Changes in 19th Century English Schools

18th-century-school-roomEducation in England has roots deep in the Anglo-Saxon period. Latin was the main subject at these early schools and the instruction was directed toward the sons of “aristocracy” of the age. The church saw a need to train additional priests, as well as a need for someone to read the Bible and related documents to others. Both Oxford and Cambridge were founded as a means to train the clergy. It was during the reign of Edward VI that a reformed system of “free grammar schools.” 

During the early 19th Century, the Church of England founded programs of formal education. It was the end of the century before free, compulsory education was established by the government. The first secular college in England was University College London to be followed by King’s College London. Toward the end of the century, “redbrick” (a term originally used to refer to six civic universities founded in the major industrial cities of Great Britain in the 19th century) universities for the general public were founded. 

Likely, the biggest change on education in England came with the Protestant Reformation, for with it, reading of the Bible was still encouraged, but this time in English, rather than Latin used in the Catholic Church. Counties in the east of England, which had frequent interaction with the Low Countries, where the Reformation movement had flourished, developed a higher rate of literacy in the early years of the Reformation than did other areas of England.

In the 18th Century, there was a movement away from the apprenticeship system, especially among those trades that did not exist when the Statute of Apprentices became legal in the latter part of the 1500s. In the 1690s, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge was a major player in setting up Church schools across Britain. In its first two hundred years, the Society founded many charity schools for poor students in the 7 to 11 age group. It is from these schools that the modern concept of primary school education grew.  

The-School-Room-xx-Alfred-Rankley“Robert Raikes initiated the Sunday School Movement, having inherited a publishing business from his father and become proprietor of the Gloucester Journal in 1757. The movement started with a school for boys in the slums. Raikes had been involved with those incarcerated at the county Poor Law (part of the jail at that time); he believed that “vice” would be better prevented than cured, with schooling as the best intervention. The best available time was Sunday, as the boys were often working in the factories the other six days. The best available teachers were lay people.  The textbook was the Bible. The original curriculum started with teaching children to read and then having them learn the catechism, reasoning that a student who could read and understand the Bible could do the same with any other book.” (Power, John Carroll (1863). The Rise and Progress of Sunday Schools: A Biograhy of Robert Raikes and William Fox. New York: Sheldon & Company.)

“Raikes used his newspaper to publicize the schools and bore most of the cost in the early years. The movement began in July 1780 in the home of a Mrs. Meredith. Only boys attended, and she heard the lessons of the older boys who coached the younger. Later, girls also attended. Within two years, several schools opened in and around Gloucester.  Raikes published an account on November 3, 1783, of Sunday School in his paper, and later through the Gentleman’s Magazine

“The original schedule for the schools, as written by Raikes was ‘The children were to come after ten in the morning, and stay till twelve; they were then to go home and return at one; and after reading a lesson, they were to be conducted to Church. After Church, they were to be employed in repeating the catechism till after five, and then dismissed, with an injunction to go home without making a noise.'” (Moses, Montrose J. (1907). Children’s Books and Reading. New York: Mitchell Kennerley) 

The largest criticism of these schools was the use of the Sabbath for instruction because the idea of Sunday being the day of rest was deeply entrenched in the society of the day. Even so, by 1831, Sunday School in Great Britain was ministering weekly to 1,250,000 children, approximately 25% of the population.

The National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church in England and Wales was established in 1811. These were called “National Schools.” Non-denominational schools were begun in 1801 by the British and Foreign School Society. In 1814, compulsory apprenticeship by indenture was abolished.

Schools in the early 19th Century, therefore, taught their students to read, with the intention that they should read the Bible and religious tracts, but the students were not taught to write, as the lower classes did not see the value in learning to write. The half education seemed to have been perpetrated most often on girls. 

Hannah More wrote her Cheap Repository Tracts to provide her students something to read along with the Bible.The Cheap Repository Tracts consisted of more than two hundred moral, religious and occasionally political tracts issued in a number of series between March 1795 and about 1817, and subsequently reissued in various collected editions until the 1830s. They were intended for sale or distribution to literate poor people, as an alternative to what More regarded as the immoral traditional broadside ballad and chapbook publications.  Some even say, More opposed the writing of Thomas Paine. 

The tracts proved to be enormously successful with more than two million copies sold or distributed during the first year of the scheme. No one bothered to investigate the schools with any regularity. Some were Sunday schools. Some the village dame schools. Each person who set up a school had his own idea of what education was necessary. Some only taught enough reading for the children to learn something of their day’s work. Others had Sunday Schools which were more of the nature of regular schools and held on Sunday because that was the only time the children could attend.There was no standard to follow and no laws about what must be taught. The parents or the cost of education decided the curriculum.

