William Webb (1830-1919) – Education & Schooling

 Fig.1 Proportion of children in school 1816-1861 (Williams, p.136-137)
Fig.1 Proportion of children in school 1816-1861 (Williams, p.136-137)

The education of the working-classes during the mid-nineteenth century, especially of those individuals residing in rural areas, was known to be of a desperately poor quality. Inadequate facilities, unregulated organisations and a general lack of skilled teachers were not uncommon. This continued at least until the changes made by the Elementary Education Act 1870 began to take effect, moving England towards the modern state education system known today. It was the agrarian population who suffered most, not least of all because they simply lacked essential resources to develop local schools which were available to larger towns and cities. Another damaging factor which hindered education among rural communities was the need for children to be taken from schools during harvest, when all hands were needed on the fields. This meant that while a large number of children were recorded as being in school (see Fig1.), their attendance was often seasonal and sporadic at best. Further to this, the quality of education being provided to the poor was not consistent, while the bourgeois and elite enjoyed a monopoly on “good” education. While little of this affected William directly, with his family in good standing and his father in relatively secure employment, he agonizes over the meagre schooling he received as a child.

William expresses a loss as he describes how ‘the means of educating the ordinary village children was of the poorest description (my emphasis)’ (Webb, p.4). His anguish reveals an individual who understood the importance of schooling, but was not provided with the means to develop his abilities beyond the basic mechanics – the “three R’s” (reading, writing and arithmetic). The emphasis he places on “ordinary” is interesting because it implies that there may have been a division in the education being provided in East Kennett, possibly along the lines of class. Other than the preface to his autobiography, this is one of the few times when William highlights his ordinariness, which is telling because he is quite noticeably aggrieved by the limitations that come with such a label. As a result of his negative experience, it is not long before he identifies a scapegoat who he proceeds to turn his attention towards and direct his anger at:

I myself went to a Dame’s School […] noted more for keeping the pupils out of mischief than for her ability to teach anything beyond the rudiments of learning (Webb, p.4).

The term “dame school” was, as G Grigg notes, not adopted by users of the establishments, who simply referred to them by the name of the proprietor. It was a term predominantly used by middle-class social-commentators to distinguish them apart from other more reputable public infant schools and private schools, and also helped to emphasize there inferiority as educational institutions. Nonetheless, their prominence in rural communities cannot be ignored as they served a unique purpose, albeit a comparatively trivial one. The Newcastle Report of 1861 was the first major state organised review of all known schools in England, and Reverend James Fraser, one of the principal reporters, commented widely on his encounters with various dames and their respective establishments:

[T]he dame picks up these [working-class] children at their parents door; gathers them by the dozen or half dozen in her humble kitchen; does not attempt mental development, or object lessons, or to give them ideas of form and colour, or of the abstract properties of numbers, but is content to teach them to say their catechism, to read in the Testament, to spell words of three and four syllables, and to repeat the multiplication table (my emphasis). I admit that much of this is taught mechanically; but I require it to be admitted also, that even a mechanical power of reading and spelling is not a bad foundation on which to build the subsequent intellectual superstructure (Education Commission, p.35-36).

A Dame's School
Image depicting a typical dame school, with children of all ages congregating in the kitchen of an elderly woman to receive instruction on the “three R’s”. Prayers were another common feature in dame schools. This became known as the fourth “R” – Religion

This subjective overview reveals that what William experienced during his early childhood was an “out of the way school”. As the Fraser Report suggests, these were quite simply not designed with the intention of imparting useful knowledge and wisdom onto attendees. Instead they offered a basic childminding service for parents who were at work, and provided little or no education. These “nurseries of ignorance” were anything but educational institutions, however, this did not mean that they were without purpose. On the contrary their function was born out of necessity. For instance, the 1833 Factory Act meant that children under the age of nine were no longer permitted to work in factories, while the end of the Napoleonic War saw a spike in birth rates, as well as a new wave of immigration from Ireland. All these factors contributed to an increase in England’s youth population and those who could not legally work were a burden on those parents who had to work. The result of this was an increase in demand for cheap childcare services and dames latched onto this burgeoning market by supplying an affordable alternative to expensive private schools.

