Chapter 3 – Developments in the 19th Century

This entry is part 3 of 8 in the series The History of commercial & Technical Examinations

The chapter continues to describe the developments to the end of the 19th century.

Science and Art Department.

As described fully in the history of technical education the Great Exhibition stimulated in its aftermath a series of reforms and developments in education. In 1852 a Department of Practical Art was established and in 1853 a Science Department was added to create the Science and Art Department and this signalled that the State at last was going to get more directly involved in education. The Department was located in South Kensington and this usually described many of its initiatives e.g. the grants awarded to schools namely the South Kensington Grants. Examinations were developed and introduced soon after and were based on the model developed and operated by the Society of Arts. The Department gave grants to schools to encourage the development of science and the more practical basic subjects but with little effect. The Department eventually realised that there were no science teachers so they introduced an examination for teacher’s in1859 to help address the problem but again with no effective impact. Even when teachers became qualified to teach the subject there was little demand from the schools! The salaries for teachers depended on the student success rate in passing the examinations and with so few students the financial rewards were miniscule. One really negative outcome of the grants was a culture of cramming which concerned many students and parents. Teachers taught the students to just the pass the examinations and in doing so often reduced the richness of the subject. This teaching for the tests continued for the later 11+ examinations and most certainly today with the Standard Assessment Tests (SATs). This concern continued to be a contentious issue until the grant regime operated by the Department was abolished in the early 20th century. Many teachers resorted to offering evening classes to enhance their salaries. In spite of the ongoing concerns about the Science and Art Departments grants they eventually began to have a positive impact and ultimately greatly assisted the growth of classes in science and technical subjects for both evening and finally in day schools and institutes. Any school receiving grants, (they became known as the South Kensington Grants), became known as ‘Science Schools’. A number of Mechanics’ Institutions also availed themselves of the grants and by 1867 there were 212 ‘Science Schools’ enrolling 10,230 students. Eventually enough teachers and instructors became available and as a result the Department’s examinations to qualify teachers of science were abolished around 1867.

The Science and Art Directory for 1870 provides an interesting insight into government thinking particularly in regard to technical instruction and who should be eligible. Part of the directory details the categories of persons who were to be regarded as industrial students. The list included:

  • Artisans or operatives in receipt of a weekly wage
  • Coast-guards, policemen , and others, who, though in receipt of weekly wages, do not support themselves by manual labour
  • Teachers in elementary schools in connection with the Education Department
  • Persons in receipt of salaries not large enough to render liable to income tax, as some descriptions of clerks, shopmen etc.
  • Small shopkeepers employing no one but members of their own family, and not assessed to income tax
  • Tradesmen and manufacturers on their own account , supporting themselves by their own manual labour, not employing apprentices, journeymen.etc and not assessed to income tax
  • Children (not receiving their own livelihood) of all such persons above mentioned.

This list might look slightly bizarre now and somewhat exclusive in barring taxpayers from the grants. The assumption behind the categories of eligible persons presumably was to apply a kind of means testing in order to give advantage to people who had only received a minimal elementary education at this time. As mentioned before very few opportunities existed for the vast majority of young people. However there was a downside to this approach which resulted from the state of industry at the time. Most companies at the time urgently needed not only workers from the groups the grants were assisting BUT also people who could enter industry equipped to assume roles as supervisors, managers and entrepreneurs i.e. people who had already benefited from previous education , usually from advantaged family circumstances. This is where the paradox lies as it was only from the tax paying families that the flow of people could be drawn into these higher echelons of industry at this time. This situation was inevitable as these individuals had experienced a privileged education that ironically had itself largely excluded science and technology in the curriculum. The social class structure had created this situation and the long standing hostility of the upper and middle classes to industry and commerce had come to haunt the examination system and the flow of properly qualified people into industry! So there lies the paradox, in order to get better educated people into industry the more wealthy individuals whose parents would pay tax should be eligible for the grants but even then they were not scientifically or technologically qualified. The sad reality was that British industry was still lacking qualified people at all levels within companies needed to improve their competitiveness and international performance. The examinations needed to be more socially inclusive and reflect the total employment requirements and needs of industries.

Aspects of the application of science to industrial occupations were covered in examinations in order to encourage the study of science amongst a wide range of workers. Topics included building, chemistry, geology, geometry, mechanics and physics. Other subjects added later included mathematics, nautical astronomy and navigation.

Table 4 illustrates the growth in numbers of schools receiving the grants after 1861 when grants were awarded based on examinations results i.e. the payments by results regime.

Table 4. Number of Science Schools and other Institutions Receiving Grants from the State.

