1687, the inhabitants of Calne in Wiltshire ask that the king confirm the election of a new schoolmaster for their free school

Transcription from ‘Petitions in the State Papers: 1680s’, in Petitions in the State Papers, 1600-1699, ed. Brodie Waddell, British History Online, Inhabitants of Calne, Wiltshire. SP 31/3 f. 122 (1687).

To the Kings most excellent majestie

The most humble peticion of your majesties loyall subjects inhabiting in and near your majesties antient borrough and towne of Calne in the county of Wiltshire

Most humbly shew, that John Bentley esquier about 27 yeares since devised by his last will several lands and chattles to 7 trustees for establishing a maintenance of a free English schoole which was settled in this towne and borrough of Calne and one Francis Flay appoynted schoolemaster there who executed the said office for diverse yeares whilst the rents of the said lands amounted unto but twelve pounds per annum.

That about twelve yeares since the rents being improved to fiftie two pounds per annum one James Webb was placed in schoolmaster there, who hath allwayes received the rents of the said lands to our Lady Day last and is still in the possession of the schoolmasters house and schoole house there.

That the said James Webb being to our knowledge a man of a debauched and vitious life and conversation and remise and negligent of his duty, the said schoole which wee well hoped would have beene advantagious to this towne proved a damage, the children sent thether to be taught loosing their time and their parents disapoynted

That complaints of Webbs miscarriage being made to the commissioners for charritable uses who upon examination found that all the trustees were dead except Francis Rogers of Brainford in Middlesex and Master Thomas Webb minister of Hannington in Hamptsheire father of the schoolmaster and conceiveing that the neglect of the schoole might be in some measure occasioned by their liveing soe farr remote from this towne.

The commissioners about four yeares since proposed new trustees of the saide schoole to be added to which the said old surviving trustees consented and persuante to the said commissioners decree they conveyed the lands to Sir John Erule junior since deceased Walter Grubb esquier Master Jonathan Rogers Master Robert Maundrell Master Henry Rogers and Master John Wilson all liveing neare this towne who upon their visitting of the said schoole and duly inquiring into the manners of the said James Webb and finding him to be very remisse and negligent of his duty admonished and desired him to reforme his life and conversation and to be carefull and diligent in teaching and instructing the youth that the said schoole might be rendred of effect according to the intent of the founder.

That notwithstanding the said James Webbs frequent promises of amendment he persueing his ill course of life the said trustees lately elected one Master Avery Thompson to be schoolmaster of the said free schoole whome we know to be a sober and diligent person and in all respects able and fitt to teach and instruct our children and to performe the duty of schoolmaster of the said free schoole.

May it therefore please your most gratious majestie to confirme the election of the said trustees.

And your petitioners shall ever pray etc.

[For the full list of signatures, read the transcription here.]

For a second, related petition, click here: Trustees of the free school in Calne, Wiltshire. SP 31/3 f. 124 (1687)

Report by Mary Wiggins

In their petition, Robert Sheppard and thirty-three other signatories, all living in or around Calne in Wiltshire, recounted how some twenty-seven years earlier John Bentley bequeathed land and goods to seven trustees for the establishment of a ‘free English school’. For some years Francis Flay held the post of schoolmaster. The rents accruing to the land rose from £12 to £52 a year. Flay was replaced by James Webb, who led a ‘debauched and vicious life’ and was ‘remiss and negligent of his duty’. He nevertheless received the rents for the land and remained in possession of the school and the schoolmaster’s house.

The Commissioners for Charitable Uses, to whom complaints were made, found that only two of the original trustees survived. Both lived some distance from Calne; one was Webb’s father. The Commissioners proposed, and the remaining original trustees agreed, that the bequest pass to new trustees, five of whom remained. The new trustees urged Webb to reform his ways. When he failed to do so they appointed Avery Thompson, a ‘sober and diligent person’ as replacement schoolmaster.

The petitioners asked now that the King confirm the trustees’ election of Avery Thompson.

