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Case study - Victorian Schools

Schools before 1870

In the early nineteenth century education was not compulsory and there were relatively few schools.

Former dame school, Crosthwaite, Cumbria - Image 077094 © Mr CJ Wright LRPSDame schools, such as the one that was held in this building in Crosthwaite, were run by private individuals and generally offered only a very basic level of education to local children by teachers with no qualifications. Some provided little more than a baby-sitting service. They were, however, popular with working class parents who felt able to relate to the teachers and persisted until the end of the nineteenth century.

Former girls charity school, Kirkham, Lancs - Image 183599 © Mr G M Smith ARPSCharity schools, like this one in Kirkham, Lancashire, were run by religious or philanthropic groups. Some were set up by clergymen or local landowners and ran in private homes or church vestries for a limited period of time. Others were financed by charitable trusts and may still exist today. They were mainly concerned to educate children in the knowledge and practice of Christianity and to prepare them for apprenticeships or domestic service.

Wolverhampton Grammar School, Compton Road, Wolverhampton - Image 378393 © Mr GW Tanner ARPSOld established schools like Wolverhampton Grammar School, founded in 1512 by the Merchant Taylor's Company, were found in most towns. During the Victorian period many moved to suburban sites to attract pupils from the middle class families who were moving into the new suburban housing developments.

The old photograph of Wolverhampton Grammar School was taken in 1875, shortly after the Wolverhampton Grammar School 1875 © NMR ref. BB81/2866new building was erected on the Compton Road, and shows the schoolroom and headmaster's house on the right. The railings outside are still under construction and there are virtually no houses around the school. The modern image shows how little the outward appearance of the original 'Big School' has changed although it is now part of a large complex of buildings and sits within a large conurbation.

Sunday School, Weston Rhyn, Shropshire - Image 255817 © Mr John Garton - Jones ARPS
Many children worked and may only have been educated in Sunday Schools such as this lavishly designed edifice at Weston Rhyn, Oswestry in Shropshire, built in 1882 at a cost of £4000. Sunday Schools were established from the 1780s and taught basic literacy, numeracy and Religious Education. It can be seen that some of the buildings were substantial and by 1851 support was being provided by the Sunday School Union.

Tower of  the former Holly Mount school, IoE number 185809 © Mr Timothy Beavan Some factories provided schools as shown here with Holly Mount School in Rawtenstall, which was erected in 1839 by Messrs Whitehead for the children of their workers. Children who worked were sometimes educated in Sunday Schools or may have had part time education in a factory school after legislation limited the number of hours they could work. Some of these industrial schools were later incorporated into the local authority system.

The term 'industrial' school referred, at different times, to other kinds of schools as well as to factory schools. Some were built for pauper children who, in addition to reading and religious education, were taught skills such as spinning, sewing or cobbling. The goods they produced were then sold and paid for the upkeep of the school. By 1866 Day Industrial schools catered for truants and were the forerunners of approved schools.

Bolland Hall, Morpeth, Northumberland - Image 238915 © Mr David J Wilkinson LRPSBolland Hall in Castle Morpeth, Northumberland was built in 1860 for Mrs Bolland, the wife of a Morpeth curate as a day industrial school for the 'half neglected children on the north side of Newgate Street….' It became a National Girl's School and was amalgamated with St. James's Church of England Schools in 1885. It was acquired by the Presbyterians and used as a Mission School and Sunday School until 1937.

Churches of all denominations became more directly involved with running schools after 1811 when two societies were set up. From 1833 they were supported by grants from the State and in 1865 an Education Department was formed, the forerunner of the present Department For Education and Skills.

The British and Foreign School Society supported the building of schools called British Schools on behalf of the Nonconformist churches. The National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor supported the building of National Schools on behalf of the Anglican Church.

Not only did these two types of school differ in their religious emphasis but they also worked on two different teaching methods that influenced the interior layout of the building and, to a lesser extent, the overall design.

The British schools taught boys and girls in fixed rows of desks facing the master's desk. Standards placed at the end of the rows marked the different age groups and the name 'Standard' was later used to describe a class. Wide aisles at either end allowed monitors [older pupils] to teach groups of eight to twelve pupils who stood along a semi-circle drawn on the ground.

