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Leicester Special Collections


Compilation of recordings containing memories of teachers and the types of discipline found in schools during the Victorian and Edwardian era, from the East Midlands Oral History Archive. Full transcript can be found here:

The First Class in English and Philosophy

Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby, p.41 , SCM 0499

Cold-hearted disciplinarians

Influenced by accounts in literature, the portrayal of schoolmasters in the nineteenth century have become synonymous with the stern, cold-hearted disciplinarian – a trait particularly evident within Charles Dickens’ works of fiction Hard Times and Nicholas Nickleby.

Describing Mr Thomas Gradgrind in Hard Times:

‘The emphasis was helped by the speakers’ square wall of forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves. Overshadowed by the wall. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s mouth, which was wide, thin, and hard set. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s voice, which was inflexible, dry, and dictatorial. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s hair, which bristled on the skirt of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie, as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard faces stored inside’.

Charles Dickens, Hard Times, p.489, SCM 06283

Les Francais, 1841-42


Les Francais

Comparatively the illustrated French journal Les Francais, reinforces this imagery. The journal’s full title, translated as ‘The French painted by themselves: moral encyclopedia of the nineteenth century’, reflects aspects of popular opinion present in the nineteenth century towards the teaching profession.

                                      Les Francais, Vol. 1, (1841-42), p.333, SCM 09295

Harsh, yet fair

Not all experiences of schoolmasters in the nineteenth century were negative however, with the teaching style regarded by students as harsh, yet fair. Recollecting his experience as a pupil of a school in Coalville, Leicestershire, Ernest Andrews describes his pupil-teacher relationship:

 ‘[The schoolmaster] took a good interest in all the children in the school…was known by everyone in the school and you could talk to him.

A good disciplinarian, he wouldn’t take any bad behaviour without trying to correct it’

                        East Midlands Oral History Archive, Special Collections Online, collection/p15407coll1/id/166/rec/3

Mr Johnston's School, 1867

Mr Johnston’s School

The amenable personality of Mr Franklin, schoolmaster in the novella Mr Johnston’s School, instantly contrasts with previous descriptions of the teacher in nineteenth century fiction. Mr Frankson, of jovial character, introduces new sports and games to the young boys gaining awe from his students who regarded him as a‘capital partner’. Such regard led to a favourable gathering, when ‘the master noticed that, as they passed in to dinner, Douglas walked by his side, and several others were not far off’.

Edward Campbell Tainsh, Mr. Johnston's school, or, The new master, (c.1867), p.8, SCS 05156

Social upstarts

Resentment towards the teaching profession may be attributed to the larger class struggles of the nineteenth century. As changes to education progressed rapidly throughout the century, the rise in the requirement for schoolmasters was inevitable. For the young aspiring working class, teaching provided an opportunity to advance up the social ladder – but often led to a division of identity.

‘Teachers in most publically supported schools were viewed by the patrons and parents alike as social upstarts, men and women who had transcended their class origins but were not yet comfortable in their new roles. As such, they were regarded with a mixture of admiration and resentment, and were even occasionally the objects of violence. One teacher at a London ragged school reported that his coat was taken by students as a sign of the class with which they were at war; assaults by pupils on teachers were common’.

Lawrence Stone (Ed.), Schooling and Society: Studies in the History of Education, (London, 1976), p200, 370.9SCH

Experiment in education

Throughout the nineteenth century changes to the schooling system and its pedagogy progressed at a rapid succession. The beginning of the century saw early pioneers such as Dr Andrew Bell announce an ‘experiment in education’, of which school structures were focused upon the Monitorial System, where a teacher instructed older pupils (monitors) who each passed on the lesson to a number of other pupils, usually consisting of large class sizes.

H. M. Beatty, A Brief History of Education, (London, 1922), p.148, 370.9BEA

Improvements in Education, 1808



This Monitorial System was adopted and implemented on a larger scale by Joseph Lancaster (1778-1838), disseminating its use by schools across the country.

Lancaster’s published tract ‘Improvements in Education’, records anecdotes of successful uses of school monitors and acts as an instruction manual for the organisation and implementation of the Monitoral System within schools.

Joseph Lancaster, Improvements in education, (1808), SCM06872

Pupil teachers

Government funding helped to replace the Monitorial System used in many Voluntary schools, and from the 1840s pupil teachers (apprentices) were introduced. Through the use of pupil teachers, the division of schools became more practicable, as pupil teachers could usually be given more independence of action than monitors.

The document below is a letter of appointment certifying Helen A. Pottinger as a pupil teacher in 1877.

Letter of Appointment, from Collection of Victorian Letters, MS 254


Government influence and expectations

Voluntary schools (those supported by sponsors), had origins in promoting religious and social cohesion through an emphasis on reading, scriptural knowledge, Christian duties, and morality (instruction in writing, arithmetic and sewing were added to attract pupils). However, government influence (strengthened by inspection and the extension of the grant system) together with the rising expectations of the artisan class promoted improved and more uniform standards and greater curricular secularisation. More emphasis was placed on the 3 Rs, and subjects such as history and geography were introduced.

An insight into nineteenth century curriculum can be revealed through the account book of a school master from c.1830-1850s, which also records the resources required for lessons, and their expenses.

                                      Account book of a School Master, c.1830-1850s, MS 253