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Devon County

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by Dr. Peter Lyne


Please note:

This article first appeared in a slightly different form in the May 2006 Issue of the Devon Family Historian. Dr. Lyne has modified it for inclusion on this website.


In the November issue of the Devon Family Historian I asked if anyone knew anything about the Hampden House Academy at Ashwater, as I had reason to believe my grandfather was educated there.  As a result of this Member’s Query I have been able to piece together a lot of information about this private school, and what I have discovered may be of general interest, as well as showing where to look for such things.

The school was started at Hampden House, Ashwater Lane, Ashwater in about 1859 by Charles Veysey and his first wife, Elizabeth, both then aged 27, according to the 1861 Census.  Charles was born in Exford, and his occupation was “Teacher of English and Mathematics, and Local Baptist Minister”.  His uncle, also Charles, was a well known Baptist preacher of Torrington, who spread the word and baptised many people in surrounding villages, including Dolton, where my grandfather was born;  my great grandfather was a blacksmith in Dolton, and himself became a local Baptist preacher.  The house next to Hampden House was the “Old Schoolroom, used as a Winter School”, and must have been incorporated into the school as the Academy prospered.  Further up the street was the New Inn.

For the first two years Charles and Elizabeth had been taking only day pupils, but by 1871 there were about 30 boys and 30 girls boarding, and several pupils, including my grandfather, were living out;  he was boarding with a Farmer Bray, another local Baptist preacher.  Between the two censuses Elizabeth Veysey died, and Charles married Sarah;  she became responsible for the welfare of the girls, who were taught English, French,  music, drawing and calisthenics. To all appearances the school was excellent, and it attracted pupils from as far away as Leeds, Tunbridge Wells, and Ireland.

However, all was not as well as it seemed….  In 1874 Eva Rawlings, age 13, saw an advertisement in the “Christian World”, in which the school offered a place for an articled pupil to teach juniors three half-days a week; in return she would receive tuition herself at a premium of £14 per annum (about £6000 in to-day’s money, if the conversion is based on the average wage).  When she arrived at the school in October 1874 she was surprised to find there was a boys’ school carried on at the same premises.  There was no female teacher over the age of 17 other than Mrs Veysey, and only two maidservants were kept.  She was expected to help in bed-making, and keep clean four little girls, including Sarah Veysey’s two little step-daughters.

Eva continued at the school for 2½ years, leaving at the end of June 1877.  But in April 1878 her father, a retired solicitor from Newton Tracey, near Barnstable, brought an action against Mr and Mrs Veysey at Holsworthy County Court, before a judge and jury.  He alleged negligence at the school in the way Eva had been treated in her last year there, and claimed £50 in damages on her behalf. In particular he claimed that she had contracted a disease called “the itch” (probably scabies), and the Veyseys had not called in a medical man to advise treatment. The case was fully reported in the North Devon Journal of April 11th 1878, and the evidence on both sides was completely contradictory.  The jury found for the plaintiff, and awarded £20 in damages to Eva Rawlings.

A month later, Mr Veysey alleged perjury on the part of Eva, and she was summoned, together with another girl, to appear at the Holsworthy Police Court before two magistrates, accused of “wilful and corrupt perjury” in the previous case.  Altogether the North Devon Journal devoted about 145 column inches to the two cases, and newspapers throughout the country gave considerable publicity to Hampden House Academy, some likening it to Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby, written by Charles Dickens some 40 years before.  Eva, now 17, must have suffered great anxiety before being found not guilty after a trial lasting three days.  The case against the other girl was dropped.

A curious feature of  these trials was that Eva had written from home effusive letters to Mrs Veysey in the Christmas holiday before her last term, and also after she had left the school;  yet a few months later her father initiated proceedings against the Veyseys.  For example, on Dec. 12th  1876 she wrote: “Dear Mrs Veysey, - You have been so very kind to me all of this half [term], that I write this hurried note to thank you for it all.  God will bless you for your kindness……….So, dear Mrs Veysey, believe me, with fond love and kisses, your loving and grateful little pupil, Eva.”

On June 12th 1877:  “My dear, dear Mrs Veysey, - I write to thank you a million times for all your kindness and love towards me ever since I have been here.  I well know I have made no, or a poor, return for your kindness to me.  I hope the Lord will bless and reward you, and He surely will.  All I have done which has grieved or displeased you please forgive………..believe me, your dear and grateful little pupil, Eva”.