William Lovett (1800-1877) became an English activist and an important leader of the Chartist political movement
William Lovett (1800-1877) became an English activist and an important leader of the Chartist political movement

This may be a pessimistic observation of what appears to be an exploitative system, however, Fraser provides a secondary layer of analysis which encases the dame schools in positivism. He insists that any education, irrelevant of quality, is beneficial to the student’s intellectual development. This is perhaps true, however, the attainment of “advanced” intellect amongst the working-class was largely the responsibility of the individual, not any single educational provider. David Vincent reinforces this concept in Literacy and Popular Culture: England 1750-1914 where he states that ‘the defeat of illiteracy was in the last resort the responsibility of the illiterates themselves’ (Vincent, p.54). Vincent implies that the failure of the state, church and philanthropists to provide a solid educational platform for all members of the poor meant that individuals had to become autodidactic, developing their own intellectual identity without the aid of a competent tutor. This is reinforced by the working-class autobiography Life and Struggles of William Lovett which embodies the idea that in the absence of an adequate educational system, self-efficacy became central to personal development. Much like William, Lovett laments over the lack of tuition he received and places responsibility at the feet of those who failed to instruct him:

I was so unfortunately placed; for, with a desire for knowledge, I had neither books to enlighten nor a teacher to instruct (Lovett, p.22).

Interestingly, Lovett’s determination reveals that he does not belong to a nation of underachievers. He provides substantial evidence for the case that not all of the working-classes were content and shows that many did want to improve their knowledge, social status and financial wellbeing. While William acknowledges the value of self-improvement and upward social mobility in his memoirs, his actions are far from proactive. Instead he remains passive, allowing his grievances to go unheard, the culmination of which is the sad recollection of how he ‘had to leave school to go into [his] father’s workshop (my emphasis)’ (Webb, p.5). Deprived of choice, William was prematurely thrust into the adult world and assigned a career as if it had been predetermined. It would appear that William has been defeated because he surrenders to convention, and is no longer able to obtain liberation because he gave up on the pursuit of knowledge. However, this is based on the assumption that Vincent’s theory of interconnectivity, which ties together the three fundamental factors of life (bread, knowledge and freedom), is true. At the crux of Vincent’s theory is the idea that:

The pursuit of bread was the prime concern of any working man, and the context within which all other activities were conducted. The pursuit of knowledge derived its impetus from the circumstances under which bread was gained, and in turn was seen as the essential pre-condition for the pursuit of freedom (Vincent, p.109).

His First Day at Work (1890) by A Bannerman perfectly illustrates the painful process working-class male adolescents had to undergo; robbed of their childhood and forced into labour
His First Day at Work (1890) by A Bannerman perfectly illustrates the painful process working-class male adolescents had to undergo; robbed of their childhood and forced into labour

It has already been established that unlike more well-known working-class auotbiographers, such as Lovett, William is not autodidactic. He does not pursue academic self-improvement, but instead allows his identity to be shaped by his labour. What is interesting though is that this does not hinder his own personal pursuit of freedom. This is because William liberated himself from Vincent’s model by emigrating to Australia. This move enabled William to escape Victorian cultural hegemony, which naively saw an intrinsic link between knowledge and freedom (a social expectation perhaps), where in actuality the relationship was more ambiguous; especially when situated outside a top-down, elitist social-structure. By avoiding the system altogether William was able to bypass the transitionary phase, the acquisition of knowledge, and proceed straight to freedom. This is not to say that William was uneducated, on the contrary his ability to produce a piece of written work, concisely documenting his life, is evidence enough of his schooling. It has even been postulated by Jonathan Rose that ‘[m]emoirists are not entirely representative of their class, if only because they were unusually articulate’ (Rose, p.51).

An advert for William Cambridge of the Market Lavington, William's employer
An advert for William Cambridge of the Market Lavington, William’s employer

What must be highlighted here is that William, like so many other working-class male adolescents, did receive an alternative means of education. The importance of apprenticeships and the provision of practical skills, as opposed to “useful knowledge” obtained through the reading of “good” literature and receiving a conventional education, is massively underappreciated, underrepresented and undermined. Lovett himself stands as a testament to the value of apprenticeships. For him it paved the way for future success, having laid the fundamental foundations on which he was able to progress. In the same way William benefited immensely from serving as an apprentice to Mr William Cambridge of the Market Lavington Iron Works, which he fondly recollects was the ‘manufacturer of all classes of agricultural implements and machinery’ (Webb, p.4). This opportunity enabled him to learn about a reputable trade and become a skilled worker, something which placed him in an advantageous position when immigrating to Australia. Further, the Health and Morals Act 1802 entitled apprentices to receive instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic for at least four of their seven year apprenticeship, meaning William would not have lost out entirely on schooling in the “three R’s”. Above all else though, ‘the completion of an apprenticeship marked a man out as trustworthy and dutiful’ (Humphries, p.90), which does well to debunk the misconception that respectability was synonymous with the educated classes.

