Victorian schools where Scripture had priority over science

Better late than never: how Punch magazine characterised the introduction of compulsory education under the Elementary Education Act of 1870

In a previous article, JERRY FITZPATRICK, pictured right, looked at the history of Croydon’s first state school as it marks its 150th anniversary.
Here, he sets out what school life was like in the final years of the 19th Century, and tells us about the educationist who coined the phrase ‘nursery school’

The Elementary Education Act of 1870 was an important indication of commitment in the direction of compulsory education. But it was only a start.

The focus of the Act was on provision of school places, rather than compulsion to attend. It targeted an age range of five- to 12-year-olds, but latitude was given to local school boards over the ages of admission and exit.

Education was not made compulsory until 1880, and then only for five- to 10-year-olds (rising to 11 in 1893 and 12 in 1899). The provision of rural education was much more patchy than urban. In the early 1880s, 18% of children – almost 1-in-5 did not attend school at all.

Long history: when it first opened 150 years ago, there were four schools on the Oval Road site

The Oval Road Board Schools were probably typical of the pioneer schools.

There were four separate schools on its site and within one building: Infants, Juniors, Senior Boys and Senior Girls. Each had its own headteacher. Children could be admitted as young as three, and could stay on until the age of 12.

All headteachers were required to keep a log book, setting out a detailed record of financial, academic, personnel and premises issues. The School Inspector for Oval Road School was a Mr Barrow Rule. He did not hesitate to express his disapproval of sloppy record-keeping. It was from her study of the school log books that Lilian Thornhill was able to provide her superb centenary history of Oval School, the source of much of this article.

A trawl through some of the early entries shows that Mrs Scott (head of Infants) “found a large hole broken in the canvas of the Lord’s Prayer, ’cause unknown’.”

Mrs Mizen (Junior head) made entries about boys smoking pipes, and the theft of a halfpenny, a farthing of which had been spent on dates and a farthing on a pencil.

Small change: but enough for a boy to buy a pencil or some dates

The farthing ceased to be legal tender in 1961: it was a quarter-penny in the old pounds-shillings-and-pence days, its value being about one-tenth of that of today’s penny. The small coin, in comparison to the penny, leant its name to the penny farthing bicycle.

The school’s log books also reveal the poverty of many families.

Children had inadequate clothing and footwear. On the day of a snowstorm in December 1875, infants’ attendance was only 10%. A Shoe Club was established and donors sent second-hand clothes and shoes for the needy. We have little right to be smug about poverty 150 years later: the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has just published a survey showing that more than 1million British children experienced destitution last year.

Croydon was not a borough in 1870, but it was a town of sufficient status to have a School Board, comprised of elected local worthies. The franchise was limited. As with parliamentary elections of the time, only certain categories of male property owners over the age of 21 could vote, constituting less than 15% of the adult population. But although women couldn’t vote, they were able to stand for election and serve on boards.

The Board funded its schools on the basis of such factors as attendance and examination results. If a head was seeking to extend the curriculum by a subject that was not seen as a core one, a specific grant could be given but only on strict conditions.

Education was not free until 1891. Until then, each pupil had to pay one penny per week, and a detailed accounts book was kept to record payments, audited by the local Board. Oval School logs show that it was a tough job for hard-pressed headteachers to enforce payment, and attempts to enforce were often half-hearted. In part, this was due to the fact that by the mid-1870s there were many more children enrolled than there were seats and space to accommodate them.

On September 29, 1873, when the four Oval schools opened for business, there were 143 admissions, of which six were Senior Girls, as compared with 46 Senior Boys.

One reason for this disparity was that many parents couldn’t see the point of paying a penny a week to send 10-year-old daughter to school.

A penny may not sound a lot, but in 1873, weekly family income was often as low as £1 – 240 old pennies. Families were large. If you had four children of school age the cost would be difficult to bear. And the young school-age daughter was probably very useful helping to care for a large brood of younger siblings, or perhaps she was already “in service”, undertaking menial household tasks in middle- or upper-class households, receiving a pitiful wage which she would hand over to her parents.

Losing her contribution to family income would have been bad enough. Shelling out a weekly penny to send her to school added insult to injury.

There were no qualified teachers other than the heads.

Strict lessons: how a Victorian classroom might have looked towards the end of the 19th Century, when education was free and there were trained, adult teachers

Each school had only one schoolroom and one classroom. Much of the teaching was delegated to “Pupil Teachers”, or PTs. PTs were taken on typically at the age of 13. They were adolescents drawn from the literate sections of the upper working-class and lower middle-class. They had received no formal training, and were catapulted into teaching duties.

Judging from some of the comments in the heads’ log books, some PTs had no more than a very basic academic competence. In 1878, two Oval Infants’ school PTs in their fourth year of employment failed their end-of-year exam so badly that the Board of Education required that they be sacked.

In their first year, boy PTs were paid 10 shillings (50p) a week, but their female counterparts only 6/8 – six shillings and eight pence (33p). PTs were deemed as trained after five years of satisfactory service. PTs who supervised the lunch break were paid an additional shilling per month. Children brought in their own food – the era of school dinners was yet to begin. At Oval, penny dinners were provided from 1891.

PTs from all Croydon schools had to take tests every three months. A Mr Newton of Park Hill Road donated a generous prize of two guineas (two pounds two shillings of old money) for the PT who passed top in Scripture.

The use of PTs continued in almost all elementary schools until the First World War, and in some schools even later.

The Oval Schools had a Management Committee similar to a modern governing body. A School Attendance Committee was soon required to chase up parents of irregular attenders. An evening school started in November 1873, to educate boys of 11 and 12 who were already at work and unavailable for daytime lessons.

