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Schools for the Poor in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Devon: Towards an Explanation of Variations in Local Development

  • Frances Billinge (a1), Gail Ham (a1), Judith Moss (a1) and Julia Neville (a1)


This article analyses elementary school development in three contrasting Devon communities during the mid-nineteenth century. This was a time of intense interest in the expansion of education amongst the labouring poor, but scholars have found it difficult to explain why schools were established in some places but not in others. With information from local sources, the authors have been able to identify the social context in which developments did (or did not) take place and the actions of the relevant interested parties. They argue that a significant variable accounting for success or failure is the availability of a local champion with the skills not only to persuade others of the merits of a school, but also to seize opportunities to further the project and manage the relationships necessary to assure its success.


Corresponding author

*Julia Neville, 18 Summer Close, Exeter, EX4 8BX. E-mail:


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This article has been produced by members of Devon History Society undertaking a research project on early Victorian schools in Devon.



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1 Sturt, Mary, The Education of the People: A History of Primary Education in England and Wales in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1967); Sutherland, Gillian, Elementary Education in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1971); Lawson, John and Silver, Harold, A Social History of Education in England (London, 1973).

2 The National Society was established in 1811. At that time, whether religious education should be part of any school curriculum, and whether the poor should be educated, were hotly debated. In 1809 the perceived need for religious education of the urban and industrialized poor led to the funding of church schools through Queen Anne's Bounty. This, coupled with the interdependence of church and state, led some high church Tories to form a society ‘to instruct and educate the Poor in suitable learning, works of industry and the principles of the Christian Religion according to the Established Church’. Schools in industrialized towns and teacher training were the initial priority. Grants to build schools were made available under strict conditions which necessitated part-funding by the local community: see Louden, Lois, Distinctive and Inclusive: The National Society and Church of England Schools 1811–2011 (London, 2012), 1217; and, in this volume, Nicholas Dixon, ‘The Political Dimension of the Education of the Poor in the National Society's Church of England Schools, 1811–37’, 290–306.

3 The British Society was established following publication in 1803 of Joseph Lancaster's Improvements in Education as it respects the Industrious Classes of the Community, drawing on his practical experience of nondenominational teaching. Re-founded in 1814, it continued to promote the foundation of nondenominational schools: see Richard Aldrich, ‘The British and Foreign School Society, Past and Present’, History of Education Researcher 91 (2013), 5–12.

4 R. R. Sellman, Devon Village Schools in the Nineteenth Century (Newton Abbot, 1967). Sellman, who was interested in the role of local government, devotes significantly more attention to the period after 1870 than to earlier years.

5 Sutherland, Elementary Education, 46, refers to Rex C. Russell, A History of Schools & Education in Lindsey, Lincolnshire, 1800–1902, 3 parts (Lincoln, 1965), Parts 1 and 2; Brian Simon, ed., Education in Leicestershire, 1540–1940 (Leicester, 1968); Marion Johnson, Derbyshire Village Schools in the Nineteenth Century (Newton Abbot, 1970); R. J. Smith, ‘Education, Society and Literacy: Nottinghamshire in the Mid-Nineteenth Century’ University of Birmingham Historical Journal 12 (1969), 42–56.

6 Pamela Horn, The Victorian and Edwardian Schoolchild (Stroud, 1989); Roderick Gordon, Victorian Education and the Ideal of Womanhood (Abingdon, 2016).

7 For example, Marianne Larsen, The Making and Shaping of the Victorian Teacher: A comparative new Cultural History (New York, 2011); Rowland William Rich, The Training of Teachers in England and Wales during the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, 2015).

8 Louden, Distinctive and Inclusive.

9 This description appears to have first been used by Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution (London, 1961), 156.

10 For a discussion of microhistorical techniques, see the early work of Barry Reay, Microhistories: Demography, Society and Culture in Rural England, 1800–1930 (Cambridge, 1996), 259–62. More recent contributions include Matt Peltonen, ‘What is Micro in Microhistory?’, in Hans Renders and Binny De Haan, eds, Theoretical Discussions of Biography: Approaches from History, Microhistory, and Life Writing (Leiden, 2014), 103–18; Zoltán Simon, ‘Microhistory: In General’, JSH 49 (2015), 237–48.

11 Asa Briggs, ‘Select and Reject: Aspects of the Study of the History of Education’, in idem, The Collected Essays of Asa Briggs, 3: Serious Pursuits: Communications and Education (London, 1991), 231–45, at 236.

12 Bruce Coleman, ‘The Nineteenth Century: Nonconformity’, in Nicholas Orme, ed., Unity and Variety: A History of the Church in Devon and Cornwall (Exeter, 1991), 129–56.