St Mary's C oE Infants School, Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire - Image 426455 © Mr Malcolm Sales ARPS ABIPPThe present St. Mary's Church of England Infants School in Melton Mowbray was built as a British School in 1839 in the Ecclesiastical Gothic style that was favoured by all the church schools at this time.


National Schools generally had two separate schoolrooms for girls and boys and desks were placed around the walls. Pupils were taught by monitors in groups of twelve to twenty either standing up or on benches arranged in hollow squares in the centre of the room. These benches could be re arranged to suit the lesson.

Samlesbury C oE Primary School, Lancashire - Image 357999 © Mr K. Foster LRPSSamlesbury Church of England Primary school in Lancashire was built in 1836. It is a good example of a small National School and still bears an inscription stating that it was erected by subscription, with aid from the National Society, for instruction according to the principles of the Church of England. Boys and girls had different entrances.

Both systems favoured large schoolrooms sometimes accommodating over a hundred children and supervised by just one qualified master. From the 1840s separate classrooms were added to many schools for infants. These often contained galleries where the desks were arranged on steps so that the master could see all the children and they could see the objects or pictures that lessons were based upon.

In the 1850s it became more common for the master to have a qualified assistant and some pupil teachers [trained on an apprenticeship basis]. More direct teaching was employed on the infant model and galleries and separate classrooms became more widespread.

Schools were built with a large central hall [that could double as a classroom] with separate classrooms off it. Although there was a teacher in each room the head teacher had his desk in the hall and could see into all the rooms through large windows and thus supervise the whole school.

St Mary's RC Primary School, Brewood, Staffordshire - Image 271371 © Mr GW Tanner ARPSFrom the 1840s the style of school architecture was deliberately ecclesiastical aiming to promote religion along with education. Eminent architects designed schools such as St. Mary's RC Primary School and schoolhouse at Brewood, Staffordshire, which was built in 1833 and designed by AWN Pugin in late thirteenth century style. It is still in use today.

The School Board Era 1870 - 1902

The first state system of elementary schools was established by the 1870 Education Act leading to a massive increase in the number of schools. Where churches were not providing enough school places, School Boards were set up to provide schools, supported by household rates. Many towns elected a School Board under the provisions

Lowfield J & I School, London Road, Sheffield - Image 455356 © Mrs Barbara A West LRPSThe Sheffield School Board employed the architects Innocent and Brown. By 1889 they had twenty six schools and were planning four more. Some of these were former Lancastrian Schools [a type of British school] that they had purchased. Lowfield Board School in London Road was built in 1874, one of the earliest, for 305 boys, 220 girls and 260 infants and is still educating children today as Lowfield Primary School.

The Gothic style architecture used in this school was gradually replaced by a more approachable secular style in most areas. A school board style developed that is very distinctive although each board developed its own adaptation.

The style was based on a Queen Anne style of 'lofty towers, red brick and gable windows'. The aim was to provide children with uplifting surroundings that were practical, light and airy and with an artistic finish. School design responded to changes in educational ideas, including the introduction of classrooms and considerations of hygiene.

Former Chapel Langley School, Russell Street, Luton - Image 035845 © Mr Alan Whitcroft ARPSAs the school boards were seen as a source of civic pride, and were keen to outdo the church schools, some built very lavish and expensive buildings such as this large and impressive Board School built in Russell Street, Luton in 1880. Many board school buildings are still in use, although not all are still schools.


The churches fought to keep their hold on education by extending existing schools and building new ones. The National Society in particular built many schools in an effort to stop school boards being formed but, by the 1890s, were struggling to compete. The schools they built in this period were generally smaller and plainer than the board schools and did not have the same level of provision. Many still comprised just two large rooms although this was as much due to outmoded educational ideas as to financial constraints. These schools were known as Voluntary schoolsRoby Mill C o E Primary School, Upholland, Lancashire - Image 389070 © Mr Simon Barker

The present Roby Mill Church of England Primary School, Up Holland, Lancashire, is a good example and was built around 1870.



Education was not made compulsory until 1880 and then only up to the age of 10. It was not provided free of charge until 1891.

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