A School for Scandal: Kate Phelan and St Ignatius School, Ossett

At our December meeting members and visitors were able to enjoy Christmas cake, cheese, mince pies and the display organised by Carol Sklinar and Elsie Walton. This consisted of symbolised the origins of Christmas with explanatory notes, showing pomanders, mistletoe, robins, Christmas cards, greenery and the Christmas tree. However, Deborah Scriven, the President of our Society, was our speaker.
Deborah began her talk by explaining how she became interested in the story of that was the theme of her talk. During a visit to the National Archives at Kew with the Wakefield Historical Society, she Deborah decided to find out what was available about St Ignatius School, Ossett and the association with one time Head Mistress, Kate Phelan, in the early 1900s. Using census returns, the school’s logbooks and local newspaper reports, Deborah’s research soon highlighted an unusual story.

The school, in the late 19th century catered for pupils aged 5 to 13 years with a staff consisting of certified and uncertified teachers. The former had studied at college while the latter teachers began at the age of 16 and who had often been members of that school.
The premise of the story really became interesting for Deborah with the introduction of the Education Act of 1902. This meant that Local Education Authorities took responsibility from
local managers. St Ignatius was a small Roman Catholic school in an Ossett that was mainly populated by non-conformists.
Kate Phelan became Head Mistress in 1903 at a school after teaching at St Austin’s RC in Wakefield. She was not very happy with the pupil attendance nor of its academic achievement. It seemed that she did not always see eye to eye with the parish priest nor did she take criticism from the Local Board. In 1907 after a poor report from an HMI inspection that noticed that some teachers had a lack of qualifications and there was talk of the dismissal of Kate. She was accused of easily loosing her temper and of overzealous punishment of pupils. An enquiry was arranged between the LEA, the NUT and church managers resulting in an impasse. A later inspection occurred few months later. Again, criticism of low standards eg in RE teaching, difficulties with Kate and some teachers and members of the management, in working with her. Kate left in 1907and the LEA suggested that only certified teachers be employed but he school’s fortunes continued to fluctuate with five head teachers following over the next seven years. However, a Mrs Stryne was made Head in 1916 and she stayed for 15 years.

Deborah’s research revealed that Kate became Head of a school in Monmouthshire and she was there for about 13 years until 1924. Deborah’s concluded that Kate was a strong- minded woman but one who did not’ suffer fools gladly. Perhaps part of the trouble could have been with certain members of the management, the LEA and some members of the staff. A very interesting talk and one that gives ‘food for thought’ to our members when contemplating a new avenue to take when researching family history.