John Britton 1771-1857: Education and Schooling

Education and Schooling

John Britton in his autobiography gives a great insight into his mentality of desiring to surpass his equals and compete with his superiors. Britton writes the following, ‘In my own case, I can safely say, from my earliest remembrances, that I was ever active, inquisitive, emulous, ambitious, and sensitive; whether in play, at school, or at work. It was my constant aim to surpass my equals, and compete with my superiors.’ From this quote, we can see that Britton is keen and driven to succeed in life and not only to be a jack-of-all-trades but also a master of all as well.

Britton however goes on to say that, his appetite to learn and be the best was not indulged by his school friends, parents or teachers. Britton writes the following in regards to this lack of appropriate stimulation at school, ‘unfortunately I met with but little to stimulate these natural tendencies among my playmates or schoolfellows, nor had I parent, friends, or masters to direct them in a right and laudable course.’

Britton is very scathing about how he felt let down by the education system and wrote, ‘Full fifteen years were wasted and frittered away in trifling miscellaneous occupation, and in learning words and things which were almost wholly useless.’ From this we can see that Britton felt that education had taught him words that he believed to be ‘wholly useless’ and that it was at least in part a waste of time.

Britton is particularly critical towards his teachers who he refers to as ‘masters’ and writes the following in his autobiography. ‘The masters were completely ignorant of science, of literature, and of manners; and consequently could not impart either to their pupils.’ Britton goes on to say that he ‘cannot revert to this incipient period of life without sorrow.’ This is Britton’s most damming quote in regards to his education and schooling.

Britton mentions his first Master but once again, this is not in a positive manner, essentially describing him as being incompetent, uninspiring and forgettable. Britton writes the following in regards to his first Master ‘My first master’s name was Moseley, living at Roscoe, a hamlet to Grittleton, where I was boarded and lodged for about two years, between the ages of six and eight. This individual was a Baptist minister, and had a chapel, or rather a sort of shed, at Grittleton, where I regularly attended his spiritual performances. My instruction at this initiatory academy (a word, however, unknown in my connection) was so trifling that I have not the least recollection of any part of it; nor of any traits of personal character except the powdered head of my master with large formal curls over his ears, and mane-like, close-cropt hair around the neck; together with his chilling, fanatical department and language, and the drawling monotony of his voice.’

However, despite Britton’s negative view towards the education system and schooling in general he did find one thing that he particularly enjoyed and that was making friends and playing with them. Britton in his biography writes, ‘As a boy, I was devoted to every species of play, and seized all available moments to pursue it with any companion I could meet. Hence, one of the attractions of school consisted in the play-hours that were allowed, and the playmates it supplied.’

Although Britton himself didn’t enjoy his own educational journey he still understood how important education was to have a better personal life in the future and having the foundations for a greater society. I have written more about this in the Habits, Culture and Belief blog post. Author and historian Michelle M Strong supports Britton’s opinion on the importance of education in particular regarding the working class and writes the following in her book, ‘Education, Travel and the ‘Civilisation’ of the Victorian Working Classes’, “Working people pursued education for any number of reasons. Some hoped to acquire basic literacy and upward mobility, while others aspired to a full knowledge of the world through literature, science, history or politics.” From this quote we can see Strong believes that education was key to propel youtself out of the working class, something that Britton also believed.



  • Mike Savage, Social Class in the 21st Century (Pelican)
  • Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247
  • Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies3 (1987): 335-363
  • Rose, Jonathan, ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 53. 1 (1992): 47-70
  • Page 42
  • Page 41
  • Strong, Michele. ‘Education, Travel and the ‘Civilisation’ of the Victorian Working Classes.’ Palgrave Macmillan; 2014 edition (14 Mar. 2014)

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