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Education in 1911

What was education like for the majority of children in 1911, the year when pupils staged strikes in 62 schools? Ann Morton offers a fascinating glimpse of day-to-day life in an Edwardian school, covering such aspects as lessons, discipline, and examinations. It also touches on the dramatic resignation of the President of the Board of Education.

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I want to begin by introducing you to Mary Dorothy Castle. The first photo I want to use is from an infant school called Milbank School in 1911.  She attended this school; it was in Erasmus Street in Westminster. The admission and discharge registers show that Mary Castle was the daughter of Edward Castle, a Sergeant in the Metropolitan Police, and she lived with her family at 4, Harcourt House, Regency Street. She was born on the 24th July 1897. She actually had her infant schooling at Charing Cross Road School, and reached Standard seven at Milbank School, when she left.  She was allowed to leave because she had, in quotes, ‘passed the labour exam’. Her last attendance was the 10th March 1911, and as you will be aware, that was a few weeks before the census was taken on the 2nd April.

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The first set of documents I want to look at are from the Treasury: T1 Piece 11243.

The first job for 145 girls in Chelsea and Pimlico who left school at Easter 1911, like Mary, was to work as punch card operators in the Census Office in Milbank. They were employed, probably from about November 1911, on a temporary basis, six hours a day, in two shifts: 8.00 till 2.00 or 2.00 till 8.00. They were paid ten shillings a week. On this slide we can see an example of the cards that they would be required to punch, and we can also see some of the discussions which the Registrar General’s Office had with the Treasury about these staff. Initially, in July 1910, they thought of employing boys and girls, but by October they decided that girls should do the punch cards, supervised by women, and that the boys would have other tasks on machine tabulation. They calculated they would need about 170 girls, but in November 1911 the Registrar General’s report for the Treasury shows that in practice they probably actually employed 145.

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This next slide is on the terms and conditions of the girls’ employment and it comes from RG19 Piece 48B.

The idea was that healthy, ‘reliable girls’ of ‘good class’, like Mary Castle, from nearby elementary schools like Milbank, were approached by the local care committee, given training and a two week probation. They brought their own food for meals although hot drinks were provided. Unemployed, un-certificated or retired teachers were to be taken on as checkers; one for every four girls, 44 in all, and they were to be paid at a rate of 20 shillings a week. The workforce was to punch codes, added to the census schedules completed by householders, onto cards for machine tabulation, enabling more and more accurate statistical data on occupations, or numbers of live births, to be extracted from the census forms.

Now what about the organisation of education by 1911? What sort of education would these 145 girls, who represented the majority of the population, have had? Education had been thoroughly re-organised at the beginning of the 20th century. Local School Boards, which generally ran schools in parishes, were replaced by Local Education Authorities known as LEAs – we still have them today – arranged by county or borough and overseen by the Board of Education. The LEAs could fund secondary education but this was not compulsory. In 1911, one delegate to the National Union of Teachers conference described the education system as ‘providing a handful of prigs and an army of serfs’.

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The next slide is a picture of an elementary school; it’s a plan of the school at Clayton near Bradford, and its reference is ED228 Piece 85.

In 1911 most children attended one school; an elementary school – a kind of modern infant and junior school – primary school is another modern term for it. In many rural villages, the schools often resembled churches because they’d been built by the National Society, a Church of England charity, which celebrated its centenary in 1911. In village schools there was usually one big room where everyone was taught, perhaps with a flexible divider. In cities, class sizes were about 60. In South Wales in 1911, they were 37.

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The next slide is a picture of Primrose Hill Infant School, obtainable on the Victorian Web (the copyright is with Jacqueline Banerjee).

In London, as in other big cities, there were triple-decker schools, with infants on the ground floor, boys on the next and girls at the top: three storeys. The day was punctuated by a bell, of course; no watches. You may know the quotation from Sherlock Holmes, who sees these schools as he’s leaving London by train and says: ‘Look at these big isolated clumps of buildings, rising above the slates like brick islands in a lead coloured sea – lighthouses, beacons of the future, capsules with hundreds of bright little seeds in each, out of which will spring the wiser, better England of the future.’ Even with the modern London skyline they still rise up – take a look when you are next on a train journey coming in or going out of London. The Sherlock Holmes quote is from The Naval Treaty.

