Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Sunday schools

This post is based on:
T. W. Laquer, Religion and Respectability: Sunday Schools and Working-Class Culture, 1780-1850 (Yale University Press, 1976)
Anne Stott, Hannah More: The First Victorian (Oxford University Press, 2004)

The rise of Sunday schools

Robert Raikes by W. J. Townsend,
H. B. Workman and George Eayrs
Licensed under Public domain
via Wikimedia Commons
By the 1780s Sunday schools were the latest fashion in philanthropy. They were not invented by the Gloucester printer, Robert Raikes, but it was Raikes who turned Sunday schools into a national movement.  Many of the schools were set up by women. Of these the most famous was the school set up by Mrs Sarah Trimmer at Brentford to the west of London, which was patronised by Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III.

The rise of Sunday schools was part of the intensification of religion following the Methodist revival, and part as well of the new climate of moral earnestness that followed Britain’s defeat in America. In 1785 the inter-denominational Sunday School Society was founded. 

The schools were popular because, unlike the existing charity schools, they taught poor children to read the Bible without taking them away from their weekday work. At a time when poor families needed the labours of their children in order to survive, this was an important consideration.  

In 1800 there were 200,000 children in Sunday schools. There were 450,000 by 1818 and 1. 4 million in 1833.

The curriculum

The children were instructed largely by teachers from their own class in reading, writing, religion and occasionally other subjects for periods of 4 to 6 hours each Sunday over a period of four years on average.

All the schools taught reading, but many refused to teach writing. There were two reasons for this. The first was that writing was regarded as 'work' and was therefore inappropriate for the Sabbath. The second was that by the end of the eighteenth century fears of radicalism sparked by the French Revolution meant that the schools had to tread carefully; it was seen as dangerous to be taking children out of their social class.

Case study: the Mendip schools

In August 1789 William Wilberforce arrived in the Somerset village of Wrington to stay with his new friend, the Evangelical writer and philanthropist, Hannah More. He was persuaded to make a visit to Cheddar Gorge, already a tourist attraction, but when he arrived there he was struck, not by the spectacular scenery but by the poverty and ignorance of the people. Arriving back at his friend's house he said to her: 'Miss Hannah More, something must be done about Cheddar.' By 'something' he meant a Sunday school.

Hannah More quickly took up Wilberforce’s challenge and with her sister Patty, she set out on what she called a ‘canvass’ to persuade the local farmers, the main employers in the neighbourhood,  to support a school for the children of the 1,000 inhabitants of the parish. The sisters hired a cottage and the Cheddar school opened in October 1789. 
The Hannah More cottage, Cheddar
(my photograph)

Under the guidance of its inspirational teacher, Sarah Baber, the school prospered. In the following years the sisters opened ten further schools in the Mendips, which at the height of their prosperity were attended by about 1,000 pupils, the children of farm labourers and miners. Not all the schools proved viable but as late as 1824 when the then elderly sisters had delegated their work, 620 children were being educated in the remaining schools. Three of the schools survived into the twentieth century when they were absorbed into the state educational system.

The Mendip schools did not merely cater for children. From 1790 the sisters set up evening classes for adults, and women’s benefit clubs in two of the villages (Cheddar and Shipham), which provided contributors with sickness pay, a caudle (a spiced drink given to women recovering from childbirth), and a payment for their families after their deaths. 'Virtuous' brides received five shillings, a pair  of white worsted stockings knitted by the More sisters, and a bible (provided they weren't pregnant!). The clubs, popularly known as the Hannah More Clubs, survived until the middle of the twentieth century. By any reckoning they were successful ventures.


In a period when the education of the poor was often spasmodic and informal Sunday schools taught reading (and sometimes writing) in a systematic fashion. In spite of fears that they were taking poor children out of their station, they overcame conservative opposition and grew in importance throughout the nineteenth century. Their peak decade was the 1890s, when, it has been estimated, most British children experienced Sunday school education for at least some period of their lives.

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