Tucked away in the corner of a strongroom at Oxfordshire Record Office, there’s a bank of eight wooden catalogue drawers.

Nothing surprising about that you might think but they contain a remarkable card index providing historical information, plans and photographs of every primary school in Oxfordshire, pre-1974.

This record, unique for the time in its comprehensive coverage, was the brainchild of Percy Elford (1867-1950), the county council’s first chief education officer between 1903 and 1920. He deserves to be much better known.

The 1902 Education Act brought the administration of the country’s elementary and secondary schools under the control of county and county borough councils. In July 1903, Oxfordshire inherited 235 schools and a stock of buildings which went back centuries. Ewelme school still flourishes today in the oldest primary school buildings in England, built in 1437.

To create a new county service from such disparate beginnings, Oxfordshire County Council chose Percy Elford, an Oxford graduate who was a Fellow of St John’s College, lecturing in chemistry.

His salary as Education Secretary was to be £600 a year plus travelling and office expenses. He had worked part-time for the council since 1893 as organising secretary of the Technical Instruction Committee and, as an early motorist, he was well-equipped to get around the county.

His new contract allowed him to continue lecturing at the university “upon the express understanding that such work did not interfere with his duties as Secretary.”

Elford soon had a staff of eight to handle the workload of his new department and a school buildings sub-committee was formed in 1904 to deal with the tide of related issues that threatened to overwhelm the Elementary Education Sub-Committee.

At its first meeting, Elford reported that he had already been asked to inspect 78 schools by local managers or His Majesty’s Inspectors — he was instructed to do this as soon as he could!

Elford’s travelling expenses caused some initial difficulties, as the county council experimented with payments for depreciation to his car, verified by an expert, before settling on a mileage allowance of one shilling (5p) a mile, up to a maximum of £120 a year.

From the outset, Elford bombarded schools with written queries and Thomas Willson, his successor as chief education officer, described him as “a scientist with an interest in the collection and recording of information.”

He quickly adopted a card index system which set out to provide standardized information about each school. Different cards, some of them colour-coded, featured site maps and building plans, attendance figures, notes of inspections, lists of staff, furniture and equipment, Board of Education reports, insurance details, financial summaries and copies of key documents.

Elford also introduced a card, strikingly modern in concept, comparing the annual expenses of each school with the average for schools of similar size in the county.

The index cards form a Domesday survey of Oxfordshire schools further enhanced by prints of Percy Elford’s own photographs.

As requests for repairs, alterations and new buildings poured into the council’s offices, the need for a detailed visual record of every school soon became clear.

In October 1903, the county surveyor presented plans of five schools to the elementary education sub-committee and members asked Elford “where possible to submit photographs of the schools with the reports and plans.”

As a keen amateur photographer, Elford needed no second bidding and, during school inspections that same month, he took the first pictures for a collection which grew to more than 3,000 images.

Since his primary purpose was to provide a visual context for decision-making, Elford recorded each school inside and out, sometimes down to the coat hooks in the cloakroom and the urinals in the boys’ ‘offices’ or toilets! He visited some schools when they were closed and empty but many of his images show teachers and children in working schools.

Back in the 1880s, young Flora Timms, later Flora Thompson, had been among the Juniper Hill children who noticed the milestone Oxford XIX miles on the nearby main road and tried to imagine what the distant city was like.

In July 1905, her successors at Cottisford School must have been thrilled to see Elford arrive by car from Oxford, no doubt in a cloud of dust, and proceed to photograph both them and their school.

Percy Elford gave up his Fellowship at St John’s in 1907 and concentrated entirely on county council business until he was forced to retire through ill health in 1920; he went into teaching for a few years and lived on until 1950. His card index remained a valuable administrative tool in the County Council education department at Macclesfield House until the 1980s when it was transferred to Oxfordshire Record Office; to see any part of it, you should contact the office on 01865 398200 or email archives@oxfordshire.gov.uk Oxfordshire Studies has copy negatives of Elford’s photographic prints - the original negatives have long vanished – and you can arrange to buy copies by phone on 01865 815749 or email oxfordshire.studies@oxfordshire.gov.uk County Council staff and volunteers are now busy digitizing all the photographs to add them to the wealth of Oxfordshire images already available on Heritage Search – www.oxfordshire.gov.uk/heritagesearch Percy Elford is achieving fame at last.