Chapter 4 – Promoting Public Interest and Awareness in Science and Technology – Early Groups, Societies and Movements

This entry is part 4 of 20 in the series A Short History of Technical Education


The previous chapters of this history have attempted to provide the background and context for the issues that have dominated and shaped the development of technical education in England before, during and after the Industrial Revolution. I will now focus on some of the consequences of the successive Scientific and Industrial Revolutions during the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries that precipitated a growing awareness and interest in the practical benefits of science and its applications. This growing interest among the worker population in machinery and its workings, in the processes associated the new industries, manufacturing processes and natural science was fortunately encouraged by a few enlightened employers. However this curiosity and interest did not lead to any immediate or widespread provision of education or instruction in scientific and technical subjects until well into the 19th century.

The excitement generated by the achievements of the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century arising from the discoveries of amongst others Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) , Robert Hooke (1635-1703) and  Isaac Newton (1643-1727) highlighted the importance of communicating and disseminating information about science and astronomy initially amongst other scientists then later to the wider public. An artist’s impression of Robert Hooke is shown below as no known portrait exists of him – he was a very remarkable scientist and sadly has not received the recognition he deserves.

503px-13_Portrait_of_Robert_HookeThere was much less interest at this time in the practical applications of science namely technology – interest only grew slowly as the consequences of the Industrial Revolution impacted on more people. As the scientific community grew they founded the Royal Society in 1660 in order to consider the pure and theoretical aspects of the major scientific discoveries being made at the time. Initially it was perceived as an exclusive and somewhat elitist club for gentlemen scientists. Eventually separate and independent bodies were established in Scotland and Ireland namely The Royal Society of Edinburgh founded in 1783 and the Royal Irish Academy based in Dublin founded in 1785.  As the Industrial Revolution gained momentum public interest did gradually increase towards more applied, vocational and technical aspects of the scientific discoveries and basic principles associated with industrial processes. It was therefore inevitable that groups would be established that considered the workers’ interest in industrial processes and the science that underpinned them.

Even though the Royal Society purported to be about the dissemination of scientific knowledge it had little to do with the application of science preferring to focus on the pure and theorical aspects of science. In 1754 a society was founded that very much focussed on the issues associated with manufacturing namely The Society of Arts for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce that later became the Royal Society of Arts (RSA). Founded by William Shipley (1714-1803) the Society quickly received support from the aristocracy, manufacturers and the wider professional groups who financially sponsored grants and premiums for improvement in fields such as agriculture, industry and the trades. However the emphasis was still very much on the pure aspects of science and technology and the academic view persisted and reflected the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. The Society of Arts has played a significant role in technical and commercial education and training since its foundation. The City and Guilds Institute of London (CGLI) and the RSA are the two premier bodies each possessing a long and worthy history representing technical, vocational and commercial education especially in the area of examinations. An engraving of William Shipley is shown below.


Initially the Royal Society was the premier scientific body that represented all the sciences so it was inevitable that other specialised groups would be established to represent more specific scientific, astronomical and medical disciplines. These included the Medical Society of Edinburgh, (1734), the Physical Society of Edinburgh (1771), the Medical Society of London (1773), the Linnaean Society (1788) and the Royal Institution (1799), the Royal Astronomical Society (1820), British Association (1831) and the Chemical Society (1841). The majority of these organisations were based in London. [Additional information about the foundation of these and other professional bodies is more fully described in the biographies]. In addition to these societies there was a fascinating array of other movements that attempted to communicate and disseminate knowledge about science and its application. These movements centred on a wide range of formats such as debating societies, clubs, libraries, literary and philosophical societies, public lectures and various specialised institutions.

