In the 1840s most education was a fairly rudimentary, disorganised affair, as can be seen from the following accounts:

A Walsall Schoolteacher at Work in the 1820s

After a few weeks' consideration, I thought I would try a day and evening school. Having a large chamber in my house, I advertised myself to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic, at a cheap rate. This seemed in a few weeks to promise very fair, so that I had often as many boys as I could well manage, especially of that clownish and refractory description that my neighbourhood produced: surely, thought I, never had a schoolmaster such an awkward squad of juvenile clodpoles to teach as fell to my lot: I had read somewhere of the miseries of the schoolmaster, and certainly it was now my case; for I had to cultivate ignorance of the grossest kind, and stupidity in its natural state. Here was hob and dog - pitman and clayman and all such kind of "stars of the earth." Some great brawny faced boys from the straw yard, with their little blue smock frocks, stiffened with grease, and their hair, twisted in dirt, sticking out like bunches of radishes laid on their heads, and, perhaps, interwoven with cow hair, and with hobnailed shoes a pound weight each. Another class of miners' child would be clad in thick coarse velvet, made large enough for them to grow in for years; their trousers furled up six inches above the ankle; the coat tail down to their heels; shoes well hobnailed; and their hair resembling a furze bush, with, perhaps, some straw in it; all as ignorant as the young animals of the field; no kind of decency taught them at home, they were naturally hardened in impudence. I had often to fatigue myself with caning them; but the velvet squad bid me defiance. I might just as well flog the coat of the rhinoceros, to make him feel as them; so I had to make them strip; this was required before I could obtain any sort of order and obedience. Again, a mother would bring a fresh boy by the hand, and say, "Please sur, yo munna gie this boy the stick; hey's a nice lad, hey'll do onythink yo tell'n him." "Very well, I shall try him," said I; when, perhaps, before the day was over, I have found him an incorrigible little ruffian; so I would send him back to his "ma," with my compliments, to educate her darling boy herself. Another "ma" would bring her offspring, and say, "Sur, this lad is such a tygar, as I dunna kno' what to do with him. Yo mun gie him the cayen well, and never mind how he cries." "I will try him," I would say; when I should find this child the very opposite of the other; of good intellect, docile, tractable, and pleased to be instructed. So much for mothers' judgment of their own children. To be sure my flock were not all of the wild sort; being mixed, I had some boys of respectable trades people, which of course were of a superior quality, and, therefore, less troublesome. Scarcely any of them were allowed to remain long enough with me, to receive much profitable learning, or to do me any credit.

Thomas Jackson
Narrative of the Eventful Life of Thomas Jackson (1847)

The following is from a report by the Children's Employment Commission in l843:

Sunday School in Walsall (1841)

Mr. Stephen Green, aged, 35, Bit maker:

Superintends the Church Sunday school. Thinks that the way in which children and young persons are treated here is not severe, except from hard work, and for too many hours. Thinks that the indoor apprentices of the better sort of masters, are in a better condition than the children who are hired by the week; their parents are careless of them; that is too frequently the case. Thinks that the apprentices of the poorer classes of masters are pretty well fed, and not beaten, but in many cases badly clothed. There are as many as a thousand children attending the Parochial Sunday school, regularly, in a general way. There are ten of these schools open every Sunday: some of them are open two nights a week for writing.

Teaches himself at the Bridge school; only teach reading in the Scriptures there. Does not teach upon any system, no regular system of instruction is adopted in any of the Sunday schools. All the teachers attend gratuitously, and are regular in their attendance, in a general way. Some of the employers who are of a religious disposition take an interest in the education of the children, but the majority none at all. Is afraid the parents also are too indifferent about it, in a general way; they get the children off to work as early as they can, and then think no more about them, except what money they can make a week. Children go to work as early as seven and eight years of age in the mines, and at light work such as buckle making, and lapping up. Has seen some at work younger than seven years of age.

William Henry Duignan, age 16 "last birthday":

Was a teacher in the principal church Sunday school for two years. This was only four months ago; there were then between 200 or 300 on the books. The average attendance every Sunday was about 180 or 200. There were seven or eight teachers in the upper school; one of the teachers was an umbrella maker, pitted with the smallpox, and with long straight hair, very knock kneed, and wore a white hat. Is sure by his conversation that if he came to a difficult word he would not be able to go on; has heard him teach, and seen him at it several times. He used a strap with a buckle at the end of it, in the course of tuition. If a boy did not look at his book, or if he misbehaved himself, this teacher gave him a pretty smart blow on one side of his head, or the middle of it, so that the buckle hit him. If the boy cried, he was made to stand up on a form, till he left off; most of the teachers five or six out of the seven or eight, used this strap and buckle.

Another teacher named ------, used to drive a donkey cart, with coals in it, on the weekdays, and taught boys to read parables on Sunday. Thinks from the general conversation of this teacher he was not a very competent man. He spoke broad, like a collier; believes he was a steady man, and a sincere man; has no doubt but he was very sincere in religious matters. Another teacher, named ------, was an apprentice to a buckle maker; has heard him teach; does not believe he knew where Jerusalem was.

Recollects the others, but there was nothing particular to note and describe about them, except their incompetency. There were monitors under these teachers (but not under their control) who first taught the children the alphabet. None of the teachers taught upon any particular method or system, but endeavoured to make the children learn to read somehow, with an occasional help from the strap and buckle. After school was over, the strap and buckle fastened up books. In the girls school thinks it is better managed. Knows some of the teachers there to be respectable and well educated young ladies. Besides, it is thought good of late for young ladies to be religious, and teach in Sunday school. The present rector has excited them. A very stormy preacher; makes many of the ladies very nervous. Gave up teaching in a Sunday school himself about four months ago; because ashamed of the way in which they were carrying on instruction.

Thinks he did very little good himself; had not proper books, and wanted help as to some method. Had no books but parables and a catechism; the children used to learn to spell, but that was abandoned. When the children first came in they had prayers and sung a hymn, which occupied about a quarter of an hour; then they had three fourths of an hour of instruction, and occasional buckle strap; then they went to church.

During church two teachers have each a long pole painted white, (They have still, and use it,) with which they can reach a long way, and give a boy who is noisy or asleep a knock on the head that sounds all along the church. The sound is a sort of jar all across - like hitting something hollow. Assemble again at half past two; then they sing another hymn - then read, and have the same catechism again as in the morning. At a quarter after four they sing another hymn, hear prayers, and school's all over.


W. H. Duignan

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