Learning and Teaching History: A Reflection on Practice

15. ‘We must educate our masters...’

Sometime around 1800 one John Leedham, an inhabitant of the small village of Dadlington near Market Bosworth in Leicestershire, joined thousands of others who were leaving the countryside to work in the ‘dark Satanic mills’ of William Blake’s Jerusalem – in his case in nearby Leicester. John’s son, William, born in 1802, was described as a ‘framework knitter’ when he married in 1830, that is to say he operated machinery producing ‘hose’ – stockings by another name. It seems that this William could not read or write for he simply ‘made his mark’ in the register. William’s son Thomas began his career hand-carting coal round the streets of Leicester, soon making enough money to purchase a horse and eventually becoming the biggest coal merchant in the city. By then he was in partnership with three of his fifteen children who sold the business after his death and retired on the proceeds. The youngest of the fifteen, Harry Ewart Leedham, who died in 1965, was my grandfather.

The history of the Leedham family is typical of those who did well out of the great change in people’s lives that we call the Industrial Revolution. Within four generations of leaving the countryside (where they were too obscure even to merit a memorial in the churchyard) they had entered the middle class and had become substantial property-owners. Harry Leedham married Bessie Burnett, the daughter of an engine driver and ASLEF shop steward. Their son, my father, having been apprenticed as a carpenter and stonemason, became a factory manager and I completed my family’s ascent by going to Oxford University where I mixed with the sons of dukes and future cabinet ministers. What is extraordinary is that the social revolution which made all this possible took place without violence or bloodshed, contradicting Marx’s dictum that no ruling class would surrender power voluntarily. On the contrary, the process was led by the ruling class, just as the rise of Parliament in the Middle Ages was promoted rather than obstructed by monarchs who needed a broader basis of consent for their costly policies.

Of course, there was opposition along the way but it was almost always won over by the willingness of the revolutionaries to proceed in stages, preserving outward forms. As we shall see, a prime example of such a change was the introduction of a universal system of free education but it applied to many other aspects of social reform, including health and the regulation of working conditions. Before the Industrial Revolution the role of government had been restricted to defence of the realm and the maintaining of public order. After it, there were few aspects of the ordinary citizen’s life that were untouched by what some have termed the ‘nanny state.’

There were losers as well as winners in this process of transformation. Industrialisation created social problems on a scale never seen before, as may be judged by the growth of a city like Manchester. A town with a population of just seven thousand people in 1750, by 1850 it was a sprawling metropolis of 700,000 with over 900 mills. Many of the new people were Irish immigrants crammed into the notorious ‘back-to-backs’ – dark, narrow streets of tiny cottages with one room upstairs and one room down, no indoor privy and drains which discharged directly into the river - which was also the source of drinking water. This was the domain of ‘King Cholera’ described in graphic detail by the German factory-owner Freidrich Engels when he visited the city in 1848. Violence, drunken-ness and prostitution abounded; diseases spread like wildfire because no-one understood how they were caused; wages were low and unemployment rife. How could such a ‘netherworld’ exist alongside the vast wealth that it was helping to create?

The answer according to Engels and his colleague Karl Marx was a single word - ‘capitalism’. In the Middle Ages, they argued, the only real form of wealth was land. Much of what the land produced was consumed by the serfs who produced it, although the best produce was taken as rent by the owners of the land - a small class of hereditary parasites including warriors and churchmen. Cash was relatively rare; transactions were mostly in kind (for the whole of the Middle Ages the canons of Exeter Cathedral received a daily ration of bread).

When the Black Death (1348) created a shortage of labour and serfs began to demand payment in money, the amount of coin in circulation increased. Skilled trades developed and merchant guilds; towns grew. Rich men still tried to book a place in Heaven by giving money to the church however, and it was not until the Reformation made the adornment of churches unfashionable that those with wealth sought more worldly uses for it. Elizabethan gentlemen formed partnerships (‘companies’) to invest in trade with far off countries like India, the fortunate ones accumulating a great deal of spare ‘capital.’ It was this that provided the funds for the improvements in agriculture already referred to as well as the cash to build factories when a growing population needed clothes. It also meant that more and more wealth was gathered into fewer and fewer hands, a process accelerated by competition and by the growth of banks to extend the money supply.

