Tuesday 4 October 2011

Victorian Schooling

If you're a teacher, or have kids, I strongly recommend that you read this - Extracts from the Diary of a Master of a London Ragged School, published in The English Journal of Education, Vol.IV, 1850.

[We insert this paper, which was not written for publication, because we hope that the simple narrative will convince some who need to be instructed of the great work to be done before the education of the people is effected.-ED.]

OCT. 29th 1849.-0n the way to the school this morning in company with —, who has been appointed to act as my assistant, we were saluted by women and boys as we went along in a most singular manner. I cannot say that the exclamations and gestures of these people were significant of disapprobation, but rather the reverse; however, their coarse and brutal manners had a most disheartening influence on me. I looked in vain for some manifestation of feeling that would enable me to "thank God and take courage." . . .  It was a dismal scene . . .  no appearance of thrift or industry . . .  nothing but squalid wretchedness and dirt and idleness — the lanes leading to the school were full of men, women, and children: shouting, gossipping, swearing, and laughing, in a most discordant and unnatural manner. The whole population seemed to be on the eve of a great outbreak of some kind or another: ready for anything but work.  . . . .  These lanes are a moral hell. The place and the people beggar description. . . . .  We prepared the school by placing benches in situations for the division of the scholars into four classes, and as they came tumbling and bawling up the stairs, we directed them to seats. Shortly after ten o'clock I spoke to them kindly, and then asked them to join with me in prayer. They knelt and followed me in the Lord's Prayer, with some few exceptions, in a not very improper manner. The decent behaviour to be met with in almost any school could not be expected here. I proceeded to read a collect, but the noise obliged me to stop.
* * * * *
Most of the children can read very well indeed. Some of them can write, and almost all of the first class can say the multiplication table well; they all promise to be expert at figures. In mere schooling they are not behindhand; but in decency of behaviour or in respect for the teacher, or in discipline of any kind, they are totally unparalleled. No school can be possibly worse than this. It were an easy task to get attention from savages: a white man's appearance would ensure him some sort of regard: but here the very appearance of one's coat is to them the badge of class and respectability:- for although they may not know the meaning of the word, they know very well, or at least feel, that we are the representatives of beings with whom they have ever considered themselves at war. This is not theory, but fact.
* * * * *
We were almost stifled several times by half-a-dozen of the neighbours congregating on the stairs and puffing tobacco smoke in volumes into the school. How the lungs of such emaciated youths could work so effectively is to me a mystery. One miserable boy, with scarcely a hair on his head, was somewhat puzzled to get out the letter of the alphabet to which my companion pointed, so he knowingly pulled out his tobacco-box and helped himself to a quid in a grave and veteran-like manner.
    Their craving for stimulants is most saddening. Two of the biggest boys were complimented by me on the way in which they did a sum in compound addition. "Give us some coppers for a pint of beer," was the ready response.
* * * * *
In Scripture history I got a series of answers that are above the average in point of information of those which could be obtained in some national schools. But of what use that kind of knowledge can possibly be, unless it is brought to bear on the moral training and conduct of the possessor, I am at a loss to determine. It is a very easy thing to stuff these boys with Scripture history, or with anything indeed which is or can be made interesting; but it is a sad desecration of the subject and a sinful waste of time to give them mere facts. Be the result then what it may, I shall introduce the Church Catechism and teach them their duty from that. The system hitherto pursued has been worthless and criminal. If I do not succeed in teaching the catechism properly, I shall at least have the satisfaction that the boys know the words in which the ten commandments are given, and their duty towards God and their neighbour shall be so impressed on their memories that the day may come when these words, perhaps got off by mere rate, may bear good fruit. A school without a catechism is like a church without a creed.
