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The Parsons Years

Philanthropy

As well as direct taxes to support the poor, the village gentry, consisting of the three farmers, the vicar, the North family and Herbert Parsons all paid into the Coal and Clothing Club, started in 1835 possibly by, the Reverend Gordon. This was a kind of savings club where members paid a fixed amount every week with their savings being topped up by the local gentry. The accounts for 1874, the 39th report of the club, are as follows:

25 members £34-9s
Colonel and Lady North £5
Mr and Mrs Parsons £3-3s
Rev. and Mrs Gordon £1-11-6d
Mr and Mrs Greaves, Home Farm 15s.
Mrs Colcutt in memory of her father £1

The money was shared out between the 25 contributors in December. The money was collected from the villagers perhaps first of all by the Reverend Gordon, but certainly in the 20th century by Mary Jane Parsons, who, according to Susan Buchan kept the money in calico bags in her desk.

In the previous year, 1873, two of the farmers, William Parsons and William Tredwell, had stopped donating anything to the Club. The Reverend Gordon ‘s letter to Col. North, which accompanied the Statement from the Coal and Clothing Fund drew his attention to the fact that it was "not so good as last year. I regret to say that this is not the only or the greatest evil that the mischievous labourers’ Union has brought into this hitherto most peaceful and well-to-do parish – the very last it should have touched." (He is referring to the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union, founded in 1872. Their aims were to improve wages and limit working hours. Some farm labourers worked an eleven hour day six days a week.) Colonel North replied that he was sorry to see Mr William Parsons and Mr Tredwell no longer subscribe. "I know they were very much hurt and annoyed at the charges brought against them without any foundation and with the gross ingratitude they have met with with regard to the required alterations at the school." This is a reference to the fact that the community had had to expend money bringing the school premises up to scratch because of the 1870 Education Act. The Reverend Gordon and the rest of the village gentry were afraid of the government setting up a Board school, when they would have lost control of the curriculum. The Reverend Gordon worked extremely hard to make sure the school remained under local control and that it stayed a Voluntary school where the Church would maintain control over what was taught. Money had to be spent on bringing the premises up to a certain standard. The floor had to be boarded, they had to ensure that the lighting, heating and ‘offices’, as they delicately called the lavatories, were adequate. They also had to enlarge the school room by incorporating a blacksmith’s smithy, which up to 1873 was making the teacher’s working conditions considerably more difficult than they need have been.

Both Mrs Parsons and her daughter were involved in supervising activities at the school, especially the sewing, which attained a high standard. Mrs and Miss Parsons visited the school each week and kept it supplied with sewing material. They helped the girls with their sewing, provided the material for pinafores, and gave them to the girls when completed. Mrs Parsons was a member of the Oxford Ladies group which organised prestigious events such as the first Prize Needlework Exhibition in 1877, and her daughter carried on her interest in embroidery throughout her life, ensuring that the girls at Elsfield school had a high level of sewing skills.

In the last years of the 19th and the first years of the 20th century Miss Parsons was caught up in the enthusiasm for traditional country life which many people felt was on the verge of extinction and which resulted in a revival of such phenomena as Morris dancing. Miss Parsons was not immune to these ideas and was in a position to translate her ideas into action. She gave a maypole to the school and folk songs and Morris dancing became part of the school curriculum.


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