Pictured is our cover girl Martha modelling this floaty number from Bridal Boutique in Winscombe looking across Cheddar Reservoir in search of Sarah Comer - or not as the case may be. Sarah was an 18th century Quaker and would not have worn a gown like this - but she would have approved of Martha’s path through the Cheddar valley school system - and her plans to go to university - something that wasn’t allowed until 1869 when Girton College was the first college to accept women - over 200 years after Sarah’s death. This picture was taken from the Bristol Corinthian’s Club House - so thank you to the club - who incidently offer sailing courses for young people during August. For more info visit www.bristolcorinthian.org.uk/
Seeking our Sarah Who was the mysterious Sarah Comer? Rupert Bridgwater goes in search of the benevolent Quaker
Everyone is familiar with the story of Hannah More and her sisters and how they set up a series of Sunday schools across the Mendips. In Cheddar however, their new found place of education had a rival - founded by Sarah Comer - a woman whose life (unlike that of Hannah More) is still virtually unknown. And yet both schools were to benefit generations of young people. Today we only remember one name - that of Hannah More. The reason is almost certainly because although there were two schools in Cheddar - the founder of one the schools had died long before Hannah More arrived on the scene - so it was Hannah More’s story that entered into history - because she was alive to write it.
The missionary-like zeal of the More sisters to educate the people of Somerset had been triggered by a visit to Cheddar in 1789 when they accompanied the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce to see the famous Gorge. But it was the impoverished residents of the village that caught his attention with drunken farmers (who were the main employers), an absent cleric and the poor residents. It’s often assumed there was also no school - but there was an embryonic one taking in a handful of students. It had started 18 months before along with an apprenticeship scheme for youngsters.
Within days of their visit the sisters set up a Sunday school using an old farm house and barn now known as Hannah More Cottage. It provided Bible readings and housekeeping lessons - although strangely hand writing was not on the curriculum. More than 100 children attended the school and evening classes for adults were added. It overshadowed Sarah Comer’s school drawing away pupils and supporters - partly because it was bankrolled by Hannah’s wealthy London friends - and partly because at one day a week it was cheaper to attend - freeing up the children to work on the farms.
Hannah More’s school (only open to Church of England children) may not have resembled modern ideas of education. The most important being able to read and understand the Bible in order to make the students devout Christians - and more employable. In contrast down the road Sarah Comer’s school offered full time education with the three Rs at its heart - and was open to all religious groups.
Hannah More may have disapproved of female emancipation advocated by Mary Wollstonecraft in her 1792 book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman but unwittingly she gave women desperate for an education and a thirst for knowledge a chance to improve themselves. By teaching them to read the young women of Cheddar could access novels and non-fiction how-to guides - and teach themselves to write.
Little is known of Sarah Comer other than she was a Quaker who was born in 1678 and died in Sidcot in 1752 where she was buried. Quakers normally kept good records of births, deaths and marriages - and indeed they did. Unfortunately all the records relating to the Quakers of the time were destroyed by a German bomb in the Second World War in Sidcot leaving us with very
little. In his book Sarah Comer and her Cheddar Charity, local historian John Page unearths what little is known. (The book is available at the library.) She was one of three sisters and appears to have been set up in life when her father left her money to buy land in his will - and remained unmarried in an age when women were considered chattels.
As a Quaker she would have faced prejudice in an era when any denomination other than the Church of England was discriminated against. It seems likely her parents were forced by the Church of England to christen Sarah in the C of E - against their will. When she died she left a considerable amount of money with numerous bequests - including more than £6,000 for a school. The will also revealed she was the village banker - with various loans outstanding to farmers and residents on her death. She was clearly very good with cash, had excellent administration skills and an ability to deal with a range of people in business - and her many bequests showed she also cared for those around her - especially the broader community.
This is where the story becomes confused. You’d have thought that within a year or two of her death a school would have been opened complete with teachers, books and pupils. Her will is quite straight about appointing a teacher: “there shall be for providing a fit and able schoolmaster to teach and instruct a proper number of boys and girls in reading, writing and arithametick.” However years were to pass as the trustees moved at snail’s pace to enact her wishes.
Sarah’s will was complex and those charged with carrying out its instructions spent years sorting out the various bequests. Starting the school was not on the top of the agenda. The trustees of the charity set up in her name would meet, make decisions and meet up again. Some died during the 30 or more years it eventually took to employ a teacher, rent a school room and recruit local children as pupils. By the time it was finally up and running in a room at the Kings Head in Kent Street and later in Lower North Street it was to be overtaken by the cheaper and more popular More sister’s school.
Eventually the two schools merged later creating what was to evolve into Cheddar First School. The residue of Sarah Comer’s money remained in trust and continues to this day to help young people - now in association with the Cheddar Youth Trust chaired by former Kings of Wessex head Keith Herring. John Page believes Sarah Comer deserves greater recognition in her role in establishing education in the area. Comer Road is named after her and there is a plaque in her memory by the Bath Arms in the village.
Perhaps now, some 225 years after the opening of Sarah’s school it is time to mark this remarkable woman and her positive contribution to society in the Strawberry Line District.
For more information on the Cheddar Youth Trust visit www.cy
Strawberry Line Times August 2013
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