* * * * *
I had occasion to punish a boy slightly this morning: he swore and blasphemed most horribly, and rushed from the school. I took little notice of this display, and sat down calmly to hear the class with which I was engaged read the Acts of the Apostles. I was suddenly startled by a large stone passing my ear. If it had struck me on the head, I must have been severely hurt. I got out of the reach of stones thrown through the window, and continued the lesson. Several followed-half-a-dozen at least. He was ready in the court with a brick in his hand, to have his revenge when I came out. With some difficulty I got out of the lane without being obliged to run.  . . . .  I walked some time in — —, and having thought over the matter, I considered it best to call at the police station, and ask for a convoy. This was readily granted; and followed at a short distance by the policeman, I returned to the school.
    Without one exception, these boys are precocious. They require more training than teaching. The great city has been their book, and they have read men as such boys alone can do.
 * * * * *
A child began to scream dreadfully. I said to his elder brother. "Pray take out the child." "Child," said he, "he aint no child; he's a man — look at him, for your own satisfaction, gentlemen," (bowing in a droll way to the class).
    Several clergymen called in the afternoon, and they had scarcely left when a most distressing scene occurred. Two girls of twelve or thirteen years of age quarrelled, as it would appear, about a remark which one of the clergymen had made concerning a new frock which one of them wore. The first notice I had of this was to see the pair boxing most viciously: before I could get at them, they had hold of each other's hair, and were yelling most fearfully: they fought like furies. — took hold of one, and myself the other: but before we could separate them, one had received a severe, and I fear a lasting injury in the eye, and her nose bled profusely. I sent her home, and went again to work: but I had not been quiet for ten minutes, when a fearful outbreak took place. Seven women rushed into the school: the stairs were full besides: and outside, at least fifty women had collected. These were the mothers and friends of the girls who had fought. Having abused me in no measured terms — and if I mistake not, they collared me — they proceeded to fight. — remonstrated with one woman, and I with the other; so we stopped their battle. Our boys cheered most tremendously. The women swore and shrieked. Those outside (several men amongst them) responded. Never, surely, was such a noise heard before. 1 did not believe that human beings resident in this most Christian metropolis, could so behave. . . . .  — held up his hands, and if he said anything I did not hear. We got our visitors out at last, and we could see they held an important meeting on the subject of their visit in the court below. But not being interested, we shut the windows to exclude the noise, and proceeded with our work. . . . .  To compose the children, if possible, I proposed that we should have a little music, and — sang very sweetly the first verse of the Evening Hymn. We then invited the children to follow us, and we got through the first line or two very well — but a blackguard youth thought proper to set up on his own account, and he led off a long in this strain:- "O, Susannah, don't cry for me, I'm off to Alabama, With a banjo on my knee!"   I need scarcely add that every boy followed this leader, ay, girl. and all, and I could not check them

* * * * *
After some time I spoke to them very gently and sadly, and having gained attention to some degree, I ventured to close the school with a very short prayer. I did so. Fearful to relate, in the midst of the Lord's Prayer, several shrill cries of  "Cat's meat!" and "Mew, mew," added another fact to the history of this school.
    So by the help of God we must both work harder. It is a post of honour. It is a forlorn hope.
30th Oct. 1849. — If possible the scholars were more unruly to-day than they were yesterday, but no serious outbreak took place. Before I got  out of the locality I managed to empty my pockets, "Give, give," is the cry — I gave a lesson to-day on the duty of labour, and I pointed out the colonies as a good market. This was the first lesson which arrested their attention.
* * * * *
I had occasion to remark to a poor old woman who looks after the sewing, that I thought the girls were employed more at sampler work than was necessary. She tells me that they will not work cheerfully at anything else. They have no notions of thrift or of useful work. It is difficult to get them to make a shirt. I gave notice that in future I should expect to see more of them making and mending stocking. and shirts, and none of them who could not do such work well were to be allowed to waste their time in samplers. I mean to speak on this subject to some lady visitor should one appear, as I am not well-informed, perhaps, in the importance of. samplers. I think marking-ink would do the work better, and save time. At least, a shirt ought to be made before it is marked. May God help us! What a solemn charge is this!