In 1799 the Royal Institution was created by Count Rumford (1753-1814) the American-born of English origin physicist who initially provided lectures on the application of science domestically in the home e.g. ovens, ventilation and heating systems. The Institution had a house on Albemarle Street, London that possessed a special room full of equipment and models associated with these domestic appliances. It was a truly remarkable facility and the Society reflected both Rumford’s unique insight and abilities and those who followed him. The initial purpose of the Royal Institution differed little from that of the Society of Arts. Both grew out of the industrial age and the resultant belief in utilitarianism. [Note: Utilitarian –designed for use rather than beauty – a person who believes in utilitarianism i.e. that the highest good lies in the greatest good of the greatest numbers.] One definite difference was the Institution’s commitment to improve the lives of the poor and to increase the technical knowledge of the artisans. In the first few years of its existence the Royal Institution ran a small industrial school for mechanics providing the basic skills and theory for such crafts as bricklaying, iron plate working, joinery and other metal workings. Rumford left to go to Germany and Humphrey Davy (1778-1829) assumed the role of head of the Institution laboratory and changed the lecture format and content so that it focused on the teaching of science and its application. Davy was then succeeded by Michael Faraday (1791-1867) who introduced a wide range of scientifically based lectures including the famous Christmas lectures, which continue to this day. In 1810 the Royal Institution became a public body in order to promote chemical science, the arts, manufacturing and the spread/diffusion and extension of useful knowledge in general. The Royal Institution was one of a few early examples of a society that set the standard and operating model for other cities to follow such as Liverpool, and the Royal Manchester Institution. These and other bodies did promote  the arts, literature and  sciences in a way that was not exclusive or elitist but attempted to offer provision to much wider audiences including artisans. However in spite of the worthy initiatives there is evidence that the provision for artisans and workers was sparse and as a result not on any significant scale to make any real impact.

Another body that focused on science and science teaching in schools was the British Association for the Advancement of Science founded at a meeting in York in 1831.The meeting highlighted that the educated classes of the time were becoming interested in the diffusion of science. The Association was established as a result of disillusionment with the Royal Society which was still seen as an exclusive gentlemen’s club. The leading spirit was Charles Babbage (1792-1871), a severe critic of the Royal Society arguing that the Society had reneged on its original aim ‘to improve the knowledge of natural things, and all useful Arts, Manufactures and Mechanick practises, Engines and Inventions by Experiments’[See biography of Charles Babbage in the biographies]. The Association’s main purpose was to promote research and discovery and facilitate meetings between practising scientists and as a result was far more open and democratic than the Royal Society. From about 1861 the Association focused its attention and resources on school science.  In 1889 the Association presented a report strongly supporting the Heuristic* method of science teaching that had been developed by Henry Armstrong (1848-1937) who had worked at the Finsbury Technical College and which subsequently greatly influenced the teaching of  science e.g., Nuffield Science. The Association introduced lecture programmes at its annual meeting and these became very famous not only because of their content but the lecturers who included Thomas Huxley, Henry Roscoe and William Tyndall. The Association rapidly became the most highly regarded organisation representing science in Britain and continues its excellent work up to today.

*[The heuristic methods of teaching are basically placing the student as far as possible in the position of the researcher – methods that involve them finding out instead of merely being told about things].

Below I will attempt to describe some of the other important movements although as Kelly (1) states the variety and scope of these is almost impossible to identify and record because of the lack of accurate historical detail. Many were short lived whilst others thrived and some still survive today although these went through many changes in title. However it must be said that many did not cater for the working classes as the cost of membership or activity was well beyond the reach of the artisan. Many of the societies and clubs were exclusively for the middle and upper classes but in spite of this failing it did reveal the growing interest in science and its application even in the upper classes. Also the majority of these movements were based in London which although understandable i.e. being the capital, did reinforce the widely held belief that everything in England revolved around London i.e. London centric. George Birkbeck (1776-1841) would develop a movement i.e. the Mechanics’ Institutions that would address the educational needs and interests of the workers more fully.

[I will describe more fully the Mechanics’ Institutions in Chapter 5.]

Some examples of Bodies Associated with the Dissemination of Science and its Application.

