Social History Exhibitions – Going to School

Victorian ClassroomBy 1900, at the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, most children in Warwickshire attended Elementary Schools like the one in the image opposite.

Images and Log Book extracts by kind permission of Warwickshire County Record Office.


Elementary Schools had limited aims. Children learnt basic subjects like reading, writing and arithmetic. They were expected to obey instructions – ‘Fold your arms!’ ‘Open your copy books!’

Other subjects included history and geography. They encouraged respect for Queen, Country and Empire. Christian hymns, prayers and scripture lessons were an important part of the school day. They gave out strong moral messages about how to behave.

Many left by the age of 12, but a few stayed on at school, and even went to university. Good teachers could make school fun. Nature Study might include outdoor lessons, and finding interesting specimens to display in the classroom.

But children weren’t expected to use their imaginations. Craft lessons were useful rather than creative. In sewing, girls learnt to make and mend clothes. Boys did ‘Geometric Drawing’, and drew models of cones and cubes.

In PE, or drill, children lined up to perform a series of exercises. The aim was to obey instructions, as well as to keep fit.

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Treats and punishments

Punishments could be harsh, and often unfair:
‘1 stroke with the cane to 21 children on their hands’ for ‘lingering to snowball after bell rung.’ (February 5th 1901 Binton School, Warwickshire County Record Office- CR1257/3)

Log Books show that the cane didn’t stop children misbehaving:
‘Punished G. Black for stealing another boy’s dinner. This is the third time he has done it’. (April 27th 1887 Ansley School, Warwickshire County Record Office- CR2403/1)

But there were treats and celebrations to look forward to:
‘The children have a holiday today for the school treat…they took train to Alcester and walked to Ragley Park… for the tea, and swing games and races’. (July 23rd 1901 Stratford-on-Avon Board School, Warwickshire County Record Office- CR36f/23)

The below fancy dress costume (ref: H11663) was worn by Alice May Brown in 1911, when she was 9 years old. It is made from white cotton, printed with pages from ‘The Kenilworth Advertiser’ for Saturday June 17th 1911.

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Staying at away

Attendance was sometimes poor. Life outside school was often tempting!
‘… a circus visited the town on Wednesday and a great many boys played truant.’ (September 19th 1891 Nuneaton National School, Warwickshire County Record Office- CR 1589/448)

Some children were kept away to earn extra money:
‘… many of the children kept away fruit picking and minding babies.’ (June 30th 1893 Bishop’s Tachbrook School, Warwickshire County Record Office- CR 1066/1)

When working in the fields, women and girls wore bonnets to protect their heads from the sun. The bonnet below(ref: H5088) is made from blue cotton, with a deep brim to shield the face and a ‘curtain’ to cover the back of the neck.

Then there was sickness and bad weather:
‘There are 3 more cases of scarlet fever… many are absent with whooping cough and influenza.’ (December 2nd 1896 Clifford Chambers School, Warwickshire County Record Office- CR 867)

This ceramic inhaler below (ref; H9368) was used to inhale vapours for colds or respiratory illnesses, such as consumption or bronchitis. It would have originally had a cork and glass mouthpiece in the larger hole, and boiling water inside to make steam.

‘No school owing to bad snow storm. The few children who came had wet feet and were sent home.’ (November 23rd 1898 Temple Balsall School, Warwickshire County Record Office- CR 3177/1)

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In 1902, the leaving age rose to 14. Few Elementary School children had the chance to stay on for secondary education. Most had to start earning a living. Many girls began work as domestic servants. The image below is of a housemaid’s box and brushes(ref: H9205). It would have been carried from room to room when the housemaid was working.

Boys often started out as messengers and errand boys. In north Warwickshire, some boys went into traditional industries like mining and hatting. In the countryside, there were jobs on the land. The wooden hat maker’s block below would have been used in the manufacture of felt ‘flat cap’ hats( ref: H1311). And some of the boys you see looking out from school photographs may have fought not too long afterwards in World War I.

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