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Leicester Special Collections

A Pupil's Day

Compilation of recordings containing memories of Schooldays during the Victorian and Edwardian era, including talk about discipline and the types of lessons taught, from the East Midlands Oral History Archive. A full transcript can be fonud here:

Owing to the size of the classes in Victorian schools, which commonly contained about 60 or even 80 children, teaching was, of necessity, regimented and strict, with limited opportunity for creativity on the part of either teacher or pupil.  The pattern of most lessons was for the teacher to write information on a blackboard and the children to copy or declaim it.  The majority of teachers were unmarried women, who had no option but to accept the low salaries on offer, and they were often not educated to a high level themselves.  It was not unusual for particular children to be singled out by the Head to become ‘monitors’, charged with helping to maintain discipline or even, if they showed academic promise, assisting with teaching.  Discipline was harsh, caning commonplace, and any slowness on the part of a student was usually put down to laziness and inattention, with no allowances made for different aptitudes or learning difficulties.  Teaching concentrated on Reading, Writing and Arithmetic, with great emphasis being placed on the ability to memorise facts and figures and to write neatly – and left-handedness being punished.

George Hawtin's Exercise Book, (Warmington, 1850)

George Hawtin, Exercise Book, (Warmington, 1850), p. 41, John Hersee Manuscript Collection H13    

How arithmetic was taught

The John Hersee manuscript collection of exercise books, predominantly mathematical, dating from between 1704 and 1907, not only throws light on how mathematics was taught, but also illustrates the stress placed on orderly layout and good handwriting.  Hersee, who graduated from Oxford with first-class honours in Mathematics, embarked on a career in teaching, becoming influential in the development of a national curriculum through his work on the School Mathematics Project.  His interest in the history of how the subject had been taught led him to collect approximately 200 examples of exercise books, along with numerous textbooks.  In 2004 his collection was donated to the Mathematical Association, of which he was an active member for many years and President in 1992-3.  Most of the exercise books, like this example from 1850 belonging to George Hawtin of Warmington School, deal with elementary subjects, chiefly arithmetic and mensuration.  Hawtin’s book is distinguished by its delicately painted vignettes, this bird for example, which fills the small space remaining, after he has worked out the distribution of the contents of an old gentleman’s will – the money to be divided in specified amounts between poor women, boys, girls and ‘ancient men’, with the remainder going to the executor.

The Child’s Companion and Juvenile Instructor, 1892


He never would be conquered by any difficulty again

The Child’s Companion and Juvenile Instructor was issued between 1846 and 1921 by the Religious Tract Society, with the aim, as its name suggests, of promoting literacy, numeracy and respectful conduct, as well as Christianity.  The heavy moralising tone of its stories was sweetened by attractive illustrations, such as this one of Harold Hewitt, in detention and struggling with a difficult sum.  He finds inspiration in the words of a card given to him by his Sunday school teacher, ‘Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might’*.  And, of course, his new-found perseverance and effort pays off – after a brief interruption, when he leaps out of the window to rescue a child and baby who have fallen out of their pram.  ‘He resolved that, by God’s help, he never would be conquered by any difficulty again, but would always try to conquer it’*.

The Child’s Companion and Juvenile Instructor, (London, [1892]), p. 116, PER 050 C4731.3

Thomas Little's Exercise Book


What will be the expense of the whole?

A number of the Hersee exercise books, for example this one belonging to Thomas Little, which is undated, are concerned with surveying calculations.  Here Thomas is working out the cost of paving the front courtyard and path of a house.  ‘A gentleman has ordered a rectangular courtyard to be paved, which measures 45 feet 9 inches in front and 35 feet 6 inches broad.  A footpath 5 feet 6 inches in breadth, leading to the front door of his house, is to be laid with Portland stone at 2s. 6d. per square foot and the rest with Purbeck stone at 2s. 3d. per square foot.  What will be the expense of the whole?’

