Chapter 2 – The Beginnings of Examinations in the 19th Century

This entry is part 2 of 8 in the series The History of commercial & Technical Examinations


Chapters 2 and 3 will describe the beginnings of technical and commercial examinations in England up to the end of the 19th century.
The history of the development of examinations especially in technical and commercial subjects inevitably mirrors that of the development of the technical education and commercial education itself. Many similarities will be identified in the following chapters e.g. a slow evolution often in a very ad hoc fashion; resistance from employers and members of the general public, and the reluctance of government to support and initially fund the development of a national system. Also the history will highlight some amazing individuals and visionaries involved in establishing an examinations system for these important disciplines. Once the development of a national system began to be established there were a number of very innovative and farsighted organisations involved in the awarding of qualifications. Interesting to note Scotland and Ireland made major contributions both to technical education and to public and technical examination systems that were emulated later in England and the other home countries. Like the history of technical and commercial education it is a complex and fascinating subject and inevitably I will not be able to do full justice to the topic though I provide some useful references at the end of this chapter and the more comprehensive book list on this website  that hopefully readers will find helpful.

The importance of the various forms of assessment and formal systems of examinations was gradually recognised once education institutions, particularly as a result of Mechanics’ Institutions, were established and this was most certainly true for the technical and commercial subjects. Obviously the first Industrial Revolution acted as a catalyst in establishing a need for more formal instruction in technical matters and then the need to assess and examine the individuals who had attended a set of classes. However it was some time after the beginning of the industrial revolution and the creation of the Mechanics’ Institutions that any identifiable system of examinations was established and even then it evolved relatively slowly after 1850. As with the development of technical education the related examination system began in a fragmented and disjointed fashion. This gradual development continued throughout the 19th century albeit in a series of fits and starts driven by private enterprise and a few farsighted individuals such as George Birkbeck, James Booth, Henry Brougham, Henry Chester, James Hole, and Thomas Huxley [biographies of some of these individuals are given in Appendix 4].

It is important to remember that England still did not possess a national system of education at any level, elementary or otherwise, prior to 1870 so it was little wonder that an examination system was absent. This deficit also contributed to problems that the Mechanics’ Institutions experienced through the lack of basic education of their students. However evidence was already appearing that countries on the continent and beyond had already established national education system at a number of levels including for higher level technological subjects and with the State willingly being involved and prepared to funding these developments. This became clear from evidence gathered on visits by a number of individuals to continental countries where they had more quickly recognised the importance of establishing a national education system including for technical subjects and their assessment. I have provided far more detail of the factors that contributed to the slow development of technical education in this country in the other history that can be found on this website. Many of the factors that retarded the development of technical and commercial examinations are replicated in the wider development of technical education. However once the implications of the need to improve the effectiveness and the overall performance of the workforce was recognised and this coupled with capitalising on the growing interest in the principles of science and technology among workers it brought about developments in technical education.

The Beginnings.

Scotland as usual led the way with formal accreditation methods at the Edinburgh School of Arts where awarding certificates were awarded from 1835 to successful candidates after three years of attendance, that included classes in chemistry, mathematics, and natural philosophy (they read physics during the first year). In addition to these certificates which entitled students to life membership of the School, ‘attestations of proficiency’ were awarded at the end of each annual course of lectures to successful candidates but only after what was referred to as a ‘strict examination’. The awarding of these attestations of proficiency was discontinued in 1850. Only 46 students gained the Diploma of Life Membership by 1850. However the model developed by the Edinburgh School of Arts significantly influenced a number of key individuals such as James Hole and James Booth both of whom greatly contributed to the pioneering of public examinations in England. The School was one of the first institutions to be created after the ground breaking work of John Anderson and George Birkbeck [see biographies] in Glasgow.

The Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (later known as the Royal Society of Arts).

Founded 1754 by William Shipley as the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce has been a major force in the development of technical and commercial education and associated examinations. Equally important has been its role in supporting the development of technical and commercial education throughout its entire existence. The Society played a significant role in supporting the Mechanics’ Institutions movement and was the major force in organising the Great Exhibition which has already been acknowledged in the history of technical education. I intend in this chapter to describe and focus on its significant role in creating examinations. However the Society has also made many important and valuable contributions to the world of education and in many other fields it is a truly multi-disciplinary institution. The Society vision of the Society’s founders was about ‘embolding enterprise, enlarging science, extending our commerce, improving our manufactures and refining our arts’ and this was most certainly realised throughout its existence.