Date Number of institutions Number of students Number of classes
1862 70 2,543 140
1867 212 10,230
1872 948 36,783 2,803
1882 1,403 68,581 4,881

In 1895 it was decided to replace the payments by results regime with a system that partly paid grants on student attendance/retention and partly on examination results.

Eventually in 1911 the Board of Education discontinued the elementary examinations for science and in 1915 abolished the advanced examinations and just continued those for awarding certain scholarships. Overall the Department of Science and Art did have a positive impact on the early developments of examinations in spite of having many critics throughout their existence. In addition to the grants issues and the cramming syndrome there were other negatives such as the funding was a relatively selective and narrow range of subjects. For example there were no classes in subjects like dyeing, plumbing and textiles so overall the support to these industries was limited. In addition some of the emerging newer technologies were seldom examined e.g. electrical and chemical subjects. Therefore not only were the needs of industries that were well established and successful not being satisfied but little or no attention was being given to plan for the future needs of the developing sciences and technologies. The problems associated with skill levels and their maintenance as well as the challenges of the supply and demand equation were around even in the 19th century. This challenge is equally important today namely the need to consider carefully the qualifications and skill levels of the workers already in employment as well as the qualifications and skills level of new entrants into particular occupations .
However in spite of these fundamental weaknesses the examinations introduced by the Science and Art Department were partly successful but at least contributed to raising the awareness of examinations and equally important highlighted deficiencies that would be addressed later.

City and Guilds of London Institute (CGLI).

The next important and possibly the most significant development in technical examinations was the creation of the City and Guilds of London Institute. CGLI was established in 1878 following a meeting of 17 of the City of London’s livery companies who were still the traditional guardians of apprenticeships and work-based training.

A report by the Livery Companies in 1878 articulated the basic aims of the CGLI and some of the main elements, principles and objectives included:

  • “The Central Institution would supply competent Teachers for the Local Trade Schools, and ….. there would also go forth from it a supply of superior Workmen, Managers and Principals of Manufactories”
  • “Local Trade Schools should teach the application of Science and Art to particular trades”
  • “the improvement of the technical knowledge of those engaged in the manufactures of this country, whether employed as workmen, managers or foremen or as principals”
  • “Knowledge of the Scientific or Artistic principles upon which the particular manufacture may depend; not by teaching the workman to be more expert in his handicraft – the latter improvement must be derived from greater assiduity in the workshop, and from longer practice therein, and therefore except in special cases, it would be unwise to establish any place for teaching the actual carrying out of the different trades”
  • “Establish a Central Institution and Local Trade Schools; the former in London, for more advanced instruction”
  • “Examinations would be periodically held in the Central Institution as well as in Trade Schools, Prizes would be awarded, and Certificates of merit would be issued in connection therein”

Fascinating to read the fourth objective. It raises some interesting issues about the teaching of technical and commercial subjects, either in realistic working environments (RWE) or by simulation.

Following the creation of the Institute twelve of the Livery Companies promised to provide £11,582 10s. which enabled it to start its planning and fulfilling the objectives cited above. The Institute provided funding for a trade extension to the Cowper Street Class Schools in London and eventually after a few problems granted £5,000 to establish laboratories and workshops as well as appointing two exceptional individuals namely Henry Armstrong and William Ayron to teach chemistry and physics. These two individuals went on to contribute greatly to the teaching of the two subjects as well as playing a significant role amongst others in the developments at Finsbury Technical College and the Royal Schools of Mines. In addition the Institute provided funding to the Lambeth School of Art in Kennington Park Road (see history of technical education).

After the technological examinations were transferred to the City and Guilds in 1879 from the Society of Arts, the Institute advertised for an Organising Secretary and Director at a salary of £ 400 per annum. The successful candidate was Philip Magnus (see biography). He quickly established a reputation for innovation and began to place the Institute on a very firm base in regard to technical and vocational education. The Cowper Street Institute was becoming very overcrowded and eventually this led to the creation of the Finsbury Technical College (see biography) – this opened in 1883.
Information has already been given in the earlier chapters as well as in the history of technical education but it will be helpful to provide more figures for the developing examination entries in figure 1 below.

Figure 1. Entry for Technological Subjects between 1879 to 1899.

Year No. of centres No of subjects No. of candidates
1879 23 7 202
1880 85 24 816
1881 115 28 1563
1882 147 37 1972
1885 167 42 3968
1890 219 49 6781
1895 353 58 10,293
1899 397 63 14,004

In 1901 technological examinations were held in 380 centres across country with an attendance of 34,246 students and there were 904 candidates in manual, (practical), training examinations for teachers.