Those whose attendance was unsatisfactory were not entered for the annual examination. As schools were funded in part on the basis of results, low attendance impacted seriously on the grant the schools would receive. Those who failed the examination had to resit.

The curriculum put a strong focus on “the three Rs”: Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. But Scripture was as important as the three Rs. The syllabus was set by Inspector Barrow Rule and he personally carried out a quarterly examination. Children were expected to have learned the Ten Commandments and Bible passages off by heart.

Each child was supplied with a copy of the school hymn book Praise for Home and School, with all hymns to be used except hymn numbers 87, 190 and 255. None of the books survive, and the nature of the content which necessitated the ban is unknown. Any information from iC readers who have inherited great-grandma’s hymnal would be welcome.

Education innovator: Emilie Michaelis

Exams were held in Arithmetic, Geography, Grammar, Scripture, Singing, Recitation, Writing and Reading. Needlework and Drawing were also taught.

A specific grant was provided for the needlework instruction. The Board stipulated: “It must, however, be distinctly understood that unless [all Infant girls] are in future taught needlework, the entire grant may be forfeited.”

Children as young as three were admitted to the Infants’ School. The Infants’ head, Mrs Scott, questioned the policy, only to receive the instruction: “The babies should learn to thread their needles.”

In 1876, a drill sergeant was appointed to give senior girls drill lessons. In 1877, cookery was introduced into the girls’ curriculum. In 1885, the school began to take children swimming in the dinner hour.

In 1889, the Senior Girls head tried to introduce French but was summoned before the school management committee and told: “French lessons may not be given in this school, even out of school hours.”

Drill was more important not only than French but also Science. Elementary Science lessons were not introduced to the Senior curriculum at Oval until 1899.

Of the four Oval Road schools, it was the Infants’ which initially gained the highest reputation. In 1876, the Inspector reported that it promised to be “one of the best Infant Schools in the district”. The children were “well-behaved and managed with exceeding good sense and kindliness”.

Mrs Scott was sufficiently forward-thinking to realise that she and her PTs needed effective training. She had turned to Emilie Michaelis to provide this. Michaelis was a follower of Friedrich Froebel, a fellow German and pioneer of kindergarten methods. It was Michaelis who translated kindergarten into English as “nursery school”.

Michaelis was in the process of starting England’s first Froebel kindergarten in Croydon. Oval Infants was used for teaching practice by Michaelis’s students and became a demonstration school for the district.

The kindergarten methodology emphasised using the childish imagination and curiosity as a basis for learning, whereas mainstream teaching was narrowly focused on rote learning. Rote learning requires the regurgitation of facts, and disregards both intellectual curiosity and detailed knowledge which has been personally acquired.

Michaelis went on to start a kindergarten and training college for teachers in Notting Hill, which became the Froebel Educational Institute in West Kensington. It opened in September 1894. The college is now part of the University of Roehampton.

Five days off: the 1902 coronation of Edward VII and Queen Alexandria saw schools closed for a whole week

Given that Emilie Michaelis is one of the most distinguished women to be associated with Croydon, you might think that somewhere near the site of her pioneering Croydon kindergarten there would be a blue plaque celebrating her.

In this Borough of Culture year which has been mainly notable for the proliferation of portable plastic giraffes, many Croydon residents might welcome a better effort to celebrate the life and work of distinguished men and women associated with our town.

The Croydon Board of Education proved slow in catering for the rising number of pupils.

In 1875, there were 91 senior boys registered but only one teaching space with 64 seats. By 1880, the average Infants attendance was 240. There were only two spaces to accommodate them, so they spilled over into the Juniors. By March 1885 there were 230 Juniors with two trained teachers. Things became a little easier when Woodside School opened in 1891; however, by 1894 overcrowding was as bad as ever.

Children today have 38 weeks of schooling each year. Schools for their Victorian predecessors were initially open for 44 weeks. There was a two-week holiday at Christmas and Easter, a one-week half-term at Whitsun, but only three weeks in the summer. Often, children did not return at the start of the autumn term as they were gainfully occupied picking hops or undertaking harvest.

As today, there were public holidays for state events. The coronation of Edward VII in 1902 was marked by a five-day additional school holiday and also a half-day sports day.

What was provided free (from 1891) in state schools was elementary education. Children left at the age of 12. It would be 1918 before the school leaving age was raised to 14, and 1944 before universal free secondary education to the age of 15 was established by law.

In 1972, the school leaving age was raised to 16, and today most young people access free education or training to the age of 18. The passing of 150 years has at least seen a little social progress.

Read more: Oval Primary set to celebrate 150 years at centre of community

  • Jerry Fitzpatrick, a former Croydon councillor, was chair of governors of Oval Primary School from 1990 to 2006

  • If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, or want to publicise your residents’ association or business, or if you have a local event to promote, please email us with full details at
  • As featured on Google News Showcase
  • Our comments section on every report provides all readers with an immediate “right of reply” on all our content
  • ROTTEN BOROUGH AWARDS: Croydon was named among the country’s rottenest boroughs for a SIXTH successive year in 2022 in the annual round-up of civic cock-ups in Private Eye magazine

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
This entry was posted in Addiscombe West, Education, History, Jerry Fitzpatrick, Oval Primary, Schools and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Victorian schools where Scripture had priority over science

  1. David White says:

    Thank you Jerry for this fascinating account of what is quite recent history. My mother (born 1912) went to Whitehorse Manor School in Thornton Heath and left school at 13. I’m not sure why it wasn’t 14, as the article explains that was the school leaving age after 1918. But my mother was the oldest of 8 siblings so my grandparents no doubt wanted her out earning a few pennies.

Leave a Reply