Early Education

This is from my latest discovery-Joseph Ashby of Tysoe 1859-1919, a wonderful account of growing up n a small village in Warwickshire that I can’t find in my atlases.

Educating children in England was for most of our history left to the church; some of our early rulers were completely illiterate, leaving record keeping to clerks. Post Reformation, some charity schools were established for worthy locals, then private schools – often ran by widows, so called ‘Dame’ schools, were common though rarely of high standards. Grammar schools taught the classics, and in the early 18th century seem to have been rather good, as the young teen Chatterton managed to carry of a major literary fraud for some time.

It is generally assumed that the introduction of compulsory education raised standards, but from Joseph’s account it seems the results were rather dire. This is from his infant class:

The children sat together, taught by a boy monitor. Charlie Reason, at the ‘bottom end’ of the girl’s wing, near the girls’ door, a great draughty door the same size and shape as the south door of the church. The chief business of the infants was to learn to chant the alphabet and the numbers to 100. In the next class they chanted tables and recited the even numbers and odd. When the children were unbearably fidgety (‘fidget’ was the word spoken most often by the teachers), Charlie would tell them to sit up straight; when he could hear a pin drop they should say their rhyme again. He would drop a pin and pretend he heard, through the hubbub of 6 classes, and then the children would chant all together Charlie’s own poem, waving their hands to mark the rhythm,

Infants never must be lazy

On to work and up-si-daisy.

Right up the school through all the 6 standards (here was a special class of a few boys and 1 or 2 girls above this) you did almost nothing except reading, writing and arithmetic. What a noise there used to be! Several children would be reading aloud, teachers scolding, infants reciting, all waxing louder and louder until the master rang the bell on his desk and the noise slid down to a lower note and less volume.

Reading was worst; sums you did at least write on your slate, whereas you might wait the whole half-hour of a reading lesson while boys and girls who could not read stuck at every word. If you took your finger from the word that was being read you were punished by staying in when others went home.   A specially hard time was the two ‘sewing afternoons’. While the girls were collected together for sewing, the boys merely did more sums or an extra dictation, just the sort of thing they had been doing all morning. As they craned their necks to seen what sort of garments, what colours, were coming out of the vicarage basket of mending, they were unusually tiresome to the poor pupil-teacher, losing their places over and over again, or misspelling words they knew perfectly well – forgetting everything. He rapped with a stick; he shouted; he called out, ‘Jack, Tom, stay in half an hour!’- a rather effective threat. To remain in school  was the thing above all others the children did not want to do. But the most extraordinary thing about sewing afternoons was the quiet that fell on half the school. The girls and their teachers seemed to be talking almost as if they were at home or in a shop, and that made a strangeness in the school atmosphere where contrariwise, the unnatural was customary. The new master, Mr Dodge, had not made so much difference, though he was college-trained and  eager to work. After all, there were a couple of hundred children and he was busy teaching the top class.


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