An Elementary Education?

Education provision for poor, rural children in the 1860s was patchy, uncoordinated and more concerned with turning out good Christians who knew their place in society than providing academic opportunity. But change was already well under way. The Industrial and Agrarian revolutions had progressed more or less hand in hand and trotting along in their wake was their slightly runty sibling, the Educational revolution.

The Way We Were...

Children of the well-to do had always been educated, often at home by tutors or governesses. For generations children of the rural poor had been put to work as soon as they were able and learned what they needed by observation and then apprenticeship. A few boys, mostly middle class, were able to attend endowed Grammar Schools. There was one in Malton, five miles from Rillington, one of three endowed in 1547 by Robert Holgate, Archbishop of York, and given the nod by Henry VIII. Housed in the defunct Gilbertine priory at Old Malton drilled up to 60 boys between 8 and 15 years old in the intricacies of Latin grammar. By the late eighteenth century the inadequacies of the Grammar school curriculum in a changing world were becoming ever more obvious and there would be many wrangles over their futures. (ref)

Families with the means could choose a private school. Run as commercial enterprises, their quality varied widely and there was no check or inspection of their activities. Well int the nineteenth century some were so grim that Charles Dickens was moved to expose their cruelties through the creation of the ghastly Dotheboys Hall in ‘Nicholas Nickleby’. It was reputedly based on a real life Yorkshire institution; The Bowes Academy. Dickens actually writes quite a lot about schools, little of it complementary and with a good deal of direct observation behind the fiction. For younger children there were Dame Schools; usually run by elderly women with no other means of support. There was no great necessity for the Dames to be literate and they were often little more than childminding operations. There was one in Rillington in the mid nineteenth century; the quality of education offered is unknown.

And for those without means? Well, there were a scattering of charitable schools. A particularly eccentric example was the Burlington Knitting School, established by one William Bower in 1670, next to The Bayle. (ref) Its aim was to provide training in carding, spinning and knitting to groups of twelve children, both boys and girls, aged between 6 and twelve years. There was also to be some attempt to teach reading and the pupils were to be able to sell their knitted items and keep some of the profits. The school survived into the 1870s, largely supported by the income from a farm at Birdsall, as specified in the will of the philanthropic Mr Bower.

Education, Education, Education…..

The reach of such haphazard provision was far from comprehensive and during the second half of the eighteenth century there was an increasing awareness that this laissez faire approach to education would no longer do. The industrial and agrarian revolutions were concentrating working families in crowded slums and the children would either put to work in mine, mill or factory. Some inevitably fell through the cracks and were forced to to scratch a living from begging or crime. As the urban population grew such children became a visible challenge to the social order.

The first systematic attempt to provide an education for working children was the Sunday School movement, the early examples were in Gloucestershire and attempted to teach reading, writing, basic arithmetic and the bible study to working children on their one free day of the week. In 1785 the Baptist deacon, William Hill set up the Sunday School Society to coordinate and expand the movement.

Free thinkers and non-conformists were very active in early attempts to educate the masses. Joseph Lancaster (1778-1838), a Quaker, set up a free school in 1798 using his own ‘monitorial system’; a teaching method mostly notable for its economy; a sort of educational Chinese whispers whereby the older or more able children were instructed by the teacher, then passed their knowledge to the next cohort.

Lancaster formed “The Society for Promoting the Lancasterian System for the Education of the Poor" in 1808 with other influential non-conformists to raise funds and propagate his methods. He was eased out of the Society after a series of poor financial decisions, questions being raised about educational standards and even bigger questions about Lancaster’s fondness for harsh punishments including the suspension of recalcitrant pupils from the school rafters in a cage. The organisation was then renamed ‘The British and Foreign Schools Society’.

Not everyone was convinced about the need to educate working children. One George Hadley from Hull wrote a history of that city in1788 in which he describes the Sunday school, established there in 1786 as ‘A preposterous institution replete with folly, indolence fanaticism and mischief’ before going on to sneer that ‘a learned labourer is a solecism in language’. There were many people disturbed by the idea of an educated population but it was becoming increasingly obvious that the old social order was changing. The Industrial and agrarian revolutions were demanding a new type of worker with at least a basic grasp of literacy and numeracy. Even farming was beginning to demand numeracy, and increasing mechanisation needed workers who could readily learn the appropriate skills. The early Mechanics Institutes (see later) were a response to this need but the early days, before teaching new skills, they had to patch up deficiencies in primary education.