A typical village school can be found in the form of  St Helen’s Church of England Primary School (, which has been in existence for over nearly 200 years. There is a wealth of information on the School’s past available in the Abbotsham Archives including the School Register, dating back to 1894, and many pictures of pupils, staff and villagers. It was a “peculiar variety of building, which had a limited vogue in the 1820’s, was a two-storey schoolhouse, with teacher’s rooms on the ground floor and schoolroom above. As late as 1851 the Old Church House at Abbotsham was rebuilt on the same principle, and though the upper floor has long been removed the old steps up to it survived till recently. The plan probably derived from the previous use of the Church House. The upper storey was used as a school, with the paupers living below. This explains references to the building being a Poor House before it became a School.” (Historic References to Abbotsham School)

A great resource of the time is  The English Common Reader: A Social History Of The Mass Reading Public 1800-1900, by Richard Altick. This source primarily focuses on the history of education in England in the Nineteenth Century. He discusses the history of schools since they produced the “common reader.” 

Generally, the more “progressive” schools taught reading, writing, and arithmetic to what we would now consider to be the education of a 7-10 year old child. Few children could be spared for school after age seven or eight. Boys that showed promise  could be tutored by a local vicar, but for most the extent of a formal education ended early. 


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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13 Responses to Changes in 19th Century English Schools

  1. An interesting article. But as no mention is made of Scottish education (a completely separate system ) you might want to change the title? English and British are not interchangeable terms.

    • It grieves me that you found the title offensive, Margaret, as such was not my intention. I have accepted your suggestion graciously.

      • Seems I have a kindred spirit in Margaret; I find it frustraing and annoying that the peoples from the Bitish Isles are lumped together as “Brits”;I have no idea who came up with this nasty name and I get a bit hot under the collar each time I have to explain the difference. We are English, Scottish, Irish or Welsh, four different peoples four seperate countries; united but loosely I feel,
        You know I always refer to myself as English, never ever British, and never think of myself as anything else, accept occassionally Australian, and I assume that Margaret always refers to herself as a Scot. XD

      • Yet you feel comfortable calling me a “Yank,” when I have lived most of the my life in the Southern states of the U.S.

      • Then I shall have to refer to you as a “Rebel/Reb” I suppose, but I thought that being now the United States of America that Yank/Yankee applied to all Americans ( 50 states not countries)

        British is a collective name for all the peoples of the British Isles (4 Countries), England/Scotland/Ireland &Wales,each country the names for the people differ and reflect from which country they come.

        my apologies Regina 🙂

      • I did not take offense of your using “Yank”, Brian. Neither did I think the word “British” would be offensive. In the greater realm of life, I know you have no ill will toward me, nor I toward you.

      • I don’t find the word British offensive Regina but I do find Brits so; it has a derogative tone which is not there with the word Yank or Yankee, I think the old happy swinging song “, I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy” did much to give feelings of goodwill towards the USofA It seems to denote how Americans think/thought of themselves

  2. I believe you can blame the Romans for “Britannia”, but they took it from the Greek name. After the Romans left I think the blame for the term’s continuing use lies with the Welsh – they get the most blame for spreading it across Europe, chiefly through writing. After that, the blame lies with Elizabeth I – and then James VI and I, proclaiming himself as “King of Great Brittaine” (when uniting the thrones of England, Scotland & Ireland). These days “British Isles” (long history, blame the Greeks again) is probably the most controversial as it includes the word “British” for a term that includes Ireland.

    • Thanks for the clarification. I knew of the term “Britannia,” but I was unaware of other bits of history included in your response.

    • James did not unite the thrones of England Scotlan & Ireland only England and Scotland. Ireland did not become part of the Union until 1801,

      • Quite right LBofB, thank you. Where I wrote “England, Scotland & Ireland” read “England and Scotland”. I’m not sure how “Ireland” got added – when I saw your comment I was surprised. Otherwise correct, I believe – but if anyone knows differently I’d be delighted to be corrected.

      • It’s easily done, must admit to doing it myself on occassion.
        I think it’s fair to say that we English have always thought of Ireland as having belonged to us but it wasn’t until 1801 that it became part of the Union and the flag of the United kingdoms incorporating the St Patrick’s Saltire became the flag we know today commonly as “The Union Jack”

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