Table 2 shows the entries from industrial groupings.

Table 2. Entries in Industrial Groupings in1882.

Industrial group 1882
Mining  90 (1.5%)
Process Industries 358 (4%)
Production and Maintenance Engineering 1,221 (14%)
Electrical, Electronic Engineering 689 (8%)
Vehicle and Plant Maintenance 212 (3%)
Textile, Clothing, Footwear and Leather 3,650 (43%)
Construction and Construction Services 1,929 (23%)
Media and Communications Industries 256 (3%)
Creative Arts, Crafts and Leisure Pursuits 29 (0.5%)

(Source: CGLI- A short history 1878 – 1992.)

It is interesting to see the participation percentages within each group and see the relative importance of the trades at that these times and then compare with the current figures.

The examinations were inevitably offered in single subjects as table 3 illustrates for specific subjects offered in 1879.

Table 3. Some of the Technological Subjects Offered in 1879.

Cotton manufacture Gas manufacture  Porcelain and pottery
Steel manufacture Silk manufacture Photography
Paper manufacture  Carriage building Silk dyeing
Glass manufacture Telegraphy Calico bleaching

(Source: Reflections – Past and Future (CGLI, 2000)

As can be seen these reflect the major industries of the time particularly cotton which was for many years our greatest export but even so the take up of these examinations was at a low level. The cotton industry like many others placed little reliance on technical education in order to develop and sustain a skilled workforce. The CGLI and the Society of Arts continued to be the major players in technical and commercial examinations throughout the 19th, 20th and 21st century and I will continue to describe their progress and the transformations that have occurred since the end of the end of the 19th century to the present day.

The Union of Institutions.

The significant role played by the Union of Institutions and their close collaboration with the Society of Arts in creating the first public examinations in the country has already been described. They grew out of the Mechanics’ Institution movement. However it will be helpful to provide a short history, partly repetitious, of them into the 20th as they continued to play an important role in examinations in colleges. The Regions in many cases were ahead of their counterparts in London reflecting that the majority of industries were located outside the capital. Obviously their roles and remits changed as new legislation was enacted throughout the 20th century. The Regional title indicates outside London.

A list of the Regional Examining Unions (REUs) up to the early 1960s:

Union of Lancashire and Cheshire Institutes (UCLI) founded in 1839 – covering Caernarvonshire, Cheshire, Denbighshire, Flintshire, Isle of Man and Lancashire. Started offering examinations in1847.
Union of Educational Institutions (UEI) founded in 1895 – covering Cornwall, Devon, Hampshire, Huntington and Staffordshire. Started offering examinations in1896.
East Midland Educational Union (EMEU) founded in 1911 – covering Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire and Rutland and the Soke of Peterborough.
Northern Counties Technical Examinations Council (NCTEC) founded in 1920 reconstituted in 1924. – covering Cumberland, Durham, Northumberland, Westmorland and Redcar in Yorkshire. This Union was originally founded in 1848 as the Northern Union of Mechanics’ Institutions.
Welsh Joint Education Committee (WJEC) covering the rest of Wales and from 1952 started offering examinations to its wider role of activities.
Yorkshire Council for Further Education (YCFE) – covering Yorkshire except the Redcar area and also added examinations to their remit.

These unions provided a complementary and valuable service to examinations offered by the CGLI, Society of Arts and the Board of Education and drafted, with the assistance of specialist advisory committees, curricula and syllabuses, and examined and certified candidates in their respective geographical areas. They examined candidates at evening continuation schools and at Senior and Advanced level study in technical schools and colleges. The Unions did not cover all parts of the country and students outside their orbit took CGLI examinations in technical subjects whilst commercial examinations were offered by the Royal Society of Arts and the London Chamber of Commerce. There seems to be an interesting correlation between the establishment and subsequent strength of the Unions and the colleges in the industrial areas of England such as Cheshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire. Courses reflected the particular industries in the immediate area and many argued that colleges should be given more autonomy in determining curricula and assessment. In fact the issue of local and central control became politicised during the first two decades of the 20th century, which reflects the wider debates of who manages and controls the colleges and schools. Obviously it is essential that employers are involved as equal partners and not as a tokenistic gesture. Local employers know what the needs are and can work with education and training providers to develop and configure the relevant provision that satisfies local demands. At present a number of quangos and agencies proclaim the participation of employers, employer organisations and trade unions but too often their views and ideas are marginalized by the academics, politicians and other non-employers. I will continue to describe the contribution of the Examining Unions in later chapters.

