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The four schools in Little Shelford

We all know that our local Village School is the Great and Little Shelford Church of England Primary School, located next to St Mary’s Church in Great Shelford, which opened its doors at Michaelmas (the end of September), 1843. So, the school is now 175 years old. For an account of the early history of the school you can get hold of a copy of the excellent book 'The Making of a Village School' written by Little Shelfordian Marjorie Westbrook, and published in 1993 for the school's 150th anniversary.

But, did you know there have been at least three schools in the Village of Little Shelford itself. Here are a few facts about each of these schools.

The Rev Mr Preston’s School at Shelford Hall

We are lucky enough to know that in the early 1800’s the Rev. Mr Preston ran a school in Shelford Hall (the old Hall, a part of which still sits at the corner of Whittlesford Road, Church Street and Bridge Lane – commonly known as the Yellow House). The Hall was shared with the Wale Family who also moved there in the 1700’s. The school had no more than 12 pupils at a time and Rev Preston was the primary tutor.

How do we know about this school? Well, primarily because one of its pupils went on to be quite famous in his time. That Pupil was Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800 -1859), 1st Baron Macaulay (Left), a British historian and Whig politician, who served as the Secretary at War between 1839 and 1841, and as the Paymaster General between 1846 and 1848. He was at the school from 1812 and even at the tender age of 12 and 13 he wrote extensively. His biography includes many letters written when he was at the School in Little Shelford.

We also know that Rev Preston, who founded the school, was a strong evangelical, and a friend of Isaac Milner a mathematician, inventor and the President of Queens' College, Cambridge. Milner was instrumental in the 1785 religious conversion of William Wilberforce and was a great supporter of the abolitionists' campaign against the slave trade. Milner was also one of the chief representatives of the Little Shelford school and recognised Macaulay's talent even at that young age and based on his letters it appears Milner became something of a mentor to Macaulay. Macauley even mentions in his diaries travelling from Little Shelford to spend a day with Milner and Wilberforce.

There are some lovely insights in the letters written by Macaulay while at school in Little Shelford. On February 22nd 1813 he wrote to his father: “My room is a delightful snug little chamber which nobody can enter as there is a trick about opening the door. I sit like a king with my writing desk before me for would you believe it, there is a writing desk in my chest of drawers. My books on one side, my box of papers on the other with my arm chair and my candle. For every boy has a candlestick, snuffers and extinguisher of his own”. To get more insights on the school you can read “The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay, Volume 1” by George Otto Trevelyan on Google Books where it is freely available. In 1814 the School moved to Aspenden Hall, near Buntingford, Hertfordshire, in order to take more pupils.


The Studio Cottage or Little Shelford Evening School

Fanny Wale's “A Record of Shelford Parva” tells us about the evening school set up by the Wale Family (Occupants of Shelford Hall and major landowners) as an act of enlightenment to help educate the residents of the Village. The school was set up in Studio Cottage which sits in Pound Yard down the pathway next to Lime Cottage at the corner of Camping Close, on the Whittlesford Road. It operated from 1862 until 1914.


The Evening School, now called Studio Cottage, is at the end of the path. It was built by a man named WiIliams as two dwellings, 4 rooms in each, and in 1862 Col. R.G. Wale had the cottage altered to make a reading-room for labouring men and a school-room for boys, a large new room was added to the North and the windows, doors, fire-places etc., came from the Old Tudor House (Now known as the Lodge or Yellow House) which was partly pulled down in 1850.


A new room was added in 1862 to one of the two adjoining cottages, built by Williams the carpenter - and the Tudor shaped bow window was brought from the "Old House" to enlarge the two small rooms, which were made into one room and used as a Reading room for men,

while the boys were taught by John Riches (a gardener) in the new room, a removable wooden partition was put between the two rooms, which were often used together for "Penny Readings".


An audience of a hundred people could be crowded in. Colonel R.G. Wale supplied books and writing materials, lamps and firing, he also gave lectures on various subjects. After a geography lesson, with a globe, a man said, "Well Colonel, you won't never make me believe as how the world goes round, for I never seed your trees in no place but where they are now."


From about 1885 to 1908, technical work was taught there, instead of reading and writing - Mrs Eaden gave lessons in wood carving - Miss M. Wale taught bent iron work - Miss F.L. Wale gave lessons in drawing, and basket work - Miss Fredericka Wale organised various entertainments - Theatricals, Concerts, Dances, Jumble Sales, Cooking classes, School Teas, Cricket luncheons.

All this continued until technical instruction was given by County Council arrangement, in the British School and Institute at Shelford Magna (Great Shelford).

The Finishing School at Kirby Lodge


A more recent school in the Village was the Girls Finishing School which occupied Kirby Lodge on the High Street. The school was opened in 1948 by Major and Mrs J B Smalley and finally closed as a language school in 1992. It started with six pupils lodging in the large family home. The main teachers were May Smalley – as Florence Smalley was generally known – and her sister.


By their second year of operation, they had about ten pupils, all girls, although the doctor’s son from the village sometimes also attended classes. Some of the girls had their own room, and others shared rooms. Other teachers included a Miss Garrett and Mrs Katie Oakshott. The girls studied English, Classics, and a few other subjects and many were aspiring to obtain a place at Cambridge University. The Finishing school grew and at one time the “Square House” on Church Street, acted as an additional dormitory for the Finishing School.


May Smalley had lived on to the age of 99 years and 7 months, dying before her planned centenary celebration. Many in the Village will recall Mary Smalley and her sister Ros who lived in Kirby Lodge until the early part of this century. They eventually decided to sell up and found a pair of houses in Somerset, and live next door to one another to this day.


There are a number of existing Little Shelford residents who can recall the Kirby Lodge Finishing School and some of the pupils who attended. There seemed to have been a certain amount of fraternisation between the girls at the school and local village boys which was quite inevitable. The hope is that some of these memories can be captured for the Village History Society before too long. Sadly, the school was also caught up in an unfortunate tragedy in the Autumn of 1949, not long after it opened. There is a very well written article by Sir Tom Shakespeare, an English sociologist and bioethicist called “An Aunt Who Wasn’t There” about this tragedy which you can read on his web site:


Do you know more about our three Village Schools? Any comments or additional information? Please feel free to contact me on

Posted Jan 2 2024

Following the publication of this article in January 2024, Jimmy Altham got in touch.

"According to Graham Chinner’s account of the Wale family, Margaretta Philippina also ran a school for village children," said Jimmy.

That would mean that there have been at least four schools in Little Shelford over the years.

Updated Jan 15 2024.

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