Professor Paul Salveson is a historian and writer and lives in Bolton. He is visiting professor in ‘Worktown Studies’ at the University of Bolton and author of several books on Lancashire history including the forthcoming Moorlands, Memories and Reflections

One of Britain’s most remarkable educationalists spent most of his working life running a small school on the banks of the River Irwell at Prestolee, Kearsley. He transformed an ordinary, run-of-the-mill school into a national showpiece of what progressive education could achieve.

Teddy O’Neill served as head of Prestolee School from 1918 until his retirement in 1953. He was loved by his children and their parents but some critics called him ‘The Idiot Teacher’.

This Is Lancashire:

O’Neill was born in 1890, into a working class environment in Salford. His mother ran a pub and his drunkard father was absent much of the time, leaving mum a single parent with a busy pub to run.

It wasn’t an environment in which a young lad would be expected to thrive. But Teddy was no ordinary child and his mother was no ordinary pub landlady. Before he was born she’d visited Jerusalem, travelling much of the way on the back of a donkey! She instilled a love of adventure into her son from an early age. He developed an interest in nature and began to read, buying cheap editions of Shakespeare on market stalls.

At the age of 16 he was appointed as a ‘pupil teacher’ at Ordsall Lane School in Salford. This involved spending half your time as a student and half as a ‘teacher’, without formal qualifications. It was a traditional school and most teachers ruled with ‘the stick’.

His biographer, Gerard Holmes, says that “children found him interesting...he often reached school with a pocket full of strange exhibits, some beetles maybe, or a mouse.” Yet he didn’t fit in with the school ethos and at the end of his two years’ apprenticeship was deemed unsuitable.

He went back to helping mum in the pub and earned a few bob by going round bars singing popular songs and gave piano lessons. Fortunately for his future pupils, he wasn’t prepared to accept the negative report on his teaching potential. He was given another chance. He taught the basics but encouraged a love of nature and literature to the 60-plus pupils in his class.

By a few lucky breaks he was admitted to teacher training college at Crewe, where he excelled. New ideas in education were gaining ground and O’Neill embraced them. His principal at the college commented “no new developments in Education will find Mr O’Neill unprepared.”

His first teaching job was back home in Salford. It was another ‘traditional’ school whose brutal methods became intolerable. He moved on to another school, all the while developing his educational ideas that were based on encouraging children usually dismissed as ‘mill fodder’ to flourish. He became involved in national networks of educationalists influenced by thinkers such as Montessori.

His breakthrough came in 1916 when he was offered a temporary headship in East Lancashire, at Oswaldtwistle Knuzden St Oswald’s. Once again, the children were deemed as only fit for mill work and most were already working ‘half-time’ in the mills.

This system, common in the Lancashire mill towns, involved children starting work in the mill at six in the morning, working through until lunch and then going to school for the afternoon. It wasn’t conducive to educational achievement. No wonder he found the kids apathetic and listless.

Slowly, he began to change that. He inspired the children in a love of nature, music and dance. It got results, recognised by a visiting schools inspector who encouraged him further. The regular head was due back from the army and Teddy was told of a permanent vacancy for the headship of Prestolee School, Kearsley.

He applied and got the job. He was 28, married with two children, and exuded confidence and optimism. He was the youngest head teacher ever appointed in Lancashire.

This Is Lancashire:

Over the next 40 and more years he transformed Prestolee School, winning national and international accolades and being featured in the popular magazine Picture Post.

It wasn’t plain sailing and he faced determined opposition from some of the school governors. Two of the most prominent were managers of the local mills who just wanted an obedient, punctual labour force to work in their factories. The school’s job was to produce them.

This was anathema to O’Neill, who gradually introduced a very different regime into the school. Traditional classrooms were abolished along with timetables. Open plan use of space was encouraged.

It became known as the ‘do as your please’ school by its detractors but there was a structure, albeit a subtle one, which ensured children got ‘the basics’ but were able to opt for more creative subjects as well, including gardening, music, cookery and other arts and crafts-based subjects.

Teddy encouraged staff and pupils to change their surroundings. A report in The Farnworth Journal for June 25, 1937 reported that “in one month a waste plot of ground adjoining the Prestolee Council School has been converted into a children’s paradise.”

The former waste ground included a paddling pool, fountain and ‘Japanese’ style bridges. The children also constructed a fairytale ‘castle’ and the paper reported on future plans to construct a windmill, which would have the very practical function of pumping water into the paddling pool.

Teddy O’Neill decided to outdo Blackpool by creating the ‘Prestolee Illuminations’ in and around the school, attracting visitors from far and wide.

This Is Lancashire:

The children were trained in the use of power tools to make things – O’Neill was a practical man and wanted to instill practical skills into his pupils. I wonder what today’s health and safety people would have thought of it? He transformed the school into a community centre before the term was thought of, opening up school doors to evening classes and events which parents were encouraged to attend.

The ‘Palace of Youth’ concept is continued today by Prestolee School’s ‘Kids’ Club’. One former pupil Arthur Greenhalgh recalls: “The club was always packed with kids but there was never any trouble.”

Christine Carey-Jones attended Prestolee school from 1948 until 1950. She said: “I remember going in the evenings when it was a community night school with various activities. He was a brilliant man.”

John Cooper was a pupil at the school in the 1950s and described O’Neill as “a self-educated reformer, idealist, nature lover and innovator...he didn’t suffer fools or critics gladly, he was nevertheless abounding in humanity.”

He was certainly a man of very strong character but the stress of constant attacks from some of his governors led him to a breakdown. He recovered and as the positive results from the school became obvious even to the most hardened traditionalists, the attacks reduced.

In 1951 he was awarded an MBE in the New Year’s Honours List. The Farnworth Journal commented on his ‘surprise’ at the honour, given his impatience with authority!

Today, Prestolee School is run by The Prestolee Multi-Academy Trust which comprises five schools across the North-West.

O’Neill would have approved of the school’s aim of achieving “high academic standards, coupled with a strong and exciting curriculum” which ensures “the school and the children in our care continue to reach the very highest levels of excellence, not just academically, but personally.”

O’Neill’s reputation endures. Let Jacqueline Richards of Kearsley have the last word “My mum and her sisters were there when Mr O’Neill was head and she had many fond memories of this wonderful man and his wife. Mum would have been 94 now so it’s a long time ago but what a far sighted, innovative and inspirational teacher he was.“