A young chairmaker set up a Sunday School for poor children in a little building in the hamlet of Bird-in-Hand in the 1850s. As ownership of the building is transferred this year to Wycombe Youth for Christ, its director Erica Holt looks back on the motivations of the early pioneers.

In the mid-19th century Bird-in-Hand consisted of 37 cottages and three pubs - The Pineapple, the Bird in Hand and the King’s Head. The hamlet lay on the western edge of High Wycombe, near the junction with Oakridge Road, with the river Wye on its southern boundary and the road to West Wycombe to the north.

A milestone in the middle of Oakridge Road marked the parish boundary between High Wycombe and West Wycombe, with cornfields separating the two.

In the 1850s a chairmaker in his ‘20s, Henry Keen, became distressed at the poverty of children playing in the street on Sundays outside his cottage in West Wycombe Road. He invited them in to teach them to read as well as teaching them the Christian faith.

This was not the first Sunday School in the Wycombe area. A young woman called Hannah Ball - now commemorated with a local school named after her - is considered the founder of the Sunday School movement in the UK. Born in 1733, the daughter of a Wycombe farmer, she had been influenced by John Wesley after hearing him preach in 1765, exchanging many letters with him over the years. Three years later she set up a class for children who worked in High Wycombe’s coaching inns, reporting: “They are a wild little company but seem willing to be instructed.” They met for a class before the Methodist service on Sundays and on Mondays to learn reading and writing.

Fast forward to the 1850s, and Henry Keen’s concern for local children. He would gather them into his cottage, one of a small terrace which backed onto his chairmaking workshop. As numbers grew, several eminent businessmen supported the idea of creating a Sunday School. A small property was built at the end of the cottages (now number 109A) to house The Bird-in-Hand Sunday School. It was sometimes called the Ragged School.

Sir George Dashwood, MP for Wycombe, donated the land for the new school in 1854. After subscriptions had been donated for the building costs of £160, the school was opened on 6 September 1859. The first trustees included a brewer, a coal merchant, a paper manufacturer and two chairmakers (Henry Keen and Daniel Glenister). Sir Francis Dashwood later joined the trustees.

The Bucks Free Press of 10 September 1859 gave a full report of the opening event, presided over by the vicar of High Wycombe. “Early in the afternoon about 50 children partook of tea, and afterwards the parents, with the promoters of this undertaking. So great was the interest manifested that the commodious room was twice filled with a respectable and orderly company.”

The vicar of High Wycombe, the Rev T H Paddon presided, saying “they were indebted to an energetic Sunday school teacher, Mr Keen, who had collected together a number of boys and girls on the Sabbath”.

Henry Keen’s granddaughter, who was a pupil and then a teacher from 1901 to 1915, recalled the early days: “The children gathered at 10am on Sundays when a teacher would lead a hymn from The Child’s Own Tune Book, followed by a Scripture lesson and another hymn. After a break the children marched along to the Parish Church, the nearest church. Many had no suitable clothes so a fund was started to buy smock frocks.”

As numbers grew and very young children came along, it became impractical to walk them to the parish church and a service was held at the school instead, led by the vicar, “other educated Christian gentlemen” or one of the teachers. An afternoon session at 2.30pm was well attended. The teachers used materials provided by the Sunday School Union and pupils were encouraged to sit their Scripture Examinations. Many who began coming as pupils became teachers here as adults.

Other activities included a Spring concert to which the public were invited, with musical items and an amusing play by staff and older scholars. It began with tea and scholars were sent off with a bun and orange. The annual summer treat was at Plomer Hill Park with tea, a marquee and swings hung in the trees.

Later, lectures were organised. The South Bucks Standard on 20 January 1905 reported on a series of lantern lectures on ‘Japan and the Russo-Jap War’. “The 400 children who were present thoroughly enjoyed themselves.”

The building continued as a Sunday School for local poor children until 1922. By then several chapels had opened in the area and began providing children’s work, so the work closed and the building was made available to others. Over the years these included Wycombe’s first Scout troop and several church and mission groups. In 1980 Crusaders, a nationwide Christian organisation for young people, began using the building.

By 1991 it was in a poor state of repair and few groups that matched the terms of the Trust Deed needed to use it. Then a new venture was proposed in the town, Wycombe Youth for Christ (WYFC). They planned to work among young people in schools and on the streets but needed a base. Under its first director, David Allsop, WYFC undertook to refurbish the building in return for a lease at a reduced rent and took it over in 1991. The building’s name was changed to Kingfisher House and was used as office, training centre and, in the early days, as a drop-in centre.

Today WYFC continues to be active among several schools in and around the wider Wycombe area, supported by churches. This includes working with several schools in the area through supporting the RE and PHSE curriculum (through assemblies, lessons and workshops), and running extra-curricular school clubs; and offering mentoring and pastoral support to children and young people, helping to support those who are struggling with their mental health and wellbeing.

This year, 30 years after the charity moved in, the trustees transferred ownership of the building to Wycombe Youth for Christ, on the basis that the organisation matches the aim of the first trustees of The Bird-in-Hand Sunday School by teaching children and young people the principles of the Christian faith.

The team now running WYFC find it amazing to walk in the footsteps of local people 160 years ago who saw the needs around them and sought to share the Christian faith. We have some big shoes to fill as we develop our work among today’s young people, whose lives are so very different!