After the little Church of the Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph was opened on 20th December 1866, the priest, Bernard Van Reeth, set about building a school. He wrote to the Bishop of Southwark, Thomas Grant, “What use is a church without people to fill it …. a school is needed and a school we shall have”.
Bernard Van Reeth was Belgian, born in Antwerp on 15th June 1815. All his life he was passionate about education, probably because his mother never learned to read or write. He became a Cistercian monk in 1836 and studied to become a priest. The same day as his ordination in September 1843 he left the Order and joined the “foreign missions”. He went to New York State in America where he built schools and churches, returning to Europe in 1853. He came to England in 1858, first to Petworth in Sussex, then to Weybridge Surrey – in both places he set up schools and classes for both children and adults. He went back to Antwerp in 1862, then came to Burton Green near Christchurch (where there was a Catholic Chapel) in June 1864. A Church was needed in the town of Christchurch, so he began working on this project as well as running the Mission (the name for a Parish in those days).
He set about raising the necessary money to build the school – not very easy in a poor area like Christchurch. He had made several fund-raising visits to his home country, Belgium, so thought he could not do this again. In London, the Catholic Poor Schools’ Committee had started in 1847 to make grants for the setting up of schools, so he applied to them. In 1867 they gave him £20, £15 in 1868, £10 in 1869, and collections were made at Sunday Masses in the Church – though only small amounts were raised. Some wealthy Catholic families made donations but it was a struggle.
Eventually work began in December 1868 on a small red brick schoolhouse next to the priest’s house in Purewell. It had one room downstairs, one above, both measuring 10feet by 12. The school opened on 19th May 1869. The children were taught by the priest helped by a Mrs. Lockyer, who had held classes for Catholic children in her house nearby.
The following year, 1870, was probably the most important in the history of education. An Act of Parliament was passed making FREE education compulsory for all children, to be paid for by each Local Authority out of the rates. Some people did not like this, they felt that it was not necessary for poor children to go to school!
At first the children had to sit on benches, using slates for writing, but later desks were obtained, reading and writing books, writing paper, pens and ink, but most of the lessons had to be learned by rote – tables, mental arithmetic, spelling, the Catechism, and of course prayers and hymns. There was no piano, so the teacher used a “tuning fork” to find the right note to begin singing. The timetable for 1869 was followed for many years.
The number of pupils increased and the little school was overcrowded. Thanks to the generosity of some local families, much fundraising and a Government grant, work commenced in 1901 on building a new school (brick built with a slated roof) behind the Church. This was opened in 1902, the date of another important education act. There were two rooms and a classroom for 67 children though there were only 35 in attendance. In 1918 there were 101 pupils at St. Joseph’s so again more space was needed. Later a hut was built at the end of the playground to house the older children – this was pulled down in 1965.
During the following years numbers varied – 72 in 1930, 70 in 1931, 95 in 1934 and 97 in 1935. At one time it was considered that St. Joseph’s should be closed and the children sent to Catholic schools in Bournemouth, but with the development of large housing estates in the Somerford area, it was decided that a new school should be built there. This would cost about £30,000 – half of the money to be contributed by the Catholic community. Again more and more fundraising events were organised and the money was provided. (The local Catholics had raised more than £15,000 towards the cost of building St. Thomas More School, Holdenhurst Avenue, and about £13,000 towards extending St. Walburga’s in Bournemouth!).
The new school in Somerford was begun by Fr. Foley in 1962 and opened in two stages, initially with two classrooms, a hall, kitchen and Head’s office. 40 pupils attended Somerford with the remaining 60 still being taught at Purewell. A further three classrooms were added in 1964 and opened in September 1965 when there were 124 pupils. The school building at Purewell was refurbished to create a church hall and was eventually demolished in 1992 to make way for the new Church. The school at Somerford has been extended and refurbished over the years to accommodate the increased numbers.