13 1833 data has been used as data is missing from the 1851 census: see Education Enquiry. Abstract of the Answers and Returns made pursuant to an Address of the House of Commons, dated 24th May 1833. England, 1: Bedford – Lancaster (London, 1833), 197 (St Petrox), 203, 209 (Townstal and St Saviour), online at: <>, accessed 12 May 2018.

14 Select Committee on the Education of the Poor (1818), Digest of Parochial Returns, vol. 1, (London, 1819), online at: <>, accessed 12 May 2018.

15 Education Enquiry 1833.

16 Michael Cook, ed., The Diocese of Exeter in 1821: Bishop Carey's Replies to Queries before Visitation, 2: Devon, Devon and Cornwall Record Society n.s. 4 (Exeter, 1960), 174.

17 Clergy of the Church of England Database, online at: <>, Throwleigh, accessed 22 July 2017; London, CERC, National Society Operational Records, School Files, NS/7/1/12604, Throwleigh.

18 Digest 1818, 187.

19 Cook, ed., Replies, 174.

20 Education Enquiry 1833, 208.

21 CERC, NS/7/1/12604, Throwleigh.

22 Ibid.

23 Emmie Varwell, Throwleigh: The Story of a Dartmoor Village (Throwleigh, 1938), 132.

24 CERC, NS/7/1/12604, Throwleigh.

25 The Ironmonger's Company managed a portion of Betton Charity funds to support Church of England charity schools. The funds were distributed through the dioceses, each chosen school receiving between £5 and £20. The company decided which schools should receive payment: City of London Livery Companies Commission, Report on the Charities of the Ironmongers’ Company, vol. 4 (London, 1884), 517–38, online at: <>, accessed 18 November 2015.

26 CERC, NS/7/1/12604, Throwleigh.

27 Throwleigh, Throwleigh Archive, ‘Providence Methodist Church 1839–1989: Commemorative Programme celebrating 150 Years’, digital copy.

28 Exeter, Devon Heritage Centre (hereafter: DHC), 2200D/0/1, Chagford Methodist Circuit 1st Deposit, Circuit Stewards Account Book, 1827–48.

29 DHC, 2200D/0/28, Chagford Methodist Circuit 1st Deposit, Minute Book of Elders’ Meetings, 1842–55.

30 DHC, 2200D/2/16, Chagford Methodist Circuit 2nd Additional Deposit, Chagford Chapel Account Book, 1842–46.

31 1851 Census, HO107/1885/477/5, Throwleigh; 1861 Census, RG09/1468/15/9, Throwleigh, ‘Find My Past’, online at: <>, accessed 27 February 2017.

32 Elders’ Minutes, 1842–55, 28.

33 Kelly's Post Office Directory of Devonshire (London, 1856), 298.

34 DHC, 2200D/0/2, Chagford Methodist Circuit 1st Deposit, Circuit Stewards Account and Quarterly Minute Book, 1848–67.

35 DHC, 2200D/6/2, Chagford Methodist Circuit 6th Additional Deposit, Providence Chapel Throwleigh, 1839–1917.

36 Digest 1818, 153; Endowed Charities (County of Devon) Parish of Bovey Tracey, Charity Commission (London, 1907), 3–5.

37 Cook, ed., Replies, 26–7.

38 Education Enquiry 1833, 172; Charity Commission Enquiry, 3–5.

39 The Globe, 6 June 1849, 3.

40 Western Courier, 22 June 1853, 8.

41 Western Times (hereafter: WT), 3 June 1854, 7.

42 WT, 24 June 1854, 7.

43 Uxbridge, Brunel University London Archives (hereafter: BULA), British and Foreign School Society Papers, BFSS/1/7/2/2/3/4, Annie Croker to Mr Wilkes (BFSS secretary), 30 December 1865. The authors are grateful to Jan Wood for drawing this reference to their attention.

44 WT, 21 June 1862, 2.

45 Valerie Bonham, A Joyous Service: The Clewer Sisters and their Work (Windsor, 1989), 10; Janice Wallace, ‘The Devon House of Mercy, Bovey Tracey, 1863– 1940’, Transactions of the Devonshire Association 133 (2001), 191–216, at 209.

46 Susan Mumm, Stolen Daughters, Virgin Mothers (Leicester, 1999), ix–x, 4, 8.

47 BULA, BFSS/1/7/2/2/3/4, Annie Croker to the secretary, 3 June 1865.

48 Bovey Tracey, Bovey Tracey Heritage Trust, Anne Croker, ‘Little Ones in Devonshire’, articles from the British School, March and May 1866, pasted into Anne Croker's scrapbook, 1865–1900.

