The building of Fishguard National School

“Where there’s a will there’s a way”

Letitia Harries and Fishguard National School

This is the story behind the National School which stood in Hamilton Street from 1850 to 1969 and educated several generations of Fishguard children in its 119 years – thanks to the energy and vision of a remarkable woman, Letitia Harries. It seems she was the wife of the vicar of Llanstinan, the daughter of a vicar, and she had two sons who also became vicars.                                                                  She lived in Castle Hill. Sadly, no photograph of her appears to exist in the public domain.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     It should be explained that in Britain in the early 19th century education was regarded as the concern of voluntary or private enterprise with only upper class and middle class families able to afford regular schooling for their children. Working class children had little or no education (and its quality was variable); most remained illiterate.                                                                                                    The Church of England and the Nonconformists failed to agree on a national system of education, instead, two separate systems emerged: National Schools run by the Church and British Schools run by the chapels.
What follows is Letitia’s own account, slightly abridged, written by her, for the Privy Council Committee on Education in 1852. Her words convey the brisk and efficient manner she set about her self-appointed task.

After 12 years of incessant occupation in family cares, I found myself in 1848, from various circumstances, and most particularly the removal of my two sons to public schools, completely released from domestic employment.   As the daughter of a clergyman I have always been accustomed to appropriate my time and energies to the service of my father’s parishioners; and I now felt desirous of devoting my newly-acquired leisure to the benefit of my poor neighbours.                                                                                                                                     No kind of gratuitous or cheap education had ever been accessible to them nor had any charitable bequest or endowment ever been made in favour of the poor children of the Fishguard mariner. 

Just at this time Sir James Cockburn [see note below] visited Fishguard and from him I ascertained that, from the considerable property he possessed in and about the town, he had set apart a slip of land for the purpose of a school, free for the acceptance of any party that would undertake that the catechism and doctrines of the Church of England should be taught in it.                                                                                                                                                                 The spot was pointed out to me by his agent John Trail Esq., and I instantly accepted it under a commission which I then, and still, believe was given to me by Providence. I explained
my views and intentions to Sir James who did me the honour of placing confidence in the hope of success I entertained, and called on several of the inhabitants, stating that he had placed all his interest in the matter in my hands and recommending others to do the same.

My first care was to procure subscriptions, in which I was most unexpectedly successful, and, receiving considerable sums at once from my own personal friends, I was enabled to send for a cargo of limestone, which, being prepared through the winter months, enabled us to commence building at an earlier period in the year than is usual here. As the strictest economy was requisite I determined if I could not try and be the architect, and having sketched a design suitable at once to our wants, our finance and the confined piece of ground we had at command, I had the gratification of finding it, with a slight amendment of detail, satisfactory to the Committee of Council.                                                                                                                        As we could not indulge in the luxury of an architect, so neither could we afford expensive workmen; I accordingly took James Hughes, a working mason, into my counsel and we proceeded together most harmoniously from the commencement to the completion of the work. An old mason in the neighbourhood who was clever, but uneducated, drew up our estimates and specifications, which I copied out fairly and in a presentable manner (for his writing and spelling was almost unintelligible).

The National Society afterwards did us the honour to ask for a copy of those estimates as a guide to others who wish to build with economy. The winter was spent in soliciting subscriptions on the whole with considerable success. Our county member, Viscount Emlyn,
gave £10 and kindly presented applications on our behalf, to the Queen, the Prince of Wales, and the Queen Dowager who in her customary spirit of liberality sent us £10. Our bishop too gave us £26.                                                                                                                                                    At length the time came for the laying of the foundation stone which I had the pleasure of doing. Under it was placed a closely sealed bottle containing the following inscription:            “The Foundation Stone of this building, dedicated to the Glory of God and the good of Mankind, is laid in Faith and Hope, this 24th of March 1849.”                                                                
The workmen readily signed a set of rules enforcing sobriety, regularity of conduct and good humour towards each other while in that employment; nor did I ever hear any quarrel or other misconduct among the 25 men who were at various times employed on the building. For a year and three months the work went on slowly but surely; and I think we may challenge the kingdom for the strength and durability of workmanship and materials, while not one penny was spent on ornamentation or decoration.                                                                                              I had previously called upon the Rev. W. Reed, Principal of the Training College at Carmarthen, who had recommended a young man as our master, to whom I paid £30 a year; I also engaged as mistress a young woman who had been brought up in my sister’s school at Rhydberth, to whom I promised £20 annually; and to both house rent free. To secure this, as well as to avoid the impropriety of two young unmarried persons residing in the same house, I engaged a respectable woman as housekeeper whose husband’s employment required him to live at a distance, and I promised free education to her three boys as an equivalent for keeping all the premises clean. 

Sir James Cockburn kindly allowed me to rent a piece of waste ground opposite the school for a penny a year and here I have formed a good garden and playground. This is fitted up with a mast, swing, leaping bars and ball wall etc. and being opposite the master’s sitting room and bedroom allows him constant inspection of his scholars during their playtime which is very desirable.                                                                                                                                                Everything connected with the undertaking has hitherto gone on very satisfactorily. I only wish I could inspire my fellow townsfolk with a little of the interest I feel for the children. I know none of us are rich but the subscriptions to the building and the school are still very small, not amounting to more than 5% from anyone connected with the parish. Indeed, if it were not for the kindness of strangers, Fishguard would be almost destitute of any means of education for her poor and destitute population. I ought to except Sir James Cockburn who, in addition to the site, gave £10 to the building and is an annual subscriber of 5 guineas.

The hand of Providence may be clearly traced through the whole undertaking in providing means, smoothing difficulties and removing obstacles in a most wondrous manner. I will conclude my narrative with a motto I met with on the day the public meeting was held, which led to the commencement of the school and which I inscribed on the first page of my account book:
Rien n’est impossible; il y a des voies qui conduisant à tout choses, et si nous
avions assez de volonté , nous aurions toujours des moyens suffisants.*
[*More simply put: ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way.’]

Sir James John Hamilton, Bart.,(1802 – 1876) who married Marianna Augusta Cockburn, was the son of Sir John James Hamilton who had been a Lieutenant General and who had been created a baronet in December 1814 after distinguishing himself in the Peninsular War. Both he and Cockburn  (Marianna’s father) were commissioned into the Coldstream Guards on the same day in 1799. These Tyrone Hamiltons were distant kinsmen of Sir William Hamilton of Nelson fame. Sir James and his wife were very interested in education and assisted in the foundation of schools in Fishguard, (hence Hamilton Street in Fishguard), Manorowen and Mathry and they were responsible for restoring Jordanston and Mathry churches and for building the tower at the former.
From the Jordanston church web page   (see also Langton Hall – home of Major Cockburn )


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