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The next slide is a photograph from the London Metropolitan Archive of a practical maths lesson at West Square Central School.

However, education authorities like the London County Council were developing a network of higher elementary schools known as Central Schools, which took students for three year commercial or industrial (by that they meant vocational) courses between [the ages of] 11 and 14. This had become policy in London in 1910, and this is a picture of one in Southwark, at West Square, where they are having a practical maths lesson.

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This photo comes from the London Metropolitan Archive. Many teachers like those used as checkers in the Census Office were un-certificated. About 40% were unqualified in this way in 1911. Training colleges for teachers existed, mostly run on denominational lines, and turned out certificated teachers. LEAs, Local Education Authorities authorised by the 1902 Education Act, were also beginning to establish their own undenominational ones like Avery Hill in South London, but progress was very slow. By 1914 only 20 of these municipal training colleges had opened, out of 146 LEAs. Many elementary school teachers were still produced by the old pupil-teacher system. This was a form of apprenticeship with supervised training on the job in a school. By 1911, pupil teacher-hood started at 16, and had special instruction in pupil-teacher centres, usually attached to secondary schools, and a new scheme of bursaries had been introduced, allowing potential teachers to stay at school to train, and then to spend a year at training college, previously only available via a scholarship. By 1911-12, the balance had shifted towards the new arrangements, with nearly 3,000 bursaries being granted, as against just under 2,000 pupil-teacher courses started, although pupil-teacher courses were still much more common in rural areas.

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We can see here on this slide, in this HMI report on a pupil-teacher centre in Wells, that there were a number of bursars as they are called: three for boys to go into the boys’ school and five for girls, and this [catalogue] reference is ED 109/5193.

Large classes meant tough discipline. Punishment books record the use of Dunces caps, lines, detention and most commonly the cane. This slide, which is a punishment book from Llanbister Cantal, in Powys, doesn’t actually show the punishment, but you can see what sort of behaviour was reckoned as deserving punishment, including what happened on the way to school. They have things like trespassing, throwing a girl’s hat into the gutter, dirty book, interfering with sheep on the way, 25 minutes late, various things like that, leaving card and book filthy, using bad language – those are examples from lists in a punishment book.

Industrial unrest in 1911 among Dockers, railway workers and workers in jam factories was mirrored by pupil strikes in 62 larger schools in a hot September. On the 5th, the second day of term, in Llanethli in South Wales, 32 boys failed to turn up for their history lesson, and they only had small classes. They objected to corporal punishment, a cut in their lunch-break, and demanded a ha’penny a week to monitors. They persuaded two other schools in the area to join in. The South Wales Press, the local newspaper, reported the goings-on enthusiastically. Similar strikes took place in Hartlepool, Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Stoke-on-Trent and Hull. Burton-on-Trent and Portsmouth schoolchildren joined in and there were strikes and marches in Battersea. 100 boys from six council schools in Shoreditch and Islington went marching round the local streets chanting ‘Fall in and follow me!’

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Policemen, as here in this photograph from the Houlton Deutsche Collection, and more significantly mothers, soon put a stop to this and took the boys home. The protests were mostly against the cane, but also against long hours and homework. It won’t surprise you to know they were unsuccessful. Many children returned to school with notes from their mothers stating that suitable punishments had already been delivered. How things have changed!

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The school leaving age was officially 12, but many pupils left from ten onwards, depending on local by-laws, usually with a labour certificate as shown in this slide, just like Mary Castle. It proved to an employer that they had a basic education.

Some children went on to secondary schools which charged minimum fees per year, well beyond the reach of most parents who earned perhaps 25 shillings a week. You can see in this slide, the decision at Cheshunt in Hertfordshire in 1911 that there’s a requirement for a secondary school for girls, the reference for that is ED35 Piece 4480. At Boston in Lincs [in Lincolnshire] fees of £4 a head are charged per year, the reference for that is ED109 Piece 3421, and at Berwick-upon-Tweed, this HMI, His Majesty’s Inspectorate Report, shows the development of a girls’ school from a Pupil-Teacher Centre, that’s in ED109 Piece 4643.

