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A school curriculum in Victorian times 1800's 1900s needlework 3 R's geography history object lessons lanterns Froebel

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The importance of Needlework in the Victorian school.

In 1970 I researched the history of a small school, St. Michael’s, Bamford, Lancashire. I recently came across this research and thought that it may be of interest to others. I had access to the Logbooks, Punishment books and contact with a former Monitor, Pupil Teacher and Teacher, Mary Ann Collingwood. This is one chapter of ten.

Needlework for girls.

In the 1860’s the school curriculum consisted of the ‘three R’s’ and needlework. The Revised Code of 1862 ensured that teachers concentrated on the ‘three R’s’ by making their salaries dependent upon the results obtained.

At St Michael’s the needlework played an important part in the curriculum, but only after H.M.Inspector had said that more time should be devoted to the subject. The report of 1867 was as follows –

This school, continued at present in the same not very suitable premises, is quiet, orderly and on the whole well instructed, the Arithmetic of the higher standards being the weakest point. I cannot extend praise to the sewing which seemed to me very elementary to say the least ”.

My Lords will look for a better report on the needlework next year. It appears that in the Day School, it is only taught three times a week for ¾ of an hour each time. My Lords think that an hour each day is not too much time to devote to this important branch of female education ”.

New Codes

In 1869 the children were taught a little Geography and some History although at this time these subjects did not qualify for a grant.

In 1871 W E Forster introduced a new Code, which gave a number of new grants, which were an added encouragement to teachers. (The grants were 3/- for a pass in two specific subjects offered in Standards IV, V and VI). The same Code also introduced military drill into the schools, to inculcate a sense of discipline and prompt obedience to orders, amongst a large group of children.

The Code of 1875 introduced ‘class subjects'. In addition to the ‘3 R’s’ in which pupils (who qualified by attendance) were examined individually, there were ‘class subjects’ and ‘specific subjects’. The class subjects (Grammar, Geography, History and Needlework for girls) were so called because the examination in them was by classes and not by individuals. The policy of expansion however was expressed in the ‘specific subjects’ open to the pupils in Standards IV, V and VI in which the examination was individual but was not necessarily taken by all the children of a standard; as in other studies, money grants to the school depended upon the ‘passes’. The ‘specific subjects’ were Algebra, Euclid, Mensuration, Latin, French, German, Mechanics, Animal physiology, Botany, and Domestic Economy.

The Code of 1876 added English Literature.

Oct. 26. 1875. Work of school going on as usual. A.M.Watson Esq., Her Majesty’s Inspector gave his approval of the Scholars learning the Deserted Village. This approval came in answer to a question on the subject from the Rev. E.J.Russell M.A.”.

The importance of religion did not become evident at St Michael’s until 1878 when the first of what was to be an annual inspection in Religious Knowledge was held.

Drawing was introduced to St Michael’s about 1880 and on March 8th of that year –

The drawing exam took place on the 8th”.

“May 24th. Report on Drawing Examination arrived on May 20th. Failed 21 – Fair 52 Boys + 36 Girls – Good 9 Boys + 3 Girls and G.E.Kershaw obtained Excellent”.

This became an annual examination, which included ‘Freehand’ drawing and ‘Geometry.’

The Mundella code

In 1882 Mundella introduced a new Code known as the Mundella Code. His code marked a real breach in the system of ‘Payment by Results’, for a small part of the grant was made to depend upon discipline and organisation. Class subjects were brought into the lower part of the school above Standard I. To make teaching more intelligent a ‘merit grant’ was introduced.

In the same year St Michael’s gained the grant for Class subjects as can be seen from the H.M.I’s report –

Sept 27th. The Infants have passed creditably as usual. The first Standard is very fair, and the order is satisfactory, while the grants for Class subjects have been gained. Considerable weakness is apparent in the Writing and Arithmetic of the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th Standards”.

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“My Lords will look for improvement in Writing and Arithmetic next year (Article 115, Code of 1882) ”.


In 1883 the Headmaster began to introduce into the Infant school the lessons as laid down by the Mundella Code –

June 11th. Notes of Lessons given and to be given in the Infant school in accordance with the Mundella Code – Thimble, Beaver, Apple, Cuckoo, Cow, Daisy, Boots and Shoes, Robin, Cat, Mouse, The Body, Sky, Nose, Sun, Rooms of a House ”.

In 1884 the lessons were –

An Umbrella, Orange, Coal, The Sheep, Camel, Ostrich, Lion, Money, Tree, Windows, A Penny, Lead Pencil, Needle (sewing), The Cow, Tin, A Chair, School, Slate ”.

