Contributed by Kate Fleming
William Herrington was schoolmaster of Cuckfield National School for 32 years. Appointed in 1891 he retired, due to ill health in 1923; thirty two impressive memorable years which, for the children of that time, and indeed their children, had a lasting effect.
Following the departure of Mr Morfee, 26 year old William Herrington was selected for this important post as the 45th school master of Cuckfield, having been highly recommended by the Principal of Winchester Training College, his alma mater. Recently married to Ellen, handsome William Herrington moved into Church House, and began his inspirational career in Cuckfield.
It seems difficult to believe that only 37 years before this Charles Dickens, that accurate observer of Victorian life, had opened his novel ‘Hard Times’ with Superintendent Thomas Gradgrind’s educational philosophy: “Now what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.”
William Herrington was a dedicated teacher who recognised and implemented a balanced curriculum. He shared his talent and intellect with his pupils, and set them on an appropriate journey irrespective of their abilities, to benefit from and contribute to the 20th century. He led them by example, constantly exploring the world both locally and internationally. He recognised the need for children to work together, not only in classrooms, but as a society. The school flourished during his headship, proudly building an orchestra with 20 violins, a piano and a cornet, establishing sports teams and creating a school environment which was conducive to joyful and exciting lifelong learning.
He was acutely aware of the power of education and the importance of numeracy and literacy at the turn of the century and how this could transform the lives of his students. He passionately believed that compulsory education could lessen, even alleviate, crime and reduce the need for prisons, and was the key to a successful, peaceful and prosperous society.
The school played an important role in village life of which the church was integral. The Sussex Daily News reported in 1913 on ‘Ye Olde Cuckfield Fayre’: ‘The entertainment took the form of a historical play, or it might have been called a pageant entitled “The First Cuckfield Fayre 1245 in the Reign of Henry III”. About 123 children of the Cuckfield Schools, garbed in the picturesque dresses of the period, acted with much skill. […] Dancing children, crusader Knights, merchants with wares, fish sellers with fresh fish from the ponds, country boys vending baskets and rushes, a necromancer (with booth), a Jack-in-the-green, wrestlers, pilgrims, beggars, lords and ladies made up the crowd.’
William Herrington was a devout Christian and, with his friend and vicar, Canon Cooper, appropriately as Headmaster of a Church of England School, maintained the strong, already established, religious teaching. He worshipped regularly at Holy Trinity Church, sang in the choir and carried the processional cross as and when this was required. His friendship with Canon Cooper was further strengthened by their mutual interest in local history.
Mr Herrington’s many talents included making slides for his magic lantern to illustrate both his and Canon Cooper’s history lectures. In one of his lectures at the Queen’s Hall William Herrington captivated his large audience with a pictorial tour round the coast of Italy in which Genoa, Amalfi, Naples, Brindisi and Venice were visited, the beauties of the last-named city being depicted by ‘profusely illustrated lantern slides’. He also shared these ‘magic’ illustrations with his school children in Geography lessons, introducing them to the wonders of the world from his travels and to traditional stories such as ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ and these slides are now in the Cuckfield Museum’s collection.
Not only did he visit Italy but also Canada and the USA where he had a brother. It was this visit to the New World which generated in William Herrington such a strong sense of patriotism and a determination that the boys and girls of Cuckfield National School would be taught to value and respect their country. Mr Herrington had appealed to the village community to provide the school with a flagstaff and flags so that ‘the boys might be taught patriotism’ as he had seen it taught in the schools of Canada and the United States. His appeal was richly answered by a local builder, James Rowland, a Lindfield lady and the Hon Mrs Sergison, thus motivating The Mid Sussex Times to report on the hoisting of the Union Jack on St George’s Day 1906 as a memorable, remarkable ceremony, resulting in a half day holiday to mark this ‘first-within-living-memory’ celebration of our national saint’s day in Cuckfield, and indeed the first in the county. This special tradition of saluting the flag continued throughout William Herrington’s time as Headmaster.
William Herrington retired in December 1923. His retirement was an emotional occasion which powerfully indicated that this Headmaster was truly loved and respected by the village. His wife Ellen and his daughter Mabel Kathleen were also recognised as a vital part of his successful headship and it was noted that ‘husbands could not do their work unless wives took care of them’. This apparently generated loud applause and Mrs. Herrington was presented with a beautiful bouquet of chrysanthemums. William Herrington expressed his final farewell to the children, teachers, managers and villagers with the words: ‘Don’t forget me, I shall never forget you.’
Education is a gift that keeps on giving.