Commercial Education and Examinations

Commercial education and examinations in many ways mirror the development of technical education and examinations. Just as the Industrial Revolution brought about the need to instruct workers in the scientific principles and their application a similar need to create qualified staff to undertake clerical, accountancy and administrative work also arose. In 1887 the Associated Chamber of Commerce published a report on ‘Commercial Education’ that stated ‘that technical education in the sciences which underlie all arts and industries is being provided in the chief centres, no attempt has been made to supply a technical mercantile education’.  ‘It is a most serious defect in our educational system and one that calls loudly for amendment and reform’. Similar sentiments were expressed in a report from the London County Council sub – Committee on Commerce in 1899 which again stated ‘in conducting our investigations upon the subject of commerce education, we have been greatly impressed with the feeling that the matter is one of supreme national importance’. In spite of these and other reports little occurred in developing commercial education until later in the 20th century. A similar situation existed in management education. I will describe the developments in later chapters.

From the mid 19th century the examinations were conducted by the Society of Arts, the Local Examinations, the Regional Examining Unions and the Department of Science and Art. Commercial examinations developed in parallel with technical examinations and were in many ways wider in scope rather than being focused on technical specialism’s although specific subjects like shorthand and typing did exist. Examinations in shorthand were introduced in 1864 by the Society of Arts and by the Oxford Local Examining Board in 1888. The Society started examining in typing in 1891 as the demand for this skill increased. The Society was very responsive to the needs of the institutions and students and offered commercial subjects under the title of ‘Commercial Certificates’ as well as in single subjects from 1876 .The mode of study was mainly by way of evening courses and examined initially by the Society of Arts and the Union of Lancashire and Cheshire Institutes. The Union of Institutions was disbanded in1882 and as a result examinations were then opened to all institutions offering instruction in commercial subjects. The ‘Commercial Certificates’ were abandoned whilst single subjects were encouraged. As mentioned earlier the numbers of candidates steadily increased.

Table 4 shows the overall enrolments for Society examinations between 1858 and 1900 and remember the Society had transferred technological examinations to CGLI so the subjects were focussed on commercial topics.

Table 4. Entries for Society of Arts Subjects between 1858 and 1900.

Year No. of Candidates
1858 288
1880 2,325
1882 695 (interesting decline!)
1890 2,474
1900 9,808

London Chamber of Commerce and Pitman’s Examinations

The London Chamber of Commerce was created in 1881 and was committed to improving the condition of commercial education in schools and colleges. The Chamber recognised the importance of modern language teaching in order to improve export markets and as a result introduced the teaching and assessment of modern languages. The Chamber established a Commercial Education Committee in 1887 and offered examinations later in the same year. Overseas operations began in Bombay in 1898 reflecting the importance of the trading activities in the colonies. The Chamber is one of the oldest awarding bodies in the country and is a major partner in the recently formed Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB) [see later chapter. The Board offered a wide range of examinations leading to qualifications in business, commercial and office studies at elementary, intermediate and higher levels.
Isaac Pitman opened the Pitman’s Metropolitan College in 1870 probably the first business education institution in the world. Commercial examinations were later developed by other Regional Examining Boards, London Chamber of Commerce, Pitman Examinations and a number of professional bodies representing commercial and managerial education. In addition a number of specialist colleges of commerce were opened following the 1902 Education Act and from 1935 ONC/HNDs were established in commercial subjects – more of that later.

Other Developments.

In 1852 the year of the Great Exhibition the Amalgamated Society of Engineers was founded by William Allan and this was followed by the creation and restructuring of the trade unions representing craft workers in such areas as builders, carpenters, iron founders, potters and other self-improving artisan groups. These groupings established a much stronger voice and focus for their crafts within the trade union movement which were still viewed with suspicion and hostility among most employers. The trade union movement became far more influential for the workers and were able to argue with a unified voice for better working conditions and wages.

Professional bodies representing science and technology were beginning to be established after the 17th and 18th centuries and some of these went on to develop their own examinations. The Society of Civil Engineers was founded in 1771 becoming the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1818 and began to establish an examination system for its members in 1897. The examination created membership grades e.g. ‘associates’ and ‘members’.

Other professional bodies established examinations in the 20th century and these will be described in later chapters [also see article on professional bodies on this website].
The Institute of Bankers was established in 1879.
The Chartered Institute of Secretaries was established in 1891.
The Chartered Insurance Institute was established in 1897.

Personal observations.

