The School of Robert Brearley Oddie – December 1880 until August 1906

On a snowy day in December 1880, Sibford’s second Head, Robert Brearley Oddie, arrived from Ackworth, a long established Quaker school in Yorkshire, with his wife Elizabeth and a crying baby. They had seven children in total; Major, Arthur, Edgar, Edith, Gulielma, Elizabeth and Helen. They were all educated at Ackworth School.

Oddie was regarded by many contemporaries as ‘the great revolutionary’. He threw open the doors to greater opportunities. Latin, French and Art were introduced, and the curriculum became more academic, and work on the land came to an end as the School farm, which had been losing money, was abandoned. In the outside world, the golden age of British farming was over, as cheap corn and meat came in from the USA. British agriculture had begun its long decline. The School retained the garden, a few cows, pigs and poultry. There were now 60 children boarding in the School, and the average cost of each was around £30 per annum.

The Oddies were dismayed at the lack of facilities for games and sport. Under the Routh regime games were, as described by Michael T Graveson, a pupil of that time and later to become President of SOSA, …combative rather than competitive. ‘Fly the Garter’ and ‘Catch & Carry’ were played in dark evenings in forbidden places like stables, cowsheds and pigsties. The most violent of all was ‘Block the Passage’ (a form of ‘British Bulldog’) played by two teams named England and Ireland in which blood and bruises were the most frequent marks of victory!

‘RBO’, as Oddie became known, changed all this, despite the opposition of some older members of the Society of Friends who thought that organised games were …surely the primrose path to Hell. RBO introduced tennis in the Paddock which was prepared and levelled by hand. Cricket, hockey and soccer were played in Richard Lamb’s field. It was eventually bought by the Braithwaite family and donated to the School and was known for many years as ‘Braithwaite Field’. Later on it became known as the ‘Piece’ where Orchard Close now stands.  Oddie upgraded the whole school, many times forgetful of the School Committee Minute that forbade him to spend more than £5 without leave from the Committee, and finding himself continually in hot water, after building a staircase or removing a window, he’d say: Well, it is done now and it is a great improvement. Doesn’t thou think so?

The School year during this period, was divided in two by holidays of six weeks in the summer and four in the winter. Holidays must have been a welcome break for the staff as well as the children.

There is very little recorded of personal reminiscences of the Oddie period. There are some comments by people who were there at that time such as Edward P Kaye, a student teacher from 1895 until 1897, and who later became the Sibford Old Scholars’ Association’s first General Secretary and later its President, he wrote:

“Our day began at 6.30 am followed by physical drill (PE) to music until 7.00 am; mental arithmetic 7.15 am; breakfast 7.30 am; school from 9.00 am until 1.00 pm, and from 2.30 pm until 5.00 pm. During alternate weeks I woke the boys in the morning, taught all day, played games, started the Prep, took bedroom duty, put lights out and patrolled until 10.00 pm. In the other weeks I was on perpetual day duty as well. In my spare time I read for examinations. I enjoyed it, but it was impossible to save on £20 a year. The senior man got £50!

The main schoolrooms were fairly well lit by oil lamps, but in each bedroom, was an un-snuffed tallow dip which gave off a poor light and a bad smell. Slates and scratchy pencils were still in use – to be replaced by pens and paper for examinations – and the curriculum was that of a secondary school, with the children leaving at sixteen or before. Once a month a school spelling ‘bee’ would be held with RBO promising the winner …a silver medal with the Queen’s portrait on one side, and a suitable inscription on the other which was always a silver threepenny piece and invariably won by someone on the girls’ team. The method of learning was mainly by memorising, and reinforced by examination under the College of Preceptors (South Kensington Science and Art examinations were regularly held).

RBO also opened the School to occasional lecturers from the outside world, and gave Lantern lectures himself with the aid of a contraption operated by two 56lb weights that worked an oxygen lamp whose glow illuminated RBO’s anxious face and russet beard. Music and singing were still regarded by some Weighty Quakers in 1880 as a kind of juggling with the devil, and when RBO asked the Committee for leave to purchase a piano, one venerable old Friend cynically enquired: ‘And how many of these machines dost thou want?’ ”

An old scholar from the Oddie period, Alice M. Harris, wrote in the Old Scholars Magazine of 1932 of her time at Sibford. She was there between 1883 and 1886 and writes:

“Under certain circumstances what a comforting thing a little kindly action can be. I well remember the benefit I experienced from one such kindly action when on the day that I arrived at Sibford in the Summer of 1883, I stood near the bread cupboard feeling very lonely and homesick. Louisa Lines, a domestic helper, known and loved by many Sibford scholars, was passing by and seeing how upset I was put a cat into my arms and the world seemed brighter at once. How, as we got used to school life, we enjoyed in the middle of the morning a piece of dry bread out of that cupboard, as we did when we returned from Sunday evening meeting, which was then held in Sibford Gower meeting House!

Sunday dinners in those days consisted of corned beef, fat bacon and jam (all on one plate!) and bread. When they were plentiful we sometimes had eggs for that meal. For breakfast we had milk, served in basins, and bread. For tea, bread and jam, or butter or treacle, with tea served in basins. Once there was a supply of treacle which had a somewhat salty flavour and which lasted rather a long time, because few would partake of it at the meals when it was on the table. Nevertheless we all seemed to flourish on our simple diet and were as well and happy as any other boys and girls who have been at this dear old school. We sat on different tables to the boys in the dining room but had some lessons together, one of which was algebra; the class was taken by Robert Oddie. We had lessons in mental arithmetic before breakfast.

The girls were allowed to spend out of their own money two shillings a month on sweets, bought at the little shop kept by Maria Payne at the top of Manning’s Hill. Special favourites were ‘blacks’ and musks’. The letter we wrote home was read, usually by Robert Oddie, before being posted.

There was no piano at the School as one or two members of the School Committee disapproved of music being taught. The girls however did begin to play lawn tennis around 1883 as games had previously been discouraged.

The boys had to clean our boots as well as their own and doubtless gave a good polish to those belonging to girls for whom they had a special liking! No talking was allowed in the bedrooms, either at the time of going to bed or getting up. The girl’s washroom had two baths in it and not many basins ( the baths were fitted with cold taps only). We used to wash each other’s backs in cold water every morning.

On General Meeting days, after having enjoyed their pork pie lunch and visiting Friends having had their lunch, the boys and girls sat on seats arranged in tiers at one end of the dining room and were called upon to read answers to some of the questions which had been given on their examination papers.

There was no Sanatorium and very little illness, nothing of a serious nature. There was neither Matron nor Housekeeper as Rebecca Oddie, loved by all, acting in both these capacities. Neither was there a school Secretary.

To ensure the girls having clean underclothing when leaving for the half-yearly holidays (six weeks in the Summer and three weeks at Christmas) they wore during the last few days, when their own garments were being laundered, calico ones that belonged to the School which were kept for that purpose – they were not always an exact fit!”

Alice M.Harris 1932

Towards the end of Oddie’s reign, the future of Friends Schools was the subject of some concern. Half the children in the Quaker schools left before they were 15, a year before completing their courses. At Sibford in 1904, the numbers had fallen to 40. It seemed that the pendulum had swung too far, from culture of the land to culture of the mind, without the resources, human and material to tackle what was in reality a secondary school curriculum. …..and so the eventful Oddie reign came to an end.