in no way different from what they are at present.

The children would not have been as well prepared for sudden storms and rain as the age of plastic clothing had not yet arrived. Regularly and faithfully the attendance at Meeting at Maghaberry was carried out by both teachers and children. A considerable number of Friends and their families lived in the district and attended the meeting, so it must have been quite an event each week to make the journey to Maghaberry. It was owing to the efforts of the superintendent of the school at that time, William Davidson, that funds were raised and a Meeting House was opened at Brookfield in 1874, which was a wonderful convenience for the school; it was also attended by many living in the neighbourhood.

As the century progressed the education provided at the school became more comprehensive and included science and art and some technical education such as woodwork and printing. In connection with the latter a little periodical was produced in 1875 called, "The Brookfield Messenger", which continued to appear for a number of years; several copies of of thie periodical Have been preserved. The type was set by hand and taken all in all it was a commendable production.

In 1890 a detailed account of the school was prepared presumably by William Davidson. This account was printed and presented to Friends' Yearly Meeting in Dublin. Quoting from this account a typical day in the life of both boys and girls is given separately. We have selected the account regarding the boys which is as follows

"The boys rise at six o'clock, and in dressing etc., employ half an hour, reaching the school room in time for half an hour's scripture lesson. Their regular school work begins at eight o'clock and continues until ten, when there is lunch before engaging in the various industrial employments, which occupy in summer two hours but in winter half an hour less. Dinner and recreation follow until half past one, and then two hours more of industrial employment. At half past three there is a light meal and recreation and from four to six school work, then supper and recess until a quarter to seven, at which time the last hour of study begins. In winter the family rises half an hour later in the mornings which causes a slight change in this routine".

Two hours of needlework

The girls' day is spent in similar fashion, the duties are somewhat varied from the boys and include milking, helping with the preparation and serving of meals etc. Needlework is undertaken in the afternoons for two hours. Apart from these variations the routine is similar.

Continuing to quote from the same source, particulars are given of the food served at the school. This was plain and simple although it appears to have been adequate:

"First meal is porridge and milk, but children who cannot take porridge may have bread and milk instead, and there are always a few of this class. Lunch at ten o'clock consists of bread, and either milk, butter, fruit or jam according to season. The mid-day meal is substantial, abundant and varied. There are always potatoes and other vegetables with either butcher's meat, pork, bacon, eggs or butter and milk; but on First Day this meal consists of rice cooked with milk, and bread, fruit or jam. The lunch at half past three is similar to that at ten o'clock, and the last meal at six o'clock consists of porridge and milk or bread and butter etc., and tea. The "fragments gathered up" go to the farm stock and return in the form of pork and eggs".

After 1860 the time expended by the boys on work on the farm was reduced. At one period this amounted to twenty two hours weekly, which only afforded time for rudimentary subjects to be taught. Before the end of the century, compulsory work on the farm entirely ceased and the entire time was given to scholastic pursuits which increased in both scope and depth.

Staff and pupils outside school building in 1893

Additional buildings were added to the school over the years, providing more comfortable boarding accommodation as well as additional classrooms.

It is not clear at what date organised games were introduced. We can well imagine the zest and enthusiasm which the games such as tennis, cricket, hockey and football were entered into. Nature study and botany were also encouraged, the countryside around providing an ideal field for such pursuits. No swimming pool was available at the school It was the practice however, during the warm summer months, for both boys and girls, separately, to go, in charge of a responsible teacher, to a certain deep pool along the River Lagan, and enjoy a bathe and a swim.

Compared with all the modern teaching facilities currently available, school life at the period of which we write may by some have appeared to have been dull, drab and uninteresting. This was not the case at Brookfield, as both staff and pupils made the best of what life had to offer.

A good preparation for life

The ordered discipline of school life was a good preparation for the children's future career, whatever form this might take.

