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The Political Dimension of the Education of the Poor in the National Society's Church of England Schools, 1811–37

  • Nicholas Dixon (a1)


One of the most important spheres of activity in the early nineteenth-century Church of England was the establishment and support of schools for the poor. The primary agent of such activity was the National Society. Founded in 1811 by clergymen and philanthropists, this organization aimed to maintain Anglicanism as the ‘National Religion’ by instructing as many poor children as possible in church doctrine under clerical supervision. By 1837, almost a million children across England were being educated in Anglican charitable institutions. This remarkable effort has largely been the province of educational historians. Yet it was also a political enterprise. The creation of a national system of education along exclusively Anglican lines represented an assertive intervention in the contemporary debate about the relationship between church and nation-state. Using a wide range of neglected sources, this article discusses how such political concerns were manifested at a local level in National Society schools’ teaching, rituals and use as venues for political activism. It is argued that these aspects of the society's work afforded the church a powerful political platform. This analysis informs our broader understanding of the ways in which churches’ involvement in mass education has sustained religiously inflected conceptions of nationhood.


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*Pembroke College, Cambridge, CB2 1RF. E-mail:


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The research upon which this article is based was funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council Doctoral Training Partnership studentship, grant no. 1653413, supported by Pembroke College, Cambridge. I am most grateful to Andrew Thompson and Mary Clare Martin for their comments and suggestions.



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1 HC Deb (2nd series), vol. 2, cols 73–4 (28 June 1828).

2 Smelser, Neil, Social Paralysis and Social Change: British Working-Class Education in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley, CA, 1991), 6675; Jacob, W. M., The Clerical Profession in the Long Eighteenth Century, 1680–1840 (Oxford, 2007), 236.

3 [Wade, John], The Extraordinary Black Book (London, 1831), 6.

4 On the early history of the National Society, see H. J. Burgess, Enterprise in Education: The Story of the Work of the Established Church in the Education of the People prior to 1870 (London, 1958); Akira Iwashita, ‘Politics, State and Church: Forming the National Society 1805–c.1818’, HE 47 (2018), 1–17. This article concerns the National Society's operations in England; for its work in Wales, see H. G. Williams, ‘“Learning Suitable to the Situation of the Poorest Classes”: The National Society and Wales, 1811–1839’, WHR 19 (1999), 425–52.

5 Second Annual Report of the National Society, for promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church (London, 1814), 23–177; Mark Smith, ed., ‘Henry Ryder: A Charge delivered to the Clergy of the Diocese of Gloucester in the year 1816’, in idem and Stephen Taylor, eds, Evangelicalism in the Church of England c.1790–c.1890: A Miscellany, CERS 12 (Woodbridge, 2004), 51–108, at 75. The three exceptions were London, Rochester and Oxford, all of which had extensive provision of National Schools under non-diocesan auspices.

6 Twenty-first Annual Report of the National Society, for promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church throughout England and Wales (London, 1832), 105–8, 123. This statistic resulted from a survey sent to parishes throughout England and Wales, in which approximately 83 per cent of parishes completed returns. The figures for the remaining 17 per cent were estimated on the basis of averages.

7 Education Enquiry: Abstract of the Answers and Returns made pursuant to an Address to the House of Commons, dated 24th May 1833 (London, 1835), 1208. The proportion for Sunday schools was rather different as the church did not prioritize these, but nevertheless around two-thirds of English Sunday schools were Anglican, accounting for 55 per cent of scholars.

8 Frank Smith, A History of English Elementary Education 1760–1902 (London, 1931), 80; cf. J. W. Adamson, English Education 1798–1902 (Cambridge, 1930), 24–31; H. C. Barnard, A History of English Education from 1760, 2nd edn (London, 1961), 57; Mary Sturt, The Education of the People: A History of Primary Education in England and Wales in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1967), 34.

9 Burgess, Enterprise in Education; Lois Louden, Distinctive and Inclusive: The National Society and Church of England Schools 1811–2011 (London, 2012).

10 Michael Sanderson, ‘The National and British School Societies in Lancashire 1803–1839: The Roots of Anglican Supremacy in English Education’, in T. G. Cook, ed., Local Studies and the History of Education (London, 1972), 1–36; Pamela Silver and Harold Silver, The Education of the Poor: The History of a National School 1824–1974 (London, 1974); Marjorie Cruickshank, ‘The Anglican Revival and Education: A Study of School Expansion in the Potteries 1830–1850’, North Staffordshire Journal of Field Studies 20 (1980), 19–31; Mary Clare Martin, ‘Church, School and Locality: Revisiting the Historiography of “State” and “Religious” Educational Infrastructures in England and Wales, 1780–1870’, PH 49 (2013), 70–81.

11 C. K. Francis Brown, The Church's Part in Education 1833–1941, with Special Reference to the Work of the National Society (London, 1942), title page, 3.

12 John Lawson and Harold Silver, A Social History of Education in England (London, 1973), 243, 271; Thomas Laqueur, ‘Working-Class Demand and the Growth of English Elementary Education, 1750–1850’, in Lawrence Stone, ed., Schooling and Society: Studies in the History of Education (Baltimore, MD, 1976), 192–205, at 198; D. G. Paz, The Politics of Working-Class Education in Britain, 1830–50 (Manchester, 1980), 4.

