"The Victorian Schoolroom "

June 2009 Meeting Report

Speaker - Keith Blood


The June 2009 meeting of the Keyworth & District Local History Society was held in the Centenary Lounge, Keyworth, on Friday 5th June. The guest speaker for the evening was Keith Blood and his topic for the evening was ‘The Victorian Schoolroom’. A slightly smaller than usual audience were present, perhaps due in part to the rain that had begun to fall and the forecast of heavy showers.

Keith began by explaining how, ten years ago, upon retirement he needed a hobby to occupy his newfound, leisure time and also to get away from being in his wife’s way around the house! Keith lives in Derby and the National Trust property of Shugborough Hall, in the neighbouring county of Staffordshire is not too far away. It was to Shugborough hall that Keith went and offered his services as a guide. One of the attractions at the Hall is a Victorian schoolroom, complete in every respect where groups of children can go and experience how children were taught in the second half of the 19th Century. One day Keith was asked if he would like to be one of the ‘teachers’ in this classroom. After a very rudimentary training he was thrown in at the deep end and can still be found there teaching young children.

Keith’s presentation began by showing a series of slides depicting various school buildings and classrooms. When that was completed he went on to give a brief history of schooling in Victorian England. When the reign of Queen Victoria commenced in 1837 very few children went to school. In general, only the middle and upper classes could afford to have their children educated. For those going to public school the cost could be considerable but the education provided was first-rate. In contrast the children of the poor in Victorian society began their working lives at an early age. It was not uncommon for children as young as five years old to be employed in factories and working on the land in agriculture. Their income, whilst meagre, could still form an important addition to a family’s income.

In general the Victorians realized the value of education. In a world that was becoming more and more industrialized it was obvious that the ability to read and write was necessary if full advantage was to be made of the opportunities that the new technological age was presenting. Great Britain was the foremost industrial nation in the world and it was vital that her industries had a work force that could ensure that this situation continued, well-educated members of the workforce were vital to this. Great Britain, whilst having huge numbers of very poor people, was nevertheless a land of great opportunity. New markets were being created throughout the ever-expanding British Empire and it was vital that educated people were available to exploit this situation.

Schooling for the poor, if they received any schooling at all, in the first half of the 19th Century often took place at Village Schools which were usually run by the Church, Dame’s Schools, or Ragged Schools. Dame’s Schools tended to be more like child-minding facilities where an elderly woman minded a group of children. Often the Dame’s Schools and the Village Schools made a small charge of a few pennies a week to attend. This was often more than most parents could afford to pay. For the very poor there were the Ragged Schools which were free to attend. Organizations such as Dr Barnados would finance these schools for the benefit of orphans and other very poor families. Sunday Schools, run by the church, were also places where working class children might obtain a rudimentary schooling.

Whilst at school boys and girls were often strictly segregated; there were even separate entrances for the two sexes into the school building. Classes would often be held separately too. In Victorian England boys were considered to be more important in society than girls and this was reflected in the schooling that each received. Girls were taught a range of domestic tasks such as cooking and sewing, reflecting the role of wife and mother that they would be expected to fulfil in later life. In contrast boys would learn more about such subjects as mathematics, science and technology. Learning was by rote and the whole class would chant the lesson together parrot fashion. Teachers could be male or female but the female teachers had to be unmarried. Once married they had to give up their careers, this rule did not apply to men since they were always considered to be the ‘bread-winner’ in a family.

In 1844 Parliament passed a law requiring children who were employed in factories to be given two hours teaching every day. Little notice was taken of this law and it was widely ignored. In 1870 however a new law was introduced. This was Forster’s Education Act and it required that schools were provided in all parts of the country for children between the ages of 5 and 12 years of age. However, not all of these schools were free and many of them charged ‘school’s pence’ as a condition of attendance. It was not a legal requirement for children to attend so many parents still did not send their children to be educated. Financial necessity often dictated that the children of the poor work to supplement the family income. Compulsory education was introduced in 1880 and children had to attend school until they were ten years of age. In 1889 the school leaving age was raised further to twelve years of age and in 1891 the ‘school’s pence’ was abolished and schooling became completely free.

Classes could be very large, numbers as high as 70 or 80 pupils were not uncommon. In the early days of Victoria’s reign the standard of teaching was poor but once teacher-training colleges had been established a steady supply of competent teachers began and standards improved. Teachers would also have ‘pupil teachers’. These were children who had done well at school and, instead of leaving when they reached their twelfth birthday they were kept on to assist the fully qualified teachers. They could then work a kind of apprenticeship for five years before they themselves could become teachers.

Great emphasis was laid on learning the ‘three R’s’, reading, writing and arithmetic. The children sat at wooden desks and were subjected to a very strict regime. In the Victorian schoolroom the teacher was god. Discipline was maintained by an equally severe regime of corporal punishment. The cane and the tawse were used frequently both on the hand and on the backside. Talking in class was forbidden, teachers were addressed as Sir or Miss and had to be shown due deference. Each pupil had a slate on which they did their schoolwork. When writing it was forbidden to use the left hand, this being seen as abnormal. Pupils that were naturally left-handed had to train themselves to write with their ‘other’ hand. Likewise, strict attention was paid to the correct enunciation of words. Posture was likewise important, children were expected to sit up straight, slouching was forbidden. The Victorian schoolroom was a very strictly regimented place and teachers usually ruled with a rod of iron.

Keith explained how, when he is teaching the youngsters that attend his classes at Shugborough Hall, he too maintains strict rule and a tight grip of the reins. Evidence of this was provided when, due possibly to the warmth inside the centenary Lounge, one of the audience, an ex-teacher themselves no less, was seen to be nodding-off. A sharp rebuke from Keith quickly brought the errant person to their senses and thereafter they gave Keith their full attention! Full marks to Keith for giving a very absorbing and entertaining presentation on a very interesting subject.