49 WT, 24 July 1866, 5.

50 Digest 1818, 181 (St Petrox), 182 (St Saviour), 188 (Townstal). The Townstal return includes two ‘classical schools’ omitted from the summary table, presumably because they were considered not to be for poor children.

51 Education Enquiry 1833, 203, 209. The apparent drop in provision may be misleading, as it is difficult to match the schools reported to schools recorded in other sources.

52 Presumed to be the ‘daily school’ in St Petrox parish for ‘66 males and 59 females’, as this closely matches the figures given for the St Petrox National School in 1831.

53 A panel in St Petrox Church, Dartmouth, records the gift.

54 CERC, NS 7/7/1/1, National Society Operational Records, Church School Inquiry, c.1831, 190.

55 Terry Jenkins, ‘Dartmouth’, in D. R. Fisher, ed., The History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1820–1832, 7 vols (Cambridge, 2009), online at: <>, accessed 11 May 2018.

56 Freeman, Ray, Dartmouth and its Neighbours (Dartmouth, 2007), 131.

57 According to Freeman (ibid. 139), John Seale also founded a school for the poor in Townstal in 1820. However, it does not appear in National Society records, and is not apparently included in the 1833 return.

58 Moffatt, a wealthy London merchant, stood for Dartmouth in 1844, with Sir Henry's support, but narrowly failed to secure the seat. However, the incoming Conservative MP, Joseph Somes, died in 1845, and Moffatt won the resulting by-election.

59 List of British Schools (England and Wales), 1897 (London, 1897), 17; Robson's Directory 1838 for Dartmouth shows the school in rented rooms in Coles Court.

60 WT, 16 May 1846, 3.

61 WT, 30 August 1845, 4.

62 Dartmouth Chronicle, 24 March 1871, 2.

63 WT, 22 July 1848, 7. George Moffatt contributed £400; Sir Henry laid the foundation stone.

64 Morning Chronicle, 22 March 1852, 3; Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 17 July 1852, 3.

65 Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Herbert (1793–1861), MP for Dartmouth 1852–7.

66 ‘Notice of Subscribers to British School’, Dartmouth Chronicle, April 1855, 4; ‘Notice of Subscribers to National School Year commencing 1st January 1855’, Dartmouth Chronicle, April 1856, 2.

67 Census of Great Britain, 1851: Education, England and Wales, Report and Tables (London, 1854), cxciv–ccv (Table T), cxcvi–cxcvii (Dartmouth); this reported 286 children on the books of the two ‘public’ schools; 563 children on the books of fifteen schools in total. Dartmouth was reported upon as a municipal borough; the other communities in this study were not included in this exercise.

68 Cleland himself once called this project a ‘Ragged School’, suggesting he may have been inspired by the ragged school movement (ragged schools were charitable organizations providing completely free education to the poorest children). Other than this reference, however, his initiative was not linked, so far as can be established, with the Ragged School Union, or with ragged schools elsewhere.

69 Dartmouth Chronicle, 2 April 1861, 2; 1 April 1862, 4; 2 February 1863, 4.

70 Reports of the Exeter Diocesan Board of Education, 1839–1860, Preliminary Proceedings (Exeter, 1839), 11; Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 27 April 1839, 3.

71 Reports of the Exeter Diocesan Board of Education, First Annual Report (Exeter, 1840), 24.

72 Stanbrook, Mary, Old Dartmoor Schools remembered (Brixham, 1991), 68, 87, 73.

73 Mumm, Susan, ‘The Feminization of Nineteenth-Century Anglicanism’, in Strong, Rowan, ed., OHA, 3: Partisan Anglicanism and its Global Expansion 1829–c.1914 (Oxford, 2017), 440–55, at 443.

74 Ibid.

75 Jennifer Ayto, ‘The Contribution by Women to the Social and Economic Development of the Victorian Town in Hertfordshire’ (PhD thesis, University of Hertfordshire, 2012), 179.

76 Susan Mumm, ‘Lady Guerrillas of Philanthropy; Anglican Sisterhoods in Victorian England’ (PhD thesis, University of Sussex, 1992), 31.

77 Rowan Strong, ‘Introduction’ to idem, ed., OHA 3, 1–23, at 15.

78 Characteristics of ‘policy entrepreneurs’ described in Kingdon, John, Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies, 2nd edn (New York, 2003), 122–4.

This article has been produced by members of Devon History Society undertaking a research project on early Victorian schools in Devon.


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