Now what about lessons and examinations? The three R’s predominated as a part of the curriculum, especially in rural areas. Lessons were arranged in seven Standards. We saw with Mary Castle that she had reached Standard seven. The Standard system started at age six, with attainments for each Standard set out in what was known as the Education Code, which was updated every year, rather like the National Curriculum. Every child had to pass an exam run by a school inspector, His Majesty’s Inspector, (HMI) each year to progress to the next level, and the school received money depending on the outcome of the exam. This was known as the ‘payment by results’ system. However, this system was breaking down.

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At the London Metropolitan Archive, a log-book for Horseferry Road School in Westminster, which is another candidate school for supplying female punch card operators, on the 31st March 1911 an entry reads: ‘The classes have been rearranged for the new year to commence on Monday. In future, the designation of Standards will be abolished, and the term ‘Classes’ used instead’.

But here, on this slide, we can see a report from the Chaucer school in Tabard Street in Southwark; it comes from ED21 Piece 12028. This was presumably near the site of the Tabard Inn where Chaucer’s Pilgrims started their trip to Canterbury. The headmistress here is particularly praised for ‘the most striking of her experiments, which appears to have been thoroughly successful – the formation of a class of the old and backward children who give half their term to practical work, including needlework and the elements of household management.’ The backward pupils in this case were girls, and a complement to this, alongside the first page to her report, I’ve put the Booth Poverty map for the area; it’s about 1898-9, and it comes from the London School of Economics Collection on-line, and the black areas on the Booth maps are those of greatest poverty, so you can see that the area around the school is a particularly poor area.

Another of the experiments of the headmistress of the Chaucer School was in Geography. She employed a specially qualified teacher; this was quite unusual. The curriculum was broadening, and most London elementary schools, for example, were teaching English, Science (including nature study and gardening), Mathematics, Geography, History and Needlework.

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On this slide, we can see the London School Board’s reports on the teaching of English (note the essay titles like ‘Nature’s Colour-box and how she uses it’, ‘The Entente Cordiale’ ‘Three Great English Women’, I was pleased to see that, and ‘May-Day in England’.) It also gives notes for teachers on geography, but I’m afraid needlework still looms very large in the girls’ curriculum. I’ve also got on here a page from a detailed investigation undertaken by the female HMI on the teaching of needlework, and these pieces, items, pages come from ED14 Piece 95.

In 1911, an extra lesson was added on completing the census schedule on 2nd April. The Board of Education sent circulars to Local Education Authorities in March, explaining the significance of the census, stressing the national importance of establishing the distribution, number, gender, age and occupation of the population. Teachers were to decide how best to organise an appropriate lesson in their own school, and to publicise the census. The idea was that the older children could educate their parents to complete the form and to help them understand its importance.

This circular, which comes from ED12 Piece 45, suggests: ‘The census should form the subject of one or more special lessons in all classes for older children in public elementary schools. Some of the principal objects of the census must be explained and illustrated.’ It emphasises the need for accurate census information – it goes on that it would be a: ‘very great service to those who have to watch the health of the people, or to consider in what ways their general comfort can be promoted; to those who have to study the trades and industries of the nation, and the occupations of the people both in town and country.’ The information extracted from the census does form the basis of various policy decisions.

We’ve looked at the curriculum and how it was broadening, particularly with the census lesson in March 1911. We’ve also seen the part played by His Majesty’s Inspectorate in moving children on to the next Standard, or Class. HMI were associated with the Board of Education but were in fact autonomous professionals; they’d been individually appointed by the Order-in-Council, hence at this time they were His Majesty’s Inspectors, and this ensured their relative independence. But many LEAs had their own local inspectors, often promoted from elementary teachers, and all schools receiving grants or certified as efficient by the Board were also inspected by the HMI.

There were problems in this arrangement. In 1908, the Chief Inspector, E.G.A Holmes, asked his HMI to collect information on the status, duties and efficiency of LEA inspectors. He prepared a confidential memo from these returns, including derogatory comments, such as, ‘The existence of these inspectors stereotypes routine, perpetuates cast iron methods and forms an effectual bar to development and progress.’ It’s really quite strong stuff, and remember what we’re dealing with here is former elementary school teachers who were terrorised by the HMI in the days of the full rigours of the payment by results system, which I outlined earlier, and they’d now got their chance to perpetuate this approach, but with different victims, stifling creativity and innovation; the children just had to pass the exams as well as possible to maximise the Government grant.

