SCHOOL ATTENDANCE TOKENS
Mike Roberts continues his guide to collecting tokens with a look at the special tokens given to school pupils with impeccable attendance records
There are many things we take for granted, writes Mike Roberts as he guides us through another token topic, one is that every day during term time all children will attend school until they are sixteen years old. It was not ever thus
Throughout the second half of the 19th century, legislation, the most important being the Elementary Education Act 1870, put schooling on a formal basis, with education up to the age of twelve becoming compulsory for all. Before 1870 it is estimated that just under half of England’s children received no education whatsoever. The remainder attended voluntary or church schools. As the franchise had been extended in 1867 it was felt appropriate that education be provided to the masses so that they would vote ‘wisely’. There was some opposition, however, from liberals fearing indoctrination and conservatives worried that education may lead to revolution. The established church also feared a loss of influence.
Although it is a great simplification to state that Board Schools’ funding was dependent on results, there was great incentive to ensure regular or full attendance and it was from this imperative that School Attendance medals derived. Whilst local details varied, attendance cards were issued, often on a weekly basis, and at the end of a fixed period (often annually) a reward was given if a full presence had been achieved. It seems that initially little leeway was given, but schemes were modified over time, particularly allowing for absences caused by infectious diseases not to disqualify otherwise perfect students from being rewarded.
A pioneering work and comprehensive listing of these medals, School Attendance Medals of England Scotland and Wales by Cedric Dry was published by John Whitmore in a limited edition of 200 copies in 1982. This is an essential book and quite remarkable in its scope given the absence of records, now available on the internet, at the time. Obviously in the last four decades there have been new discoveries, but as well as detailed descriptions of the medals, the author provides much background information with extracts from Local Authorities and School Boards’ records.
Readers familiar with my collecting interests will not be surprised that most of the medals illustrated relate to schools in Yorkshire. There are several notable omissions, as it seems that Education Committees in towns and cities such as Barnsley, Bradford, Halifax, Huddersfield, Leeds and York did not issue medals (although Bradford and Halifax awarded them for attendance at evening classes). This probably indicates that prizes other than medals, such as books, pens, or certificates were given instead.
Dry’s treatment of the medals issued to pupils in Harrogate give a flavour of his book. As well as listing five different types of medal, four of them in silver (figure one shows the 36mm medal engraved ‘NOT ABSENT DURING 1901 – 2 – 3’) he gives extracts from the Education Committee Minutes from 1904 to 1921. In 1904 a sub-committee was established to obtain estimates (eventually a Mr Brown was engaged to provide large silver medals at a cost of 4/6d each and small ones at 2/-) and ‘formulate a scheme’ for presenting prizes for attendance. It seems that by 1907 moves were afoot to discontinue the issue of medals and replace them with books, writing desks or work boxes. By early 1914 the awarding of prizes had stopped as the Committee were asked to reconsider their decision. ‘Resolved, that the Attendance Sub-Committee consider the possibility of formulating a scheme for the award of prizes which will allow such qualifications as cleanliness, good conduct and progress to rank equal with good attendance in the selection of children to receive awards and report’. Approved 27 January 1915.
Scarborough Education Committee were responsible for a series of very impressive medals, 39mm or 45mm in diameter, most of which have the added attraction of being named to the recipients. One year’s perfect attendance earned the smaller medal in bronze. It featured the arms of Scarborough on the obverse with the legend ‘AWARDED/FOR/PERFECT & PUNCTUAL ATTENDANCE/
AND/GOOD CONDUCT’ on the reverse. It is pierced with a ring suspender fastened to a blue ribbon with an ornate top bar and plain bottom bar. The larger medals carried similar wording with space to engrave the recipient’s name and number of years attended. These medals were issued in attractive red or blue cases by The Mint, Birmingham, Limited, and were struck in bronze (two years), Gilt (three years) and silver (four years). I am sure B Benton was very proud of his (or her) series of medals. I am certainly very proud to own them now.