The Society has been at the centre of many significant developments in education and the cultural life of the country and in its long and illustrious history founded:

  • The Royal Academy of Arts in 1768 after the first contemporary art exhibition
  • The National Training School for Music in 1876 that became the Royal School of Music.
  • The first public examination system in the country.

The Society was granted a Royal Charter in 1847 and in 1908 given the right to use the term Royal in its title.

However I will focus on the third achievement namely its role creating the first public examinations in the country. As mentioned above it began awarding, following its foundation in 1754, prizes and ‘premiums’ (money) for meritorious discoveries and inventions. For example premiums were awarded for the invention of new forms of agricultural machinery. It is important at this point to explain the contributions made the Mechanics’ Institutions in association with the Society which increasingly highlighted the need for some form of assessment and examination system.

The Role of the Mechanics’ Institutions.

A small number of the Mechanics’ Institutions had introduced similar awards to those of the Society of Arts, namely premiums and prizes at an earlier stage of their existence for example in Glasgow and Newcastle, but these were not particularly successful. It showed though, that the institutions understood the importance of recognising achievement. The influence that the Mechanics’ Institutions had between 1824 and the 1850s of the development of examinations cannot be underestimated as they helped to lay the foundations to the examination systems developed later by the Society of Arts and the local examinations created by Cambridge and Oxford Universities and the Department of Science and Art. As always key individuals appeared on the scene and triggered debate that ultimately, in spite of some opposition, lead to positive development. One such individual was James Hole who in 1853 proposed amongst other ideas a really original and imaginative scheme that could have greatly advanced the cause of technical education and the related examination system .The proposal was that the Mechanics’ Institutions and other technical institutions in existence at the time should become constituent colleges of a new proposed industrial university obviously building on the work of the Union of Institutions. This radical proposal sadly did not materialise although some of his ideas did come to fruition as we shall see later. (Comment – one can only imagine the positive consequences of such an ambitious suggestion if it had been implemented at that time!)

James Hole was also a major advocate along with James Booth [see biography] and Henry Chester for the general system of examinations. Hole had been greatly influenced by the Edinburgh School of Art scheme and in 1853 wrote a seminal essay on Mechanics’ Institutions (1) that won a Society of Arts prize. In his essay James Hole argued strongly for examinations in the Mechanics Institutions and wrote  ‘to put the educational machinery of our institutes on a proper footing, a system of examinations and certificates must be established.’
Little is known of James Hole but he is now seen as an important figure in the development of examinations and influential in raising the profile of the Mechanics’ Institutions even though he was critical of some of the aspects of their management. The Society of Arts had organised a series of conferences and it was following one in 1852 involving the Mechanics’ Institutions which were under the umbrella of the Union of Institutions, that Hole wrote his essay. The Union of Institutions movement had been developing since the 1830s and most certainly contributed to strengthening the profile of the Mechanics’ Institution movement and subsequently became a force in supporting people like Hole and Booth to introduce an examination system. Initially the Unions had provided itinerant specialist teachers who had attempted to compensate for shortages of specialist instructors and tutors. They were set up on a regional basis. The Unions were more successful in the north than the south of the country and the Union of Lancashire and Cheshire Institutes, created in 1839, was an example of a union that developed an examination scheme. Hole was the secretary of the Yorkshire Union and he had proposed in his essay a nationwide Union of Institutions which finally came to fruition in 1856 when the Society of Arts and the London Union of Institutions established a system of examinations. Other Unions served the Midlands, Northern Counties whilst others represented the larger single authorities such as the West Riding and Kent. I will refer to the achievements of these Unions and other organisations that evolved from them later in this history. It was the association and collaboration between these early Unions and the Society of Arts that eventually brought about the wider introduction of examinations and their ultimate national adoption.