Holmes, the Chief Inspector, issued a very critical memorandum, including a variety of similar derogatory remarks and conclusions in May 1910, as E Memorandum 21, just to his senior colleagues, but a copy was leaked to the press by Sir Samuel Hoare MP for Chelsea in March 1911. Scandal! Sir Samuel used it as a weapon against the Liberal Government. The NUT claimed that a slur had been cast on the teaching profession. The leak in fact led to the resignation of the president of the Board of Trade, Walter Runciman, and the removal of Robert Morant, its permanent secretary (who had signed the circular letter about the census lesson) to another Government department. The memo itself was expunged from the public record, so we don’t have it, and the only surviving copy is among Sir Walter Runciman’s papers.

The Board of Education and the Inspectorate surveyed school buildings in 1908, and they drew up a blacklist of schools, as they called it, which needed structural improvements. The aim was to force LEAs to make repairs or lose official recognition. Chaucer School in Southwark, the one I’ve already mentioned, where the headmistress organised special classes for the older and backward girls (needlework and house hold management) was on the blacklist.

Despite this it was also recognised as a school of what was known as ‘Special Difficulty’ in a poverty stricken area, as this report, drawn up in 1907 shows: ‘This Special Difficulty School presents many features of interest. The children are drawn exclusively from the immediate streets, Tabard Street especially, and the population of these streets is, for school purposes, of the least promising kind. It contains a large representation of the criminal classes, but the chief difficulty is not crime, but blank poverty. What regular work there is appears to be done by the women. The men do some coster-mongering, some hop-picking in the season, any casual jobs which come in their way when they are so inclined, but on the whole the public houses claim them, and like true savages, they declare that they ‘have no need to work, as their wives are in employment’. A large number of women are engaged in the Jam factory.’ (Remember we encountered the jam factories earlier.) ‘Many more pawn their possessions, buy flowers with part of the proceeds and make a little money by the sale of them.’ (Shades of Eliza Doolittle.)

‘There is probably no-one in the district who is engaged in skilled labour of any sort. It is therefore with children, who for the most part live amid immorality, crime, squalor, dirt, neglect, bad feeling and un-healthiness of every kind, physical, mental and moral, that this most interesting school is concerned. They display,’ (this is the children) ‘all the defects of these disabilities. Most of them are small for their age, a large number show the signs of insufficient feeding or unwholesome feeding; some are afflicted by ringworm, running eyes, nasty head-sores and vermin. Mentally they are very slow, appear to have little power of memory; so little, that a day’s holiday wipes away the knowledge previously obtained, and in especial have no faculty for numbers.  A considerable proportion appear on the borderline between normal and weak intellect. The character of the neighbourhood is exemplified by the fact that it has been found advisable to establish a crèche in this school. It is unfortunate that this is so situated that no sunlight ever reaches it.’ That’s such a shame.

It was schools like the Chaucer which ensured that children’s welfare and development were on the official agenda by 1911, and informed the concern for the punch card operators’ meals and health. You’ll remember the poor physical condition of Boer War recruits revealed by medical examinations, which led to a report on the physical state of the nation in 1904. This prompted Robert Morant, he of the scandal, to set up ‘The Women Inspectorate’, ‘the Washtub Ladies’, as they were known, to cover infant teaching and the needs of girls in elementary schools. Here, and the reference is ED23 Piece 152B, is an excerpt from his memo on the new post of Chief Woman Inspector. He emphasises the need to have a woman of ‘real standing and prestige’. The Hon. Maude Lawrence, daughter of the Viceroy of India, was appointed, so his view prevailed. Here he is explain her working conditions, he says: ‘She will not have any fixed hours of attendance whatever, but will be quite free to be either at her own house, or at a room here which we shall place at her disposal, as and when she may find the work necessitates.’

This concern for children’s welfare would also influence legislation on both school meals and medical services. Charities, like the Children’s Destitute Dinner Society, or individuals like Mrs Burgwin and her staff at Orange Street School, also in Southwark, had provided meals for needy schoolchildren in London for several decades, and there were some similar instances across the country from Cheshire to Devon. By 1905, the London County Council was running what was known as a ‘dinner experiment’, where cheap meals for schoolchildren were prepared in its cookery centres.