    All our copy-books have been stolen, and proofs exist that the school is used at night as a sleeping-room. We must get a stronger door to it. I must also get a tub to stand by the pump in the court, and a piece of coarse towelling and soap. My duties must resolve themselves into —
First - To see the boys and girls well washed and scrubbed,
Secondly.-To try to get prayers said decently.
Thirdly.-To give them a lesson in their duties and privileges, for they have many, and know none.
Fourthly.- Some religious .instruction.
31st Oct. 1849.-Great noise, turbulence, and confusion, but no serious outbreak. The rev. the rector called and left without saying anything. A lady visited us this afternoon and waited for some time. I am at a loss to ascertain the motives which induce ladies to visit such a place, unless one is uncharitable enough to attribute them to mere curiosity, or to that morbid feeling, which makes such places as the Old Bailey, or the Chamber of Horrors, in Baker Street, attractive. We should get on much better without visitors. The children are so accustomed to be shown off, that they bristle up for the occasion, and fire their witticisms with more impudence than when no strangers are present. These boys and girls require to be sobered: all exciting influences should be avoided, and therefore I mean, if possible, to discountenance visitors. I gave a lesson this afternoon in geography in presence of some clergymen; I was attempting to get out the fact that we lived on an island called Great Britain. We spoke of England and Scotland and Wales as being countries close to each other. I got out that an island was a portion of land surrounded by water. Then I asked, "What do we live on?" — " On food, when we gets it," was the ready answer.
    I bought some calico and asked the girls to make boys' shirts, which may be given away if they are ever finished. The material for three cost 2s. 6d., just tenpence a piece! The fact is being constantly forced on my notice, that these children are not so deficient in mere religious wordiness, if that is the word, as might be supposed. They have had a great deal of good schooling in a certain sense, or rather much labour has been expended in teaching them to read, write and cipher well. But I cannot believe that any attention has been bestowed in making this knowledge useful. They are utterly destitute of feeling or propriety; and their technical education, such as it has been, has not made them more civilized or better children. After all, the school must be looked upon as secondary to home teaching. It is apparently worse than useless to expect a man to be made better by merely learning to read and write. Those of our scholars who can do so best are decidedly the most depraved. One boy, who is quite as well schooled as the average number of boys at his age are schooled — (say twelve years of age) —  said to me to-day,  "Please sir, I'll go down on my knees and say The Lord Jesus Christ and the Fellowship of the Holy Ghost, for a halfpenny." Another, as we went along the lanes from school, called after us, "Glory be to the Father," &c. All this is very monstrous, and I am puzzled to find the cause for such impiety  — there must be a cause —  and until I can come to some conclusion on the subject I am at a loss to apply a remedy. I have prohibited the use of the words, "Praise the Lord, Hallelujah!" which they were very fond of shouting, and I have resolved to make their religious lessons as impressive as I can. I use the Lord's Prayer only in opening or closing school; and in the lessons generally I have attempted to introduce a sober solemn tone for that flippant, irreverent, thoughtless, gabbling manner to which they are very prone.
    We almost shed tears to-day when we pondered over our work. — Sursum corda!
1st Nov. 1849.-Wrote to the curate, asking him to get us a tub to be placed near the pump and about the door of the school, &c. Being All Saints Day, we were bothered by many boys from the Romish school in the neighbourhood, as they had a holiday.
2nd Nov. 1849.-More confusion and excitement. Two lady visitors, who sat nearly the whole afternoon, without helping in the least but apparently enjoying the sad spectacle which our debased scholars presented. I am sorry for these ladies, as I cannot allow ourselves to be sport for them at such a sacrifice to the children under our charge. This making of our school a kind of public exhibition is most detrimental to its discipline and progress. It must be stopped. Are these ladies writing a novel? Surely they are not preparing themselves to be present at a public execution!
 A boy, D—, called another boy a thief, on which the latter replied by a few cuffs; I separated them, and let the business of the school proceed. The mother of D— came into the school, to retaliate on the boy who had punished her son. I objected to this, and insisted that I would not have interference from without. The woman raged very much, and called me a blackguard. She declared that my bread was at an end; the authorities would turn me out, &c. N.B. —Avoid violent scenes in the school.
