This article was first published in the March 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine


The 4th of May 1899 was not a good day for the head-teacher of St Mark’s School in Leicester. Less than two weeks into her job, she recorded in her school logbook an incident that had begun with the caning of a boy for lying and disobedience. Revolting against his punishment, the boy had started “flinging himself about”, before kicking her and even threatening her with “a clasp knife open in his hand”. To make matters worse, the child’s mother had arrived at the school to castigate the head-teacher in “abusive and threatening language” before demanding that magistrates investigate the school’s conduct.

While incidents like this led to lengthy logbook entries, most school days in Victorian Britain were not so dramatic. But daily life in the elementary school classroom was often a battleground between idealistic educationalists, governmental interlopers, struggling parents and hard-pressed teachers. Not to mention the children.

Over the course of the 19th century, a patchwork of school systems operated across the country, and the experience of learning in one classroom could be very different from the next. Those who could afford the small fee might attend local parish or church schools. Another alternative, for those willing to embrace a more informal approach to education, were privately run ‘dame schools’ that operated out of local teachers’ homes.

From 1833 onwards, child labourers were supposed to receive schooling from their employers under the Factory Act, while those found homeless or begging might be sent to tough industrial schools to learn a trade. Another option for those unable to fund their own education was schools established by charitable organisations. Most notable were the so-called ‘ragged schools’, formed in 1844 to offer free education to Britain’s poorest children. By the 1870s, there were around 350 such institutions across the country, which (in the words of Charles Dickens) “stretch[ed] out a hand” to those children “too ragged, wretched, filthy and forlorn to enter any other place”.

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For many of these children, just making it to school each morning was an achievement in itself. “I generally find the same parents frequently keep their children away from school on the most trivial and frivolous excuses,” stated the headmaster of Willow Street School, Leicester, in 1883. However, for many poor families, truancy was far from ‘frivolous’ – it was an economic necessity. A child attending school often meant the household losing an income. Records show that girls were more likely to miss school than their brothers – in families that couldn’t cope, they would be the first to be hauled back home to help out.

Truancy levels also rocketed when seasonal work was available. Birmingham’s Floodgate Street School recorded a rise in absences over the Christmas period, when several students were found hawking “Xmas novelties” on the streets rather than in the classroom.

Not having winter boots to walk to school in was another often-cited reason for absence. By 1880, however, the Elementary Education Act had made school attendance compulsory, meaning that specially appointed officers could slap parents with fines and even threaten them with prosecution. As such, attendance and punctuality became central components of ‘good behaviour’ – in 1892, the pupils of Floodgate Street who weren’t out peddling festive wares were rewarded for their good attendance with a trip to see the whale skeleton at Curzon Hall.

Those who did make it to the school gates each morning were not necessarily ready to learn. Many children were on the ‘half-time system’, which allowed them to fit schooling in alongside work. This relentless schedule undoubtedly took its toll on young learners – teachers frequently recorded concerns about children arriving already exhausted after a long shift at work. Humanist FJ Gould (the self-described “most restless teacher in London”) recalled the boys at his school in Limehouse turning up “poor, ill-nourished and frequently shoeless”.

National pride

Bells marking the beginning of the school day rang at different times across Britain. With evening and weekend sessions employed to fit in alongside working hours, there was no universal starting time.

At Hampton Industrial School in Middlesex in 1862, students arrived from 9am, ready for lessons in scripture to begin at 9.15am sharp. At the National Society’s Central Boys’ School in London, the school day started when the “doors shut at nine o’clock”. According to an 1845 timetable, each morning there began with “prayers and singing”, swiftly followed by “catechism with analysis and scripture proofs”.

Religion was a key element of every school day. Expectations of biblical knowledge were high – unattainably so, critics thought. FJ Gould bemoaned having to interrogate “half-starved” children on complex theological questions, while Dickens criticised ragged schools for “presenting too many religious mysteries and difficulties to minds not sufficiently prepared for their reception”.

Religious wellbeing was not the only moral instruction children were expected to take away from their lessons. As fears spread that urbanisation and industrialisation were breaking down the social bonds of Britain's communities, schools were seen as a way to re-civilise the next generation, teaching them lessons of cleanliness and discipline that they could carry back to their homes. 'Readers' intended to aid literacy contained patriotic and imperialistic messages. One of the books found most frequently in elementary classrooms was HO Arnold-Forster's The Citizen Reader. First published in 1885, it extolled to children "the duties owed by British citizens to their country, their countrymen and themselves", warning that those "who really love their country, and are truly proud of its great history, will be particularly careful not to do anything by which it may be dishonoured".

When Charles Dickens visited Field Lane Ragged School, he found 'the close low chamber, in which the boys were crowded, so foul and stifling as to be almost insupportable'

The classrooms in which these lessons took place varied as much as the schools themselves. In the early 19th-century, many schools were run on a monitorial system – in which all children were massed in one large hall, to be taught in small groups by older pupils. By the middle of the century, classrooms as we might recognise them had begun to emerge. Classes of up to 40 pupils were not uncommon, and sizes could stretch to 80 during staff shortages. As there were no set ages for entering and leaving the education system, classes would be organised according to ability, rather than age, in a system known as ‘standards’. If possible, girls and boys would be separated (gendered entrances were a common architectural feature in purpose-built schools), but resources often simply didn’t extend far enough.

