Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Educating the middle-classes 1800-1870

Before 1850, no one seriously argued the need for the state to provide schools for middle and upper-class children largely because it was thought the free market was functioning effectively. Certainly it seems there was considerable activity and formal schooling appears to have been becoming the norm for boys. This sense of activity had to remain an impressionistic one and is difficult to quantify.[1] In the early-nineteenth century, families who aimed to raise their sons as gentlemen and who could afford to do so employed tutors to educate their children at home. Home education was though to be more conducive to virtue than the public schools with their low standards of morality and harsh corporal discipline. Rising urban populations and living standards brought an increase in middle-class families able to afford modest fees for private day schooling in their home towns. It was these demands that were to revitalise the grammar schools and subsequently the public boarding schools.

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St Margaret’s School, Durham which was opened in 1861.

Durham University Library, ref Pam L372.9 Dur

Grammar schools responded strongly to demands for middle-class education. Endowed often in the sixteenth century to provide free education for the poor, it was unclear what ‘grammar schools’ were by 1800.[2] Many taught elementary subjects sometimes with classics, took all social classes, included girls and acted simply as the local village or parochial school. The first half of the nineteenth century saw a process of change in three areas. Grammar schools began to change their curriculum, often including commercial subjects alongside the classics. The new curriculum enabled the schools to charge fees. There was a decisive shift to a fee-paying middle-class clientele and away from the poorer former free pupils. [3] The move away from the original charitable intentions of the founders of grammar schools led to several disputes between trustees, who wanted to charge fees, and schoolmasters who did not. The most famous case was between the trustees and schoolmaster at Leeds Grammar School and led to a ten-year case in the Court of Chancery that resulted in Lord Eldon’s judgement in 1805 that grammar schools could not use their endowments to teach non-classical subjects free of charge. The Grammar Schools Act 1840 made it lawful to apply the income of grammar schools to purposes other than the teaching of classical languages, but this change still required the consent of the schoolmaster. Some schools pressed further along the road and turned themselves into boarding schools, Victorian public schools in embryo.[4]

In the mid-nineteenth century, three factors revitalised those grammar schools that had already made the change and those that had not. A new breed of headmaster seemed to appear at this time, of high Victorian moral purpose and strength of personality. Such men often took over ailing or mediocre grammar schools and made them centres of academic excellence: for example, Caldicott at Bristol (1860), Jessopp at Norwich (1859), Mitchinson at Canterbury (1859) and Walker at Manchester (1859).[5] The schools were stimulated by the creation of a system of ‘middle-class’ examinations from the 1850s. T.D. Acland in Exeter started these as a private venture in 1856 but so great was demand that their administration was taken over by Oxford and Cambridge in 1858 and they became known as the Local examinations. For middle-class boys not intending to go to university they were a valuable school-leaving qualification and gave grammar schools something to aim for, and a perception of how they measured up to a common standard. The Higher Locals began at Cambridge in 1868 and at Oxford in 1877. In 1873 the Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examining Board was established.

The third factor was the Taunton Commission that investigated some 800 endowed schools between 1864 and 1867.[6] Its investigations revealed the poor provision of secondary education, its uneven distribution and the misuse of endowments. It also showed that there were only thirteen secondary schools for girls in the country. It addressed the problem of middle-class parents who could not afford to send their children to public schools but who wanted a local grammar school offering a curriculum that would provide entry to universities or to the professions for their sons. The Commissioners recommended the establishment of a national system of secondary education based on existing endowed schools. This solution led to the abolition of free education in grammar schools excluding free boys from the lower middle-class, artisan and tradesman classes who had no university or professional ambitions and enable the curriculum to be determined by the market demand of fee-payers. The Endowed Schools Act 1869 established three Commissioners who, by making schemes and regulations for some 3,000 endowments, created throughout the country the middle-class fee-paying academic grammar school.[7] Their defect was in failing to provide for the tradesman-artisan class who had to resort to the new Board Schools created after 1870.

Public schools differed from grammar schools because they catered for the upper and upper-middle-classes and were boarding establishments.[8] The body of Victorian public schools were made up of various groups. There were the ancient nine schools investigated by the Clarendon Commission in the 1860s (Eton,[9] Winchester, Harrow[10], Charterhouse[11], Rugby[12], Westminster[13], Merchant Taylors’,[14] St. Paul’s and Shrewsbury[15]). To these were added certain grammar schools that had changed their status like Sedburgh and Giggleswick.

There were also waves of new foundations: nine in the 1840s (including Rossall, Marlborough and Cheltenham) and ten in the 1860s (including Clifton and Malvern). Most were run as commercial ventures but many had wider purposes: schools at Lancing and Hurstpierpoint promoted high Anglicanism while those at Cranleigh and Framlingham stressed science and agriculture for farmers’ sons. The schools achieved cohesion informally by inter-school games playing and formally by membership of the Headmasters’ Conference that met first in 1869 initially comprising the non-Clarendon public schools.