5th Nov. 1849.-Scarcely a boy to be found in the lanes, or near the school. They are off picking up pence by the exhibition of effigies, or Guys. Many of these have had a Roman Catholic training. Their fear of the priest seems very trifling. Kept the school open all the morning, and mustered about twenty; might have doubled that number had we admitted all that came, but I declined the honour of the National schoolboys' visits, and politely requested them to enjoy their holiday. Called on Mrs. P— as the name is pronounced — to ask kindly after her girl, who received the box in the eye last week. Mrs. P— is a highly respectable, judicious, and God-fearing woman-at least, she says so herself. She says that she is well known to the aristocracy, and despises the acquaintance of anyone who is not a lady. She gave the names of several persons of distinction with whom she is intimate. Mrs. P— is determined to keep her position, and preserve the fine feelings of her daughter, which have been carefully developed by a course of maternal training. Certainly, her daughter can box very well indeed; and the manner in which she tore her antagonist's hair the other day gives proof that she will keep her place amongst her compeers. Mrs. P— is not only disposed to be reserved towards her neighbours, and to move in a select circle: she is also very much inclined to be exacting. Kitty B— is no companion for her daughter, nor is widow —'s family fit to associate, or even to sit in the same school, with her child. Oh no ! Before Miss P— can return to my seminary, all the children of the families who are obnoxious to Mrs. P— must be expelled. "Don't the rector know Miss P—? in course he does; didn't he examine her eye? Don't the clargy respect Mrs. P— and her family; and Mr. P—, who never drinks his beer at the public-house, but has it brought home in his own jug, and drinks of a Sunday like a jintilman? Mrs. P— is not bigoted, nor is Mr. P—. God forbid. Don't he read the Bible, ay, does he; not like the tight-laced people upstairs, who hate the Bible as the Devil does holy wather." Here Mrs. P— produced a pocket Bible out of a drawer, in proof of her assertion. According to Mrs. P—, the widow D— who gave me the scolding on Friday, is a very bad character, and it also appears that the widow was very drunk on Saturday, and got put IN for six hours. What this means I cannot say, unless it be that she was taken to the police station for being disorderly. From another authority —  our female assistant — I learn that  — gave Mrs. D— fiye shillings on Friday. . . . The rector and his curates are sadly deceived by these people. I have no pretensions on the score of reading character, but I defy anyone who takes the least trouble to observe and compare what he hears from Mrs. P—'s own mouth to remain ignorant of the fact that her family make a very good business out of their respectability. The fight before alluded to was occasioned by some remarks respecting a frock which Miss P— wore. I was not quite unprepared for this development of Mrs. P—'s character; for, the last time my predecessor visited the school, he said to me when leaving, "I am going to visit Mrs. P—," "Then," answered loudly one of my hopeful children, "he is going to visit a sneak."
* * * * *
We could not make a school this afternoon: at three o'clock four boys and six girls of the first division alone were present. The attractions outside were overpowering. In addition to the lucrative employment afforded by the carrying about of effigies, or Guys, there were three funerals from the court, which were accompanied by the inhabitants. The deaths were occasioned by black fever, scarlatina, and measles. From what I hear, the locality is very sickly at present — no drainage-no water. Perhaps I should have given a holiday to-day,. but I wished to respect the feelings of the Romish population-a wish which they evidently did not understand. In short, they seem to have no feelings: they have fallen so low, that they derive a kind of happiness and independence from their very degradation. "Fears and sorrows," says Campbell, " fan the fire of joy," and this is true in a sense of which he did not dream. It seems as if the excitement caused by an excess of fear and sorrow produced happiness! More of this when I have time. I shall think over the assertion, and I cannot see why it should not be so. "An excess of modesty;" said the elder D'Israeli, "is an excess of pride." That paradox will do for a text. Any careful observer would come to another conclusion; and that is, that these people do not require the schoolmaster so much as they need some municipal act for the regulation of lodging-houses and dwelling-houses generally. The Society for Improving the Dwellings of the Lower Classes is one which, if properly supported and carried out, would work wonders. Preaching and teaching can never fructify in the heart or mind of a man who is never alone. It is almost cruelty to talk of virtue or decency to a being who is doomed to sleep and do everything else in a crowd.