Gresham College and Public Science Lectures.
A good example of public lectures was the Gresham lectures based at Gresham College, founded as a result of a bequest by Thomas Gresham (1519-1579) to the Corporation of London and the Mercers’ Company in 1579. The bequeathed funds were to establish a series of lectureships in such disciplines as astronomy, geometry, law, physic, religion, rhetoric and music. The bequest was fully realised in 1597 upon the death of his wife. The college was based in his house in Bishopsgate Street with a number of the professors in residence. The professors delivered weekly lectures in both Latin and English. The lectures on geometry included elements of arithmetic whilst astronomy was aimed at the needs of mariners and their navigation skills. Gresham College and its professors played a significant part in the creation of the Royal Society in 1658 as many of the early planning meetings were held at the College. The lectures at the College continued to thrive throughout the 17th century with topics in astronomy, geometry and physics and in the 1690s lectures in chemistry and mathematics were begun. One of the most remarkable lecturers was Dr John Theophilus Desaguliers (1683- 1744) who was a gifted mathematician and natural scientist. He lectured in these subjects for over thirty years between 1712/13 until his death in 1744. He offered a series of twenty-two lectures at a cost of two and a half guineas that included such topics as hydrostatics, mechanics and optics. A portrait of Theophilus Desaguliers is shown below.


Other notable lecturers included William Whiston (1667-1752) who had succeeded Isaac Newton at Cambridge and regularly lectured on natural philosophy. Gresham College was the pioneer and forerunner for staging public lectures and in many ways anticipated the university extension movement and many elements of the adult education system that are practised today. Many of the lecturers went on to make significant contributions to science and other disciplines. Gresham College still exists today.

Following the success of Gresham College, science lectures developed across England in the rapidly developing industrial cities of the Midlands and the North but also in towns and ports. A wide range of subjects were taught reflecting the level of interest or specialism in the cities and towns. Mathematics and natural sciences were popular in Manchester whilst natural philosophy was the most frequent subject in the provinces – one can equate natural philosophy with the current title of the physical and biological sciences. As the lectures became more popular the formal lectures were complemented by experiments, working models and demonstrations. However the audiences were mainly middle or upper class because of the high cost of the lectures and that the general ambience did not attract the artisan. The Mechanics’ Institutions would provide through self help the really first opportunity for the working person to learn about science and its application [see chapter 5.]

Working-class Societies.
There were a few examples of working-class scientific and mathematical societies such as the Spitalfields Mathematical Society see Appendix 4. Similar societies existed in Lancashire and Yorkshire and like the Spitalfields Society were created by weavers. Mathematical Societies were to be found in such places as Manchester and Oldham. Other Societies reflecting such interests as floriculture and entomology were active in London in the 18th century. Natural philosophy classes for the artisan were being offered in Birmingham in the late 18th century.

Literary and Philosophical Societies.
From around the 1780s provision around the country of science for adults was made by philosophical and literary societies. However these organisations were very much focussed on the middle and upper classes and were about the pursuit of knowledge as opposed to the practical aspects, although some of the Societies did attempt to popularise and raise awareness of science and its application. Interesting even at this time to see that provision was already available for the elite and privileged and not for the mechanics and artisans.  This fact reinforces the influence of class on the English way of life that Weiner (2) so clearly articulates. Literary and Philosophical Societies were established in some of the big cities such as Leeds (1783), Liverpool (1779) and Manchester (1781). However many did not last long but Manchester proved to be the model of later and more successful ones e.g. Newcastle (1793). Manchester Society was founded in 1781 by Thomas Percival (1740-1804) a former student of the Warrington Academy, [see Chapter 5,] and was the most successful becoming the model for similar societies and continues to this day. Other successful and active ones existed in Birmingham, Leeds (1783), Liverpool (1779) and Newcastle but many were short-lived. The Societies were primarily operated for the mutual improvement of their own members and activities covered a wide spectrum of interests but the Manchester Society was one of the few that specialised in science. This was due mainly to John Dalton (1766-1844) a former teacher at the Manchester Academy. John Dalton is often referred to as the father of modern chemistry and was also a famous physicist who was elected as a member of the Manchester Lit and Phil in 1794 becoming its secretary in 1800 and then president in 1817, a position he held until his death in 1844. A picture of the Newcastle-upon- Tyne Literary and Philosophical Society is shown below along with a portrait of John Dalton.