The ‘merit grant’ referred to in Mundella’s Code was not given to the school in 1883 because –

In view of the large number of failures in writing, no merit grant can be recommended and unless there is a marked improvement in this subject in the next year, a further loss of grant will be incurred ”.

In 1885 the following songs and poetry were taught to the children –

Infants –

Children go

Cock Sparrow

Mary had a little lamb

Cows and Horses

Come and let us watch our teachers hands

Watching for Pa

Poetry –

Standard I - Two little kittens

Infants, 1st class - Child to the Robin

Infants, 2nd class Babies - Butterflies are pretty things

Geography for Standards IV, V and VI was –

“British Isles and Australia ”.

The Infant lessons became known as Object Lessons, which represented elementary science. The purpose of the Object Lesson was to develop the child’s powers of observation but frequently they resulted in the pupils repeating after the teacher long strings of technical terms or memorising perfectly obvious facts in a set form of words.

Geography was one of the ‘Class subjects’ presented to the Inspector in 1889 and 1890 but only the boys took this lesson. The girls did Needlework instead. The importance of the Code can be seen in the following Geography scheme –

Geography Scheme- Boys

Std. I As per Code

Std. II As per Code

Std. III As per Code

Std. IV As per Code

Std. V & VI Europe “

In 1889 the following books were introduced to the various classes by the Headmaster –

The Pearl readers in Std I & V – The Midland Geogies to the various Standards, - So . far and Mew-mew to the 1st Class Infants. – The World at Home readers for Std. II & III. Vere Forsters Bold Series Copy Books, - Bacon’s Map of Europe – Paper Folding for Infants ”.

1890 code abolishes grants for the 3 R's

In 1890 a new Code was introduced which abolished grants in respect of the ‘three R’s’ and thus was a heavy blow to the system of Payment by Results. It was retained only for ‘class subjects’ and ‘specific subjects’. The aim of the 1890 Code was “to substitute for the bald teaching of facts and the cramming which was necessary in order that the children might pass the annual examination and earn the grant, the development of interest and intelligence and the acquirement of real substantial knowledge”.

The Code certainly relaxed things for in the same year the children at St Michael’s were given – “an interesting lecture on pottery making, illustrated by means of a potters’ wheel”.

In 1891 the following apparatus was supplied to the school.

Slates Dixon’s Pat – for lower standards.

Models - Cube, cone, cylinder for drawing

Mariners Compass for Geog in I & II

Readers – Nelson’s Geographical, Pearl Readers”.

Froebel and Kindergarten

In the 1890’s St Michael’s started to use the word “Kindergarten” for certain types of lessons.

Froebel first used the word which means “the garden whose plants are children”. In his system of infant education he attached an inordinate importance to certain pieces of apparatus, ball, cube, cylinder; with these, and with sticks of wood, peas mounted on wire, the folding and cutting of paper, drawing, gardening and games, he proposed to conduct the child through the progressive stages of development – physical, intellectual and spiritual. Froebel died in 1852 but it was not until 1874 that any considerable movement in favour of his teaching was made in this country.

However throughout the nineteenth century Froebelism remained misunderstood in the Infant departments of the Elementary schools. Whereas its author designed it as a systematic education of young children, those schools persisted in regarding the “Kindergarten” as one “subject” amongst others; they saw no absurdity in timetables, which confined it to two specific school times in each week.

St Michael’s was one of the many schools, which treated “Kindergarten” in this way during the early 1890’s.

The log record shows for the years 1892, 1893 and 1894 a list of Object lessons for Infants followed by the “Kindergarten”.

e .g. 1892 “Kindergarten

1 Mat Weaving

2 Embroidery

3 Laying Stick “

1893 “Kindergarten

1st Class – String work

2nd class – Embroidery

3rd Class – Paper Folding “

1894 “Kindergarten

1st Class – Embroidery

2nd class – Ball making

3rd Class – Picking out colours “

However in 1895 these lessons became known as ‘occupations’ and the word Kindergarten was never used again.

Conversation, coins and correction.

Teachers were obviously beginning to see that conversation was important in the education of the child for in Aug. 1893 the Headmaster wrote the following in the logbook -

Albert Gaskell III has been compelled to leave this school. Master devoted the time for object lesson to a conversational half-hour. Many children gave fair verbal accounts of how they spent their holidays. H Tattersall gave an interesting account of a visit to Chester. I am hopeful that such lessons occasionally, will make the children more ready to volunteer information and answers than is the case now".

It was during the 1890’s that the staff began to realise the importance of practical work and that the learning of facts was of little use if the children did not understand them. In 1894 the following entry was made in the logbook –

February 2nd 1894. Actual coins have been used this week in III during the Arithmetic lessons as many of the children I find, were ignorant of the features of the principal coins”.