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Rugby school c1860

Public schools also underwent a process of changing vitality after 1830. Increasing numbers of middle-class children survived infancy and they could no longer conveniently be taught at home. They had to be sent away to school. Improvements in transport facilities, fast road-coaches and then railways, made possible a national market in education. Newly founded schools or old town grammar schools could set out to attract a regional or even national catchment of clients who would reside as boarders. The growing empire meant that many more families lived abroad but for cultural and climatic reasons they preferred their children to be educated in England in institutions that provided a home environment. Public schools were sought by newly prospering social groups who wished to confirm their status by assimilation with existing landed and professional elites. Thomas Arnold‘s reforms at Rugby and the spread of his masters into other schools raised the moral tone of public schools making them attractive to those who cared for their children’s nurture and who had shunned the violence and neglect of welfare that characterised many public schools before 1830.

Important changes took place in the content of education in public schools. Science was accepted into the curriculum, especially in the 1860s. Various factors changed this situation: the introduction of science degrees in the 1850s; army reforms of the 1850s that placed an emphasis on competitive examining including two papers in science helped by the increase in the numbers of graduate science masters; and a new generation of headmasters with particular interests in science: for example, H.M. Butler and F.W. Farrer at Harrow and Frederick Temple at Rugby. Almost as important as change in the formal curriculum was a change in the value systems of the public schools.

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Thomas Arnold

Thomas Arnold raised the tone of the schools from the 1820s with ‘godliness and good learning’ with the aim of producing the Christian Gentleman.[16] From the 1850s, these ideals came to be replaced by a more secular and robust emphasis on manliness and character training. ‘Muscular Christianity‘, as advocated by Thomas Hughes and Charles Kingsley, equated virile good health with Christian values and in the 1860s was expressed in a concern for organised games, athleticism and militarism.[17] Arnold had effected a change in the ethos of public schools and the changes of the 1860s matched them with secular needs outside.

These developments made public schools highly attractive to social groups of parents somewhat below the traditional clientele and there was a marked change in the social intake of such schools after 1850. In the first half of the century, the social class of parents at eight leading public schools showed that the gentry provided 38.1% of boys, titled persons 12.2%, clergy 12.0% and professional parents 5.2%. There was an expected and large predominance of the rural elites of gentry, titled and clerical families. From the 1850s, there is clear evidence of the rise of business families beginning to send their sons to Winchester and as more businessmen’s sons went to these schools so in turn more public school boys went into careers in business and industry. At Winchester this rose from 7.2% of boys born in the 1820s to 17.6% of those born in the 1850s. These upward trends in businessmen sending their sons to public school and in public schoolboys entering business were to be of great importance. There was a link between class, public school, education and business leadership in the larger companies from the 1860s. An extended public school network gradually replaced the older Nonconformist network that had characterised the early industrial entrepreneurs.

The strong expansion of middle-class education both in grammar and public schools after 1830 was a response to the demands for education from parents. The Royal Commission under Lord Clarendon, established in 1859, looked at the nine ‘ancient institutions’ that still focussed on the classics and which found themselves facing stiff competition from newer and more progressive institutions. Clarendon was concerned that these newer schools were giving the middle-classes a better education that the upper-classes did not have and that this was socially dangerous. The problem of the decaying grammar schools led the government to concede another Royal Commission in 1864, under Lord Taunton, to look at all schools not looked at by either Clarendon or Newcastle.[18] The two Commissions took as a given the stratification of schooling for the middle-classes as it had developed in the first half of the century and formalised it into a hierarchy. At the top were the ‘first grade schools’ modelled on Eton and its eight correspondents, mostly boarding, with a classical education, sending boys to universities. Next came the ‘second grade schools’, mostly day, teaching a Latin but no Greek, whose boys would leave at sixteen. Finally there were ‘third grade schools’, all day, teaching a little Latin, sending boys into employment at fourteen. The three grades were conceived as parallel, separate tracks, only the common study of Latin allowing mobility via scholarships from one track to another for the very bright. The Public Schools Act of 1868 and the Endowed Schools Act the following year greatly helped the process.

The three-grade division proved over elaborate. However, an increasingly clear distinction emerged between schools for gentlemen and schools for those who aimed at respectability not gentility. The problem was not the grading but the opportunities open to the educated. Too many public schoolboys were being produced between 1851 and 1871 when there were fewer opportunities in the Church, law and medicine and young men with middle-class aspirations also outstripped the availability of careers. The fastest growing occupations lay in lower middle-class employment such as clerks and shop assistants to which ex-public schoolboys would be unlikely to be attracted. The Empire provided a safety valve as products of these new schools sought in colonial lifestyles a status they would have been denied at home.