Marx and Engels believed that the gap between rich and poor would go on getting wider as long as what they called ‘the means of production’ remained in private hands. Eventually the whole system would come crashing down in a violent revolution when workers would seize control of farms and factories (and banks would be abolished). Following a period of ‘dictatorship’ (necessary to oversee the redistribution of wealth and ensure that there was no counter-revolution) government would wither away. Property would then be held in common, giving rise to the term ‘communist’ to describe those who believed in these ideas. Some, like the artist and craftsman William Morris, thought the revolution would usher in a new age of cheerful simplicity when men would be valued for their skills rather than their origins or income and work would become a pleasure, willingly undertaken for the common good.

One factor that Marx and Engels did not take into account in their predictions of the future was the improvement in living standards that capitalism would bring to an increasing proportion of the population for whom – like my family – it offered real and lasting benefits. Since the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign the opportunity to engage in business has provided a way for working class boys (and increasingly, girls) to better themselves without the need for any kind of revolution. Thus ‘social justice’ as an aim of society has given way to ‘equality of opportunity’ and ‘social mobility’ has replaced ‘socialism’ as the creed of New Labour.

The key to social mobility is, and always has been, education. In Tudor times, the butcher’s son Thomas Wolsey became Cardinal-Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor of England because his father paid for him to go to university at the tender age of fifteen whilst another bright boy who escaped relatively humble origins in this way was the diarist Samuel Pepys. However the notion of universal education was slow to take hold in Britain, partly because of the existence of so-called ‘public’ schools, attendance at which defined a boy as a member of the ‘elite’, and partly because for many years education for the poor meant ‘religious’ education, either in a school established by the Church of England or in one set up by a rival, non-conformist, congregation. These vested interests fought long and hard to avoid the state taking over, only giving in when it became all too obvious that ‘national efficiency’ was being hindered by low standards of numeracy and literacy in the population at large. Even so, the first Elementary Education Act passed by Parliament in 1870 was another case of revolution by stages. It allowed all existing schools to continue, only supplementing these where there were insufficient places for all the children in a district to receive an education if their parents wanted it. However, the new ‘board’ schools enjoyed certain advantages. Occupying up-to-date buildings and partly funded by the rates, they tended to out-perform their voluntary competitors. As time went on many church schools opted in to the state system, until in 1902 all elementary schools came under the control of newly established education authorities.

What did these schools teach? In his novel ‘Hard Times’ Charles Dickens satirised the kind of education that was based upon ‘facts,’ irrespective of their meaning. ‘Basic skills’ were certainly at the heart of the curriculum in Victorian times, with children being tested every year by visiting HMI on their ability to read, write and add up. With part of the school’s income depending upon its pupils’ performance in these tests (‘payment by results’) teachers naturally concentrated their efforts on the ‘three Rs’.

And yet there were always voices raised in support of a wider spread of subjects, not least HMI themselves. In due course, schools were allowed to submit history, geography, craft and needlework as subjects to be examined by inspectors, though one exchange, quoted by R.R. Sellman in his informative little book ‘Devon Village Schools’, leads one to wonder how effective the teaching had been. HMI: ‘which side of a building is warmest?’ Pupil: ‘insoide zur.’

Opinions as to the effectiveness of the 1870 Act varied at the time and have varied ever since. Reporting to the Education Department in 1895 one inspector wrote: ‘anyone who can compare the demeanour of our young people at the present day with what it was five and twenty years ago must notice how roughness of manner has been smoothed away, how readily and intelligently they can answer a question, how the half-hostile suspicion with which they regarded a stranger has disappeared; in fact how they have become civilised.’ On the other hand, in his play The Importance of Being Earnest (1898), Oscar Wilde has Lady Bracknell condemn ‘the whole theory of modern education’ as ‘radically unsound.’ It would lead, she predicted, ‘to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.’ In fact there’s no evidence that anyone was radicalised by attendance at a public elementary school. If anything the reverse was true. Writing about the outbreak of World War One in 1914 A.J.P. Taylor attributed the eagerness shown by men volunteering to fight to the patriotism which they had absorbed in school.

