Rachel Ann Thomas was the headmistress at St Mary’s Board School, at Maestir – about two miles outside Lampeter in Carmarthenshire – for 11 years. The school is notable for now being located at Museum of Welsh Life, St Fagan’s, just outside Cardiff. It was moved and reconstructed there in 1984, but has been furnished as it would have appeared in Rachel’s heyday, in 1900.
Rachel was born at the turn of the 1870s, the second daughter and third child of an accountant and his wife living in Lampeter. Her father’s profession, and the fact that he was clearly an educated man, meant that the family would have been comfortably off. In addition to an older brother and sister, Rachel also had two surviving younger sisters.
Her brother took up carpentry as a profession, got married and moved away. However, Rachel and her sisters continued to be educated well into their late teens and early twenties. This was rare at the time, particularly for girls, and it may be that her parents – with their own educated background – were supportive of continued education for girls. Rachel continues to be described as a scholar on census returns until she is 21, but this is likely to have been private education as the University of Wales, Lampeter, did not admit women students until the 1960s.
In 1894, Rachel became the headmistress of St Mary’s Board School, at Maestir. It had been built in 1880, by Sir Charles Harford – a local squire – primarily to educate his workers’ children. These would have been the offspring of servants, labourers and estate workers. Many would often be taken out of school to help with farm work, and during the harvest the school would often close altogether.
By 1900, Rachel had 36 children on the register. The younger children would have been taught by a pupil-teacher (one of the brighter older girls), while Rachel would have instructed the rest of the class. They were taught the three Rs (reading, writing, arithmetic), with the girls learning some sewing and the boys learning some science – which Rachel would have had to learn herself to pass on.
Most of the pupils would have spoken Welsh as a first language, but their teaching was done through English. Rachel almost certainly spoke both languages, and one half-hour lesson a week was given through Welsh by 1905, contrary to popular belief.
While teaching at the school, Rachel continued to live in Lampeter. This was initially as a boarder, and then later with all her unmarried sisters in her family home – which was headed by her eldest sister who was “of independent means”, and had probably been left money by her parents. Rachel’s next youngest sister also became a school teacher.
Rachel’s appointment as headteacher at Maestir came to an end in 1905. She probably married, by this stage in her mid-30s, which was very late for the time. This would have meant having to leave her job.
With Thomas a common surname in Wales, it is difficult to pinpoint a marriage for her exactly, but the likely man was a Reverend. If this is the case, she would have become a vicar’s wife. However, this couple are elusive on the 1911 census – due to her husband’s surname being even more common than hers – so it is hard to know for sure.
This husband remarries at the beginning of the 1930s, so if this was Rachel, it’s likely that she died at some point in the late 1920s/early 1930s.
Maestir school shut in 1916 after pupil numbers dwindled to just 15. The building had several different uses before being moved to St Fagan’s.
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