Sunday, 23 March 2008

My Victorian education -- in Victorian desks

Looking at books about the early days of universal education (1870-1914) I realise how much of my primary school experience (late 1940s) still belonged to that world. Particularly the infrastructure (buildings, furniture, books), but also the administrative structures.

As an example of the latter: after two years at Wibsey Infants School (Bradford) I moved up to the junior school, which was organised in ‘Standards’ – Standard I to Standard IV. These Standards went back to mid-Victorian times, when they really were standards, in the testable subjects of reading, writing and arithmetic, as assessed by visiting inspectors. There were then, of course, no primary schools; secondary schools meant grammar schools which were for the middle classes and a few scholarship pupils transferring from the elementary school. The elementary school, in which the mass of the population was educated, ran from Infants up to Standard VI, age 13, to which a Standard VII was added later. By my time the Standards were just the name for year groups in the junior school. The terms Standards V and upwards weren’t retained in the new (post-1944) secondary schools, the grammars and secondary moderns, which everyone now attended from age 11.

Most primary schools were in the old elementary school buildings; indeed, most of our school buildings dated (and may still do) from before 1914. Many of my teachers would have been from the elementaries as well, including Ma Healey who taught Scripture with a bun, sharp nose and vicious ruler in Horton Bank Top Junior School. (‘Who were God’s chosen people?’ she would threaten. ‘Miss, the Jews,’ we would plead, hoping to escape the wrath.)

And the desks were the originals: iron-framed two-seaters, with inkwells, and lids and seats that lifted. Whether there were drills for going to desks, sitting, standing and leaving I don’t recall, but there certainly were in School Board days, from 1870, as in Robson’s 1874 School Architecture (see previous blog).

Much thought was given, especially in Germany, to the best dimensions for school desks:

(Click to enlarge images)

We tend to think of Victorian education as harsh and brutal. But Robson and his colleagues in London and other big school boards did their research in Europe and America and made huge efforts to ensure that children were comfortable and had good space, heating, ventilation and lighting. Robson insisted (p.359-60) that ‘The furniture of the school-room should be graceful in form and good in quality and finish.’ He wanted ‘furniture finished like good cabinet work’. By our time this furniture was pretty battered and unfashionably dark; it was easy to mistake its quality.

The desks he designed had slots for slates. I think slots were gone by my day, but our desks still seemed, and were, ancient, the wood blackened, gouged and ink-stained, the lids and seats heavy. There was plenty of potential for chaos in the clatter of lids and seats and we must have had regimes for all the necessary operations in our classes of 40. His desks, like ours, were on the ‘dual system’ – i.e. two-seaters.

Here finally is a picture of the dual desks in use. This is the typical arrangement: the school-room divided by a curtain or movable partition.

However, I don’t understand the classroom on the right. There are four banks of 5 double desks: 40 seats. But are there not 50 girls?

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