[1] For this area of education see Bamford, T.W., The Rise of the Public Schools, (Nelson), 1967 and Allsobrook, David, Schools for the shire: The reform of middle-class education in mid-Victorian England, (Manchester University Press), 1986.

[2] Timpson, Richard S., Classics or charity?: the dilemma of the 18th century grammar school, (Manchester University Press), 1971.

[3] Edwards, Edward, An inquiry into the revenues and abuses of the free grammar school at Brentwood, (C. Roworth), 1823 demonstrates the problems of turning a free school into a fee-paying one.

[4] Carlisle, Nicholas, A concise description of the endowed grammar schools in England and Wales, 2 Vols. (Baldwin, Cradock and Joy), 1818 provides a detailed description of the development and state of grammar schools.

[5] Hill, C.P., The History of Bristol Grammar School, (Pitman), 1951, pp. 78-107, Saunders, H.W., A History of Norwich Grammar School, (Jarrold and Sons Ltd.), 1932, Mumford, A.A., The Manchester Grammar School, 1515-1915; A Regional Study of the Advancement of Learning in Manchester Since the Reformation, (Longman, Green and Co.), 1919.

[6] Schools Inquiry Commission: report of the commissioners plus Minutes of evidence etc., Parliamentary papers, [3966] H.C. (1867-8), Vol. XXVIII, pt. 1, 1; Parliamentary papers, [3966-I to XX] H.C. (1867-8) and Vol. XXVIII, pts. II to XVII.

[7] Balls, F.E., ‘The Endowed Schools Act, 1869, and the development of the English grammar schools in the 19th century’, Durham Research Review, Vol. 19, (1967), pp. 207-218; Vol. 20, (1968), 219-229 and Goldman, Lawrence, ‘The defection of the middle class: The Endowed Schools Act, the Liberal Party, and the 1874 election’, in Ghosh, Peter and Goldman, Lawrence, (eds.), Politics and culture in Victorian Britain : essays in memory of Colin Matthew, (Oxford University Press), 2006, pp. 118-135.

[8] Chandos, John, Boys together: English public schools, 1800-1864, (Hutchinson), 1984, Huggins, M.J.W. and Rees, A.D.J., The making of an English public school, (Hiroona), 1982 and Simon, Brian and Bradley, Ian C., (eds.), The Victorian public school: studies in the development of an educational institution: a symposium, (Gill and Macmillan), 1975.

[9] Card, Tim, Eton established: a history from 1440 to 1860, (John Murray), 2001.

[10] Tyerman, Christopher, A history of Harrow School, 1324-1991, (Oxford University Press), 2000.

[11] Quick, Anthony, Charterhouse: a history of the school, (James & James), 1991.

[12] Bettinson, G.H., Rugby School, (printed for the author and publisher by Harold Saunders), 1929.

[13] Carleton, J.D., Westminster School: a history, (Country life, Ltd.), 1934, 2nd ed., (R. Hart-Davis), 1965.

[14] Draper, Frederick W.M., Four centuries of Merchant Taylors’ school, 1561-1961, (Oxford University Press), 1962.

[15] Oldham, J.B., A history of Shrewsbury School, 1552-1952, (Oxford University Press), 1952.

[16] Copley, Terence, Black Tom: Arnold of Rugby: the myth and the man, (Continuum), 2002.

[17] Many schools began cadet corps in the 1860s, notably Eton, Winchester, Harrow and Rugby. See, Money, Tony, Manly and muscular diversions: public schools and the nineteenth-century sporting revival, (Duckworth), 1997 and Neddam, Fabrice, ‘Constructing masculinities under Thomas Arnold of Rugby (1828-1842): gender, educational policy and school life in an early-Victorian public school’, Gender & Education, Vol. 16, (2004), pp. 303-326.

[18] Anon. Report from the select committee of the House of Lords on the Public Schools Bill [H.L.], Parliamentary papers, H.C. 481 (1865), Vol. X, 263 and Shrosbree, Colin, Public schools and private education: the Clarendon Commission, 1861-1864, and the Public Schools Acts, (Manchester University Press), 1988, pp. 73-134.

2 comments:

Vanessa Wester said...

Thank you... very interesting article for my research into the period. I will quote your blog in my new book! :)

Richard Brown said...

I'm pleased that you found the blog useful for your research. That's one of the reasons that I posed all the material on nineteenth century society. I've since published Coping with Change: British Society 1780-1914 that built on the blogs, revising and extending them...you might find this useful, If you send me your email address, I'll send you a pdf version of the text.