Christ Church in East Kennett Village, where William’s father held the position as the Parish Clerk
Christ Church in East Kennett Village, where William’s father held the position as the Parish Clerk

Perhaps the only criticism to be made about apprenticeships is their (in)accessibility. A long list of preconditions including: an assurance of the child’s literacy; the provision of a premium by a guardian (usually the father); and a guarantee of the child’s good conduct, meant that they were often reserved for the working-class elite – meaning those in regular employment, with access to some disposable income. Evidently, these barriers to entry confirm the existence of an inter-class hierarchy; a class within a class, wherein those who knew a trade and had good connections could provide some assurances for their family’s future. Conversely the abject poor were ensnared by a system which afforded them little hope of escape. These individuals became the victims of capitalism and were trampled by a free market which favoured money over morals. By extension, the relegation of the lower-working-class to the periphery was met by judgment from the middle-class, who labelled them “undeserving” – not contributing to society, but ironically not being provided with the opportunity to do so. There is no doubt that William can be categorised as a member of the working-class elite as he recalls how Robert, his father, ‘was enabled, by hard work, to live in comfort’ (Webb, p.3). It is likely then that Robert was able to use his position as a tradesman, as well as his influence in the church, to arrange an apprenticeship for William. The prestige surrounding apprenticeships won them a degree of respectability which means they can viewed as the working-class equivalent to higher education, especially because:

[i]f the child could complete his articles he would have privileged access to the upper reaches of status and income within the working class (Vincent, p,67).

William may have suffered from a poor education but one thing is certain, his outward appearance remained morally decent, owing to his apprenticeship and the good fortune of his family. This allowed him to gain membership to that class of the poor who were considered “deserving” by social-commentators. While this acknowledgment would have ordinarily been the upper limit to William’s social-mobility, had he remained in Britain, his choice to immigrate to Australia allowed him to expand his status. Using little more than a rudimentary education and a skillset which proved to be more valuable than anything he learnt from the pages of a book, William was able to climb the social ladder further still; more importantly he was able to do it unaided. All of this, however, did not stop him from looking back on the past melancholically – which is reflected in his wish that his experience of schooling had been better. Noticeably, this expression of grief is not framed as a desire to be more intellectual, but to be more like the middle-classes who were coincidentally better educated. Other aspects were of more importance, namely the middle-classes financial security, and once William found a way of obtaining this without the need for advanced schooling, his concerns about his limited education soon disappear. What is interesting is that William’s comments on education are not an isolated case. Instead, they can be considered universal, as they are representative of a popular view which dominates working-class autobiographies. On a final note, it is disconcerting to see that apprenticeships are so frequently overlooked in the debate on nineteenth-century education, as they so often provided an alternative means of training for the working-classes.


Education Commission. 1861. Reports of the assistant commissioners appointed to inquire into the state of popular education in England. (Cm.2794). London: George E. Eyre & William Spottiswoode.

Grigg, G. R. (2005). ‘Nurseries of Ignorance’? Private adventure and dame schools for the working classes in nineteenth-century Wales. History of Education. 243-262.

Humphries, Jane (2003). English Apprenticeship: A Neglected Factor in the First Industrial Revolution. The Economic Future in Historical Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. 73-102.

Lovett, William (n.d.). Life and Struggles of William Lovett. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Available: https://archive.org/stream/lifestrugglesofw00love#page/30/mode/2up [Accessed: 9th December 2015]

Rose, Jonathan (1992). Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences. Journal of the History of Ideas. 53 (1), 47-70. Available: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2709910 [Accessed: 9th December 2015]

Vincent, David (1993). Literacy and Popular Culture: England 1750-1914. Cambridge: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge.

Wallis, Patrick (2007) Apprenticeship and Training in Premodern England. Available: http://www.lse.ac.uk/economicHistory/pdf/Wallis/Wallis%20Apprenticeship%20JEH%202008.pdf [Accessed: 9th December 1015]

Webb, William (1982). Reminiscences of an Ordinary Life. Burnett, J Destiny Obscure. Autobiographies of childhood, education and family from the 1820s to the 1920s. London: Allen Lane. 78-82.

Williams, R (1961). The Long Revolution. London: Chatto and Windus.

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