Portland Year Book


Portland Year Book 1905

[The following interesting description of one of Portland's most ancient institutions was specially written for the Portland Year Book by Mr Robert Pearce, to whose generous kindness we are indebted for so many valuable records that appear in this issue.]

The old building in Straits now known as the " Reading-Room," is one of the ancient institutions of Portland. For a period of about, 150 years it, was the chief educational establishment or school of the Island, About, 40 year ago it fell into disuse. as a day school.

New schools sprang up with more modern ideas and methods, "Maister's School " lost its glory, the. old order changing and giving place to the new. After this it was for a short, time used by the Bible Christian Connexion for religious services. Upon the formation of the Volunteers it was used for a drill room and a large cannon was mounted there. It was, however, vacated by the Volunteers when the Drill hall was built in Easton Lane. At that time it seemed likely to speedily become a ruin, but the then. newly-formed local authority (the Local Board) took possession, and made use of a portion of it for a store or tool house.

Some fifty years ago the budding intellects of the neighbourhood started a kind of Social Club of an educational nature, and met in an in old building which occupied the site of the house of Mr Wm. John Pearce, now used as the Easton Branch of the Wilts and Dorset Bank. This germ of progress a few years later developed into a public society. In the year 1868 a room was rented at. Easton as a public reading-room, but was soon found to be too small for its purpose. Arrangements were made with the Local Board, and the old school-house in Straits was taken over. A considerable sum was spent on its repair and preparation for a public Reading-room, but such it became, and has continued ; and its ancient name, "Maister's School," has given place to its present., "The. Straits Reading Room." It win be inferred from what has been said that, no proper owner appeared to claim it, and this is largely true.

The land upon which the old school house was built originally belonged to one Simon Pearce. This gentleman was a large landowner of the Island, and took a prominent. interest in parish affairs. The Island has time out of mind figured prominently in Parliamentary elections. Owing to the division of property into small ownerships, the number of electors gave this place special importance in this connection. Open voting made the action of the electors conspicuous, and it has been said that Portland determined the. result of every Parliamentary election in the County of Dorset. It is known that the late Lord Alington often said that he had to thank Portland for his seat in Parliament. It win not be surprising to learn that the leading Parishioners, knowing their strength and importance were prompt to take useful advantage of it. They, therefore, made arrangements with the member of Parliament at the time, by which the school house was built and in a sense endowed so that for the whole period of the existence of the School, all annual payment of 30 was made for its support by the County Members.

The first Schoolmaster appointed was one Christopher Skinner, and for generations the family looked upon the institution and premises as their own family right, and there is a tradition that old Nance Skinner only yielded possession when removed by a stronger hand than that of the parish authorities.

The Last master was Mr John Benjafield Scriven, who succeeded in the year 1827 Mr Henry Pearce. The latter had had a long connection with the school, and had been one of the most prominent figures in the Island, familiarly known as "Master Harry"

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