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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

XV. Education

§ 19. Charity Schools: Mandeville

In 1697, Locke, then a member of the commission of Trade and Plantations, wrote a memorandum in which he ascribed the increase of pauperism to relaxation of dicipline and corruption of manners. He put forward the more practical portions of Beller’s scheme suggesting the erection at public expense in all parishes of “working schools” for pauper children, between the ages of three and fourteen, who were to learn spinning, knitting or other handicraft, and to be brought to church on Sundays. Half the apprentices of a district should be chosen from these paupers, for whom no premium was to be paid. Locke estimated that the children’s labour would pay for their teaching and for a sufficient ration of bread and water-gruel. Defoe (Of Royall Education, c. 1728) expressed the opinion that “in the manufacturing towns of England, hardly a child above five year old but could get its own bread.”

While men like Locke and Bellers addressed themselves chiefly to the economic side of the problem presented by pauperism, others tried to solve it by means of instruction, more particularly through instruction in religion. There was, indeed, a growing uneasiness in religious minds respecting the spiritual condition of the people, not only in these islands but in France and Germany also. Between 1678 and 1698, forty-two “religious societies,” chiefly of churchmen, were started in London alone, and similar associations were formed at Oxford, Cambridge, Dublin and elsewhere, the object of all being that deepening of personal piety which, at a later date and on a more extensive scale, became methodism. In the last decade of the seventeenth century “societies for the reformation of manners” endeavoured to effect improvement by setting in force the laws against swearing, drunkenness, street-debauchery and sabbath-breaking; their success was but trifling, and they died out about 1740.

One of the immediate objects of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (founded in 1699) was the institution of schools for instructing poor children between the ages of seven and twelve in reading, writing and the catechism; all boys and some girls were to be taught to cipher, and all girls were to learn sewing, or some other handicraft. The instruction was to be given by a master or mistress, a member of the church of England, licensed by the bishop. A convincing proof of the great popularity of these schools in their earlier period is furnished by the venomous attack upon them made by Bernard Mandeville in his Essay on Charity, and Charity Schools (2nd edition, 1723). That habitual paradoxmonger was dead against popular schooling: yet he notes an “enthusiastic passion for charity schools, a kind of distraction the nation hath laboured under for some time,” a widespread interest in their fortunes, and a great desire to share in their management. He thought that the money bestowed on them would be better spent upon higher and professional education. If parents are too poor to afford their children the elements of learning “it is impudence in them to aspire any further.”

These schools obtained a large measure of support during the reigns of Anne and George I, but, with the accession of George II, there came a check in their increase, and a decline in their efficiency set in, which grew as the century advanced, while an immense field for popular instruction was either unoccupied, or occupied by even humbler schools. Their own defective course and methods of instruction but partly account for the failure of charity schools, which was mainly due to their connection with the church and the supposed Jacobite sympathies of their managers. Responsible persons like archbishop Wake and bishop Boulter, of Bristol, formally warned the authorities of the schools against any appearance of disloyalty.

Charity schools failed to expand, partly because they did not retain the support of the crown, and partly because their managers were too often partisan in their dealings with parents; readers of Fielding will remember why little Joseph Andrews did not receive a charity school education. But these schools played a part in our educational history which makes them memorable. They familiarised men with the idea of a system of popular schools centrally directed, yet very closely associated with the several localities in which the schools were placed; they founded the tradition that the “three R’s” are the primary ground of all school work, and they first represented that voluntary system to which English popular education owes much.