And in July 1877 (after leaving the school):  “How true is the verse ‘We bring our years to an end as a tale that is told'.  I shall never forget your Bible classes.  How much God has blessed them to many………..Again, dear Mrs Veysey, with best love to all, not forgetting your dear self, Believe me, your loving Eva”.

The evidence in the two trials, although conflicting, throws an interesting light on this private boarding school, which was probably one of many like it in mid-Victorian England.  The Veyseys were ardent Baptists, and I suspect this is why my grandfather, and many other children, were sent to Hampden House;  in Dolton the National School, founded by the National Society for Promoting Religious Education, would not have appealed to his father, the blacksmith lay Baptist preacher. So somehow he raised the fees to send my grandfather to a boarding school some 20 miles away.  The letters quoted above illustrate how the children were living in a Christian ambience, even if the hygiene of the school was not up to much.


Hampden House Academy Buildings

The blue car is parked outside the building formerly used for

Hampden House Academy

©Peter Lyne


From the newspaper reports I have learned a lot about different aspects of the school,  and in order to prove negligence Mr Rawlings had to produce evidence of the living conditions Eva experienced.  The boys’ schoolroom was described by one witness as “generally dirty” but by the Medical Officer of Health (MOH) as “a good one”;  perhaps it was kept clean on the Sabbath as it doubled as a local Baptist meeting place.  The main boys’ dormitory was 30 feet long and contained 13 beds shared by 26 boys;  the girls’ was 22 feet long with 6 beds for 12 girls.  The MOH reckoned there were 170 cu. feet of space for each child, which was “insufficient”.  The judge in the first case maintained there should be have been 800 cu. feet per child, and only 5 boys in the main dormitory;  it was “a question of decency and propriety”.  Perhaps he had been to Eton, but if he had been to Rugby when Dr Arnold took over in 1828 he might have had to share a bed with another boy….

The fact that the children all slept two to a bed (on occasions three girls shared) must have meant that contagious diseases such as head lice and scabies could spread easily.  Several witnesses described vermin on pillows and linen, and bedsheets being used as tablecloths.  The case for negligence related to Eva Rawlings’s penultimate term at the school, and though the Veyseys denied it, there was good evidence that the sheets were changed only twice during  this period of about five months.  In her last term, however, they appear to have been changed fortnightly.

It was really “the itch” that made Mr Rawlings bring his action against the Veyseys, and the way in which they treated it.  Head lice are comparatively harmless, and are common in school children to-day;  indeed I believe there is at present (2006) something of an epidemic in the West Country.  But scabies can be a most unpleasant disease, difficult to eradicate, and Eva and other girls maintained they picked it up at school, whereas other witnesses blamed Eva for bringing it in.  Rose Bartlett’s father said she came home for the holidays in 1877 suffering from “the itch”, and was treated successfully by a doctor.  However, when she again returned home from the school, at Christmas 1877, “her head was very dirty and to cleanse it her hair had to be cut off. She brought back her box containing her linen, which was disgracefully dirty, and the sheets were so filthy that it was found  impossible to remove stains from them.  The towels were wet, and the smell arising from the box was very offensive”.  He refused to pay the school fees, on the grounds that he had paid more than that in doctor’s bills for the girl.


Witnesses said that the Veyseys’ treatment for all sorts of illness consisted of Holloway’s Pills.  Even a case of measles had been treated in this way, rather than by summoning a doctor.  Laura Welch said, in reply to questioning, that “she had taken as many as twelve of Holloway’s Pills at one time” (loud laughter in Court).  She also said there were three or four wash basins in her bedroom, and there was a bathroom with a large bath.  “The girls could have a bath when they wished, but they did not often wish”.  Mrs Veysey often insisted on the girls taking a bath.  Other evidence of lack of hygiene was given by Dr Ash, MOH, who said the separate large earth closets for girls and boys were inadequate and “not what they ought to be”.  But the Veyseys said that the “inspector of nuisances” had made visits to the school, and had never complained of uncleanliness.
Advert for Holloway's Pills


In spite of doubt about the hygiene at Hampden House there were several instances of parents sending more than one child there.  In fact Eva’s younger brother followed her in 1877, and Charles Veysey testified that “he had the most amazing lot of vermin in his head he had ever seen” (laughter), “and he could not get them out” (loud laughter). He added that “parents had inspected his premises since the accounts in the papers, but had not taken their children away”. William Thomas of Plymouth, one of five brothers, said he was a pupil at the school, “and all the rest of his brothers were coming to the Academy” (laughter).  Elizabeth Botterell said she had had three children at the school and was satisfied with the treatment they had received.

