It has been a disruptive couple of weeks for the Strangford Lough team because we are in the process of getting our offices refurbished at the Old Schoolhouse on the Portaferry Road.
Last week, we packed away all our filing cabinets and office furniture and cleared the rooms completely. It looks so bare with nothing in it.
The builders have now moved in and are replacing floorboards, repairing doors and plastering walls. It is a lot of work but hopefully it will result in a much better working environment for the future. It is a listed building, so any alterations have to be sympathetic to its historical architecture and external appearance. It may take some time, but so long as the kettle goes back when the work is finished; we will all be happy.
On the front wall of the building, there is a plaque that reads, “This School Founded AD 1813 By Viscountess Castlereagh and the Governors of Erasmus Smith Schools.”
So this year marks the 200 year anniversary of the founding of the building – a suitable time to be giving it a new lease of life.
We knew that the School had been part of the Castlereaghs’ estate at Mount Stewart, but didn’t know who Erasmus Smith was. A little bit of internet searching revealed that he was a wealthy grocery merchant, born in Leicestershire in 1611. His family provided Oliver Cromwell’s army with food supplies during the English Civil War and put money towards his military activities in Ireland. As payment, (and through shrewd land speculation) his family received large areas of land (over 46,000 acres in 9 counties) during the settlement of Ireland.
But Smith had no desire to live in Ireland (and was perhaps feeling a little guilty as to how his wealth was acquired) and proposed that some of the profits from his Irish lands should be used to establish schools for local Irish children. So a Trust was set up for this purpose called “The Governors of the Schools Founded by Erasmus Smith Esq Trust”. Although it took a while to get going, over the next 200 years, this trust established five Grammar Schools throughout Ireland and nearly 200 primary schools (known as “English Schools” because lessons were taught entirely in the medium of the English language).
Many of the schools were set up on the land of wealthy land owners (such as at Mount Stewart) who paid for half of the costs and teachers’ salaries, with the Erasmus Smith Trust paying for the remaining half. The schools were primarily to provide an education to the children of the tenants working on the estates and then to other poor children in the parish. Any pupils who showed particular promise had the opportunity to take up scholarships at Trinity College, Dublin.
The family at Mount Stewart must have been keen supporters of this initiative because they not only contributed towards the opening of the School at Mount Stewart, but also two other local schools at the nearby towns of Newtownards and Comber.
Over the years, financial and political changes ment that most of the schools closed down or passed out of the control of the Erasmus Smith Trust. Further details of Erasmus Smith and his Trust can be found in the excellent document published in the High School,Dublin website: http://www.highschooldublin.com/Downloadable%20documents/Faithful%20to%20Our%20Trust%20book%20text%20.pdf
We have been told that our Old Schoolhouse lost its connection with the trust in 1888 and has served many functions in recent times, including a tea room, art studio, dance hall, accommodation and now as an office and workshop for the National Trust Wardens and volunteers who look after Strangford Lough.
Hopefully, with this much-needed repair work, the National Trust can ensure that this fascinating old building will be put to good use for another couple of centuries.