Primary History

Victorian Britain: Children at school

  • Who went to school?

    At the start of the 19th century very few children went to school. Most poor children worked. If they went to school, their families lost the money they earned.

    There were some good schools for boys, for example, grammar schools and public schools. Only richer families could afford to pay the school fees, though some schools gave free places to poor boys. Poor girls did not go to school when the Victorian age began meaning they had little education. Girls from wealthy families would usually be taught at home by a governess. Sometimes, wealthy girls may have attended boarding schools too.

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  • Dame schools

    'Dame' schools were usually run by one woman. The 'dame' often did her best, but she was a child-minder not a trained teacher. Often quite poor herself, she took as many children as she could cram into her house. Poor parents working hard to earn a living paid her a few pennies a week to look after their children, and perhaps teach them the alphabet or how to sew. Most of the time, the children amused themselves and did not learn very much.

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  • Ragged schools and Sunday schools.

    Sunday schools were run by churches, to teach children about the Christian faith. Journalist Robert Raikes started the first Sunday School for poor children in Gloucester in 1780.

    Ragged Schools were schools for poor children. One of the first was started in Portsmouth by a shoe-mender named John Pounds. Older children helped to teach younger ones. Ragged Schools were often in one room of a house, or in an old barn. From 1833 factory owners were supposed to provide at least 2 hours education every day for child-workers, but not many children actually got lessons.

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  • School for all

    Reformers campaigned for new laws to improve working conditions for children and give children the opportunity for schooling. In 1870 Parliament said there had to be a school in every town and village. 'School Boards' of local people built and ran the new schools. Families paid a few pennies a week to send their children, though not all children went to school. In the 1860s a farmer might pay 6 pence (6d) a week for each child. A labourer (who earned less) only paid 2d per child.

    By 1880, the law said that all children aged 5 to 10 must go to primary school, so every child would receive at least a basic education.

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Fun Facts
  • May Day was the time for Maypole dancing. In 1891, girls from St Mary Cray, in Kent, danced round their Maypole in front of 10,000 spectators.

  • Schoolgirls in Brighton were taught to swim on the beach by a local life-saver. The local newspaper reported this swimming teacher had saved many people from drowning!

  • A popular children's alphabet book included the rhyme 'Q is for the Queen, who oft [often] goes by the train' - which Queen Victoria sometimes did.

  • School desks had sockets for 'no-peeping' boards to slot into. The board stopped you looking at your neighbour's work!

  • Victorian teachers loved neat handwriting, with no crossings-out. People learned to write in a style we now call 'copperplate' - the name comes from engraving work.

  • One sensible school rule was: 'Broken needles [for sewing] must not be thrown on the floor'.

  • At some schools girls were allowed to walk in twos, but not in threes.

  • Victorian teachers kept a list of 'object lessons' - things to talk about, with picture cards to show. The objects were a mixed lot, such as The Lion, The Spring, A Basket, Coal, The Horse.

  • After 1891 all schooling was free for primary age children. School log books noted that 'No fees charged this week'. School attendances went up.

  • Victorians liked stories with a moral, such as one about Naughty Nellie who played with matches - and burned her hair off. Or Bad Billy who stole a knife - and cut off his finger.

  • Discipline was strict. This was the rule at a Sussex school in 1875. 'All children are expected to come to school clean, tidy and simply dressed. Rough behaviour, fighting, throwing stones or using bad language are strictly forbidden.'

  • In country districts, many children took time off school to pick potatoes in the autumn.

  • It wasn't all work though. Sometimes children were given the day off if a circus came to the district.

