Griffith Jones and the Circulating Schools

Monday 19 July 2010, 09:41

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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Most people who drive west from Carmarthen on the road to Pembroke pass through the village of Llanddowror, blithely unaware that this quiet backwater spot was, in the early 18th century, the centre of an educational movement that was taking Wales - perhaps even the world - by storm. For this was the base of Griffith Jones and his famous Circulating Schools.

In an age when there was no compulsory education, when the vast majority of working class people could neither read nor write, Griffith Jones created a system of schooling that by the time of his death in 1761 had taught almost 200,000 people to read.

Jones, arguably more than anyone else, helped to make Wales into a literate and literary nation.

Griffith Jones was born in Carmarthenshire in 1683. He was educated at Carmarthen Grammar School and was ordained into the Church of England in 1708. After early curacies in places like Penbryn (Cardiganshire) and Penrieth (Pembrokeshire), he became curate and master of the the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge School in Laugharne.

At one stage he did consider going to India to carry out missionary work for the SPCK, but decided against it and in 1716 became rector at Llanddowror, a post he held for the rest of his life.

As an active member of the SPCK Jones was concerned about the illiteracy of his parishioners and when he began his Circulating Schools in about 1731 he was clear that one of his main aims was salvation. He wanted people to read but only so that they could read the Bible and the catechism of the Church of England.

What Griffith Jones created was a series of schools that would rotate or circulate around the rural parishes of Wales, mainly in the winter months when farm work was relatively slack. The schools would stay in one place for approximately three months and then move on to another location. Dozens of men, women and children flocked to the schools where they used the Bible both as a means of instruction and as a training manual or reading book.

welsh family bible

The Bible was used as a means of instruction and as a training manual or reading book

By 1737, just six years after they began, there were 37 such schools in existence with over 2500 pupils or scholars attending the classes. For those who had to work during the day, evening classes were set up and Jones himself, from his base in Llanddowror, was instrumental in training the teachers. He had powerful support from wealthy land owners like Madam Bevan, the woman who continued to run and oversee the schools after his death in April 1761.

The system attracted the interest of reformers and educationalists from all over Britain - and from further afield as well. In 1764 Catherine II of Russia commissioned a report on the activities of the schools, with a view to creating a similar system in her own country.

Griffith Jones was not without critics, however. Many people disagreed with teaching ordinary working men and women to read, particularly reactionary clergymen who felt that their position at the centre of the community was being undermined. Jones was a powerful preacher, someone who would hold the attention of mass gatherings, whether they were in the church or in the open air.

He was called to account on several occasions by his Bishop for ignoring church rules and customs and, particularly, for things like preaching on the weekday! It did not stop Griffith Jones who was determined to proceed with what he felt to be his mission in life.

Although not a reformer himself he can be seen to be something of a forerunner to the Methodist revival that was soon to hit Wales and all of the United Kingdom. By creating a literate and educated populace, men and women with a deep and focussed interest in the gospels and all scriptures, he had certainly paved the way for ministers like John Wesley.

More significantly, Griffith Jones and his Circulating Schools had created a people for whom education was crucially important, not just as a way to better oneself but as an aim and an end in itself. That is a stance that has never left the Welsh people.

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    Comment number 1.

    If i may add one point to Phil's excellent post. The vast majority of these schools established by Griffith Jones taught people to read the Welsh language, because at that time Wales was overwhelmingly Welsh speaking. Many didn't understand English, let alone speak it.

    And it was the success of these schools in teaching people to read Welsh that led to strengthening of the language just at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, enabling it to survive to the present day.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    It's interesting to think that Griffith Jones' primary motive in helping people to read was to increase their access to the Bible. For Welsh teachers and preachers through the years there have been various motives for developing literacy: cultural, idealistic and economic. A friend told me once of a library, in Ammanford, I think, in the era of the miners' libraries and reading rooms, with a sign, "Take What You Need, Pay What You Can. Knowledge is Power".

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    The first time I was told about Griffith Jones was when I was being driven through Llandowror on the way to catch the boat at Pembroke Dock. Growing up in England I'd never heard the story of the Circulating Schools before and I thought it was fascinating. My son still talks about it and every time we go through the village he says "Griffith Jones."

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Dear Phil, C.A.Jones answered my question, really, because I wanted to know the medium of instruction. Of course, the Blue Books only measured achievement in English. We were real pioneers, in a European context. MariD

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Hi Mari, yes the medium was Welsh. Many - if not most- of the farm labourers and servants who came to the schools had no English. The Treason of the Blue books? Now there's a topic for you - talk about a dishonest government sponsored scam and that has to be the best(or worst) example. Imagine setting up a project with a preconceived aim and then making sure the people appointed to run it gave you only what you wanted to hear. Could it happen these days? I wonder.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    The Circulating Schools seem to have adopted the obvious policy of teaching the pupils to read Welsh where the Church used the Welsh bible and English where the church used the English bible.
    What a different place Wales might be today if 19th Century educationalists had adopted the same policy.


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