Primary History

Victorian Britain: Victorian schools

  • What was a Victorian classroom like?

    There were maps and perhaps pictures on the wall. There would be a globe for geography lessons, and an abacus to help with sums. Children sat in rows and the teacher sat at a desk facing the class. At the start of the Victorian age, most teachers were men, but later many women trained as teachers.

    Children wrote on slates with chalk. They wiped the slate clean, by spitting on it and rubbing with their coat sleeve or their finger! Slates could be used over and over. For writing on paper, children used a pen with a metal nib, dipped into an ink well.

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  • What subjects did children learn?

    Girls and boys learned together in primary schools, but were separated in secondary schools. Both boys and girls learned reading, writing, arithmetic, spelling and drill (PE).

    Boys learned technology: woodwork, maths and technical drawing, to help with work in factories, workshops or the army when they grew up.

    Girls had lessons in cooking and sewing, to prepare them for housework and motherhood.

    Children were often taught by copying and repeating what the teacher told them. Lessons included teaching in right and wrong, and the Christian religion.

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  • How were children punished?

    Discipline in schools was often strict. Children were beaten for even minor wrongdoings, with a cane, on the hand or bottom. A teacher could also punish a child by making them stand in the corner wearing a 'dunce's cap'. Another, very boring, punishment was writing 'lines'. This meant writing out the same sentence (such as 'Schooldays are the happiest days of my life' 100 times or more.

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  • Rich boys and schools for girls

    Boys from rich families were sent away to boarding school. Some 'public schools', like Eton and Harrow, set high standards.

    Other schools were awful places, run to make profits for the owners. Boys in these bad schools were half-starved, ill-treated, and taught very little.

    Girls sent away to be trained as governesses were not much better off, as you can learn from reading Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

    Girls and young boys were taught at home by a male tutor or a female governess. The first good girls' schools were started in Victorian times, such as the North London Collegiate School (1850).

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Fun Facts
  • Children were scared of getting sick, and scared too of some of the 'cures'. For whooping cough, one cure was to swallow a spider in butter!

  • Victorian children did money sums (in pounds, shillings and pence). They knew about measures we no longer use such as poles, perches, rods, chains and furlongs.

  • Victorian children were usually dressed like miniature adults. Boy babies often wore skirts - later a boy might wear a sailor suit.

  • Children would run to meet the hokey-pokey man. He sold ice cream from a small hand cart or barrow.

  • Some poor children wore second-hand boots or shoes, nicknamed 'translators'.

  • One Victorian slang word for 'children' was 'chavy'.

  • For parties, lots of little Victorian girls wore red cloaks - perhaps because Little Red Riding Hood was a favourite nursery story.

  • Children at boarding school were given horrid-tasting medicines such as brimstone and treacle. This made them go to the toilet!

  • If a child felt ill, the teacher might buy a cheap potion such as James Morrison's Universal Pill - said to cure every ailment!

  • The Victorian explorer Richard Burton hated his school food. He had bread and butter, with watery milk, for breakfast; for dinner, a lumpy pudding the boys called 'stickjaw' with burnt meat and hard potatoes.

  • Supper was the same as breakfast. On Sundays the school cook made a pie from the week's leftovers.

  • In class, children learned lots of lessons by heart - such as poems and their times tables.

  • On Fridays, the teacher would read out the marks for every child. If you did well, you went to the top of the class.

  • One rather unusual punishment was being sent to sit in the 'coal-hole' - where coal for the school fire was stored!

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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.