The Management of Early Schools

by on December 12, 2012 in Rick Church

Editors Note: This is the fourth in a series of historical articles on the subject of schools in Nelson.

amanda farwell

Nelson Schoolteacher Amanda Farwell

While school districts were largely self-governing, they were subject to town oversight and a growing body of state regulation on the qualifications of teachers. There were two bodies established during this period to oversee the operation of Nelson’s schools: The Prudential Committee and the Superintending Committee.  These committees seem not to have existed simultaneously and made reports to the town suggesting that their functions were nearly the same.  In their reports we learn what was being taught in the schools and read opinions about the quality of that teaching.  These committees also presented rules of school conduct for consideration at town meeting.

Reproduced below is such a report for 1829:

1829 Report of the Nelson Superintending Committee


There was a report on the performance of each school.  The comments for School Number Seven reads as follows:
No. 7  taught [sic] by Mr. Frost made a degree of improvement but not so much as we expected from the Teacher’s good qualities and easy manner of instructing there being a manifest want of discipline.

It is worth drawing some other conclusions from this report. The school population reflects the still very large number of children among the farm families in Nelson. Three hundred-fifty seven of Nelson’s eight hundred and seventy-five residents were attending school. The length of the school terms varied greatly from one district to the next.  Each district did set its own schedule.  Winter school was invariably taught by masters and summer schools by mistresses. Winter schools were one and a half times better attended than summer schools. Few summer schools taught arithmetic.

The records of school Number Seven reveal that mistresses were paid routinely $1 per week while their male counterparts  were paid $3. Most of the mistresses employed by school #7 had local surnames, but only one master did.  The 1840 budget illustrates this.


The above budget summary for 1840 shows a total school budget of $67.98 They paid Amanda Farwell, a local woman, $9.32 for teaching 7 weeks and Harvey Wardwell $22.92 for seven weeks – two and a half Mistress Farwell’s rate.

After 1840 the district employed only mistresses. Their stipends edged up and they achieved the $3 per week level occasionally by the end of the record in 1858.  Were masters harder to get? Did the qualifications of the mistresses improve?  The district didn’t actually save money; it no longer had lower paid summer teachers.

District Number Seven elected a member of the Superintending Committee to represent it. One such committee of which Benjamin Buckminster was the member from School Number Seven drew up a set of Bye Laws for Nelson schools in 1824 that was adopted at town meeting. The committee wrote 24 rules. Five dealt with discipline expected in classrooms. These four are illustrative:

1. It shall be the duty of the Instructor to examine his scholars once a week at least in the several branches, which they are studying, and to inculcate in his school the principles of morality and the necessity of a decent behavior.

2. The scholars shall at all times treat their Instructor with respect, shall behave with decency and propriety, shall use no profane or obscene language when going to or returning from school or in or about the school house.

3. When the Instructor approaches the schoolhouse the scholars shall retire into their seats and respectfully rise when the Instructor enters and shall not afterwards leave their places without leave of the Instructor.

4. There shall be no whispering, laughing or playing or other unnecessary disturbance in school nor shall there be any playing cards or any other gaming plays in intermission time.

The final rule threatened the heavy hand of the town if a school wasn’t measuring up:


The Selectmen shall not appropriate the school tax towards the support of any school taught by an Instructor who shall not have complied with the above regulations.

It was too much; the town rescinded them all the next year.

This is the fourth installment of a long article on the operation of one of Nelson’s early schools.  The main source for the series is the seventy page record of School Number Seven from 1820 to 1858 which was generously donated to the town archives with many other valuable historical papers by Ethan Tolman. Thanks to a grant secured by Susan Hansel, the record of School Number Seven is preserved and available to the public on a CD at the Olivia Rodham Memorial Library.  The balance of the source documents are the Nelson Town Records preserved in the Town Archives and material on the Woodcock Patent located at the Cheshire County Historical Society. Click here to read the previous article in this series.



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