13 Smelser, Social Paralysis and Social Change, 26–32, 70–90.

14 Philip McCann, ‘Popular Education, Socialization and Social Control: Spitalfields 1812–1824’, in idem, ed., Popular Education and Socialization in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1977), 1–40, at 25. McCann also observed, however, that the contributions in this volume ‘do not provide the basis for generalizations about popular education in the nineteenth century’: ‘Editor's Introduction’, ibid. xii.

15 The newspaper accounts were gathered by searching for references to the National Society and National Schools in newspapers digitized by the British Library in the British Newspaper Archive, online at: <>. This database currently incorporates 147 English newspapers published during the period from 1811–37, from all regions of England and of a variety of political persuasions. It constitutes the largest and broadest sample accessible through digital resources of English local newspapers from this period.

16 Bob Tennant, Corporate Holiness: Pulpit Preaching and the Church of England Missionary Societies, 1760–1870 (Oxford, 2013), 152. On the revival of Anglicanism in this period, see Arthur Burns, The Diocesan Revival in the Church of England, c.1800–1870 (Oxford, 1999); Stewart J. Brown, The National Churches of England, Ireland, and Scotland 1801–46 (Oxford, 2001), 62–92.

17 Joanna Innes, ‘L’«Éducation nationale» dans les îles Britanniques, 1765–1815. Variations britanniques et irlandaises sur un thème européen’, Annales. Histoire, Sciences sociales 65 (2010), 1087–1116, at 1103–4.

18 Stamford Mercury, 31 January 1812, 4. The complaint that the National Society's title was a misnomer because of its religious exclusivity persisted throughout the period: see, for example, Windsor and Eton Express, 2 August 1818, 2; Wolverhampton Chronicle, 13 April 1831, 2; Leeds Mercury, 19 October 1833, 8; Taunton Courier, 27 January 1836, 9; Yorkshire Gazette, 22 October 1836, 2.

19 Henry Bathurst, Memoirs of the late Dr Henry Bathurst, Lord Bishop of Norwich, 2 vols (London, 1837), 2: 69–70; Sydney Smith, ‘Trimmer and Lancaster’ (1806), in idem, Works, 3 vols (London, 1848), 1: 157–66.

20 Education Enquiry, 1338; Henry Bryan Binns, A Century of Education: Being the Centenary History of the British and Foreign School Society 1808–1908 (London, 1908), 55–7, 81, 103, 123–4.

21 London, CERC, NS/2/2/1/1/1, National Society General Committee minute book, fol. 1r (16 October 1811).

22 Andrew Bell, The Madras School, or Elements of Tuition (London, 1808), 15–17.

23 Binns, Century of Education, 16–18.

24 Ibid. 95–6; Bell, Madras School, 84–8.

25 National School Magazine, 15 June 1824, 73–4.

26 Report from Select Committee on the State of Education (London, 1834), 9.

27 Ibid. 11. On the training of National schoolteachers, see R. W. Rich, The Training of Teachers in England and Wales during the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, 1933), 1–25. For exclusions, see, for example, Winchester, Hampshire RO, 128M84/2, Hampshire Society for the Education of the Infant Poor minute book, 44–5 (18 April 1816), 89 (1 December 1817). For isolated instances of non-Anglican teachers, see CERC, NS/2/2/1/1/3, National Society General Committee minute book, fol. 108r (5 May 1819); Brighton, East Sussex RO, PAR 255/25/1/1, Brighton National Schools minute book, 271 (22 July 1835); Robert Southey and Charles Southey, Life of Rev. Andrew Bell, 3 vols (London, 1844), 3: 448.

28 Lincoln, Lincolnshire Archives, BNLW/3/10/1/10/2, John Robinson to Earl Brownlow, 3 March 1821.

29 Laqueur, ‘English Elementary Education’, 199–200.

30 Bath Chronicle, 3 December 1835, 4.

31 Ibid.

32 See, for example, David Cannadine, ‘The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual: The British Monarchy and the “Invention of Tradition”, c.1820–1977’, in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds, The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, 1983), 101–64, at 115; F. C. Mather, ‘Georgian Churchmanship reconsidered: Some Variations in Anglican Public Worship 1714–1830’, JEH 36 (1985), 255–83, at 261–2.

33 Linda Colley, ‘The Apotheosis of George III: Loyalty, Royalty and the British Nation, 1760–1820’, P&P 102 (1984), 94–129, at 120–1.

34 On monarchical patronage of the National Society in this period, see Nicholas Dixon, ‘Church and Monarchy in England, 1811–1837’ (MPhil dissertation, University of Cambridge, 2015), 81–5.

35 Ipswich Journal, 13 June 1812, 2; Cambridge Chronicle and Journal, 22 August 1817, 3. See also the account of the royal birthday festivities at Canterbury in Kentish Weekly Post, 6 June 1817, 4.

