The Growth of Education for the Poor in Wolverhampton

Before the Industrial Revolution what we now know as Wolverhampton was just a series of villages and the poor children worked on the land. Gradually, as the factories began to spring up, the children were sent to work there.

In 1812 the editor of the Wolverhampton Chronicle drew the attention of parents and Guardians to the "utility of the pin factory in Brickkiln Street as a place of employment for children aged between 8 and 10 years." It did not, it seems occur to him that the children might spend their time in school: indeed the majority of children at this time received little, if any, formal education in school. The Select Committee on the education of the poor in 1818 revealed that most Black Country children were sent out to work by the age of 10, having had an average of 2 years in school. The report states that in Wolverhampton 26% of children eligible for full time education (those under the age of 13 years) were in fact receiving it, whilst 45% of children attended Sunday schools. The provision of schools for the poor in the 19th Century was minimal. The report of the school inspectors in 1847 has the following to say about individual schools:

Wolverhampton St. Johns
Scholars too numerous for one master and mistress (mistress untrained)

Wolverhampton St. Paul’s
Very well managed. The echo in the room is very distressing.”

These two schools mentioned above were attached to the respective churches, indeed all three major denominations had their projects. In May, 1832 a national Church of England school opened in Wolverhampton and to the surprise of many, the numbers admitted had to be increased to 450-550, leaving even then, a. long waiting list. Two years later the nonconformists set up a school in Wolverhampton with provision for 500 pupils and the Roman Catholics also had their school for 100 pupils.

From the 1908 Wolverhampton Red Book.

For those children unable to afford the penny or two pence charged at the Church schools the so-called “ragged school” offered education otherwise denied the children at the very bottom of the social scale. This school began as evening classes in 1848 and the children were taught by generous volunteers whose names were never recorded. Thus, the poorer classes could obtain with difficulty and some expense, a basic skill in reading and writing. Most, unfortunately did not bother and in 1861 of every five couples marrying in Wolverhampton, two men and three women would sign the register with a cross.

In 1860 the Mines Inspection Act forbade employment of children under 12 unless they could provide a certificate saying they had had some education, and in 1867 the Factory Act decided that 15 hours of education per week was necessary for all children under the age of 13. Also in 1867 an Act was passed in parliament giving the vote to every male householder in the town. This invoked immediate pressure for a national government-supported system of education.

The Trade Union Congress of 1869 held in Birmingham re-enforced this view, concluding “Nothing short of a system of national non sectarian and compulsory education will satisfy the requirements of the people of the United Kingdom.” That same year a national education league was formed under radical liberals such as Joseph Chamberlain with the aim of providing rate-aided, non-sectarian schooling with free and compulsory education.

But there remained the problem of the existing church-schools. By 1870 the two factions were locked in battle. The compromise decided upon was that the new School Boards should build and control only the additional schools necessary to make good the inadequacies of the church schools. The Wolverhampton Board met for the first time in 1870 and it consisted of eleven men, who in political terms represented six liberals and five conservatives, and in religious terms, six churchmen, four non conformists and one Roman Catholic.

This Board decided there were already places for 15,000 of the 16,500 child population as recorded in the 1871 census. The additional 1,500 places would be provided immediately, by building schools on Dudley Road and Red Cross Street, in Wolverhampton. School attendances started to grow. In 1876 the average attendance was 57% of children between the ages of 5 and 13 years. By 1899 this figure had risen to 80%.

Compulsory school attendance was adopted in 1872 and the role of School Attendance Officer was created. The Wolverhampton Chronicle reports in March 1880 that were parents being required to "explain to the Byelaws Committee their reasons for the non-attendance and irregular attendance of their children." The health of the children also started to become of interest. The Wolverhampton Chronicle of September 1880 catalogues the Medical Officer of Health for Heath Town's report to the Sanitary Committee of the local School Board. He stated that "it really was lamentable to see such a great sacrifice of life from preventable causes," and he called upon parents to use "the proper mode of feeding" for their children.

Thus, the education system in Wolverhampton as throughout the country generally, began to improve. By 1880 education was still having to be paid for by the individual children, the monitor system of teaching introduced originally by the church schools was still much in evidence, but the numbers of children being educated had greatly increased and despite the tentative nature of progress, nevertheless that progress had begun.


Education for
the Masses


Return to
the beginning


History of
St. Stephen’s 1