Since their creation, examinations have always been viewed with varying degrees of distaste and suspicion but a necessary evil. Initially the creation of a national system for examinations was an attempt to introduce some sort of national standard in the country that otherwise possessed a fragmented and often independent set of institutions operating their own assessment and examining regimes. Throughout the history of examination a number of central arguments have been proffered namely:

  • that they provide evidence to: employers on the ability and achievement of the student and hence a prospective employee
  • validation of students on their ability and overall performance on the course they have attended
  • national agencies responsible for funding and managing technical education. Over the years the examination results have been increasingly used by government to compare performance between schools and colleges –hence the growth of the culture of league tables with all the problems they cause! (Clearly over the years these agencies have changed significantly as the responsibility for the funding, planning and control of technical education moved from local to national control. I will describe how these changes influenced the development of technical and commercial education and the associated examination system more fully later in this history as well as in the other history).

In addition the examination system also provided the teachers with syllabuses and curricula frameworks to work with.

Some Special Features of Technical Examinations

Even accepting the slow and at times haphazard development of the technical and commercial examination system it eventually possessed some positive features. It offered real opportunities to motivated students for entry and subsequent promotion in their chosen occupations. The examinations were more flexible than their school and university counterparts mainly arising from the complexity of industry and the subsequent wide range of crafts, trades, vocations and occupational sectors involved. In addition to written examinations assessments of practical activity were undertaken e.g. in special workshops or science laboratories. As mentioned already there was greater involvement of teachers, employers and other key players in technical and commercial education. A number of examinations were set by the teachers themselves and then externally moderated/verified/validated. Inevitably the system had its critics and there were weaknesses in the system that was identified by the various reforms that occurred from the 1950s up to today.

One recurring concern over many decades is the complexity and plethora of vocational and technical education qualifications and examination systems. Various reviews initiated by successive governments and resultant reforms have attempted to rationalise the system and reduce the confusion. The arguments have mainly centred on how to achieve the difficult balance between central government control and regulation and the need to allow freedom at local and institutional level. More detail is provided later of some the examining bodies that have existed although it must be noted many have been reformed, merged and/or undergone changes in their names and terminology. It is by no means complete but attempts to briefly reflect on how they contributed to the history of technical and commercial education and training and the development of an examination system. These descriptions will not detail how the examinations were structured or managed but just provide an insight into how they were created and how they related to other similar bodies.


Inevitably the early period resulted in patchy provision of technical instruction and technical examinations that were heavily influenced by the secondary school regulations but gradually as the technical education system developed separate arrangements were established. During the 19th century the main providers of technical qualifications and examinations to students in Mechanics’ Institutions and technical colleges were the Society of Arts, City and Guilds of London Institute, the Science and Art Department and the Unions of Institutions. The professional bodies’ examination systems were at that time not fully developed or wide enough in scope to meet the needs for entry or progression to the occupations. The methods of instruction and examining operated by the professional bodies were very variable and depended critically on how the bodies had evolved historically. In addition to these players a number of colleges awarded diplomas in their own right but these were only recognised at a local level. The gradual development of technical examinations was greatly assisted by many of the recommendations of a number of Royal Commissions throughout the 19th century in particular the Devonshire (1872-75), Samuelson (1882-84) Reports and a few visionaries such as Charles Babbage [see biography], James Booth [see biography], Henry Brougham [see biography], Henry Chester, James Hole, Thomas Huxley [see biography], Philip Magnus [see biography].

Abbott. A. ‘Education for Industry and Commerce in England’. OUP. 1933.
Cotgrove. S. F. ‘Technical education and Social Change’. George Allen and Unwin. 1958.
Hudson. D and Luckhurst. K. W. ‘The Royal Society of Arts 1754 – 1954’. John Murray. 1954.
Peters. A. J. ‘British Further Education’. Pergamon. 1967.

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

  • The biographies and pen portraits are presented in Appendix 4.
Series Navigation<< Chapter 2 – The Beginnings of Examinations in the 19th CenturyChapter 4 – Developments in the 20th Century >>

2 Responses to “Chapter 3 – Developments in the 19th Century”

  1. M E Elliott

    I have recently come across a certificate awarded in 1880, by the Department of Art & Science, of the Committee of Her Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council, to a 21 year man for sitting the Elementary examination in the Principles of Agriculture, held on 30th April. I am interested to know if the records of these examinations still survive, where they are kept and if they are available for research because several lines of my family were from educated farming stock, who would very likely sat these examinations.

    M E Elliott

    • Richard

      Many thanks for your comment. Sorry it has taken so long to reply. Sadly the positive comments are buried in hundreds of junk/spam comments. I am afraid I cannot help one of the problem it this area is that records are very poor especially names of staff and students. Its been difficult researching this area. The only possible way is to research the Department records details of many examinations are non-existent a real shame.
      Again with thanks sorry I could not help
      Richard Evans


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