It would seem that the practice of issuing regular attendance medals tended to die out during and after the Great War. In Kingston upon Hull, however, the scheme was still running in 1940, which probably makes it the last to close. It would appear that four years’ perfect attendance merited a bronze medal and six years a silver piece. Each was personally engraved and the medals came in an attractive black case.
Dry managed to locate original minute books which make fascinating reading. He tells us about the rivalry between local manufacturers to supply the medals, the numbers issued (year ending July 1907, silver 33, bronze 113, July 1909, silver seventy, bronze 235, July 1916, silver 140, bronze 378) and the difficult decisions that had to be made when letters from parents, making special pleadings on behalf of children with hitherto perfect records being absent through no fault of their own, were received (generally the Committee was unsympathetic).
Dry does not record any medals from Elland, a small town about three miles south of Halifax. Illustrated, however, is a small silver medal reading ‘ELLAND/ NATIONAL SCHOOLS/L.C’ on the obverse and ‘FOR/FULL/ ATTENDANCE/1897/TO/1903’. I assume C stands for either Committee or Council but am not sure about L. It is a very pretty item and I’m sure it was treasured by its original owner. Similarly, not in Dry, is a medal, locally manufactured by William Owen, from Isles Lane Board School, Leeds. Isles Lane is in Holbeck and the school was a Wesleyan School before becoming a Board School.
As already mentioned Bradford and Halifax did not issue attendance medals to its school pupils. There are, however, medals associated with night schools. Bradford’s 31mm bronze medal, manufactured locally by Fattorini, was ‘awarded for perfect attendance’ by the city’s Education Committee for ‘EVENING SCHOOL; SESSIONS 1904-5’. This would seem to have been a ‘one off’ as I am unaware of any other issues from Bradford. The original Halifax award referred to ‘Regular and punctual attendance’ at ‘Halifax evening Continuation schools’ but medals made by Vaughton of Birmingham for ‘HALIFAX RECREATIVE EVENING CLASSES’ are more frequently met with. These are found in bronze and less often in silver. Dry was
unable to find any information relating to the circumstances in which they were issued [illustration; six bronze medals on a ring, waiting to be awarded!]
Over the last forty years paranumismatists with specifically local interests have greatly expanded our knowledge of many areas. For example, Charles Farthing in his Illustrated Catalogue of the Tokens, Medallions and Banknotes of Cumbria (Galata, 2013) covers the old counties of Cumberland and Westmorland. Therein are listed attendance medals for Broughton in Furness, Carlisle Voluntary Schools, Kendal Elementary Schools and North Lonsdale Voluntary Schools. Other than the Kendal medals these are very limited issues. In Cumberland medals were issued by both Cumberland Voluntary Schools and Cumberland County Council Education Committee. Someone involved with the latter organization thought long and hard about an appropriate legend and in a singularly uninspired moment came up with ‘WITH HEAD AND HEART AND HAND, WE WORK
FOR CUMBERLAND’. Both Cumberland and Westmorland Voluntary Schools went for ‘WITH ALL THY GETTING GET UNDERSTANDING’. The medals come with a great variety of clasps and dates and are named (but unfortunately specific schools are not mentioned). Three gilt 44mm Westmorland medals dated 1900, 1901 and 1902 were named to Kate Mandle. The last is augmented by a clasp reading ‘THREE YEARS PERFECT ATTENDANCE’.
Search and you shall find
Just before finishing writing this piece I typed ‘School Attendance Medals’ into my favourite search engine. As well as directing me to numerous dealers’ websites, where a collection of the commoner pieces could be formed quickly and for a very modest outlay, it confirmed to me that these awards have been extensively researched by local historians who may not have a numismatic background, but have unearthed a wealth of interesting information. I would also commend such websites as Philip Mernick’s relating to the School Board for London and London County Council (mernick.org.uk/attendance).
I have not mentioned medals awarded by educational bodies as prizes for academic, sporting or other achievements. These are frequently named and are a rich field for original research. They may well feature in a future article. My online searches also revealed a current thriving market to supply awards and trophies to today’s schools, with awards not only for competitive sports and other activities but also for regular attendance. Whether these will be keenly sought out by collectors in 100 years’ time is another matter.