Column: ‘Headmaster dearly loved...despite canings!’ says Grantham Civic Society’s Ruth Crook
Abraham Cockman was headmaster of the boys’ National School in Grantham from 1861 until his death in 1891.
During this time, he became a household name in virtually every home in Grantham and was loved and admired by many people. The National School was his second teaching position, which he took up at the age of 26.
He moved from Camberwell, and lived at the headmaster’s house on the school site, with his wife and three small children. The Cockmans had another seven children whilst living in the schoolhouse. Two of the children later died of typhoid fever in the 1874 and 1884 outbreaks in the town.
When they first arrived in the town, the boys’ and girls’ schools had been on the Castlegate site for just over a year. At that time, the average attendance at the boys’ school was 200 and there were two assistant masters and six pupil teachers. The main school room was sub-divided into three sections, with an additional two classrooms.
The heating was provided by coal fires, which were ineffective. The log books recorded that, during one winter, the ink froze. Initially lighting was by gas lamps, but these were replaced in 1867 by gas lights. In 1863, the school day was from 9am to 4pm, with two hours for lunch. On Sundays the boys had to be in school by 9.30am and again at 2.30pm to attend church. They were admitted to the school at the age of seven. School fees were 2d, 3d or 4d per week per child, depending on family financial circumstances.
Despite the demands of his job, Mr Cockman was the choirmaster and assistant Sunday school superintendent at St Wulfram’s Church and was respected for his singing voice. He was also auditor of the Savings Bank. An excellent chess player, he became champion of the Midlands. He also played cricket and football and kept a boat on the Grantham canal for fishing expeditions. He was interested in chemistry and geology and was a first class mathematics teacher, often giving extra lessons to boys needing help. He also voluntarily ran night classes during the winter months, from 7-9pm, three nights a week. These classes were for males of all ages and were regularly attended by 75 men and boys.
Mr Cockman also started the Grantham and Spitalgate coal club, which gave assistance to people with low incomes. It enabled them to heat their houses and have a warm meal. He was also always ready to listen to their troubles, and see if he could help and advise them.
He taught, drilled and caned two generations of pupils, and it was said that ‘they loved him dearly for it’. He always remembered the name of an old boy or teacher and they in turn always remembered him. He was said to be solid, reliable, useful, and honest, invariably cheerful and buoyant, and had a frank and honest heart.
His early death at the age of 57 came as a great shock to everyone in the town and his memorial card said: ‘His gentle courtesy endeared him to all; and when he died, strong men wept.’