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18 September 2014
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Victorian Britain

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Laissez-faire and the Victorians

By Professor Eric Evans
Education and health policies

Image for 'Punch' cartoon on education
'Punch' cartoon, 1847: A boy falls through the gap between 'voluntary' and 'state' education 
In 1833, Parliament voted the first grant to support education for the poor. It was a very small sum of £20,000. This grant did not introduce state education but it helped the Church provide schooling. Despite these modest beginnings, within 40 years the cost of state support for education had increased to £800,000. Furthermore, there was also a bureaucracy which ensured that state funds were being properly spent.

Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools were first appointed for this purpose in 1839, and the first state-sponsored teacher-training scheme followed in 1846. The path to still greater state intervention was securely paved in the early Victorian period and led to the 1870 Education Act, which developed local board schools to fill up the gaps left by Church provision.

'... "the workhouse", an indelibly powerful symbol of degradation and shame ...'

Compulsory elementary education followed in 1881 and the opportunity for almost all children to receive free elementary education without payment of any fees was provided by 1891. Responsibility for state-supported education was transferred, as Arthur Balfour put it, to 'those great public assemblies, the borough councils and the county councils of the country' in 1902.

A distinctive pattern of government growth was apparent in other areas too. Spurred on by fear of cholera epidemics, and by powerful propaganda led by Edwin Chadwick, a Health of Towns Commission reported in 1844/45 and a Public Health Act was passed in 1848. This established a central Board of Health with some compulsory powers.

The device of a central Board with certain powers and local administration was pioneered in 1834, when the Poor Law Amendment Act replaced a discredited older system. The aims were to save ratepayers' money, and to discourage idleness in working people. The new Poor Law created, in 'the workhouse', an indelibly powerful symbol of degradation and shame that lasted until the final and unlamented dismantling of the Poor Law system in 1929.

Published: 2004-11-04

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