I’m sure that we’ve all visited Victorian school rooms and learnt of the fierce discipline in them. In fact Victorian Infant teaching was much more enlightened than I realised, as I found out during a visit to the Wilderspin National School.
it is a typical Victorian brick building in the centre of Barton on Humber, complete with outside toilets. The school was built in 1844 and is the only known survivor of a Wilderspin School. It was a model example of the enlightened form of schooling developed by Samuel Wilderspin which continues today.
He began his teaching career in 1807 as a Sunday School teacher. In 1818 he joined an infant school in Westminster in London. He was inspired by the success of the Robert Owen school in New Lanark with its revolutionary ideas. Both Owen and Wilderspin recognised the importance of educating young children before the age of six.
Wilderspin opened a infant school in Spitalfields, a very poor area in east London and experimented with his ideas. He experimented with his ideas and quickly realised he needed to appeal to the senses of the children and use language they could understand. He also realised it was important to group children in such a way that they could all see and also be seen by the teacher. This lead to the development of the gallery seen in the infant classroom here. He understood that young children need amusement and a variety of activities. He used marching, clapping, singing and free play outside to keep their attention. The playground was his invention with a special rotary swing to develop the muscles and co-ordination. Flower borders not only looked attractive but could also be used to promote learning.
Wilderspin was living in Barton when plans for a school for poor children were being drawn up. He was directly involved in the layout of the school and grounds. Samuel Wilderspin was the first superintendent at this school and was assisted by his wife and one of his daughters. He stayed here for four years, developing his ideas on infant education and wrote his “Manual for the Religious and Moral Instruction of Young Children” while he was here.
He retired in 1848 and was awarded a Queen’s pension of £100 a year. His wife was presented with a silver whistle as a token of the children’s affection. They moved to Wakefield where he died in 1866.
The school could hold 150 pupils and was eventually closed in 1978 and was restored as a museum.
Entry through the playground and the back door (the front entrance was reserved for important visitors) leads into what was the girls’ school. The infant gallery was on the left and the boys’ school on the right. The masters house was attached to the back of the boys’ school. This was later converted into a classroom and a new house built to the north. This has since been demolished.
Through the entrance is the shop selling books, sweets and a range of children’s toys. There is a guide book with a certain amount of information. A passageway has Victorian clothes hanging on the walls for children to dress up in. Off this is a reconstruction of a Victorian classroom from 1890s with gas lighting, an open coal fire in a corner and wooden desks with bench seats. I remember these and they weren’t very comfortable. There is a blackboard, maps on the walls a picture of Queen Victoria and a Union Jack.
On the other side of the corridor are three smaller rooms. One room contains information about the restoration of the school. Another, the Uppleby Room (named after a Vicar of Barton whose coat of arms is displayed on the front of the building), has information about Samuel Wilderspin and his ideas on children’s education. The third room is set up as Wilderspin’s sitting room and there is a model of him asleep in front of the coal fire with his book.
This leads into the Wilderspin schoolroom, a large room which was the infant school for children aged 2-6. The older children were taught separately in either the girls’ or boys’ school.
Hanging on the wall by the door are white pinafores and caps. Every child was expected to wear these in school as their clothes might be dirty or poorly mended.
It is a big room with large windows carefully arranged so the children were unable to see out of them. There were gas lights but in winter the children were sent home early if there wasn’t enough light to work. At the far end of the room near the teachers desk is an open coal fire with a bucket of coal and a piano. Music was seen as an important part of a child’s education.
At one end of the room is the gallery of steps. All the children could sit on here, youngest at the front, during group lessons allowing the teacher to see all the children at once. The children had to stand to answer questions. Questioning began with the youngest children at the front and worked up the gallery getting more difficult. A large map would have been suspended from the ceiling and lowered for teaching. Under the gallery was a storage place to hang coats.
In the open space are ‘teaching posts’. These were used by monitors (older children) who were allocated seven younger children. A picture from the wall would be attached to the post and the monitor would question the group about it. Once the lesson was finished, the monitor would sit on their stool in front of the post. The children were encouraged to work out answers for themselves rather than learning by rote.
There are examples of boards on the walls with flowers, leaves, birds, wild animals, shapes. The monitors had a set of guideline questions to be asked which could be varied and made more complicated for the older children. A booklet on the teacher’s desk contains examples of questions. Those on flowers began with simple recognition and where found. This then developed into the idea of cultivated plants or weeds and how to grow crops. It ended with a discussion of poisonous or medicinal plants.
