author Roger Nicholas


Little is known about his very early life. However, it has been possible to piece together some facts: We know from census returns that he was born in Godalming around 1814. In the details of the two marriages of his younger brother, William, their father, also John is described in one certificate as a net- maker, and in the other as a framework knitter. Since William’s abode in 1841, the year after his first marriage, was in the Mill Lane area of Godalming it may be that the parental home was nearby as this was where the town’s community of framework knitters was concentrated. There is also believed to have been a sister, Ann, who appeared in a census return of 1861 as living in Merrow Lane but little is known of her.

The earliest documentary information concerning the two brothers is their appearance in the registers (now in the Godalming Museum) of the Royal Lancastrian School in Godalming. This Quaker-founded school was ‘for the sons of the labouring classes’ and was based on the monitorial system. The two boys apparently benefited later in life from their education as John became a schoolmaster and William had his own plumber’s and glazier’s business in Ripley.

John’s schooling would seem to confirm the family’s nonconformist roots, coupled with which, a few years ago details of his baptism into the Anglican Church were found in the parish registers of St John’s – next – Guildford which show that the ceremony took place on 28 September 1834 (when John was about 20 years of age).

The next recorded event in John’s life was his marriage at Hascombe Church on 13 February 1837 to Mary Ann Stevens (née Arslett), a 17-year-old widow from Pirbright with a very young son, James. Family folklore passed down recalls that John met Mary Ann, who was carrying her infant son, when he helped here across a road in Guildford. Her first husband, one Peter Stevens, had apparently been killed during the building of the railway line from Woking to Southampton.


It seems that John’s teaching career started in 1839, for his diary reads:
1846 March 6th. Guildford Infant School establishment broke up after having existed about fifteen years under a Committee of Ladies and one year and a half under William Haydon Esq, during which time it was carried on first by a Mr Dexter of London, then for seven years by his son Thomas Dexter and then for seven years from 1839 to l846, which was to its close, by John Woodger. It is thought that the Infant School closed due to declining numbers of pupils.

The Guildford Infant School was held in a converted barn which is believed to have been on the east side of Millmead Terrace, at the rear of Condor Court [Ref: 1841 Tythe Map]. It is interesting to note that Mary Ann, who had signed the register at her marriage with an ‘X’, was by the census of 1841 listed as a schoolmistress, so she must have been a good pupil herself! Incidentally, this census shows the Woodger family as being resident at the Infant School.


The next entry in the diary reads:
1846 March l6th. Merrow Parochial School was opened by John Woodger under the Direction and Superintendence of the Revd A Mclean at his own expense opened with but 18 children intended only for the parish consisting of less than 40 children. He later added a note that by the time he left Merrow there were 80 children. It is presumed that this means 80 attending the school. At this time the school was held in one of the cottages opposite the Horse and Groom public house¬. The diary refers to the move to the purpose-built school that still stands in Old Merrow Street:
August 1852. New School commences building at Merrow and first opened June 23 1853. It is believed that on 2 April 1853, he was also appointed Assistant Overseer (of the poor) at Merrow, a post he was to hold for the rest of his time in Merrow. Another string which John had to his bow were his duties as choirmaster of the parish church, which he commenced on 5 April 1846 – Palm Sunday. However, an article by The Clerical Rover in the West Surrey Times of 11 May 1867 did not speak too highly of the choir’s ability when heard the previous Sunday!

A family of at least nine children was produced by John and Mary Ann. In 1872 Mary Ann died and on 30 May she was buried in Merrow churchyard adjacent to the car park of the present parish hall. Her place as ‘governess’ of the school was taken over by her daughter, Selina Adelaide. Both John and Selina appear in school group-photographs taken at about this time.


On Saturday 5 April 1879, the Surrey Advertiser contained a report (copy attached) of a presentation made to John Woodger to mark his retirement from the post of master of the parochial school at Merrow.
A final entry in John’s diary speaks for itself:
1879 April 6. John Woodger leaves Merrow School after 33 years and 1 month’s conducting the same. It was at the wish of the Committee that he retire as they considered his age getting to (sic) advanced to carry on his duties, yet the school was run in a thorough proficient state & no fault could be found with either master or governess.

It is known from the census returns that he continued as an agent for the National Deposit Friendly Society in retirement in Chertsey as he had been in Merrow. However, on the 6 October 1894 the following notice appeared in The Surrey Advertiser:
Woodger – On Thursday October 4th at his residence, Eastworth, Chertsey, John Woodger, aged 80, for 33 years late schoolmaster, Merrow, Guildford.

Selina Adelaide died unmarried in the 1934 at the age of 84, having devoted her life to Merrow School and to caring for her father.

From The Surrey Advertiser- Saturday 5th April 1879


Testimonial to Mr Woodger – the schoolroom was, last evening (Friday), the scene of a pleasing event. Mr Woodger, the master of the parochial school, and assistant overseer of the parish, for many years past, being presented with a testimonial, consisting of a purse of £60, and an illuminated address on his relinquishment of those offices, in consequence of his being about to leave the village in which he has resided for 33 years. The presentation was made in the presence of a large assemblage of the parishioners, by the Rev. H Albany Bowles, the rector, in a complimentary speech. Mr Woodger suitably acknowledged the kindness of the subscribers, numbering about 80, and including the Earl of Onslow and Mrs Onslow. Mr Woodger was also the district agent of the National Deposit Friendly Society, and although he will, as an active public man in the parish, be much missed, and (sic) he will carry with him to his new abode at Chertsey, the best wishes of all classes for his future welfare and happiness.

© Roger Nicholas 2010

John & Mary Ann c 1860.
With one of the school classes, probably in the 1870s.
John c 1850 image dates from about the time he moved to Merrow.
John in retirement at Chertsey c 1890s.