#MyrtleMondays: Back to School

Oh, dear. Are there any more depressing words in the English language? I’m actually about to be on holiday (vacation) after turning in Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries #4, but even so, contemplating the end of summer is still like fingernails on… well, you know. And for the second year in a row, kids are facing schoolyears fraught with even more strangeness and uncertainty than usual. Let’s have a look at what this annual ordeal was like for Victorian schoolchildren in England.

The Old Sunday School, Macclesfield, Cheshire, opened in 1814 after outgrowing its previous building, and served as a school until 1973. It’s now a museum. (photo by Mike in Macc)

Widespread education in England began in the 18th century with the advent of Sunday schools, which—unlike today—weren’t necessarily focused on catechism. Instead, they offered formal education to children who had to work in farm fields, mines, and factories the other six days of the week. Fees were paid either by the families themselves or more prosperous benefactors.

A London school around 1850, with all the children, teachers, and staff sharing a single large (and no doubt noisy!) room. Note how the youngest children are being taught by older students.

A series of Education Acts in the 19th century established compulsory education for children ages five to twelve. Children whose families couldn’t afford private education at home or boarding school went to local schools that charged a subscription fee (to recoup the cost to build the school). The poorest children—orphans, or those whose families could not afford even the smallest fees—could attend so-called “Ragged Schools.” It was not until 1891 that free elementary education was available to everyone. In addition to basic academic and religious lessons, schools for the working class taught vocational skills like metalwork and sewing, to prepare boys for a trade and girls for jobs as servants.

Students at Rugby School playing their eponymous game, 1859

After the age of 10, the sons of more prosperous families could attend boarding schools, while their sisters were educated at home for most of the era.

These well-to-do 1870s girls are studying with their mother or a governess (I’m guessing Mum, from her dress and since the housemaid is consulting her about something.)

Middle and upper-class households often employed a governess, especially to teach their younger children. Governesses were typically well-educated young women who may have fallen on hard times, and their position in a household could be awkward. Of the same social class as their employers, they were not quite family members, and not quite servants, fitting comfortably into neither group.

The demand for governesses dropped off by the end of the century, as better educational opportunities for girls arose. Both the students and potential governesses benefited, as new schools also needed new teachers and staff. Secondary school education (past the age of 12) became more common, with “day schools” (or high schools) opening up to teach middle class girls, and boarding schools offering more rigorous academic instruction alongside the social graces. A college education for young women was considered a novelty and a luxury for those who could afford it, after which they were expected to settle down and marry (although some students had other plans!). In contrast, the day schools prepared girls who would one day have to work for a living to take up professional careers. Even so, by the end of the century, the vast majority of English girls received no formal secondary education.

Girls at Durand Secondary School in London study science in a well-equipped laboratory classroom, 1908

A typical secondary education included coursework in Classics (Latin and Greek literature, history, and languages), French and German, the sciences (chemistry, physics, and natural history, or biology), mathematics, physical education, and optional classes in art, music, or technical skills like bookkeeping and shorthand.

Girls in gym class (and bloomers!) at Charleston High School (Boston, MA), 1893


These lads are studying mechanical drawing at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in Virginia, 1899


The English educational system was far-reaching. Here, soldiers’ children attend a British Regimental School in India in the 1880s

While we have Victorian schools to thank (or blame) for our modern system of compulsory education, we can also thank them for another blissful concept: they invented summer vacation. So whether you’re picking up a slate or logging into Zoom this fall, spare a thought for the generations of schoolkids who’ve suffered just like you, with the end of the lazy days of summer break.