For those intending to teach the most important point is that the public in general supported the schools. Thus in 1896, the distinguished historian and lawyer, Sir James Bryce, could make the following ringing declaration in the report that bears his name: ‘all a good teacher needs is command of means and a free hand.’ Only when teachers appeared to have lost public confidence did it become possible for the Conservative government of Mrs Thatcher to take back control of the curriculum and reintroduce a system of national tests concentrating on a narrow range of subjects. In doing so it set the education clock back a hundred years.

Meanwhile the cause of ‘national efficiency’ had advanced down many other paths, often as not in response to obvious abuses. Thus the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which created the notorious workhouses, was the result of an attempt to bring an untidy and inefficient system of ‘outdoor relief’ up to date. The Public Health Act of 1844 was largely a response to vicious outbreaks of cholera in the preceding years. The Adulterated Food Act put a stop to the growing practice of adding sometimes poisonous substances to basic foodstuffs in order to increase profits. Even the notorious Contagious Diseases Act which allowed any woman found on her own within a mile of a military barracks to be arrested had its origins in an attempt to prevent the nation’s armed services being decimated by venereal disease. This act was so outrageous in the eyes of respectable women that it led to the birth of the Suffragette Movement – a parliament that included women, it was argued, would never have passed such a measure.

Many of these acts were the result of pressure being brought to bear from outside Parliament by particular individuals, such the campaign to abolish slavery (William Wilberforce) and reform the prisons (Elizabeth Fry). The series of acts which limited working hours (1841 onwards) were promoted by Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 7th earl of Shaftesbury, a tireless opponent of cruelty and exploitation. The evil effects of drink led to the growth of a powerful temperance movement and limitation on the times and places where alcohol could be sold (Licensing Act, 1872). Moral crusaders also achieved the banning of pornography (Obscene Publications Act (1859) and homosexual relationships, even in private (1885). Often, action in Parliament followed some major scandal, much as it does today (cf the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991).

Crime generally was tackled with increasing success and skill by newly established police forces, beginning with London in 1829. With more criminals being caught, what was society to do with them? It is not often realised that the building of prisons took second place only to the London sewage system as the most expensive item on the budget of central government in the 19th Century. The names of some of these institutions – Pentonville, Holloway, Wormwood Scrubs – remain notorious to this day. Most were built on the ‘silent’ or ‘separate’ system, where prisoners were kept in strict isolation from one another (criminality being thought to be contagious like typhoid or cholera). Only when the incidence of insanity amongst prisoners had increased to alarming proportions (and the crime rate had not decreased) was this expensive system abandoned.

However briefly summarised, acts of Parliament sound like dull stuff after the drama and colour of Tudor politics. Many an interest in history has been destroyed by the need to remember a succession of names and dates that by themselves mean nothing, important as they are to the formation of modern society and the problems it faces. The best way to create some sort of pattern is to see Victorian society trying hard to manage change without being run over by it. Everything was happening on a bigger and bigger scale, overwhelming institutions and practices that had served the country well for hundreds of years. The labels ‘Liberal’ and ‘Conservative’ that came into common use later in Victoria’s reign describe different attitudes to a transformation whose reality no-one doubted. Conservatives wanted to slow the process, Liberals wanted to hasten it; both parties sought stability.

This is nowhere better seen than in relation to the franchise and here we have to remember some basic facts about the British constitution and the way it came into existence. To begin with kings ruled, inviting whom they wished to advise them (though it was assumed they would choose from those who were nearest to them in rank i.e Lords). When a broader basis of consent was required, generally to raise taxes, other groups in society were asked to choose representatives (gentlemen in the country areas, merchants in the towns i.e. Commons). This happened first in the reign of Henry III and became a regular practice in the reign of his son Edward I. Methods of election to the House of Commons varied from place to place, with just a few electors in localities where the population had declined (for example, the mound in Wiltshire called Old Sarum, once a sizeable community) to other places where everyone with a home to call their own could vote. By 1832 too many people were outside the system, especially the newly wealthy. Like all the other ramshackle institutions inherited from the past Parliament had to be modernised.