John Dalton449px-Lit_and_Phil

Many of the more successful and financially endowed Literary and Philosophical   Societies promoted science and literature by a variety of methods and techniques e.g. lectures, the reading of papers, laboratories equipped with certain pieces of apparatus, well stocked libraries and even in some cases museums.  The less successful ones often had ill-defined and vague aims and offered an oddly assorted set of programmes spanning the arts, science and technology. Too often the audiences could not understand many of these and it was inevitable that the membership subsequently declined. However a few e.g. Manchester and Newcastle continue to thrive promoting and offering a wide range of subjects and activities.

The Lunar Society (1765 – 1813).
The Lunar Society (1775-1813) started out as the Lunar Circle (1765-1775) and comprised a group of leading individuals from industry and science.  The Society was in many ways a forerunner of the literary and philosophical societies. At the time, it was, like the Royal Society a meeting place for inventors, scientists and natural philosophers but what made it special was that the members were interested in the application of science to such disciplines as education, manufacturing, mining and transportation. The meetings of the Society were scheduled at the time of the full moon because travelling at night, when no street lighting existed, could be dangerous and many of the members had far to travel to attend the meeting. The members referred to themselves as the ‘lunatics’. The meetings took place in members’ homes including Soho House in Birmingham and in Lichfield. The membership was relatively small, (around 12 to 14), but represented some of the leading scientists and innovators of the time.

The core group comprised Matthew Boulton (1728-1809), Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), Samuel Galton Jnr (1753-1832) chemist and manufacturer, James Keir (1735-1820), Joseph Priestley  (1733-1804) a very famous scientist and educationist and very involved with the dissenting academies, William Murdock (1754-1839) engineer and inventor, Josiah Wedgwood  (1730-1795) owner of the famous pottery and gifted chemist, James Watt (1736-1819) an engineer and inventor, John Whitehurst (1713-1788) botanist and William Withering (1741-1799) botanist.

Matthew Boulton

Matthhew Boulton ( a portrait of Matthew Boulton is shown opposite) was the central figure of the Lunar Society an engineer, inventor and scientist. In addition the society corresponded with and received visits from a number of important individuals such as Richard Arkwright, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Anna Seward and James Watt. The Society was particularly interested in chemistry but discussions ranged widely across many aspects of the emerging products and scientific techniques arising from the industrial revolution. Interests and specialisms represented by the Society included: ceramics, electrical technologies, engineering, geology, manufacturing techniques, medical science, transportation systems e.g. canals. The Society did not engage directly in discussions on politics or religion although they did discuss social, political and economic issues. The Lunar Society was the most famous of such groups that existed at this time in other parts of the country, representing as it did a remarkable gathering of polymaths.  It was also remarkable to see an initiative that was not based in London. The Society and its members, because of their individual skills and interests, were able to bring about the fusion of art with science and industry-a remarkable achievement in those days. The members individually and through the Society contributed greatly to the development of industrial processes and technical education. Members helped found other societies e.g. Literary and Philosophical Societies.

Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (1826 –48)
The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK) was founded in 1826 by Henry Brougham (1778-1868) and Matthew Davenport Hill (1792-1872) after the publication of an article in a journal (1821) by the radical Charles Knight (1791-1873) who had deplored the woeful influence of the popular press on the working classes. After the founding of the Society, Brougham appointed Knight in 1825 to supervise the publications of the SDUK and in 1825 Knight had devised strategies to publish inexpensive books on a wide range of topics including science. Brougham had also written a pamphlet in 1825 entitled ‘Practical Observations upon the Education of the People addressed to the Working Classes and their Employers’. This pamphlet defined two themes. The first was the creation of institutes like the Mechanics’ Institutions in Glasgow and London. These institutes should have a range of functions and supporting facilities for discussion groups, elementary teaching, public lectures and discussion groups complemented by a laboratory, library, reading room and a workshop. The second theme was the creation of the SDUK with the aim of publishing low price books popularising science and general knowledge. Knight appointed a remarkable group of individuals and scholars to advise, commission articles and write the material for the various publications. Broughton and Knight were great supporters of the Mechanics’ Institutions movement and other similar organisations that wanted to develop education for the working classes. A series of weekly and bi-weekly publications were subsequently published by the SDUK including the ‘The Penny Magazine’ first published in 1832 and ‘The Penny Cyclopedia’ also launched in 1832 as well as more expensive tomes e.g. ‘Gallery of Portraits’. Also published was the Library of Useful Knowledge, launched in 1827 costing sixpence and published biweekly and focussed on scientific themes. The Quarterly Journal of Education was published over five years 1831 to 1836.

Topics covered by these publications were remarkable and included almanacs, geography, history, maps, physical and biological sciences. It was reckoned that there were 200,000 subscribers to the Penny Magazine per week many of whom were artisans but also included middle class readers. The publications did not engage in political or religious issues but rather focused on popularising other areas of knowledge. The SDUK wanted to appeal to workers who had just learnt to read and the material would improve their reading skills as well as informing them. The SDUK focused primarily on teaching artisans the scientific principles associated with their trades and imparting useful information. In fact their reluctance to get involved in politics generated a degree of unpopularity from a number of quarters including the workers themselves – a similar situation happened with the Mechanics’ Institutions who also would not engage in political issues. The workers were beginning to feel excluded and increasingly resented being treated as second class citizens and wished to be involved more fully in political and social debates

The first publication in the Library of Useful Knowledge sold 33,000 copies mainly to middle class readers and sadly in spite of Brougham’s hopes did not attract readers from the workers. Unfortunately the enterprise lost a great deal of money in the order of £30,000 of which over £16,000 was on the paper duty/tax. The SDUK unfortunately had to cease most of its operations in around 1848 because of falling sales and revenue but some of its publications continued under the stewardship of Knight. The SDUK was an example of a valiant and far thinking initiative based on very worthy and high ideals supported by a group of remarkable individuals like Brougham and Knight. The SDUK was not a complete failure but represented  at the time the first attempt to create a comprehensive and inexpensive range of educational literature for the masses. It most certainly disseminated knowledge across the country that had not been previously available. The SDUK and its publications influenced future ideas, patterns and models of educational development. It set an important precedent in a very important area when newspapers and other publications were expensive and subjected to high taxation rates and where newspapers and their owners were very often politically influenced or the owners were corrupt and biased in their opinions.

Libraries, newspapers and Museums.