ED14 Piece 93 shows some pages from the report on it. We can see the original set-up in five schools, and then the recommendation that it be extended to at least ten centres, and there’s an example of the menu, which tells you the sorts of food that they were going to provide. This is the highest level, the ‘thru’penny’ dinners, and on Mondays they’d have stewed neck of mutton, steamed potatoes, followed by baked bread pudding with jam. By Wednesday we’re reduced to lentil soup, bread, and raisin pudding; on Friday we get baked leg of pork, apple sauce, sage and onion stuffing, steamed potatoes, boiled greens and jam tart – not bad. The scheme, as I said, drew up menus for meals costing a penny ha’penny, tuppence and thru’pence, and I’ve given an example of what was on the most expensive menu.

Bradford Borough Council also ran a pioneering scheme to feed its hungry children and this is an extract in ED50 Piece 8, from a report on the Bradford experiment. It gives an account of a feeding experiment carried out on about 40 children during the early summer, namely from April 17th to July 24th 1907.

‘The meals, consisting of breakfast and dinner, were given in a school in one of the poorest quarters of the city, about 30 of the children coming from this school and ten from an adjacent one. The children were selected out of Standards 1-4’, so they were quite young children, ‘by the Head teacher and myself. The children apparently most in need of meals were chosen, though a few were included primarily on the ground of the then particularly poor circumstances of the family. In the majority of the cases, either the family income for one reason or another was very irregular, or the mother went out to work, or the family was a large one, but in one or two of the cases the circumstances were comparatively good.

Every effort was made to make the meals as far as possible educational. There were tablecloths, and flowers on the tables, monitoresses, whose duty it was to lay the tables and to wait on the other children were appointed, one to each group of ten children – they were provided with aprons and sleeves and had their meals together after the other children. From almost the first, there was very little to complain of in the behaviour of the children. The children soon respond to orderly and decent surrounding. The tablecloths, it is true, were very dirty at the end of the week, but this is chiefly due to the dirty clothing of the children and owing to the very inadequate provision at the school for the children to wash themselves. It was difficult to ensure that even their hands were clean’.

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On this slide also from ED50 Piece 8, you can see the weight chart, and it shows the effect that the provision of breakfast and dinner had on those Bradford children; they gained weight during term time, and lost it during the holidays – I don’t think we quite have that problem today, I think it’s more continuous weight gain. Local care committees who were a combination of officials and volunteers attached to every London school, and concerned with children’s welfare, identified needy families and liaised between home and school over meals and medical inspection.

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I’m going to end as I began with a photo from the London Metropolitan Archive Collection, and this is another photo of the Chaucer School, where the children are queuing up, they look to me to be all girls, for medical inspection; I have to say it does remind me of visits from the nit nurse during my own primary school.

So my conclusions to what I’ve been telling you today. My aim was to give you some sort of idea of the education for which the majority of children experienced in 1911. I took as my starting point the arrangements made for a 145 girl punch card operators, perhaps including Mary Castle, working as temporary staff in Milbank on the 1911 census. We saw how education was organised at this time: secondary education for the few, although scholarships were available, many teachers were still unqualified. Discipline was very harsh and provoked strikes in September 1911. The school leaving age was officially twelve, but many left before that if they could get work and they’d passed the school certificate, the labour certificate. The curriculum was expanding, the payment by results system was not so rigid, and there was even in 1911 a special census on completing the census schedule and its importance.

We saw the antipathy between the Oxbridge educated HMI and the LEA Inspectors, with the leak of the memo which brought about the resignation of the president of the Board of Education and the move of his permanent secretary to another department. We welcomed the appointment of women HMI and the introduction of a more enlightened approach to children’s welfare and the provision of school meals and the beginning of school medical inspections. This might enable you to make a judgement about whether the prevailing education system did indeed produce a handful of prigs and an army of serfs; you have to take your own views.


  1. susan jamieson says:

    i can only seen one picture not all the slides you mention; I would love to see all the slides you mention; please can you help me ; the talk is great

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