Thomas Little, Exercise Book, ([s.l.], [n.d.]), p. 72, John Hersee Manuscript Collection L1 

Master Burrington's Exercise Book

Master Burrington, Exercise Book, (Lapford, [n.d.]), p. 69, John Hersee Manuscript Collection, B15b

Find the area of this marsh

Here is another exercise book of surveying calculations from the Hersee Collection; also undated, it is compiled by Master Burrington of Lapford Academy in Devon.  A whole series of problems, like this example working out the area of a marsh, uses fields or locations near Lapford. Burrington’s calculation is on the following pages.

A Register of the Lessons and Good-Bad Conduct of Master Geo Grundy, (Burton-Upon-Trent, 1848)

A Register of the Lessons and Good-Bad Conduct of Master Geo Grundy, Commercial School, Burton-Upon Trent, (Burton-Upon-Trent, 1848), *p. 1, **p. 2 & pp. 4-5, SCM 04764

Whenever the three marks 000 are used, corporal punishment … will be resorted to

This register records the attendance and good or bad conduct of Master Geoffrey Grundy of the Commercial School, Burton-Upon-Trent, for a ten week period, beginning on 20 January 1851.  It opens with an address ‘To Parents’, which emphasises how vital their participation in the process of education is: ‘The regularity of the Pupil’s attendance at School is a duty chiefly incumbent upon the Parents, and should this be neglected, neither Master nor Pupil can make good the deficiency’*.    The stated aim of the record is to provide ‘an impartial and unobjectionable medium’ through which the parent can exercise ‘that authority with which nature has invested him in the best manner’, since, interestingly, ‘the authority of the Parent is paramount both over Teacher and Pupil’*.  The marks 1, 2 and 3 represent ‘the three degrees of merit’, with 3 being the highest, and the marks 0, 00 and 000 ‘the three degrees of negligence or misconduct’**.  ‘Whenever the three marks 000 are used, corporal punishment, or a Task proportionate to the delinquency will be resorted to’**.  Fortunately for him, Geoffrey did not receive the mark 000 during this period, though 00 is not uncommon in his record.

The College of Hard Knocks

When recalling their schooldays for the East Midlands Oral History Archive, several interviewees refer to their experiences of corporal punishment and to the random and unjust way in which this was sometimes administered by their teachers.  Twins Ada and Ida Manger recall the teacher, who used to say, ‘I’ll knock you into the middle of next week, if you don’t do it’*.   Joe Foster Wardle, who attended Green Lane School in Leicester, praises the teaching as ‘really marvellous’, but remembers that, ‘we … used to call it the College of Hard Knocks, because they caned us so much … There was one teacher who didn’t like little boys and I mean little in size.  I was a very small child … He would fetch you out and cane you before the class and that’s just really to satisfy his own feelings … we used to have big cupboards we used to keep books in … he’d make you clear the bottom shelf out and lock you in … perhaps for the whole of the morning …’**

East Midlands Oral History Archive, Special Collections Online, *, **

Sketch of an Errant Boy Being Birched by his schoolmaster, 1825

[John Russell],Rudiments of the Latin Language: for the Use of Charterhouse School, (London, 1825), sketch opp. p. 7, SCS 03048 

Discipline at Charterhouse

This pencil sketch of an errant boy being birched by a schoolmaster, while a figure, whom we may guess is the Headmaster watches on, smoking his pipe, drinking port and putting his feet up, perhaps to relieve the symptoms of gout, is from a Latin and Greek textbook for the use of pupils at Charterhouse School, which belonged to George Berney.  It was drawn for Berney by his contemporary in Churtons Boarding House, John Leech, who went on to become a preeminent cartoonist for Punch.  A selection of sketches from this unique volume will be on display in the small exhibition case by the basement stairs during June and July.