This is a fascinating area far too vast to attempt more than a brief description but libraries and museums most certainly assisted in opening access to the workers and their families to books and helped to disseminate/spread knowledge that was emerging in the 17th and 18th centuries. As educational opportunities opened up for workers’ in the early 18th century the demand for written material increased and with the invention of steam-printing introduced in 1814 the cost of production significantly decreased and this coupled with the improving transport system allowed books and periodicals to be distributed more widely across the country. There were circulating libraries in Bath, London and Southampton in 1740 but these were very much for the upper and middle classes. The library movement although extensive in the first half of the 18th century was inadequate to satisfy the growing demand. Many of the larger cities such as Glasgow, Manchester and Preston had public libraries although Chetham’s in Manchester was primarily for scholars and closed at 4.00pm before the workers had finished their labours. The majority of ‘town libraries’ in England and Scotland were not strictly public but were operated by subscriptions and as a result were restricted to the subscribers. A number of libraries were linked to cathedrals–a report in 1849 identified 34 such libraries. In fact many libraries across Britain were associated with chapels and churches and as a result were primarily concerned with theological themes. A few more enlightened employers created libraries for their workers. The one area where books were plentiful and covering a wide range of topics were the collections held by cultural and specialist groups and societies. The range was truly remarkable and included many of the organisations described in this history namely Co-operative Societies, farmers’ clubs, Friendly Societies, Literary and Philosophical Societies, Mechanics’ Institutions, Mutual Improvement Societies, Oddfellows and many more. These did offer opportunities to many workers to access information that had previously been the exclusive domain of the upper and middle classes. Mutual Improvement Societies and libraries were created by local trade unions again reflecting how trade unions developed after the repeal of the Statute of Artificers. It is interesting to note how Salford and Warrington made use of an Act of 1848 that allowed a half-penny tax to be used to establish libraries attached to museums. It was only after the 1850 Public Libraries Act that  towns with a population of over a 10,000 could use the half-penny tax to create public libraries.

The Industrial Revolution greatly increased the public’s interest in news and comment and with improved printing technologies and machinery a significant proportion of the working class were reading newspapers and political journals. However the political climate at the time was difficult and the ruling class readily enforced the law of blasphemy, libel and sedition which suppressed many publishers and writers. The French Revolution had an impact on many aspects of the British political and social life.  Also there were a number of taxes that made the publishing business expensive and a whole series of campaigns and protests occurred throughout the 18th century until a more enlightened set of legislation removed many of the barriers to free speech and the general concept of the freedom of the press. As the various taxes were removed the price of the papers came down. The Daily Telegraph became the first penny newspaper in 1855 whilst in 1861 the Times cost 3d. But the campaigns for a free press and the removal of the taxes on knowledge took a long time and sadly involved suffering among those who fought these battles, as many of whom were imprisoned and persecuted.

Museums and Art galleries before 1820s were most definitely London centric although Scotland had two non-university museums, one in Edinburgh and the other in Perth. After about 1820 museums began to be established and records show that prior to 1845 there were about 40 museums mainly in England. Thirty of these were associated with antiquarian societies, literary and philosophical societies, natural history societies and universities. Wales had only one recorded museum based at the Royal Institution of South Wales in Swansea whilst Scotland in addition to the ones at the universities, (e.g. Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews), and in Edinburgh and Perth plus five other museums. After the Museums Act of 1845 the number slowly grew but progress was slow because local authorities were reluctant to apply for the rate–aid that the legislation required. A few cities and towns availed themselves of the rate-aid but it was only after the removal of the rate–aid that the museums movement really developed across the country assisted by government funding. The Great Exhibition of 1851 provided the catalyst for the creation of the South Kensington Museum which eventually became the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Great Exhibition most certainly awakened a greater interest in technical matters and technical education [see later chapters.] The exhibition also lead to the creation of the Department of Science and Art which had a major influence on technical education in the years after 1853.