In 1891 the boys of the school visited Heywood swimming baths for the first time and this later became a regular visit for them.

The school timetable was always followed exactly and in many schools today this is still the case. In the H.M.I’s report of 1895 he –

complains that on an earlier, unwarned visit to the school the children were going out for play fifteen minutes before the correct time and that lower classes were taking writing instead of Kindergarten as shown on the Timetable. Also they were writing on forms as there were not sufficient desks”.

The writing of the school children was thought to be “only fair” by the H.M.I. in 1896 and he sent “specimens of penmanship which he recommends for children” to the Headmaster.

Until this time the work of the children had been corrected by the teachers but no marks or other form of encouragement were given. In April 1896 however a marking system was introduced –

A new scheme of giving marks for each lesson has been adopted this week; this is a scheme now in use in the Leicester School Board’s Schools. So far it appears to be a great aid to the Staff”.

Art in the school, practical work and lanterns.

Art in School.

In 1897 a new system was introduced whereby the school borrowed certain pictures

May 28th. A number of pictures have been hung on the walls and greatly improve the appearance of the interior. The pictures are lent for a period by the Rochdale and District Art for Schools Association”.

Sept. 17th. The pictures belonging to the R & D T A Picture Scheme known as the Art for School Association have been changed and a new set supplied in their places”.

May 26th 1898. A set of twelve pictures have now been received and hung in the upper school. The school becomes proprietor of these pictures on paying Ten Pounds to the “Rochdale Art for Schools Association”, but they will be changed occasionally for other sets of the same character”.

The importance of visual aids had therefore been recognised and even the Infants were supplied, “with a set of beautiful illustrations for use in their object lessons”.

In 1898 the Sub-Inspector for the Education Department complained that Geography definitions were not illustrated and that this should be done by pictures or modelling. He said that verbal definitions were not sufficient.

A few months later the “Lantern” was introduced to aid the Geography lessons.

“Our lower classroom has been adapted for optical lantern work and a lantern purchased recently. After some experience with this Teacher’s Aid we find our resources very much strengthened especially in descriptive Geography lessons, where actual photographs of places may be placed before the children for observation and discussion”.

Oct 21st 1898. Lantern lesson given to the first class this afternoon. Views of Norway exhibited”.

Lantern lessons then became of regular feature of the curriculum and some years later a school library was formed to help the children.

A school library is formed.

27 Oct. 1902. We are forming a day school library. The Managers have placed a cupboard apart for this purpose in the classroom, and the work of furnishing will be a gradual process. The Heywood Corporation Free Library Committee contemplate instituting a scheme for periodic distribution of suitable books to the various schools in the town. If this is accomplished it will be of great assistance to us in our endeavour to provide suitable reading for the children”.

23rd Jan. 1903. The school library was commenced today. A number of volumes have been lent to us by the Heywood Free Library Committee. The children seem pleased to have the privilege”.

The Code of 1890 certainly changed the curriculum from one where the learning of facts and reading, writing and arithmetic were all important to one which was interested in giving the children a very broad knowledge of many things. The increased use of visual aids and the library scheme were a great improvement on the days when no or very few illustrations were seen by the children.


caitmo1 (author) from Lancashire England on March 19, 2012:

I only have one book listed in the bibliography for my work. It is Society and Education in England since 1800 by P.W. Musgrave. I wrote the article 42 years ago in 1970 so don't know if needlework was mentioned but the information in my essay was obtained from the log books of the school. Extracts from the log books are in italic.

I hope this answers your question, please contact me if i can be of further help.

claire on March 13, 2012:

Could you tell me the name of the book you used for the needle working information?

caitmo1 (author) from Lancashire England on January 25, 2012:

Thank you for reading about needlework in my hub. I always made my own clothes and also my children's clothes as I could save a lot of money but I only do alterations now as it is cheaper to buy 'ready made' manufactured from other countries. In Victorian days clothing had to last and so was repaired and mended many times in its life. My grandmother (born 1885) used to darn her family's socks on a wooden mushroom which I still have. However I don't darn socks!

caitmo1 (author) from Lancashire England on January 24, 2012:

I'm pleased that you found the hub interesting.It seemed a shame to leave the research locked in a cupboard as there must be people out there who want to know how our education system evolved.

CASE1WORKER from UNITED KINGDOM on January 20, 2012:

I quite agree with the inspectors of 1867- needlework is important! Oh my how times have changed- but as you quite rightly point out, schools still slavishly follow time tables and an early or extended play time is a really noteworthy event.

Thankyou for sharing your research

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on January 20, 2012:

Very interesting.The history of education may provide some insights into today's dilemmas.

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