    Let anyone visit a lodging-house in this neighbourbood and he will never forget it. The woman who live in the room under our school (which has no strong door), tells me that she hears people moving about at night — houseless wanderers, who come there to sleep. They have not as yet stolen anything! It is thus they pay for their lodgings. We did lose some copy-books a short time ago; but I have a notion that they were not stolen, they were taken. I have a notion why.
* * * * *
Got on very well to-day, but I cannot say that the school improves. The scholars are always out of their element when no strangers are present; and I am glad we had none to-day. Had a conversation with Mr—, the district visitor, and having explained, or rather described to him the difficulty we encountered every morning and afternoon in getting the scholars together, and the very great trouble we had to get them OUT again, we determined to keep the school open all day, (that is, without having any recess at dinnertime). These people have no regular hours for meals, and our school resembles a club for poor children more than anything else. To-morrow, then, we shall assemble at ten, and keep school till three. The Romish school adopts this plan, and I have no doubt it will be found better than our present mode of breaking up the school from twelve till two.
* * * * *
The children have been sadly neglected. How could it be otherwise? From the system pursued, only two hours a day have been given, practically speaking, to teaching. It takes an hour to get the school together. Then a grand effort was made to swell the numbers present every afternoon between three and four, because the school was usually visited at that hour by the clergy and the curious. It was easy to do this with smart children too, for the Romish school having closed at three, many flocked in to witness, or be parties in the daily exhibition, and to get probably a present of money — a most injurious system this. By keeping the school open between twelve and two, and by closing at three, we may manage to do some good, and only one inconvenience will result from it; not an inconvenience to the teachers or the scholar., but to the ladies who drop in of an afternoon to get (I am grieved to say so) a little amusement after luncheon. Better far that these people should stop at home, or amuse themselves elsewhere.
• • • • •
It is a pity that our slates have no frames; as, apart from the slate when protected by a frame being kept from scratches, frames are useful in other respects. If one happened to be thrown at a person's head — as is sometimes threatened — a framed slate would not be so dangerous. I was threatened with some such thing to-day, and I slightly punished the offender; he contented himself by reserving his revenge for the present, at least he said so, but he dashed his slate on the floor and broke it to pieces, and having indulged in some foul invective — calling me, amongst other things, "a gallows Frenchman," he went again sullenly to work. Another told me to-day that the Catholic religion was a b—y sight better than mine. I expended five shillings to-day of my own money in having some black board put up. This will give us much ease, as the black boards speak well and effectively.
Had fires to-day, which was a source of great attraction. It is cruelty to turn these poor lads out in the middle of the day to shiver in some corner, for their parents are seldom at home until the afternoon. Few of them have a meal in the middle of the day, and that can easily be despatched in five minutes. Henceforward the — — school ought to be styled the — — Club House; and why should we not try to civilize them by a sort of club?
    An old lady called to ask me to visit her along with my boys, that we might sing over the corpse of her child. She says that she prefers singing very much to "dthrinking," — and one or the other ceremony she considers as absolutely necessary. I declined — not because I disapproved of her request, for some benefit might have accrued by acceding to it, — but for the very good and unanswerable reason that my pupils were not skilled in singing. I could not ask — to leave the school  class to perform this odd duty. . . . .  I spoke kindly and tenderly to the poor woman, and she left quite pleased with her reception. . . . . All our coals were stolen last night. The plan of keeping the school open all day answers remarkably well. When I told the children that it was twelve o'clock, and that those who had their dinner at twelve might go, several moved, but the majority returned in a few minutes: thirty-five of the scholars did not stir: this fact speaks volumes. The Romish clergy understand the natural history of these people better than we do. It is this management that will save our school. They must be allowed to go out and come in when they like. At prayers this afternoon we had better behaviour than usual. I closed the school without any uneasiness, and the boys left in a decent manner. Things are improving. It is the peep of day. We masters had the best of it to-day. I tried to teach the first division of my first class the use of arithmetical signs, and we wrought several questions from the black board in a very methodical and proper manner.
