On the third Wednesday in July the students, staff and governors of The Blue Coat School commemorate the generosity of our founder Thomas Henshaw, and the people of Oldham and NE Manchester, who made The Blue Coat School, a huge investment in education as the future for young people and their community, possible.
Thomas Henshaw was a hatter. He died in 1810 leaving £40,000 to endow a school for “the poor boys of the parish”, the boys who had no father and were otherwise destitute at a time of great economic hardship and misery – taxes increases to pay for war, rocketing food prices, high unemployment caused by the disruption of trade, all of which were the result of the wars against Napoleon 1803-1815. This was at a time when there was no public education at all; any schools that existed were church or charitable foundations, and there were none of these around the rapidly growing mills to which people migrated for work
Initially his will was contested by his family, and it wasn’t until the 1820s that probate was granted. A public meeting took place in 1825 to find suitable land for the school and to launch an appeal for funds for the building. The honours boards in the entrance to the school commemorate all those donors from businesses and individuals across this part of NE Manchester, because whilst there was a growing industrial area in Oldham, the town was not incorporated as a borough until 1889, 55 years after the opening of the school. The list of donors is a roll-call of all the engineering businesses and brewers who were the main employers.
The school finally opened in 1834 for 100-150 poor boys, all of whom were fed and housed, and taught a trade and their catechism – the statement of beliefs of the Christian church, because Blue Coat was a Christian charity.
In the same year Parliament passed the Poor Law Amendment Act which required parishes of the church to group together to establish workhouses for the poor. The aim was to deter people making demands on public funds. The union of Oldham parishes resisted the workhouse requirement under the 1834 law until 1848. The site of the workhouse is now occupied by The Royal Oldham Hospital; an independent report of 1866 details the insanitary conditions and harsh treatment meted out to those young and old who had been defeated by low pay, unemployment, high prices, sickness and bereavement. At the same time the boys who were pupils at The Blue Coat School received a basic education and a had a future.
When the Blue Coat School walks in procession to Oldham Parish Church on the third Wednesday in July we bear witness to, and publicly thank, the generosity, and sacrifices, of others, to make education, and hope, and a future possible for young people. The tradition is that the Last Post is played on a bugle, or a cornet, both at the parish church, and back at school; it’s a part of the military signals, first used in the 1790s (in the earlier wars with revolutionary France) to mark the end of the day and all positions checked. Symbolically it’s about remembering and thanking. The school lays a wreath at the war memorial at the parish church, and in the entrance to the school, in memory of Thomas Henshaw. His “charge” – the final instruction – to pupils leaving the school, which is read to every group of Year 11s and Year 13s, and now to teachers who graduate in our trust, reminds us to remember the benefits we have received, and to uphold the name and reputation of the school and everything it stands for.