Generations of children in St Helens down the ages have had to cause thank, and perhaps even on occasion rue, Sarah Cowley’s legacy.
A moneyed landowner, she never married and left a large portion of the income from her estate to pay for the schooling of the town’s poorest children, setting in motion a movement which continues to this day.
Now a series of events commemorating 300 years since her remarkable legacy was first created have been unveiled celebrating her role as the founding mother of free education in St Helens.
She died in 1715 but a year earlier, knowing her health was fading fast, she made her final will bequeathing generous sums of money to the town’s poor folk.
“I bequeath the rest and the remainder of what I have either in goods or in estate for the bringing up of poor persons children,” she wrote. “To find them with books as Howe books, the primer, Salter Testament and the Bible till they can read the Bible.”
A resident of Hardshaw with Windle, she describes herself in her will as a ‘spinster’ and goes on to leave annual payments to her cousins and the local church.
Little more is know about her life but while free, compulsory education did not become law in England until the late 19th century, the Sarah Cowley Fund would pay for the creation of several schools, most notably the creation of Cowley Grammar, now Cowley International College.
The fund survives today and the Sarah Cowley Educational Foundation continues to assist students attending further and higher education courses.
The first event in her honour is a memorial concert at St Helens Town Hall on Friday ( July 18). The evening will include performances from, appropriately enough, the Cowley School Choirs and the Cowley Singer.
Coun Sue Murphy, cabinet Member for Schools and Lifelong Learning, said: “Sarah Cowley was a pioneer in the truest sense.
“Her bequest was a starting point for many of the schools in St Helens and fundamental in the principles of education for the masses.”
g Tickets cost £5 from Rita Allcock on 01744 631091 or from the school office.
Under 16s get one free ticket when a full priced ticket is purchased.