Taking a whopping

In November 1853 at Harrow School, an incident took place, which provoked a national debate on the rights and wrongs of the monitorial system, introduced by the current Headmaster Dr Vaughan, whereby selected boys were ‘invested with a species of power over their schoolfellows … employed for the maintenance of general order’*.  One such boy, the son of Baron Platt, became embroiled in a petty row over the rules of rugby with a fellow-pupil, Stewart, son of the Earl of Galloway, and reacted by summoning Stewart to his study, to cane him for impertinence.  Stewart maintained that he had simply spoken the truth and refused to submit, but Vaughan advised him ‘to take the whopping as there was no cowardice in taking anything from a legal power**’.  Stewart sent this description of the ordeal that followed to his father:

He then gave me thirty-one cuts as hard as ever he could across the shoulder blades with a cane more than an inch in circumference … and with such force that he had to stop almost every cut to bend back the cane, it was so curled with the violence of the blow.  I almost fainted during it …**

Stewart was immediately taken to the school doctor, Hewitt, who pronounced that his arm was swollen 4 inches above its natural size:

There was a place two inches broad, from one arm to the other, as black as ink, as if I had been stained**.

*The Times, (London, 13 April 1854), p. 9, issue 21714, Times Digital Archive

**Randolph Stewart Galloway, Observations on the Abuse and Reform of the Monitorial System of Harrow School, (London, 1854), pp. 5-6, SCM 06591

Every boy is entitled to receive supervision at the hands of proper masters

There can be little doubt that the amount of public attention given to this case reflected the status of the participants.  Both families rushed into print to put their cases.  The Times concluded that ‘the broad principle may be surely laid down that every boy at every school is entitled to receive such supervision as he requires at the hands of proper masters without any delegation of such authority to boys like himself’.  Even Lord Palmerston became involved, protesting at this abuse of monitorial powers.  However, although Platt was demoted, Vaughan vigorously defended the system, arguing that the only alternative would be creating ‘a body of ushers’, who, crucially, would be ‘masters of a lower order, to follow boys into their hours of recreation … as spies’*.  So the system survived, although in future a monitor was not allowed to administer punishment for an offence committed against him personally.

The Times, (London, 13 April 1854), p. 9, issue 21714, Times Digital Archive

*Charles John Vaughan, A Letter to the Viscount Palmerston … on the Monitorial System of Harrow School, (London, 1854), p.  9, HIGSON RN 012 977

A Manual of Manners; or Hints for the Proper Deportment of School Boys, 1830

*J. Robinson, A Manual of Manners; or Hints for the Proper Deportment of School Boys, (London, 1830), front. & *pp. 8-12, SCS 02739

Never publish what has been transacted in school

This little manual of manners for schoolboys, written by J. Robinson, a teacher at the Free School in Bunny, and first published in 1829, was designed to be small enough to carry in your pocket and refer to.  It advises a boy how to behave correctly in all areas of his life, stressing throughout the importance of discipline, silence and deference.  Robinson gives multiple instructions for conduct in school, some of which may have produced better results than others:

Behave to your teachers with due submission, and treat your school-fellows with proper respect …

If a school-fellow gives you any annoyance, mildly desire him to desist; if he will not desist, rise up and waiting an opportunity when your preceptor’s eye is upon you, bow to him and state your complaint as briefly as possible …

Never publish either at home or in any other place, what has been transacted in school: this is very improper; and a tale-bearer is universally despised*

And one further piece of advice, which the caricaturist John Leech would not have heeded:

Keep all your things in proper order, and preserve your books in neat and clean condition; and scrawl not over the leaves and covers of your books as some silly boys do …*

Mrs A. is as well as can be expected, 1840

Percival Leigh, The Comic English Grammar, (London, 1840), p. 108, SCM 06633

As well as can be expected

Although many Victorian school textbooks were extremely dry, some authors and artists tried to present the facts that must be learnt in order to attain the required standard in the three Rs in a more palatable and humorous way.  Here are two examples.  The Comic English Grammar illustrates a section on conjunctions, ‘the hooks and eyes of Language’, with a drawing by John Leech of the proper usage of ‘as’, titled ‘Mrs A. is as well as can be expected’.  The Tutor’s Assistant, or Comic Figures of Arithmetic was written and illustrated by Alfred Henry Forrester, under the pseudonym of Alfred Crowquill, with the aim of enabling the student ‘more readily to turn the TABLES to account, to accelerate his progression, and spare the tutor (and himself) the pain of ‘measuring by the rod’.

Measuring by the rod, 1843

Alfred Henry Forrester, The Tutor’s Assistant, or Comic Figures of Arithmetic, (London, 1843), pp. 2-3, SCM 12843