How to survive a Victorian school

Classrooms in the late 1800s were very different from today: here are a few ways you could have avoided the dreaded cane

(Image source: Pixabay)

Address the teachers properly

School teachers in Victorian times were usually local, unmarried women. Referred to as ‘miss’ to indicate her marital status, once the teacher was married she would usually quit her job to become a housewife. There were also some men who entered teaching roles. They typically held positions in high-achieving private schools, but due to the low pay, most men steered away from most classrooms.
Unlike the rigorous training and education teachers undergo today, Victorian educators were not college graduates and simply learned on the job. Teachers were not known for their patience and understanding and were not shy about using physical disciplinary action

Learn fast and follow the rules

The iconic dunce cone was awarded to those that didn’t learn as quickly as other students. However, although sitting in the corner wearing a paper cone bearing the letter ‘D’ might make you feel like a fool, there were many other, much harsher ways in which Victorian teachers maintained order.
Grasping either a wooden cane or a bundle of birch branches, it was common for teachers to beat unruly children for bad behaviour. Typically, boys were struck on the backsides and girls were caned on the hands and legs. Between the ages of five and ten, anything from laziness to truancy would land you in the firing line for physical punishment. 

Remember the three Rs

A far cry from the wealth of subjects that pupils can study today, back in the 1800s topics of study were limited to Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic – the ‘three Rs’. Religious studies, however, joined the classroom later to make the educational trio a quartet. Using the Bible as a common reference material, children would recite passages to develop their reading and writing skills.
The study of arithmetic was delivered in a similar way to today, reciting times tables and calculating simple sums. It differed, however, with the use of the imperial weights and measures system of the Victorian era. For example, there were 240 pennies in a British pound, weights were measured in pounds and ounces and distances were measured in yards and furlongs. 

Don't write with your left hand

During the Victorian era Christianity informed a pupil’s education, even down to the hand they wrote with. In the Bible, Christ is referred to as the right hand of God, while Lucifer (the devil) is associated with his left side. Because of this, writing with your left hand was seen as an unholy act, resulting in teachers binding the left hand of any children caught doing so behind their backs, forcing them to use only their right hand.

(Image credit: Jongleur100)

'Ragged schools’ vs private education

Compulsory school attendance was introduced in the United Kingdom in 1880 under the Education Act. Before this, education was predominantly only available to those families that could afford it. Male family members attended private schools and females were schooled by governesses in their homes.

However, across the country, church and volunteer-staffed schools were available for poorer families. By 1870 there were around 350 of these charitable schools, also known as ‘ragged schools’, across the UK. Although free to attend, poor families couldn’t afford to lose the potential income children could earn working, and so many poor children were still denied education.


This article was originally published in How It Works issue 131, written by Scott Dutfield 


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