Free School

Pennoyer's School in Pulham St Mary operated as a free elementary school for over three hundred years until it closed in 1988. The school takes its name from its benefactor, William Pennoyer, a rich Puritan merchant who endowed the school in his will of 1670. William Pennoyer was not a Pulham resident, yet his legacy ensured the survival of the ancient chapel, and provided a standard of education for young children that scarcely existed elsewhere in the country until modern times.

William Pennoyer had acquired 1/15th share of the Manor of Pulham in 1656, which brought him three farms: Asten's, Lower Vaunces (now Home Farm) and Upper Vaunces.  Pennoyer's will directed that £40 of income from these properties in Pulham should be used to pay for the services of a school master, to teach the sons of his tenants, and any fatherless boys in "Pulham Mary, Pulham Markett and the next adjacent places".

The school, Pennoyer instructed, was to be established in the "little chappell" that stood in the centre of Pulham St Mary.  There is no evidence that Pennoyer owned this building - in fact, it's clear that he did not - but his statement implies that the building was in community use at that time.

The school opened in 1674, and pupil numbers gradually grew over the years.  Girls were admitted in the 18th century.  An education was provided to children who would normally go uneducated - there was no state provision at this time, and no compulsion for anyone to attend school.

In the mid-19th century, the school was extended, funded by public subscription.  The east end of the Guild Chapel was demolished - including its east window, the most significant feature of a medieval ecclesiastical building - and the familiar red brick gabled extensions added to the east and south. 

A coal cellar was also added at some point during Victorian times, concealing the West door from view for the next 120+ years. 

In the early part of the 20th century, a further classroom was built on the north side of the brick extension, with a porch added to the front. By this time, laws had been passed to ensure that all children attended school, and that every parish made free education available.

In the 1980s, the education authorities decided that the villages of Pulham St Mary and Pulham Market no longer required separate schools.  A decision was taken to move all children to the bigger site in Pulham Market, and to close Pulham St Mary.  From closure in 1988 until restoration work began in February 2009, the school remained empty and increasingly derelict. Without the intervention of a dedicated and determined team of villagers, the original trustees of the School Charity of William Pennoyer would have been forced to sell the building for development as a private house. This would have brought to an end over 600 years of continuous community use.

A 120-page book "School's Out"  written by Hilary Clutten, a former resident of Pulham St Mary, is available from the Village Centre team. This well-researched book covers the early days as a Guild Chapel, William Pennoyer's life and times, and the development of the free school up to closure.

Please contact us if you would like a copy of "School's Out", price £10.00 incl. post & packing (UK - please enquire for prices overseas).

lottery funded logoThe Pennoyer Centre, Station Rd, Pulham St Mary IP21 4QT Tel: 01379 676660 email:

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