A School in Your Kitchen

on Monday, 16 November 2020. Posted in Schools

Working From Home in History: Dame Schools

Working from home in 2020 might involve a networked computer and video conferencing but if you are working from your kitchen table, you have more in common with a 19th century home worker than you might expect.

Picture anywhere between half a dozen to a dozen children gathered on a flagged or earth kitchen floor in the kitchen of a roadside cottage, receiving rudimentary lessons perhaps in reading or sewing from an elderly woman, and you have what was a fairly typical example of a 19th century dame school.

Thomas Webster, A Dame’s School, 1845 Photo © Tate CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

There was no national system of education before the 19th century, and the opportunities for a formal education were restricted mainly to town grammar schools, charity schools and dame schools. In the 19th century two societies were responsible for much elementary education; The British and Foreign Schools Society (named such in 1814) was founded by two Quakers in 1808, and the National Society for the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church throughout England and Wales for Anglicans was formed in 1811 from the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge. The schools built by these societies are commonly referred to as British Schools and National Schools but for areas without access to these schools, a dame school would have been one of the few options. It was not until 1870 the Education Act paved the way for state run schools by providing for the election of school boards, with the power to build and manage schools where provision by the two voluntary societies was inadequate. And in 1902 the responsibility for providing elementary, secondary and technical education passed to 330 Local Education Authorities (LEAs). You can find out more about education in Wiltshire through the centuries and the kinds of records that you can find in another of our blogs “Schools Out for Summer!” 

There are few records for dame schools, although 19th century parliamentary report provide some information. Nevertheless, we know they were a feature of education for several centuries: in the mid-17th century Charles Hoole wrote in A New Discovery of the Old Art of Teaching Schoole that education was too important to be be ‘left as a work for poor women, or others, whose necessities compel them to undertake it, as a mere shelter from beggary’.

A valuable picture of education in the mid-19th century is also given by the return prepared by the Revd. W. Warburton, H.M.I., to a House of Commons order in 1859. The resulting Account of Schools for Children of the Labouring Classes in Wilts (available at the History Centre under shelfmark AAA.372) gives details of attendance, staffing, buildings, equipment, and curriculum every school open to inspection, usually with comments on teachers, pupils, and management. There were 140 day schools liable to inspection and 428 others (including dame schools). The number of dame schools is not precise but Warburton estimates the number of children attending dame schools as about 1,900 (approximately 6% of the total number of scholars in Wiltshire at the time). It is likely there were between 100-200 dame schools in Wiltshire in the mid-19th century.

The second half of the century saw an overall decline in dame schools following the introduction of government grants for the building and improvement of schools. For example, prior to 1858 a dame school with 20 to 30 children existed in Collingbourne Ducis but this closed following the construction of the new parochial school in 1859. However, some dame schools survived and even continued to be established: Warburton remarked that ‘They are not uncommonly set up, especially by the dissenting bodies, as a tentative step, in order to discover whether a more regularly constituted school would be likely to draw in a given place’. As well as to test local demand for education, they were set up due to the need of the mistress to earn an income: Warburton notes ‘It is difficult to exaggerate the shifting, changeable character of private dames’ schools, owing their origin as they do, in many cases, not to the educational necessities of the district, but to the domestic necessities of the teacher.’

The following examples of communities where dame schools existed can be found on our Community History pages (which are well worth checking out!)

Ashton Keynes
There is evidence of education in Ashton Keynes as early as 1818, when there were six dame schools teaching 87 children. In 1831 there was a school and schoolhouse at 14 Fore Street, owned by Mr Bowley, which was probably the Church School. In 1846 there was a Sunday and Day School attended by 101 children of whom 35 attended only on a Sunday.

East Grimstead
In 1859 it was reported that "12 children are taught in a cottage by a dame of very moderate acquirements. The bigger children attend Farley." It is unlikely that this school survived for long after this as the cost to parents was probably the same as that of the Parochial School.

In 1851 it was said that 20 children too young for the parish schools were taught by a dame in her cottage. By the 1860s at the latest all infants were educated at the Church School.

In 1833 there was a dame school for 23 children in the village and the 1859 inspection reported that, '15 - 20 [children] are taught in a cottage by a dame'. As £100 was left for an infants' school in 1858 it seems unlikely that the dame school continued for many years after 1859.

In the early 19th century children from Teffont Magna attended the school in Dinton but by 1859 there was a school in the village conducted by a dame in a roadside cottage and attended by about 40 children.

The level of education provided would have been highly variable ranging from largely child minding, to basic reading and sewing, to reading, writing, and some arithmetic. Warburton is largely critical of the quality of education provided at these schools; at West Dean the school was run by ‘a dame of limited acquirements’ and at Sedgehill ‘a motherly woman of humble attainment’.  

Warburton was particularly concerned about the quality of education provided in dame schools in industrial towns. However, this was not a substantial concern for rural Wiltshire. Swindon was not a characteristic example as, following the development of the new railway town, the ‘Old Town’ had two National schools and only one dame school with 14 children. The ‘New Town’ had two purpose built schools, which by 1858 had 330 pupils, and had no dame schools.

Warburton’s most acerbic comment, reflecting contemporary negative societal attitudes towards disability, was made about a dame school in Broad Town in 1858 which served 20 children: ‘The mistress is a cripple.  In the bedroom of her cottage, her husband (an old soldier) lives in open adultery with a woman hired to attend his wife;  and two infants, the issue of the adultery, are in the school, which, at times, is disturbed by the wrangling and foul language of the wife and concubine’. By January 1859 the mistress was dead and the school was no more.

For those of us experiencing the challenge of working at home, or knowing people who are, we can perhaps be reassured that the difficulties of home working are not confined to 21st century pandemics.

Naomi Sackett


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