In their second, related petition, Walter Grubbe and three others, all new trustees, recounted the same history. They, too, asked that the King confirm Thompson’s election.

In 1662, John Bentley’s will gifted some freehold and leasehold land adjoining Lincoln’s Inn (Middlesex) for a new free school to teach English but didn’t specify any particular location for this school.[1] Bentley was from Richmond in Surrey and did not (as far as can be confirmed) have any connection with Calne and never visited the area. Thomas Webb, who was one of the trustees to the will, may have had a connection with the town as his son, James Webb, was installed as the schoolmaster after Francis Flay, the first schoolmaster.[2] Thomas was born around 1615, son of Ambrose Webb of Basingstoke. He was ordained in 1650 and was a preacher in the diocese of Winchester in 1662 and became the Rector of Hannington, Hampshire, in 1663. His son, James, was born around 1657 in Hannington.[3]

In 1665 ‘a tenement or new erected house in the Green with a plot of garden’ was purchased from Samuel Staples and his wife, they both had a considerable amount of property in Calne. This building was converted into a school and a master’s house and this property continued for the same purpose until 1833 until new buildings were constructed.[4] This school was the second oldest school in Calne, sanctioned by the Charity Commissioners with three of the trustees having an association with the town.[5]

The Commissioners for Charitable Uses held an inquiry in 1683 into the concerns that the current schoolmaster, James Webb, was neglecting his work. He was apparently called to the Commission to explain but, as he was afraid of being arrested for being in debt, he didn’t want to appear in public. His salary had been approximately £52 per year. During his term of office, the number of pupils attending the school fell. As the surviving trustees did not live near Calne it was difficult for them to carry out their duties so six local men were appointed as co-trustees, including Sir John Ernle of Wetham. These new trustees were also allowed to add another three to their number and the Commission insisted they should be ‘true and faithful to the Protestant Religion and the Kingly cause’. The Commissioners also wanted the curriculum expanded to include the teaching of Latin and the Church of England catechism.[6]

James Webb was dismissed in 1687 for negligence and misconduct, suggesting the petitions from the residents and new trustees served their purpose.[7]

John Bentley died in 1660 and there is a monument to him, his wife and their daughter in the Church of St Mary Magdalene in Richmond. This monument comprises three portrait busts of the family.[8] There is a picture of the monument available.[9]


[1] ‘Calne: Education’, in D A Crowley (ed.), A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 17, Calne (2002), pp. 111-114. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/wilts/vol17/pp111-114.

[2] A. E. W. Marsh, A History of the Borough and Town of Calne (1904), pp. 212-213, https://archive.org/details/historyofborough00mars/page/212/mode/2up?q=bentley.

[3] ‘Webb Thomas (1638-1691)’, Clergy of the Church of England Database, https://theclergydatabase.org.uk/jsp/search/index.jsp.

[4] ‘Calne’: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calne#History_2.

[5] ‘Kingsbury Green Academy’: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingsbury_Green_Academy.

[6] A E W Marsh, A History of the Borough and Town of Calne (1904), pp. 212-213, https://archive.org/details/historyofborough00mars/page/212/mode/2up?q=bentley.

[7] ‘Calne: Education’, in D A Crowley (ed.), A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 17, Calne (2002), pp. 111-114. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/wilts/vol17/pp111-114.

[8] ‘Parishes: Richmond (anciently Sheen)’, in H E Malden (ed.), A History of the County of Surrey: Volume 3 (1911), pp. 533-546, British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/surrey/vol3/pp533-546.

[9] ‘Monuments in St Mary Magdalene Church, S London’, Bob Speel’s website, http://www.speel.me.uk/chlondon/richmondch.htm.

This report is part of a series on ‘Petitioners in the reigns of James II, William III and Mary II, 1685-1699’, created through a U3A Shared Learning Project on ‘Investigating the Lives of Seventeenth-Century Petitioners’.