    It is a sad thing to turn anyone out, but I have reluctantly determined to get rid for the present of three or four of the most unruly boys. . . . .  I used the cane for the first time to-day, with effect. These children cannot be managed well without some use of it. They do not form attachments readily, and their mode of' thinking is the reverse of amiable. What then is to be done? Am I to wait for order until they are capable of appreciating kindness? If so, I must wait a very long time. One other source of influence we have, but I have no heart to use it, although it has been resorted to by my predecessors; that is, to stop the allowance of bread which the rector's bounty awards. This begets a mean, selfish, and beggarly spirit, the very spirit which it is my mission to eradicate. I will not stop their bread. After all that may be said, Solomon was right — a little touch of the cane is the least injurious mode of punishment that can be adopted. It is over at once, and boy and master are not the worse friends for it. Were this a regular, well-appointed school, then my punishments, if needed, would be rare, but severe. Here no system can be adopted. Were I to punish some boy as he deserved, for the advantage of the rest, then my life would not be safe. Every boy, therefore, must stand alone. It is not a school, but a collection of poor ignorant outcasts, and they must be treated accordingly. When I speak of punishments, I would not be considered as using that term in the sense which it bears in a good public school, for anything so severe could not be attempted here. They would rebel at once, and we could not get over the storm. The first man who does his duty in this respect must resign in consequence. They will not be managed by sheer force nor by kindness — a mixture of all kinds of legitimate expedients must be used. A Miss — called this morning, and seemed to think that we had but a poor school.  . . . . .  No clergyman has visited us for the three last days.
     The school at — — has assumed a somewhat different character. I was obliged to expel two of the — (a family of gipsy extraction), Master —,and a most troublesome scrofulous boy (for the present), and being rid of them I insisted on order and decency of behaviour  —  the attempt has been successful. I make this remark without qualification; thank God, a great improvement has taken place. A better proof of this could not be adduced than the fact that the whole school can be kept quiet and attentive at a Bible lesson. Mr. — gave a lesson this afternoon, which lasted nearly an  hour, and the children remained still and orderly throughout. A person of less tact or ability might not be able to do this, but the circumstance is worthy of record. In opening and closing the school, a wonderful change for the better has taken place. The children can now sing the doxology very nicely, and with much propriety of demeanour. They also get through their drill in a creditable manner, and I get perfect order, when necessary. at a given signal. How has all this been accomplished? I cannot boast of the means adopted —they have been frightened into subjection.
    Our school now numbers fifty scholars, who attend regularly. I begin to understand something of the natural history of them and their families, and what with the influence acquired over them by somewhat severe discipline I have those fifty under perfect subjection. More than this I cannot say.


  1. I have only just found your site and find it inspiring and educational. Thank you, Lee for all of your hard work and effort to make Victorian London and the Victorian Society itself available to those of us with interest but less resources than you. Bravo, and carry on.

  2. Very nice blog, I especially like this part

    Kitty B— is no companion for her daughter, nor is widow —'s family fit to associate, or even to sit in the same school, with her child. Oh no ! Before Miss P— can return to my seminary, all the children of the families who are obnoxious to Mrs. P— must be expelled. "Don't the rector know Miss P—? in course he does; didn't he examine her eye? Don't the clargy respect Mrs. P— and her family; and Mr. P—, who never drinks his beer at the public-house, but has it brought home in his own jug, and drinks of a Sunday like a jintilman? Mrs. P— is not bigoted, nor is Mr. P—. God forbid. Don't he read the Bible, ay, does he; not like the tight-laced people upstairs, who hate the Bible as the Devil does holy wather." Here Mrs. P— produced a pocket Bible out of a drawer, in proof of her assertion.