Many children in early Victorian England never went to school at all and more than half of them grew up unable even to read or write. Although some did go to Sunday schools which were run by churches. By the end of the Victorian age all children under 12 had to go to school.
The school could be quite a grim building. The rooms were warmed by a single stove or open fire. The walls of a Victorian schoolroom were quite bare, except perhaps for an embroidered text. Curtains were used to divide the schoolhouse into classrooms. The shouts of several classes competed as they were taught side by side. There was little fresh air because the windows were built high in the walls, to stop pupils looking outside and being distracted from their work. Many schools were built in the Victorian era, between 1837 and 1901. Increasing numbers of children began to attend, and they became more and more crowded. But because school managers didn’t like to spend money on repairs, buildings were allowed to rot and broken equipment was not replaced.
The classroom layout was designed to make sure students paid attention at all times. Rows of desks or benches all faced the front, looking towards the blackboard and the teacher herself. The teacher’s desk was often on a raised platform so that all students could be seen easily.
Teachers Children were often scared of their teachers because they were very strict. Children as young as thirteen helped the teacher to control the class. These “pupil teachers” scribbled notes for their lessons in books .They received certificates which helped them qualify as teachers when they were older. In schools before 1850 you might see a single teacher instructing a class of over 100 children with help of pupils called “monitors”. The head teacher quickly taught these monitors, some of them as young as nine, who then tried to teach their schoolmates. Salaries were low, and there were more women teaching than men. The pale, lined faces of older teachers told a story. Some taught only because they were too ill to do other jobs. The poor conditions in schools simply made their health even worse.
The style of teaching was very different, too. Children were not expected to speak except to answer a question, read to the teacher or chant information such as the times table. Many lessons involved copying down facts or lists of dates from the blackboard. Discussion was not seen as a way of learning and neither was group work, both important parts of education today.
Strict discipline was very important in the Victorian school, as many of the students had not been in school before and did not know what behaviour was expected. Many of the teachers were young women and older students who would help to teach the younger ones what they themselves had already learned. Classes were large and could be quite frightening to control at times.
Lessons Victorian lessons concentrated on the “three Rs”-Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic. Children learnt by reciting things like parrots, until they were word perfect. It was not an exciting form of learning! Science was taught by “object lesson”. Snails, models of trees, sunflowers, stuffed dogs, crystals, wheat or pictures of elephants and camels were placed on each pupil’s desk as the subject for the lesson. The object lesson was supposed to make children observe, then talk about what they had seen. Many teachers found it easier to chalk up lists describing the object, for the class to copy. Geography meant yet more copying and reciting - listing the countries on a globe, or chanting the names of railway stations.
Cane Teachers handed out regular canings. Each school kept a “punishment book”, there were many reasons for beatings: rude conduct, leaving the playground without permission, sulkiness, answering back, missing Sunday prayers, throwing ink pellets and being late. Boys were caned across their bottoms, and girls across their hands or bare legs. Some teachers broke canes with their fury, and kept birch rods in jars of water to make them more supple.
Child Labour & The Industrial Revolution
During the 1800s the Industrial Revolution spread throughout Britain. The use of steam-powered machines, led to a massive increase in the number of factories particularly in textile factories or mills.
As the number of factories grew people from the countryside began to move into the towns looking for better paid work. The wages of a farm worker were very low and there were less jobs working on farms because of the invention and use of new machines. Also thousands of new workers were needed to work machines in mills and foundries and the factory owners built houses for them. Cities filled to overflowing and London was particularly bad. At the start of the 19th Century about 1/5 of Britain’s population lived there, but by 1851 half the population of the country had set up home in London. London, like most cities, was not prepared for this great increase in people. People crowded into already crowded houses. Rooms were rented to whole families or perhaps several families. If there were no rooms to rent, people stayed in lodging houses.
Housing The worker's houses were usually near to the factories so that people could walk to work. They were built really quickly and cheaply. The houses were cheap, most had between 2-4 rooms - one or two rooms downstairs, and one or two rooms upstairs. Victorian families were big with 4 or 5 children. There was no running water or toilet. A whole street would have to share an outdoor pump and a couple of outside toilets. Most houses in the North of England were "back to backs" (built in double rows) with no windows at the front, no backyards and a sewer down the middle of the street. The houses were built crammed close together, with very narrow streets between them. Most of the houses were crowded with five or more people possibly crammed into a single room. Even the cellars were full. Most of the new towns were dirty and unhealthy. The household rubbish was thrown out into the streets. Housing conditions like these were a perfect breeding grounds for diseases. More than 31,000 people died during an outbreak of cholera in 1832 and lots more were killed by typhus, smallpox and dysentery.
Chimneys, bridges and factory smoke blocked out most of the light in the towns. A layer of dirty smoke often covered the streets like a blanket. This came from the factories that used steam to power their machines. The steam was made by burning coal to heat water. Burning coal produces a lot of dirty, black smoke.
Child Labour Many factory workers were children. They worked long hours and were often treated badly by the supervisors or overseers. Sometimes the children started work as young as four or five years old. A young child could not earn much, but even a few pence would be enough to buy food.
Mills While thousands of children worked down the mine, thousands of others worked in the cotton mills. The mill owners often took in orphans to their workhouses, they lived at the mill and were worked as hard as possible. They spent most of their working hours at the machines with little time for fresh air or exercise. Even part of Sunday was spent cleaning machines. There were some serious accidents, some children were scalped when their hair was caught in the machine, hands were crushed and some children were killed when they went to sleep and fell into the machine. Those that survived to adulthood had permanent stoops or were crippled from the prolonged crouching that the job entailed. The typical working day was 14 hours long,
Factories and Brick Works Children often worked long and gruelling hours in factories and had to carry out some hazardous jobs. In match factories children were employed to dip matches into a chemical called phosphorous. This phosphorous could cause their teeth to rot and some died from the effect of breathing it into their lungs.
Families were large as many children did not survive childhood. . Three out of every 20 babies die before their first birthday. In Victorian England the average life expectancy was only 40 years old