The subject titles and the success of the examinations following their introduction by the Union of Institutes and the Society of Arts, (see later under Society of Arts), reflected the social changes that were occurring during the period when the Mechanics’ Institutions were at their peak. Increasingly successful students entered clerical professions e.g. clerkships, and in 1861 the dockyards voiced concern that they wanted more technically qualified people. Analysis of the subject results highlights the very high proportion of clerks obtaining book-keeping qualifications with fewer taking technical subjects and the students were not from the working classes. This middle class disinclination highlights how little impact scientific and technology knowledge had made on the population as a whole in spite of the fact that science and technical examinations were the first ones to be introduced.

The following few figures demonstrate the decline in the sciences. For example at Leeds Mechanics’ Institution, although it increased its membership by nearly tenfold, the average class size in mathematics fell from 36 to 24 and in chemistry from 19 to 13 between 1839 and 1852. At the Manchester Institution classes in the physical sciences fell from 235 in 1835-9 to 127 in 1840-4. This indifference to science was also reflected in enrolments for the technical subjects and this continued to impact on subsequent enrolments in these subjects as the examination systems developed after 1850s. However the numbers did fluctuate and in some years before 1870 the proportion taking book-keeping decreased and science subjects increased.
(Comment – This trend reflects that social class issues are in play again namely middle classes associated business/clerical occupations as evidence to rising social class status plus they had basic education. Manual working classes have in interest but did not possess the foundations of literacy and numeracy).

This recurring recruitment difficulty experienced by the Mechanics’ Institutions was largely caused by the lack of a universal system of elementary and secondary education and therefore the manual workers who attended the Institutions lacked the very basic literacy and numeracy skills and most certainly any background knowledge of science and technology that they needed. Typical subjects taught included: applied mechanics, building, chemistry, electricity, heat, optics, magnetism, mathematics (applied and pure) and metallurgy. Knowledge of these subjects was clearly important for a more effective workforce in the emerging chemical, electrical, foundry, shipbuilding industries. As one can imagine the lack of adequate basic education had a negative impact on the choices individuals made and on what classes were offered by Mechanics’ Institutes and other institutions largely aimed at manual working class men.

College of Preceptors

Although not directly involved in technical and commercial examination the College of Preceptors merits a mention. The College initially called the Society of Teachers was created by an association of private school teachers in 1846. In 1849 it was incorporated by Royal Charter as the College of Preceptors. The College had the following rather long winded and manifestly elitist set of aims that were enshrined in its 1849 Royal Charter:
‘Promoting sound learning and of advancing the interests of education, more especially among the middle classes, by affording faculties to the teacher for acquiring of a sound knowledge of his profession, and by providing for the periodical session of a competent body of examiners to ascertain and grant certificates of the acquirements and fitness for their office of persons engaged or desiring to be engaged in the education of youth, particularly in the private schools of England and Wales.’

The College had set itself the very ambitious objective of creating a professional standard of qualification that would be administrated by the teachers themselves. It pioneered formal examinations and qualifications for teachers, awarding grades at Associateship (corresponding to matriculation), Licentiateship (pass degree) and Fellowship (honours degree) levels. The College attempted to raise interest among schoolteachers in more effective ways of teaching in grammar and other middle-class schools. This purpose was mainly achieved through their examinations which started in 1853, initially for teachers and later around 1854 for pupils. These examinations attempted to provide parents and teachers with a means of comparing standards. Very few teachers took the examinations but from around the early 1850s the College expanded into examinations for pupils. Its activities were focussed on private schooling and remained relative small when compared with other examination bodies resulting from its rather narrow and niche market. One of the initial problems that the College experienced was that it became clear that parents were unhappy with the policy of teachers assessing themselves as the policy was in 1853. However once the Preliminary Local Examinations of Oxford and Cambridge became established numbers of candidates declined as they opted to take these examinations instead. The college then suffered another set back when the Board of Education refused to recognise the value of its qualifications as it had for the existing universities. Later the same fate occurred in1910 when the Secondary School Examinations Council deprived the College of official recognition for its examinations. The reason for this refusal was that the College was predominately involved with private rather than the state-aided secondary school pupils.

However the College played a pioneering role in getting the study of education as a subject adopted in the universities. Later in 1873 the College began courses of lectures for teachers that led to the awarding of diplomas. Table 1 illustrates how the College developed during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Table 1. Number of Candidates Entering the College of Preceptors between 1860 and 1903.

