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Charity Schools and Education for the Poor

‘Children of the poor should not be educated in such manner as to set them above the occupations of humble life, or so as to make them uncomfortable among their equals’.

Sarah Trimmer, Reflections upon the Education of Children in Charity Schools; with the Outlines of a Plan of Appropriate Instruction for the Children of the Poor (London: T. Longman and J. and F. Rivington, 1792), p. 8.

Girls in the Bristol Orphan House, c. 1905. Image taken from Centenary Memorial 1805-1905 (Bristol: J. Wright and Co., 1905). Copyright, and reproduced by permission, of the Bristol Central Library.

The Charity School Movement

The Charity School movement began at the end of the 17th century, and it continued to develop in the 18th century. At this time escalating numbers of children were growing up in destitution due to rapid urbanisation and a rising population, which came to the attention of philanthropists and reformers. The destitute could receive poor relief from their parish under the Poor Laws. The Poor Law was funded by property owners paying rates to provide assistance to the poor of the same parish. Such relief came in many forms, including cash payment and donations of rent, fuel, food, clothes and, in some cases, employment. The growing public interest in the setting up and running of schools for the social and religious benefit of impoverished children was taken up by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) in 1698. The Society, founded in London by clergy and laymen, sought to give an education to the children in the hope that it would prevent ignorance, vice and debauchery. The SPCK gave advice to local parish groups hoping to set up schools. They provided financial support, a curriculum and advice to teachers on good educational practice. The SPCK charity schools instructed children of the poor in the Christian religion, based on the doctrines of the Church of England, to prevent the influence of other denominations. After the Civil War in 1651 many new sects had emerged, such as Baptists, Quakers, Presbyterians and Congregationalists. Dissenters and non-conformists refused to acknowledge the supremacy of the established Anglican Church. They similarly wanted to instil the young with their beliefs and practices.

Bell’s and Lancaster’s Monitorial System

In the 19th century, two individuals contributed to the development and improvement of educating poor children: Dr Andrew Bell (1753-1832) and Joseph Lancaster (1778-1838). While working in a male orphanage in Madras in 1789, Bell devised the Monitorial System. This involved older pupils instructing younger scholars and was devised to rectify the lack of teachers. He published an account of his teaching scheme, An Experiment in Education (1797), and some English schools started to use his technique a few years later. Eventually, this method was adopted by the educational institutions of the Church of England in 1811, which became known as ‘National Schools’.

Lancaster, a Quaker, set up a school in 1798 in Borough Road to give an education to non-conformist children. Lancaster’s school utilised a very similar Monitorial System, which became known as the ‘Lancastrian System’. Non-conformist schools following this system eventually joined together as ‘The British and Foreign School Society’ in 1814.

Teaching classes within these schools could vary from accommodating a single group of 40 children in a room, to several groups in a hall being taught by different monitors. This teaching technique became popular around the world in the 19th century. It is probable that some of the schools in this exhibition, such as Ackworth, used older pupils as monitors, transmitting their knowledge and skills to their younger contemporaries.

An Education for Girls

The education for poor children was meant to be useful and appropriate to their position in life. Schools across the country followed a similar curriculum for girls, such as teaching reading (mostly from the Bible), needlework and singing; it was a limited curriculum and differed from that of the boys. Some schools also provided instruction in writing, spelling and arithmetic, although this depended on the founder’s attitude. Not everyone believed that writing and arithmetic were necessary or suitable for the poor, particularly the female poor. Depending on their situation and location, girls could be educated in dame schools, village schools, Sunday Schools, or orphanages. The education that underprivileged girls received trained them to be good and efficient servants, or seamstresses in later life. Their instruction also included moral and religious teaching as well as social discipline.