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Jump to: A-D | E-G | H-L | M-O | P-S | T-Z

A to D

abacus
This was a wooden frame with beads on it. It was used to help children with counting sums.
agricultural gang
This was a group of workers in the countryside, doing jobs like weeding, sowing seeds, and harvesting crops. Often these gangs would include young children.
barrel organ
A musical instrument which was taken round the streets. It played music when the handle was turned. Often the owners of barrel organs had tame monkeys.
Band of Hope
Temperance organization which tried to stop people, especially children, from drinking alcohol.
boarding school
A school where children live during term time, coming home for the holidays.
Boys' Brigade
Youth organization started in 1883 in Glasgow.
British Empire
Countries ruled by Britain; later became the Commonwealth.
cane
Thin stick used by teachers to beat children who misbehaved.
census
This is the record of people living at a certain time. It records how many people there are, where people live, their age and what they do.
coal mine
A place where coal is dug from under the ground.
coal
Remains of prehistoric trees, burned in fires. In Victorian times, coal heated homes and provided steam power for machines, trains and ships.
contraception
Another term for birth control, or stopping unwanted pregnancies.
cotton
Comes from a plant. It is spun into thread then woven to make cloth.

E to G

dame school
A school run in her home by an elderly woman, known as a dame, where children were taught basic reading and writing.
diphtheria
Infectious throat disease that killed many children.
emigrated
To emigrate is to leave your own country to go and live in another.
empress
The female ruler of an empire, or the wife of an emperor.
factory
Building with machines for producing goods in large numbers.
factory commission
A group of men who travelled around Britain to investigate the working conditions of children in both factories and mines.
fire grate
The metal part of a fire and fireplace.
globe
A map of the world drawn on a sphere, useful in geography lessons.
governess
A woman who taught rich girls and young boys in their homes, as a paid, live-in servant.
grammar school
Boys' schools, started in the Middle Ages as an alternative to Church schools and giving free education to some boys.

H to L

hokey-pokey man
Icecream-seller, originally usually Italian.
hopscotch
A hopping game played in the street or playground.
hurdy-gurdy
A mechanical violin, played by a street musician.
industrial Revolution
The era of rapid and great change in industry and manufacturing with the growth of factories, beginning in the late 1700s.
ink well
A small pot for ink, used by school children.
logbook
Diary or record book of events.

M to O

magic lantern
A slide projector for showing pictures on a screen.
maypole
Tall pole with long ribbons, for dancing around on May Day.
moral
A lesson often in a story, about right and wrong.
music hall
Popular Victorian theatre with variety acts such as singers, dancers and comedians.
nanny
servant who cared for rich young children in their nursery at home.
nursery
A room or several rooms where rich children would play and sleep.
orphan
Child with no living parents.

P to S

parliament
Law-making body made up of elected Members of Parliament (MPs) and non-elected Lords.
piecer
A child who worked in a mill joining pieces of thread together.
population
The number of people in a country or city.
public schools
Fee-charging schools for children from richer families.
Punch and Judy show
A hand-puppet show which features Mr Punch and his wife Judy. Common at the seaside in Victorian times.
ragged school
A school for poor children in the early 19th century.
reformer
Person who seeks change for the better, to help others.
reign
The length of time a king or queen rules.
school board
A group of people who were responsible for the running of their local school after 1870.
scullery
Small room with a sink, for washing up.
shaft
Deep vertical hole leading down to the tunnels and underground workings of a coal mine.
slates
These were pieces of slate (like a flat stone), sometimes set inside a wooden frame, used for writing - with a special slate pencil. At the end of the lesson the slates were wiped clean with an old cloth.
smallpox
Disease causing fever and, in those who did not die from it, leaving 'pockmarks' on the skin.
steam engine
Engine driven by steam from water heated in a boiler, used to drive machinery.
slum
An area of bad housing, with poor hygiene and sanitation.
Sunday School
School to teach Christianity: the National Sunday School Union was founded in 1803.

T to Z

wages
Workers' pay.
wool
Comes from sheep. It is spun into thread then woven to make cloth.
workhouse
Place where people without means of support (usually the very poor, young and elderly) were sent to live; they got a food and a bed in return for work. Most Victorian towns had a workhouse.