Co-operative and other Mutual Improvement Movements
Between 1829 and 1834 there was a great deal of industrial unrest following a number of reforms to employment that worsened the working conditions of many. Strikes were increasing and other forms of industrial action were taking place across the country. It was at this time the trade union movement began to develop in order to improve the conditions of service for their members even though the majority of employers were very hostile to unions. Also a number of mutual improvement groups were established that attempted to represent the workers and the disadvantaged. These movements were trying to create an identity and independence for the working classes that did not depend on charity or patronage however well meant. These groups often were involved in educational works and sometimes they would link with other movements e.g. trade unions and create jointly managed libraries. One such group was the Co-operative movement which is still very active and highly regarded today. The movement grew out of this turbulent period and the driving force behind its formation was Robert Owen 1771-1858) a radical reformist. Owen wanted to transform the British capitalist society into a Co-operative Commonwealth. Three distinct Co-operative enterprises could be identified that were subsequently established across the country. The first was purely educational advocating the Owenite ideals through circulating literature, lectures, and meetings with a great deal of propaganda. The second was a trading enterprise buying wholesale and hence cutting out the middleman and providing cheaper food, clothing and other services e.g. burial services. The final enterprise was associated with the production of goods that were sold direct to the Co-operative shops and hence bypassing the capitalist system. By 1832 there were 500 Co-operative Societies. Owen also founded schools at his factories in New Lanark and argued very strongly for the education provision to be included in the Factory Acts. He founded a number of organisations that included educational aims e.g. the National Union of the Industrious Classes and the Society for National Regeneration. The Co-operative Societies with the trade unions were major players in adult education in the late 19th century and they laid the foundations in the creation of the Workers Education Association (WEA) founded in 1903 and also the creation of Ruskin College. [I will mention the development of adult education as it impacts with technical education in later chapters]. A pen portrait of the Cooperative movement on this website and an image of the first cooperative shop is shown below. Cooperative shop

Summary and conclusions

These few examples along with others during the first half of the 18th century provide evidence of an embryonic system for technical education albeit a faltering one. Benevolence of individuals from the upper and middle classes was the driving force behind many of the societies and movements described above. These individuals in many cases truly believed that they were acting in the interests of the working classes. In addition they felt that such good work would create prosperity and help maintain order within the nation. However increasingly the workers and artisans felt excluded from many basic rights such as access to education without the gift of charity or benevolent support. The situation engendered a feeling of inferiority and in spite of many worthy initiatives the sense of injustice continued to grow. As the 18th century progressed various Parliamentary Acts began to address many of these injustices and eventually brought about the development of a national school system and better working conditions for employees. However as has been said earlier many of these worthy initiatives failed for a number of reasons. It must be stressed that at this time England did not even have a national primary education system so it is not surprising that a national framework for technical education had to wait until the end of the century. It was much later in the 18th century that a national system for primary pupils was established. The only semblance of a national system or network of educational institutions at this time were the Public, Grammar and Sunday schools. One very important factor that is seldom mentioned by historians is the injustices associated with how the workers were expected to engage with the various educational opportunities that were emerging during this time. Those who did take up the opportunities that might been available in their locality would have had meet many challenges and obstacles. Workers were expected to attend classes after working long hours in awful conditions and environments. Wages were low and poverty, ill health and low life expectancy were the norm. Yet they were expected to attend classes at unsociable hours and often required to pay a fee that surely added to the financial burden placed on them and their families. Those who did attend and stayed the course must have been remarkable individuals when all the deterring factors are taken into account. They must have been very intelligent, incredibly self motivated and ambitious to make their lives better not only for themselves, their families and the majority of the working class. The situation was unjust especially when one compares the way the middle and upper classes accessed education. Many attended grammar or public schools and Cambridge and Oxford Universities that were very privileged and requiring little effort by the students.

The next chapter will describe the history and development of the Dissenting Academies, the Mechanics Institutions and the Working Men’s Colleges and Institutes.


  1. (1) Kelly. T. ‘A History of Adult Education in Great Britain.’ Liverpool University Press.1970.
  2. (2) Wiener. M. ‘English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit 1850-1980.’ Penguin. 1985.

Other useful references:

  1. Gregg. P. ‘A Social and Economic History of Britain 1760-1972.’  Harrop. ISBN 0 245 51899 1.  1973.
  2. Uglow. J. ‘The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World.’  Faber and Faber. 2002.
  3. R.K.Webb, ‘The British Working Class Reader.’ George Allen and Unwin Ltd. 1955.1938

A more comprehensive book list is provided on this website along with a comprehensive glossary and chronology.

Series Navigation<< Chapter 3 – The Guilds and ApprenticeshipsChapter 5 – The Dissenting Academies, the Mechanics’ Institutions and Working Men’s Colleges >>

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