36 Evening Mail, 20 March 1818, 4; Morning Post, 20 April 1821, 3; 5 April 1822, 3; 28 March 1823, 1; London Courier, 16 April 1824, 2; Bell's Life in London, 3 April 1825, 3; Morning Post, 24 March 1826, 2; 13 April 1827, 3; 4 April 1828, 3; 17 April 1829, 3; 9 April 1830, 3; 1 April 1831, 3; W. J. Thoms, The Book of the Court (London, 1838), 314–15.

37 Yorkshire Gazette, 2 June 1820, 3.

38 An Address to the Parents of Children, admitted into the Rotherhithe Charity and Amicable Society Schools, with the Rules and Orders to be Observed (London, [1825]), 9.

39 Norfolk Chronicle, 9 July 1814, 2.

40 Sussex Advertiser, 4 January 1819, 3; Public Ledger, 4 January 1821, 3.

41 Yorkshire Gazette, 18 September 1824, 2.

42 Chester, Cheshire Archives, P95/3516/1, Runcorn National School minute book, 17 May 1832; Gentleman's Magazine, August 1844, 205.

43 Windsor and Eton Express, 5 December 1835, 4.

44 Ipswich Journal, 7 May 1814, 2.

45 Kentish Mercury, 4 April 1835, 4. Attwood made another appearance at the school's anniversary in 1837 following the success of his second attempt at being elected an MP for Greenwich: West Kent Guardian, 28 October 1837, 8.

46 Dixon, ‘Church and Monarchy’, 49–52.

47 Evening Mail, 25 December 1820, 2.

48 Westmorland Gazette, 30 December 1820, 412.

49 Cambridge, St John's College Library, Whittaker Papers, 2/16, John William Whittaker to Sarah Whittaker, [7 May 1821], quoted by permission of the Master and Fellows of St John's College, Cambridge. Whittaker was referring to the radical publishers Richard Carlile and William Hone.

50 Stamford Mercury, 24 November 1820, 3.

51 Morning Chronicle, 9 December 1820, 3. The National schoolroom in Greenwich was also used for a meeting to address the Queen: Bath Chronicle, 17 August 1820, 2.

52 Northampton Mercury, 29 December 1827, 4. The schoolroom was also the venue of a meeting to frame a clerical anti-emancipation petition in the same year: Coventry Herald, 29 June 1827, 2.

53 Norwich Mercury, 31 January 1829, 3.

54 Ibid., 7 February 1829, 2.

55 Ibid., 14 February 1829, 3.

56 HL Deb (2nd series), vol. 20, cols 940–1 (10 March 1829).

57 Reading Mercury, 9 February 1829, 3.

58 For instances of reformist gatherings, see, for example, Sheffield Independent, 19 March 1831, 2; Maidstone Journal, 22 May 1832, 1; Morning Advertiser, 5 December 1834, 1. For an early example of a Conservative dinner, see Morning Post, 2 February 1833, 2. In Canterbury, the clergy used National schoolrooms for meetings to frame their responses to church reforms: Kentish Gazette, 29 March 1833, 3; 10 January 1837, 2.

59 The Standard, 24 November 1836, 1.

60 Morning Post, 7 September 1836, 3.

61 Durham County Advertiser, 6 January 1837, 4; Blackburn Standard, 24 May 1837, 2.

62 Bolton Chronicle, 25 November 1837, 3.

63 Godfrey Faussett, A Sermon on the Necessity of Educating the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church: Preached before the University of Oxford, at St Mary's, on Sunday, Dec. 1, 1811 (Oxford, 1811), 18–19; cf. Herbert Marsh, The National Religion the Foundation of National Education: A Sermon preached in the Cathedral Church of St Paul, London: on Thursday, June 13, 1811 (London, 1811), 37–40; T. H. Lowe, A Sermon, preached in the Parish Church of Tenbury, for the Benefit of the National School, established in that Town (Ludlow, 1817), 14–16; Daniel Wilson, The National Schools a National Blessing: A Sermon preached at Christ Church, Middlesex, on Sunday Evening, March 28, 1819 (London, 1819), 32–3.

64 Green, Andy, Education and State Formation: Europe, East Asia and the USA, 2nd edn (Basingstoke, 2013), 224.

65 Simon, Brian, The Two Nations and the Educational Structure 1780–1870 (London, 1974), 132–3; Laqueur, ‘English Elementary Education’, 199.

66 Twenty-Fifth Annual Report of the National Society, for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church throughout England and Wales (London, 1836), 61, 86.

67 Ibid. 94.

68 Ibid. 61–90.

69 Ibid. 69.

70 See, for example, ibid. 72, 76, 79, 80, 82, 86.

71 Bath Chronicle, 19 December 1833, 3.

72 See, for example, Biber, George, Bishop Blomfield and his Times: An Historical Sketch (London, 1857), 125; Molesworth, William Nassau, History of the Church of England from 1660 (London, 1881), 308–9; Church, R. W., The Oxford Movement: Twelve Years, 1833–1845 (London, 1891), 119.

The research upon which this article is based was funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council Doctoral Training Partnership studentship, grant no. 1653413, supported by Pembroke College, Cambridge. I am most grateful to Andrew Thompson and Mary Clare Martin for their comments and suggestions.


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