Date Number of candidates entered
1860 821
1863 1,000
1870 1571
1880 11,208
1890 16,269
1893 17,000
1902 9,612

The College continues today and provides in-service qualifications for teachers and changed its name to College of Teachers in 1998.

Society of Arts/Royal Society of Arts (SA/RSA).

I shall now return to the crucial role played by the Society of Arts in developing public examinations. As interest developed in the early 1850s in technical education the Society began to work closely with the Mechanics Institutions and to improve communication and coordination with the emerging network of technical institutions created by the Union of Institutions. As mentioned already the Unions grew out of the ideas of three farseeing individuals namely Harry Chester (Chairman of the Society of Arts), James Booth [see biography] and James Hole (Secretary of the Yorkshire Union). Henry Chester advocated a national union of Mechanics Institutions to administrate examinations staged and examined by the Society of Arts. Following a conference staged in 1851 when 220 institutions became affiliated to a total of 90,000 individuals signed up. As a result of recommendations from various conferences staged in 1851 and 1853 and proposals made by such individuals as Booth, Chester and Hole the Society of Arts began to plan and organise a comprehensive examination system for science with approximately 400 institutes. It was Henry (Harry) Chester who took the initiative in 1853, just two years after the creation of the Union to propose to the Council of the Society that they consider the creation of ‘class examinations’ which the Council agreed and in the following year outlined the scheme for the Society to offer examinations. The creation and the affiliation of the Unions acted as a catalyst for that development. The Society as I have mentioned was greatly influenced and supported by the Unions and this eventually brought about the development of the Society’s examination system in 1854. The examinations were primarily for the benefit of the working classes.

The first examination was held in 1855 and proved a disaster with only one candidate namely a chimney sweep! As a result the examinations were cancelled and the Society appointed James Booth [see biography] to assume responsibility for the management of subsequent examinations. James Booth was an active writer on educational and mathematical topics with a particular interest in adult education. Interestingly Booth voiced concern that the poorer social classes could be at an advantage in their education over the middle-classes as a result of the growing influence and impact of the Mechanic Institutes movement! A classic example of social class intervening in developments namely the fear by the middle classes that the workers might gain superior knowledge and skills in technical subjects! However he was a very strong advocate for a formal system of examinations as a way of improving elementary, secondary and adult education. He wrote the first authoritative pamphlet ever published in England on examinations. Through his writings James Booth was already known as a supporter of examination. He had been greatly influenced by the system of examinations established at Trinity College, Dublin as a mathematics graduate himself from Trinity and recognised the innovative work at the Edinburgh School of Arts and as a result was an ideal candidate for the post with the Society. Following his appointment Booth completely rewrote the schemes for the examinations, part of which, interestingly, in their early stage of development included an interview –see table below. The 1856 examinations attracted 52 candidates and a wide range of papers were prepared on such subjects as: agriculture, book-keeping, chemistry, English, free-hand drawing, mechanics and a number of foreign languages. The candidates had to take at least two subjects as well as preliminary and qualifying examinations in handwriting, spelling and free-hand drawing. In spite of small numbers and the cost to the candidates having to attend the interview the 1856 examinations were deemed a success and the Society then considered extending the examinations to other parts of the country.
Table (2) shows the timetable for the 1856 examination papers.

Table 2. The Examination Timetable for 1856.

Time Tuesday 10th (June) Wednesday 11th Thursday12th Friday 13th
10am to 1pm Registration of candidates* Mathematics
English History Viva voce exam (interview) Mathematics
Viva Voce
2pm to 5 pm Preliminary examinations for all candidates** Geography
English Literature
Viva voce in history
Viva voce
7 pm to 10 pm Mathematics
Mechanics Roman History Latin French

Attendance at the registration* was compulsory where all the candidates received their card of Admission. Otherwise students could not sit the examination. The preliminary paper** was compulsory. Obviously Friday was not an ideal day for any superstitious students!

Following another conference of the Union of Institutions the Council agreed to establish four centres from 1857 but eventually only two were created one in London and the other in Huddersfield (see Walker for a fascinating account of the examinations at the Huddersfield Mechanics’ Institution (2)). After the 1857 examinations it was decided to establish a permanent system and gradually the examinations gained greater popularity and the number of candidates increased. This growth brought about greater credibility and confidence in examinations and created the solid foundations for a national system that developed later with other awarding bodies being established to extend the range and level of subjects examined.