It has already been pointed out that the lack of Government grants limited the salaries which were paid to both teachers and staff, who gave long hours of devoted service for what now seems to have been a mere pittance. In addition all new equipment, capital expenditure, together with maintenance costs had to be met in full by the School Committee. It became increasingly difficult to maintain the school on a sound financial basis, especially as the fees charged were so low, and the support received from Friends tended to diminish over the years.

In some respects the school being located in the heart of the country, suffered certain disadvantages, one of which was being unable to link up with a supply of town gas for lighting - electricity had not yet arrived. It was entirely dependant on either paraffin lamps or candles. This form of lighting in a school of this kind was both inadequate and a high risk hazard. So as to improve the situation, a system of carbide gas illumination was installed, which proved satisfactory while it continued in use. No mains water supply was available locally, and so the school was dependant on well water as its main source of supply, and this had to be manually pumped. In latter years a windmill was utilised to work a pump from a field some distance away and connected to the school.

The new century (1900) ushered in the appointment of Charles Benington and his wife as superintendents. It was an excellent choice, as both they and their family brought a new quality of life to the school. Charles Benington was a born teacher who had served with distinction as second master at Friends' School, Lisburn, and was well known among Friends. He taught a variety of subjects in both the scientific and literary fields to all of which he brought interest and enthusiasm. It was during his headship the school made notable strides in academic advancement. Pupils were prepared and entered for the Intermediate Examinations, and all seemed set fair for a bright future.

However clouds arose from various quarters and it gradually became evident that Friends were not numerous enough, nor had they the resources to maintain two schools in such close proximity as Brookfield and Lisburn.

Intake widened

When founded the original intention was that Brookfield would only accept children of disowned Friends. As the years went past, it became more evident that fewer and fewer of these children were becoming available. In 1876 the terms of admission was widened to include children of parents in membership, who had limited means. This intake was further increased in 1885 and from then on carefully selected pupils, not in any way connected with the Society of Friends, were accepted.

Increasing difficulties, both financial and otherwise, in operating the school during and following the 1914-18 World War, became more pressing and the School Committee decided that Brookfield School would close as an official Quaker establishment in 1922. It continued for a few years with greatly reduced numbers as a private boarding and day school, under the care and direction of Charles Benington and his wife. Their son, Crawford, later took over the school and carried it on, on a limited scale until 1930. In view of the loyal and devoted service given by the Beningtons prior to 1922 the buildings were transferred to them for a nominal sum, and the farm was sold to a local Quaker farmer. The liquid assets and endowments became the nucleus of the Brookfield Education Fund under the direction of the Yearly Meeting.

When the Beningtons withdrew from the school, they disposed of the buildings to the same farmer who had taken the land. The buildings, or portions of them were used for short periods for a variety of purposes.

The school records are deposited at Friends' Historical Library, 6 Eustace Street, Dublin 2. These include printed annual reports and accounts, and rules for the Government of the school printed in 1863. One of the most interesting books is a School Register, from 1836 to 1921. This lists each pupil who entered the school, age on admission and on leaving, also their parents' names and addresses. There is also a space to indicate where pupils went on leaving school. A total of 1,624 are returned as having been pupils at the school during the period it remained open. A copy of the Register is now in the Public Record Office (N.I.).

It only remains to mourn the passing of an institution which over the years had accomplished much. Many children from rural backgrounds were given the start in life which enabled them to become responsible citizens. One may be unable to point to any former pupils who rose to positions of great eminence in the world, but without doubt we can think of many who benefited from the time spent at Brookfield during their formative years. Christian character was formed, and the good seed sown in young hearts brought forth fruit in later years. We also recall with gratefulness the many staff, teachers, and Committee Members, who gave long hours of devoted service to the school and its objectives, and we feel sure this was not given in vain.

Editor's footnote

The writer of this article about Brookfield School is well qualified to do so, as his mother, Sarah J Potts (later Chapman) was at Brookfield for a total of twenty-four years, first as a pupil then as pupil-teacher and finally returning as Governess or Head Teacher on the girls' side. Some of her notes and photographs have been used together with information from official records.