When it came to health and safety, many classrooms would not have won over Ofsted. Inspectors commented on overcrowding, poor heating and a lack of ventilation. In 1843, Charles Dickens visited Field Lane Ragged School in Clerkenwell, and found "two or three miserable rooms upstairs in a miserable house… The close low chamber, in which the boys were crowded, was so foul and stifling as to be, at first, almost insupportable." What Dickens saw that day left such an impression on him that he wrote an appeal in The Daily News for better school funding.

Community centres

By 12pm, pupils at the Central Boys’ School and Hampton Industrial School were ready for lunch. With schools generally placed in the centre of communities, pupils would usually be given a long lunch break (up to two hours) in order to head home for food. Although free lunches were not provided on a national scale until the early 20th century, food would sometimes be donated by charitable organisations, or even teachers themselves. This demonstrated the important welfare role that a school could play in a poor community. Social reformer Charles Booth declared that “each school stands up from its playground like a church in God’s acre ringing its bell”.

When the girls of Hampton Industrial School returned to the classroom after their lunch break, a monotonous afternoon stretched out ahead of them – devoted entirely to needlework. Vocational subjects were mainstays of industrial schools. These would often be divided according to gender – while girls studied sewing and later cooking, boys might be offered commercially orientated drawing, or woodwork.

At the National Society’s Central Boys’ School, afternoon lessons resumed at 2pm, and had a more academic bent, including “reading miscellaneous books”, “writing on slates”, and “arithmetic from blackboard”. Alongside religious studies, the ‘three Rs’ were the backbone of most school programmes.

While idealistic reformers preached the benefits of literacy and numeracy for personal development, other theories were swirling beneath the desire to educate the next generation. From the mid-19th century, much of the discussion around elementary schooling focused not on opportunities for children, but on Britain’s industrial capacity.

Commentators fretted that European competitors were gaining the upper hand, and one way of countering the threat was to produce a better-skilled workforce. In 1870, industrialist WE Forster introduced the Education Act in parliament by declaring: “Upon the speedy provision of elementary education depends our industrial prosperity.” The act extended funding for school building and aimed to guarantee school places for all children aged between five and thirteen.

All of these lofty governmental ambitions had a direct impact on life in the classroom. From 1862, government grants were offered for each child who passed an inspection in reading, writing and arithmetic. In this 'payment by results' system, schools could receive an extra eight shillings per child who passed – a financial reward that had a direct impact on teacher salaries. Critics accused the new system of fostering a frenzied culture of exam obsession, as well as over emphasising the three Rs. Parliament debated the 'overpressure controversy', and medics were called in to assess the physical and mental state of overstretched pupils. Writing to The Schoolmaster newspaper in 1880, FJ Gould admitted: "When one of my backward boys died of bronchitis a few weeks back I felt a measure of relief, for his death would make one failure the less."

Depictions of cane-wielding masters terrorising pupils are not wholly accurate

He later reflected: “The test was applied to all children alike – clever, average or crass. Hence the teachers worried, bullied, caned and ‘kept in’ after school hours. Scholars and teachers were miserable. To the souls of millions of children, this system brought a slavery as grim as the bodily slavery introduced by the industrial revolution of the 18th century.”

One method of raising classroom standards was to enforce stricter discipline. The stereotype of corporal punishment in the Victorian school is all too familiar. Take the hypocritical schoolmaster Mr Brocklehurst in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, advocating his teachers to "punish her [Jane's] body to save her soul", or Nicholas Nickleby's sadistic Mr Squeers, who relentlessly persecutes the boys under his charge before receiving a highly cathartic comeuppance. Yet while physical punishment of children was both legal and widely accepted at home and even in the street, these literary depictions of schools terrorised by merciless cane-wielding masters were not universally accurate. In fact, overuse of corporal punishment was seen as a sign of failing to maintain classroom control. One headmaster in 1887 wrote that a staff member who was over-zealous with the cane had "great obstacles to overcome in class", and from the 1890s, it became standard practice to record all punishments in a book, to be checked by inspectors. Teachers noted that the most effective forms of punishment were often non-physical, especially those that involved an element of 'naming and shaming' – whether that meant a child wearing a dunce's hat or a sign around their neck.

Fascination and boredom

By the 1890s, reforms to the restrictive ‘payment by results’ system meant that those wishing to broaden the minds of their young charges could increasingly afford to venture into subjects such as geography, science and history. Much like today, whether these lessons would inspire fascination or boredom was largely down to the teacher. While inspectors criticised a master at Slater Street School in Leicester for delivering lessons “taken from the syllabus with little lively instruction”, others like FJ Gould attempted to inspire their pupils with storytelling and excursions to museums and galleries.

Lessons at the Central Boys’ School reached an end at 4.45pm. After more prayers and singing, books and slates were collected and the boys sent on their way. By the time they left the public school system for good, pupils aged 12 (the minimum leaving age from 1899) and above were expected to reach the ‘fourth level’ – requiring them to write dictated phrases with fewer than three spelling mistakes, read with fluency and expression, recite eight lines of poetry and answer maths problems.

For many children, however, it was not the academic lessons that stayed with them the most. As Arthur Goffin, a typesetter’s son born in 1879, recalled: “We were taught direction and guidance, and acquired soundness, contentment, control and stability... [Our teacher] had always something beyond the textbook for us, and drove his lessons home by unforgettable anecdotes and stories... I can recall so many things [my teachers] said which I realised in later life have helped me in different ways.”

Ellie Cawthorne is staff writer on BBC History Magazine. Dr Susannah Wright is a senior lecturer in education studies at Oxford Brookes.


The Secret History of a School, a 10-part series telling the story of one school, airs from 25 February on BBC Radio 4.