Not only were they expected to know the names of the different shapes, the shapes boards lead onto discussions of straight, crooked or curved lines. Children were expected to know the difference between parallel, diverging and converging lines and what happens if you extend them. They were also expected to know the difference between acute, obtuse and right angles…. I wonder how many 6 year olds today could answer some of those questions.
Round the room are information booklets with a certain amount of information about the different aspects of schooling. On the master’s desk are booklets covering rules for children as well as teachers.
Parents were expected to send their children clean and washed with their hair cut short and clothes well mended by half past eight. If a child arrived half an hour late, they were sent home. (This was designed to make parents take responsibility for getting the children to school on time. Mothers were very busy during the day and didn’t want the older children under their feet).
There was no school on a Saturday to give the teacher a rest, the “infant system being so laborious”. The school room also needed to be thoroughly cleaned and mothers were obliged to wash children’s clothes on a Saturday as they may not have sufficient change of clothes and must not break the Sabbath by washing on a Sunday.
Parents were given a copy of the school rules on a pasteboard so they could hang it up at home not only to remind the children but also the parents of their duties. “It is earnestly hoped that parents will see that their own interests as well as that of their children is strictly observed by obeying these rules.” Among other things parents are exhorted to “give them good advice, to accustom them to family prayer but particularly see that they repeat the Lord’s Prayer when they rise in the morning and when they retire to rest.” Parents are asked to set a good example and reminded that “we are assured in the Holy Scriptures that if we train up a child in the way he should go, when he is old he will not depart from it. Therefore parents may be instrumental in the promotion of welfare of their children in this life and of their eternal happiness in the world to come.”
There was also a set of rules for the teachers. Top of the list was a warning that children with whooping cough, ringworm or other contagious disease must be refused admission until perfectly restored.
This was followed by a reminder that the business of the school should begin precisely at the time appointed and on the shortest days school should not be dismissed before 4pm.
They needed to pay most attention to children learning to read. The teachers were expected to adhere to the plan of education laid down by Mr Wilderspin in his book “The Infant System”. This is remarkably far sighted. Emphasis was laid on the importance of exercise. Children should be able to think for themselves and a spirit of enquiry should be excited. He did not believe in rote learning.
Children needed to respect private property and strict regard for the truth. Teachers should practice what they teach. It emphasised the importance of patience and the disadvantages of using heavy discipline. ”Never frighten the children.”
The book in true Victorian fashion, also laid down clear guidelines for dealing with juvenile delinquency, considered the causes of early crime and remedies for existing evils.
Principles of infant education were laid down along with requisites for an infant school and hints for conducting it with rewards and sanctions. Topics to be taught included language, grammar, arithmetic, geography, PE, music, nature study….
Through a door is the infant playground which was walled and separate from the older children. Wilderspin attached great importance to the playground and there was plenty of space for the children to run and play. Round the edges was a flower border. Wilderspin believed that gardening and an appreciation of nature played an important part in a child’s development. Children were taught to respect for the living world and flowers were rarely picked. Apparently he recommended the planting of strongly scented flowers to mask the smell of the children.
There is a brick storage shed with coat hooks This has a video recording of people describing their schooldays in the building 70-75 years ago. There are also wooden playground toys including hobby horses, hoops and skipping ropes – as popular with todays children as they were 100 years ago.
The outside toilet was an earth closet with two benches on either side with five holes in them. Ashes from the coal fires were used and there was a small trapdoor to empty the contents. Small pieces of newspaper hanging on the walls served as toilet paper. Mains water and water closets were built around 1900.
This was a fascinating visit. Wilderspin’s ideas were so advanced for his time and I was amazed at the depth of knowledge expected of six year olds.
The Museum is free and there is disabled access.
I went with daughter and the two grandsons. The museum is cleverly designed to appeal to a wide range of ages. It took me back to my school days. I remember outside toilets although they did have running water rather than earth. The kids found these really funny. They also enjoyed dressing up and the playground toys. There was plenty of information to read although I didn’t have time to read it all – I will need to go back another time. It also has a good coffee shop again geared up to cope with all ages and appetites. Definitely a well worth while visit.