This post first appeared on the Austen Authors’ blog on July 30, 2020. Enjoy!
In England during the 18th and 19th centuries there was no such thing as universal education for children. The government had no formal program for making sure the next generation knew how to read and write and perform basic math. Rather, it was up to every family to see that their children were properly educated and ready to take on the responsibilities of adulthood, starting with being able to read, write, and perform basic math.
Wealthy parents had no problems doing this; they could hire governesses and tutors and, eventually, send their sons off to university to finish their education. Middle class families might also hire tutors, or else they could send children to a private school, where the cost of the education was shared among many families. But poor families often lacked any way to educate their children at all. Children who never learned to read or write became adults who could not get good jobs, and so the cycle of illiteracy and poverty repeated itself from one generation to the next.
The gap between the educated and the illiterate became more pronounced with the arrival of the industrial revolution. Poor families from rural England flocked to cities to find work, and they usually found it in the new factories that were springing up all over the country. These factories typically operated Monday through Saturday and the workers in them, including children, often worked twelve or fourteen hour days. This mean that while the children of middle and upper class families had leisure time to spend on education, children who worked in factories did not. So as the industrial revolution progressed, the number of uneducated children grew along with it.
There was one man in England who saw the problem and had the means and determination to try to solve it. His name was Robert Raikes and he realized that on Sundays, the one day that the factory employees had no work, the children who worked in those factories had no structure or purpose to their day. While their parents attended church services the children were idle and often creating mischief in the town. He also knew that unless these children learned how to read and write, the poverty afflicting their families would continue indefinitely.
So Raikes solicited donations from wealthy families and used the money to start something we still have today: Sunday schools. But these were not schools solely for teaching religion. They did much more than that.
Children arrived at the school in the late morning, practiced reading and writing, had a short break and then worked on their catechism. Sometimes they also ate a meal at the school, had a lesson on hygiene, or received shoes and clothing that had been donated for them. Then it was time for more instruction before they left in the late afternoon. As time went by the Sunday schools offered more and more services to the people who needed them most. The schools became a hub of support for people who might never have received assistance otherwise.
How did children get into one of these schools? Students of all ages and both genders were welcome but there had to be some way of screening for the students most likely to benefit from the instruction. Often the wealthy patrons of the school recommended a student they thought would be a good fit. Poor parents also applied for their children to be admitted, and on occasion the children themselves applied directly. Everyone could see the value in knowing how to read and write, especially families whose members had never had a chance to learn before.
What Raikes did was not new, or even especially innovative. Other people had opened Sunday schools in both England and America in previous eras, but those schools had never developed into a widespread movement. Raikes had the advantage of operating during an age of tremendous social reform, and his ideas caught on quickly. He was also persistent, and thanks to his determination more schools, based on his principles, formed quickly. Within a generation Sunday school was almost a universal experience for working families. Nearly every family that could not afford a private education for their children sent their children to be educated through this system, even if the parents themselves never set foot in church. Without a doubt the education and other services provided through Sunday schools helped to break the cycle of poverty for thousands of families. At the time of Raikes’ death in 1811 half a million children across England were enrolled in Sunday school. It is considered one of the greatest reform movements of the industrial revolution.
The Sunday school movement took a new turn in 1850, when the English government mandated free education for all children at the expense of the public. After that the Sunday schools reduced or stopped their academic instruction and instead focused on religious topics. But they still provided social services and character training to students. Eventually they morphed into the Sunday schools we think of today.
Did Jane Austen have any connection to Sunday schools? Did she ever attend one?
Well, no. As a daughter in a middle class family she was privately educated. But she was definitely aware of Sunday schools. Her family had a strong interest in charitable work and iin literacy, and a charity that promoted education would have been near and dear to their heart. Moreover each Sunday school was overseen by the local Anglican church, so Jane’s father, being an Anglican minister, would have been responsible for hiring teachers and helping select the curriculum for the Sunday school in his parish. He may also have recommended students to attend the school. Perhaps even helped solicit donations for it.
To me it is fascinating to see that ideas we think of as new and original today actually had their start in a much earlier time. Sunday schools have changed but In many ways modern day community centers, Boy’s and Girl’s Clubs, and other youth programs help carry out their original mission. It is also a testament to what can be accomplished by ordinary people who see a problem and decide to try to fix it. In a day when problems seem to abound on every side, perhaps we too can come together to help those who need it the most and make a profound difference in the lives of those around us.
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