The Union of Institutions disappeared in 1882 when the examinations were extended to cover all other providers of technical and commercial education/instruction and not just limited to a number of affiliated institutes. The technological examinations developed by the Society were eventually transferred to the newly created City and Guilds of London Institute in 1879 [see chapter 3]. The establishment of the first public examinations, (the locals), staged by the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge were also strongly influenced by the examination system created by the Society of Arts. The Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations started examinations in 1857 and the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate in 1858. The history of the Local Examination can be found in an excellent article by Watts (3). The Society of Arts therefore played a pivotal role in the development of a national system for examinations including significant contributions to commercial and secretarial subjects and for adult learners. In the early part of the 20th century the Society introduced three stages to their awards namely elementary, intermediate and advanced. In addition to these three stages or grades the Society introduced grouped certificates (see later and the history of technical and commercial education). These changes brought very positive results with the number of candidate increasing rapidly i.e. from 8,797 in 1901 to 100,000 in 1929.

Over most of its history the Society has been concerned mainly with commercial subjects and office skills at craft level but like the CGLI now examines over a wide range of subjects and levels. These now include such vocational areas as administration, clerical, distribution and information handling, reception and road transport. The RSA also offered single-subject awards in business, commercial and modern languages at Stages 1, 2 and 3. The examinations board of the RSA was merged with the Oxford and Cambridge Examinations to form Oxford, Cambridge and Royal Society of Arts (OCR) in 1997. OCR became one of the main three unitary awarding bodies namely AQA, Edexcel and of course the OCR.

Royal College of Chemistry

Britain lagged behind a number of continental countries in science and technology and practically no centres for fundamental research existed but the Royal College of Chemistry was an isolated exception. Founded in 1845 by a group headed by the Prince Consort the first Director was A Hofmann one of the most eminent chemists in Germany. Its aim was to apply chemistry to the arts and manufactures. The College provided programmes in applied science and although the number of entries was small graduates, published a number of important research papers and entered such occupations shown in table 3:

Table 3. Subsequent Occupations of Graduates of Royal College of Chemistry.


Brewing Chemical
Government India
Civil Service)
Iron/Mining Pharmacy Teachers
27 106 18 29 25 38 38

Initially the majority of examinations were set externally by awarding bodies and were invariably in an unseen written format. In spite of Hofmann’s reputation and brilliance the College experienced financial difficulties and eventually in 1853 in was amalgamated with the School of Mines. In fact it became the chemistry department of the School of Mines. Hofmann assumed the chair formerly held by Lyon Playfair and whilst in England (1845-1863) Hofmann laid the foundations of chemistry/chemical education in England. The College eventually became part of Imperial College but represents an important element in the development of science, science education and a number of aspects in the creation of the chemical industry in the country.

Chapter 3 will continue to describe the developments of the examination system up to the end of the 19th century. Topics covered will include the role played by the Science and Art Department, the founding of the City and Guild Institute of London, the developing provision for women and a range of other relevant initiatives throughout the century.


  1. Hole. J. ‘An Essay on the History and Management of Literary, Scientific and Mechanics’ Institutions.’ Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans. 1853.
  2. Walker. M. A. ‘Examinations for the ‘underprivileged’ in Victoria times; the Huddersfield Mechanics’ Institution and the Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.’ William Shipley Group. 2008.
  3. Watts. A. ‘Independent examination boards and the start of a national assessment system.’ Cambridge Assessment Network. Research Matters. Issue 5. January 2008.

Other Useful References:
Foden. F. ‘The Examiner. James Booth and the origins of common examinations. ’ Leeds Studies in Adult and Continuing Education. ISBN 0 907644 06 6. 1989.
Hudson. J. W. ‘The History of Adult Education.’ Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans. 1851.

A more comprehensive book list is provided on this website along with a comprehensive chronology and glossary for technical and commercial examinations which hopefully will be helpful to readers.

  • The biographies and pen portraits are presented in Appendix 4.
Series Navigation<< Chapter 1 – Short History of Technical and Commercial Examinations. A Reflective CommentaryChapter 3 – Developments in the 19th Century >>

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