Life story retold by Peter van Went, Archivist at Reading Blue Coat School– additional resources sourced from Reading Mercury.
John Harris, a Reading man, was appointed headmaster (or “Master” as he was then known) of Reading Blue Coat School, sometimes called Aldworth’s Hospital in memory of its founder, Richard Aldworth in 1858 “at a salary of £80 per annum with the additional allowance of £10 for a servant, provision for himself, his family and his servant”. He had been the master of St Giles’ National School for several years and applied to Reading Blue Coat School when Mr Dibley resigned. Mr Harris remained the headteacher for over 30 years (1858-1890).
The School had removed from Silver Street, Reading in 1853 to larger premises at Brunswick House, 42 Bath Road, Reading and was administered by Reading Municipal Church Charities. It was a charity school which accommodated 42 boys, all boarders, and about three teachers at most including the headmaster. Resources were extremely limited and conditions pretty Spartan even by the standards of the day.
Harris’s second wife, Eleanor Harris, who died in 1878, took on the position of Matron but from all accounts had little money to spend and was running, in effect, a house designed for private ownership rather than a school. I think teachers and pupils even shared use of the ablutions at this time! Harris himself was a strict disciplinarian and a strong Evangelical Christian whose homilies about religion often overlapped into lesson time.
His mission was to try and improve things and over 32 years he probably did his best given the straitened finances and restrictions imposed on him by the Trustees. I think there were three classes all of which were taught in one room and pupils generally stayed for three years from age 10/11 to 13/14 before taking up apprenticeships with local tradesmen and businesses. Reading, writing, and arithmetic were core components of the curriculum which Harris extended to include some Latin and “natural sciences” and Art for a time. We tend to see more boys taking up employment in clerical occupations around the borough after the 1860s in particular. More pupils were also taking external examinations and Harris was often commended for producing consistently high examination results at a time when the quality of education was very much judged by these.
Brunswick House was quite a large property which enabled the School to “live off the land” much more than in the past to produce its own fruit and vegetables. Harris was keen to give pupils responsibility and, of course, to keep expenses down. It was he, who introduced “trade work”, by which pupils would clean the house, serve meals, work in the large back garden and pick seasonal fruit. Seniors were appointed as “monitors” to supervise younger ones. Something of the “trade work” principle even persisted in the Boarding House until the 1990s. Boarding eventually ended in 2001 well after the School came to Sonning in 1947.
The photo below shows a bewhiskered John Harris. It reveals a section of a whole School formal photograph with the boys (all boarders) in the gowns (uniform). It was taken outside Brunswick House, 42 Bath Road in 1887 with its main entrance and pillared portico behind.
John Harris never retired because he died in office on Friday 16th May 1890. Earlier that day, he had been taken ill during a routine inspection of the School by an assistant Charity Commissioner. Harris died during the evening “from a fit of apoplexy” (Reading Mercury, 24 May 1890). All the boys were sent home from the 17th May to the 2nd June by which time a “temporary” headmaster had been appointed by the Trustees. On the 27th May, James Mumford, “Master of the Apsley Guise National School” in Bedfordshire had his appointment confirmed from a list of 76 applicants for the job. He was to stay until 1907. At the time of his death John Harris had a son attending at the school.
The funeral took place on Wednesday 21st May at Reading Old Cemetery, “and was attended by a large number of relatives and friends, many old boys of the school, the present scholars, &c. The body was taken to St. Lawrence s Church, where the first portion of the Burial Service was performed, the clergy present being the Rev. J. M. Guilding, Canon Garry, G. W. Hunt, and A. Wodehouse, and at the grave the concluding office was said by the Bey. J. M. Guilding. Floral emblems were numerous, and were sent from friends and ‘old boys‘ “, Reading Mercury, 24 May 1890.
He was a popular headteacher. The Reading Mercury reports (18 September 1886) that on 20th October 1885 he was presented: “with a handsome timepiece; silver inkstand, and other articles, to mark the sense of his valuable services at the school for 27 years, the gifts being subscribed for by old boys and by residents in the town. Some money being left over from the purchase of these articles, it was decided to present Mr. Harris with an illuminated address, and the work was entrusted to the able hands of Mr. W. H. Pountney, of Reading, who has executed it with admirable taste and marvellous dexterity. The border is a triumph of art, and its effect is greatly increased by the introduction of four ellipses, containing respectively the borough arms, Mr. Harris’s monogram, and miniature paintings of Bluecoat and Greencoat school boys. The following is the text of the address, which Messrs. Bracher and Sydenham have consented to show in their window during next week
To John Harris, Esq , Head Master of Reading Bluecoat School.
SIR,—On the occasion of your completing the 27th year of your Head Mastership of the Bluecoat School, a large number of your friends have felt desirous to express their respect for your character and their sense of the valuable services you have rendered to that institution by asking your acceptance of the accompanying testimonial. The subscribers feel very strongly that the successful career in life which so many of your old scholars have achieved, and the high estimation in which the Bluecoat School is now held by our townsmen, may be attributed in a large measure to your ability as teacher, to your consistent Christian example, and above all to the truly parental interest which you have always taken in the boys (many of them orphans) entrusted to your care.
It will be gratifying to you to learn that ‘this wish to offer you some recognition of your long and faithful discharge of duty has met with a ready response from the citizens of Reading, and that nearly every class in the community, comprising members of Parliament, the Municipal body, the School Trustees, magistrates, clergy, professional and commercial men, are represented in the list of subscribers.
We fervently hope that it may please God to spare you for many years of future labour for the benefit of the institution over which you have presided so successfully in the past.
We are, Sir
Yours very Sincerely,
J. M. GUILDING,
Chairman of Trustees. Signed on behalf of the subscribers.
John Harris is buried with his first wife, Harriet, his second wife, Eleanor, his sister, Alice Copham and Elizabeth, possibly his daughter. His inscription reads:
In memory of Harriet wife of
died Dec 18th 1855
aged 39 years
also of Eleanor Harris
who died Mary 23rd 1878
aged 62 years
also of John Harris
for nearly 32 years Head Master of the Reading Blue Coat School
who died May 16th 1890
aged 66 years
also of Alice Copham
sister of the above
born Nov 25th 1821
died June 17th 1889
also Elizabeth Rebecca Harris
died 23rd December 1903
aged 50 years
In hope of the blessed resurrection and in loving
memory of those whose bodies rest beneath,
this cross is erected by W.E. & G. Giles.
Section 61, Row C, Plot 36