Nevertheless, the judge in the first case thought the Veyseys should have called in a medical man to treat Eva, and described Charles Veysey “as being as indifferent, so far as the truth went, as as he had ever heard a witness”.  The magistrates in the second case were convinced by the doctors’ evidence, given at the end of a long trial, when they said the facilities at the school were inadequate  After consulting for an hour they dismissed the case for perjury (to loud applause), saying that “the evidence given was not sufficiently material to the issue”.

What became of Hampden House Academy after all this?  It appeared to be still going strong three years later, as the 1881 Census gives a list of over 50 boys and girls as “scholars”;  but this compares with about 70 in its heyday.  I could find no mention of the school in local directories after 1878, nor in the 1891 Census.  However, a letter dated 1985 from a local resident stated that Hampden House was still a boarding school run by a Mr Cory in the late 19th century, and the writer’s father attended night school there and was taught by one of the Veysey family in the 1890s.  I believe part of the school is now a post office, and other parts are private dwellings.

As for Charles and Sarah Veysey:  in the 1891 Census they were to be found at Grove House, Liskeard, running a small school with about 13 boys aged 8 – 14 boarding with them.  Perhaps these pupils were taught under better conditions than were those at Ashwater….

What about Eva Rawlings?  I hope she married young, as the only Eva Rawlings I could find in the 1881 Census was a servant in a household at St Mawgan, Cornwall.  She had hoped to become a governess on leaving school, and one of the complaints raised by her father in his action against the Veyseys was that she had been debarred from taking up such a position for six months through having contracted “the itch”.

Finally, was the education provided by the Veyseys a good one, worth paying for?  The only evidence I can provide is that the parents do not seem to have abandoned the school after the court cases, though probably not so many new children were taken on;  that Eva’s letters show that she could write English well, and knew a lot about the Bible; and that my grandfather could write and speak English well, so far as his three surviving grandchildren can remember.  It does seem rather hard to compare the school with Dotheboys Hall, as newspapers of the time did:  there was no evidence of cruelty, but there was certainly overcrowding and lack of hygiene.  It seems likely that the newspaper reports damaged the Veyseys’ reputation so much that they had to give up the school.


Ashwater Village
Ashwater Village

©Peter Lyne



The following  names were mentioned in the North Devon Journal at the time the court proceedings were being reported.


Court officers: Mr Montague Bere QC, judge;  Mr W.W.Melhuish and Mr W.Harris, county magistrates;  Mr Cecil Bray, registrar;  Mr W.B.Odgers, barrister;  Mr Claude N. Peter of Launceston, barrister;  Mr Toby of Exeter, barrister;  Mr William L. Powell, newspaper reporter.

Pupils and parents:  Eva and Bertie Rawlings, and James (father) of Barnstable;  Rose Bartlett and Joseph (father) of Bucknell, Bucks;  Rose Manning;  Anne Blake of Warfield, Berks;  Maude Bodly and Mary (mother) of Bridgwater;  William Thomas of Plymouth;  Laura Welch of Taunton;  Fanny Davies of Ilchester;  Elizabeth Harden of Bristol;  Julia Shorney;  Rose Blanche Moore;  Sidney Higgings;  Bessie Barrow of Clifton;  Fanny Cobby of Sidmouth; Rebecca Bygrave of Hereford;  Elizabeth Botterell (mother of three pupils);  Mr Bray (father).

School staff and employees:  Charles and Sarah Veysey, proprietors;  Mary Jane Cornish, cleaner;  Ann Callocott and Mary Ann Holland, washer women;  William Paddon, cleaner.

Medical men:  David Thompson, local surgeon;  Mr Pearse, surgeon, of Holsworthy;  Dr Ash, MOH, of Holsworthy;  William Curtis, chemist, of Barnstable.

Misc:  Mary Parr, widow, of Tiverton, servant in Rawlings household;  Mr Docket and Thomas Bray of Ashwater, and Elizabeth Sobey, who took boarders into their households.


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