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19th Century Education in Britain and America

Updated on February 26, 2020
Nathanville profile image

I love history; it forms the basis of my interest in genealogy and has an influence on our itinerary when on family holidays.

Child Labour and Education Laws in Victorian Britain

Child Labour Laws in Britain

Under the 1833 Factory Act no child could work in factories under the age of nine; and the hours children could work was limited, according to their age e.g. 9 to 13 year olds could not work for more than nine hours, and 13 to 18 year olds could not work for more than 12 hours a day.

The Act also prohibited children from working at night and stipulated that all children under 13 years old were given two hours schooling each day. Further limitations were imposed on the exploitation of child labour in factories in successive decades throughout the Victorian era, but it was not until 1966 when Britain adopted UN guidelines that the minimum legal age for children to start work was raised to 14 years.

Compulsory Education in Britain

In the UK, the 1880 Act of Parliament made education compulsory for all children under the age of ten. This was extended to 11 and eventually 13 in the 1893 and 1899 Acts of Parliament respectively.

The Exception to the Rule

In contrast, although George Burgess (my great-great grandfather) was born into a working class family in 1829, his parents owned two homes and could afford to send their children to school. George Burgess left school at age 14, c1843; which for the 19th century was exceptional.

I can only assume that although his parents were only working class, they had inherited wealth that enabled them to give their children a proper childhood and education, which at that time would normally only have been for the privileged few.

American Reform: Education, Society, Religion

A Peek at 19th Century Education

Based on my family history and family documents passed down to me from the Victorian era this article looks at some aspects of school education in America and England during the Victorian period.

The source information passed down to me and used in this article includes 19th century British and American newspaper publications saved by my great-great grandfather (George Burgess 1829-1905) in his scrapbook, writings in his diary, and the life history of his daughter (Gertrude Rosa Burgess) as told to her granddaughter (my mother).

My mother retold me what she was told by her grandmother in an audiotape recording; with an excellent recall for detail she was more than happy to do this. I later transcribed the tapes and published the full text to my Nathanville Family History website.

Education at the Start of Victorian England

As Told By George Burgess in His Diary

George Burgess Left School, aged 14 c1843

My great-great-grandfather George Burgess (1829-1905) wrote in his diary:-

  • "I went to a Church School - and then a "British School" - and finally left off schooling about age 14, a poor scholar."

From my research I think the church schools that George Burgess referred to was probably the ‘National Schools’, established in 1811; the British schools being established in 1808.

Both schools offered education to the children of the poor, and their methodology was the same, which was basically a mentoring system to keep costs down and work within limited resources e.g. whereby the brighter students would aid the teachers to mentor the other pupils.

The only real difference between the two types of schools is that the National (church) schools provide elementary education in accordance with the teachings of the Church of England.

George Burgess came from a working class background. His father was a labourer and his mother was a daughter of John Willis, a Farmer, the "Batch", Hanham, Bristol; although his parents owned two houses in Staple Hill, Bristol.

I'm not sure of his definition of 'a poor scholar' but his education couldn't have been that bad in that he loved reading and writing and went on to become a prolific writer. He even published two books in his profession as a Phrenologist, wrote all his thoughts down in many volumes, wrote poetry and finally wrote his life history in his diary.

George Burgess 1829-1905, born in Bristol, England.
George Burgess 1829-1905, born in Bristol, England.

Playing Truant in the Late Victorian Period

Especially in Remote Parts of Rural England

In the late Victorian era, when by law all children should have been attending school, Keeping Tabs on Children Living in remote rural areas and enforcing the law was a daunting task for the Education Authority; as described by my great-grandmother and her sisters who often skipped school whenever they could.

Excerpt from the life story as told by one of George Burgess's daughters, Gertrude Rosa Burgess (1874-1958), to her granddaughter (Grace Enid Baglin) and later recorded to audio tape from where it was subsequently transcribed into writing.

In telling her life story to her granddaughter Gertrude Rosa Burgess, according to my mother, told her that:-

  • "They (Gertrude and her three sisters) were supposed to go to a country school, but it was quite a while before the authorities caught up with them because they were so isolated in those days. However, when they did go to school, they had to travel some distance on foot; over fields, down lanes and along country footpaths to get to school."

However, in spite of a slow start to her education In the end she did have a reasonable education and on leaving school started work in a Drapery shop in Bristol, and later (before she married) set up her own business as a 'Seamstress'.

George Burgess had four daughters, born between 1871 and 1875; sadly his wife died in 1878 so he had to bring-up his daughters on his own.

At the time when his daughters should have been attending school they were living in a remote farmhouse, Latteridge, Iron Acton, Gloucestershire. They looked after themselves during the week days while their father worked in the Shopping Arcades, Bristol as a Phrenologist. Every weekend George Burgess would make the long 11 miles trek back to Latteridge to be with his children on their farm.

He did, without much success, try to hire a Governess to look after them during weekdays when he was away working in Bristol; but that's another story.

They did however have an older half-brother who was supposed to look after them when their father was working; but that too is another story, as told in full on my Nathanville Family History website.

Gertrude Rosa Burgess and her dog Sam
Gertrude Rosa Burgess and her dog Sam

Non Descriptive Description on How a Steamboat Works

As Described in This Short Victorian Newspaper Article

If there ever was an explanation on how a steamboat works, in this fine example of the miss use of words in a 19th century newspaper then this isn’t one of them.

This I think, is a fine example of how grammar in the written word was often lacking in the early decades of the 19th century in Britain and America.

This Victorian newspaper article is one of over 500 which George Burgess stuck into his scrapbook.

How a steamboat works
How a steamboat works

Early 19th Century American Education

The Delights of Grammar and Spelling

Below are two articles of interest published in American newspapers during the Victorian Era.

  • The first is a list of 'Regulations' sent to a young schoolmistress by the trustees for the government of the school. As can be seen from the image below, this is a prime example of bad grammar and very poor spelling at its worst. It makes you wonder what sort of education the school governors had.
  • The second American newspaper article is a Humorous piece entitle 'Punctuation', which was originally published in a Connecticut School Journal.

Early 19th century American School Regulations
Early 19th century American School Regulations
Punctuation becomes a tick in a 19th century American school, in Connecticut.
Punctuation becomes a tick in a 19th century American school, in Connecticut.

Original Victorian Newspapers

Source Material Free to View Online

This article has been written partly based on Victorian era newspapers saved by George Burgess in his Victorian Scrapbook. To view these Victorian newspapers, transcripts and originals visit my genealogy website below.

Schools provided a good level of education in the 19th Century?

See results

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Arthur Russ

Your Views on Victorian Education

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    • Nathanville profile imageAUTHOR

      Arthur Russ 

      3 years ago from England

      If you wish to learn more about 19th century education, then Wikipedia is a good starting point for comprehensive reliable source of information.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      You write so holsntey about this. Thanks for sharing!


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