The new educational initiatives alarmed the Established church by their determined promotion of non-sectarian education, so in 1812 it set up ‘The National Society for Promoting Religious Education’. Its stated aim was " to communicate to the poor generally, by means of a summary mode of education lately brought into practice, such knowledge and habits as are sufficient to guide them through life in their proper stations, especially to teach them the doctrine of Religion according to the principles of the Established Church".

In other words, know your place in Society, believe in God and the Queen, be a good Anglican with non of this non-conformist nonsense, and learn enough to read the Bible and be a useful employee. All for the price of fourpence or sixpence a week! (ref)

By 1833 the National Society was the largest in the country, devouring the lions share of the grants voted by Parliament for elementary education in that year and National schools were springing up in towns and villages all over the country. In the 1840s the first teacher training colleges were set up, including St. Johns in York. A women’s teacher training college was established in Monkgate in 1845.

A tale of Two Schools…

The lane travelling south from the Rillington crossroads is now known as High Street. In the mid nineteenth century two rows of labourer’s cottages called Providence Row and Rattan Row faced each other across a muddy track. In a single storey building, exiled beyond these two rows of cottages, the Rillington National School was established in1847 with the support of the vicar, the Reverend Thomas Addison.

On Wednesday June 13th1849 the pupils were examined in Holy Scripture, Church Catechism, geography, mental arithmetic, grammar and dictation and there was much congratulation all round on the progress of ‘the boys’ and the skills of the schoolmaster, Mr Plumer, all reported by the York Herald.

This event seems to be the high point of the Rillington National School’s achievements. By 1851 the exemplary Mr Plumer has gone, possibly replaced by the 24 year old William Smith. The 1861 census records Edward Denny, Registered National Schoolmaster age 46, and his wife, Mary, schoolmistress living in Westgate, but there are no more congratulatory newspaper reports on record and the Rillington National School largely vanishes from public record. Its worth mentioning that Rev. Thomas Addison, the schools original champion, retires in 1864; it appears his successor, the Rev. MacDowall, was less engaged and the census records suggest no schoolmaster stayed for long. This was not unusual, it was a difficult job providing even the most basic grounding for children of varying ages and abilities. The teacher was also responsible for cleaning, lighting fires and other janitorial tasks and often had to take on other work as government grants were small and the pupil contributions uncertain. In fact it was usual for the teachers’ wages to be dependent on pupil attendance and in a rural area where parents were keen to get their offspring out and bringing home a wage this could be a big problem. Until the Education Act of 1870 the only children for whom education was theoretically compulsory was those resident in the Workhouse (from 1834) and, after 1857, those miscreants considered beyond parental control who were bundled off to Industrial Schools. ref

Given these difficulties it seems unfair that National schoolmasters sometimes found themselves socially isolated (SHEE p288). They were too low down the social hierarchy to mix easily with gentry and landowners, in the case of a Church run school the Vicar was effectively the boss which put a damper on any easy relationship...and of course carousing in the village beer houses with the labourers was out of the question. After 1870 there was a tentative shift in status as teaching became more professional.

The Education Act of 1870 provided for the establishment of Board Schools in areas where there was no efficient provision of education for the poor and also made the first moves towards making education compulsory for all children. A School Board was accordingly set up in Rillington and the new school opened in 1874; confirmation that by this time the Rillington National School was not thriving.

Scampston National School.

On 30th October 1847 a long and congratulatory piece appeared in the York Herald celebrating Scampston School Feast,’under the benevolent auspices of Mrs St. Quintin of Scampson Hall, near Malton.’ The children are first examined in the usual subjects for the time, (including church catechism, scripture history, History, Geography and Arithmetic) by a total of three local clergymen. All examinations proved ‘satisfactory throughout’ and then a huge party, including 150 children and friends, proceeded to the ‘delectable mansion’ of William St. Quintin for tea.

