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The Sunday school movement

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 08:13 UK time, Sunday, 22 July 2012

For many people living in Wales, childhood was marked by two special events - the children's matinée at the town picture house each Saturday and, a day later, attendance at Sunday school in the local church or chapel.

Sunday school was not a Welsh invention but it certainly gained a hold in many, if not most, Welsh communities. For years, no Sunday would ever be complete without the sight of throngs of young children wending their way, perhaps unhappily, perhaps with more than a degree of resignation, towards the local Sunday School - leaving their parents to a few hours peace and contemplation.

Italian origin

The original idea for schools on a Sunday came from Italy in the 16th century but the notion soon spread. In Britain, the first Sunday school opened in Nottingham in 1751 but it was with the fertile imagination of Robert Raikes, editor of the Gloucester Journal, that the movement really took hold.

By the end of the 18th century Britain - and Wales in particular - was in the grip of the Industrial Revolution and children were a valuable commodity, working in the mines and factories, squeezing their tiny bodies into spaces that adults could not hope to reach. There was no legislation to protect them and children as young as five or six were employed by rapacious mine and factory owners. Education for these youngsters was a concept that simply did not exist.

Raikes was appalled by the conditions these young people had to endure. Education, he knew, could be the saving factor. Lack of it could only mean disaster and degradation.

In his newspaper, Raikes advocated the opening of schools on Sundays - the only day away from their toil that the children were allowed - in order to teach them to read and write. He quickly gained the support of many clergymen and a system of education, long before the state even contemplated such a notion, suddenly burst into existence.

The aim was to teach reading, writing and Bible study. Raikes opened his first school in 1781 and just four years later it was estimated that 250,000 children across Britain were attending Sunday school each week. The Sunday Schools were cross denominational and, thanks to subscriptions and clever fund raising, soon every community in the country had its share of large and imposing Sunday school buildings.

It was not all sweetness and light, however. The Methodists, in particular, often pulled out the members of their congregations and established their own Sunday schools. With government legislation beginning to limit the amount of hours children could work, the Anglican Church soon decided to create their own National School system, a series of schools that could offer education both on Sundays and in the week.

Society for the Establishment and Provision of Sunday Schools

In Wales there were clear links between the Sunday school movement - the Society for the Establishment and Provision of Sunday Schools - and the Circulating schools of Griffith Jones. Later, Thomas Charles of Bala took the lead, actively promoting the idea of schools on Sundays.

Men and women were equally as welcome as children in these Welsh sunday schools where the emphasis was not just on Bible knowledge. Public speaking and proper, informed debate on topics of interest to all were also on offer. Many of the late 19th and early 20th century leaders of the country - political, social and religious - gained their grounding in the essential art of addressing an audience and were nurtured in the Welsh sunday schools.

1870 Education Act

The passing of John Forster's 1870 Education Act - legislation that effectively created state run schools for the first time in British history - meant that the world had suddenly altered. Now, if they wanted to survive, the role of Sunday schools would have to change.

No longer was there a need to educate the children of the poor, the state would now take on this task, and so by the end of World War One Sunday schools had become something akin to the type of establishments we see today. Bible study, sports, drama groups and concert parties soon became the norm for most Sunday schools.

And yet, despite this enforced change, the period 1870 to the end of the 1930s was something of a golden era for Welsh Sunday schools. The schools embraced their new role. Despite the horrors of the Depression, they happily gave children and young people an interesting and enjoyable interlude in a world of drudgery and deprivation.

Annual Sunday school trip

The annual Sunday school trip to places like Barry Island or Porthcawl were often the only chance children from the mining valleys would have to paddle in the sea or sit on the sands. Christmas concerts were looked forward to all year round. The Sunday Schools may have been forced to change direction but they were still playing an active and valuable role in Welsh life.

Most churches and chapels still run Sunday schools, often under different names or even with a different set of aims. But we should all remember how Sunday schools began - as a way of educating children who would otherwise never have been able to read and write.


  • Comment number 1.

    I didn't come from a mining valley but I can still remember the excitement of the Sunday School treat. It didn't matter that you might have gone to the same beach or place with your parents a week or so before, the Sunday School treat was special. Warm pop, limp sandwiches, rounders on the beach - it all comes back. Sunday School was almost obligatory in those days. We all went, no argument. I've still got my Sunday School certificates for Bible knowledge.

  • Comment number 2.

    Children of the 50s loved the annual trip to somewhere like Tenby (and at one point in my early teens I managed to belong to two Sunday schools at the same time, in order to get two outings a year). But what we didn't see was the big bureaucratic effort in the background. My friend, the late Victor Noot, a famous Pembrokeshire schoolmaster and raconteur, told me of the view he once had of the minutes of one of the Haverfordwest chapels in the 30s, when, discussing the coming trip to Tenby, "It was proposed by Mr. Jones, seconded by Mr Davies, that Mrs Lewis be put in charge of the bananas"


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