This is the first of many press reports on the Scampston National School, all complementary and all referencing the support of the St. Quintin family who seem to have got behind the school with money, interest and energy. Is sometimes even called ‘Mrs St. Quintin’s school’.

The school log books detail the minutiae of school life, they were regularly submitted to the St. Quintins for perusal and family members, especially Miss St. Quintin, were frequent visitors. Its possible that this close relationship between school and hall was a big factor in the school’s success and longevity. After 1870 it continued much as before, providing an elementary education to the children of Scampston and its surroundings. The St. Quintin family even provided a new building in 1902. The School finally closed in the 1940s. (Pictures?)


Like Rillington National School Scampston seems to have started its life with a Schoolmaster in charge, assisted by a Schoolmistress, usually the master’s wife, to teach sewing. Mr Bull was the Master in 1849, the time of the first glowing press report, Mr and Mrs Douthwaite were in place in 1851.

In 1861 Mr John and Mrs Sarah Pennington were in charge. John (born 1833) was recorded as ‘certified’; in fact a bit more digging finds him a student at York and Ripon Diocesan Training College in Lord Mayor’s Walk at the time of the 1851 census. The census entries also indicate he was born in Rillington. John Pennington was one of a new breed of trained teachers. The York and Ripon College had only been in existence for five or six years when he trained there.

His wife, Sarah, was born Sarah Ann Paterman – or maybe Pateman or Peterman (spellings vary) in 1835. She was the daughter of George Paterman/Pateman/Peterman; a Scampston gamekeeper originally from Driffield. The John and Sarah married in September 1855, Sarah, then aged 20, was described as a ‘schoolmistress, (resident in) Scampston’. At the moment it is not possible to know if she was an assistant or in overall charge at the time. In 1846 the Committee of the Privy Council on Education, headed by Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth had introduced the Pupil Teachers scheme which aimed to create ‘apprentice teachers’ who would be trained and examined. It was intended to end the inefficient monitorial system which simply aimed to pass gobbets of information down the ranks of pupils. Its possible that Sarah had been a pupil teacher.

The St Quintins seem to have been happy to embrace new developments in education and there was another one on the horizon.

A First Rate Mistress…..

The Penningtons left Scampston some time after their daughter, Sarah Minnie was baptised there on September 15th 1867. Scampston National School would no longer governed by a married couple. The 1871 Census for that year records Henrietta Dunne as schoolmistress (certified) and Church organist. Teacher training colleges for women had opened soon after those for men and by the 1860s the proprietors of some schools had come to the conclusion that a good schoolmistress was a better proposition than an indifferent master.

Of course women were cheaper. A man with the education and the personal qualities to make a success of a National School was likely to have other career options, either in education or other areas and many schoolmasters had large and expensive families. Women had fewer respectable career options and less incentive to chase higher wages. They were likely to have other advantages too including practice in wrangling small children and useful knowledge of needlework and other domestic skills.

In 1859 John Fitzwygram, vicar of Shipbourne in Kent, wrote a pamphlet called ‘Hints for the Improvement of Village Schools and the Introduction of Industrial Work’ which enthusiastically promotes the case for employing schoolmistresses on grounds of economy and general usefulness. Fitzwygram argues that in addition to the basic academic curriculum, girls should be taught ‘domestic economy’ (cooking and baking) and laundry skills as well as the traditional needlework while the boys are put to work in the garden on the grounds that it is the acquisition of such practical skills that will entice parents to keep their children in school. Not to mention the boost to school funds from selling baked goods and taking in laundry.

It was progress of a sort. An acknowledgement that ‘women’s work’ involved skills and girls would benefit from systematic training. From a modern point of view his ideas were patronising and could be interpreted as teaching the poor to be more efficient at managing their poverty, to be grateful and accept their lot in life. There must be no suggestion that the children of labourers are getting a better education than the children of tradesmen.

On the surface National School system offered no encouragement to a child determined to change his circumstances for the better, but teaching a child to read, especially a child with a curious mind and a sense of purpose, is a powerful gift in itself.