We don't need no education, do we?

Ri Heritage and Collections volunteer, Laurence Scales, takes a look at some highs and lows of 19th century school education as seen through some surprising RI lectures of the time.

  • Scene from a London ‘Ragged School’ for the poor in 1853

    Credit: Laurence Scales


We think that the first lecturer to tackle education here at the Royal Institution was William Ritchie (c.1790-1837), Professor of Natural Philosophy. His talk in 1833 was on: ‘Peculiar Modes of Communicating Scientific Knowledge to Youth.’ Unfortunately, the substance of his lecture was not as gender neutral as the title. He spoke pointedly about the ‘instruction of boys’. Otherwise, he sounds almost progressive.

‘Let them be taken out to the fields and shown the applications [of Euclid] by taking the angles subtended by distant objects, which may be accomplished by means of very simple instruments that can be made for a few shillings. By taking a few angles, and measuring, by means of a tape or chain, a few lines, the boys would be delighted to construct the figure by means of their protractor and diagonal scales, and thus to ascertain by measurement the distances of remote objects &c.’

Education did not recur as an explicit lecture topic for 25 years.

  • Euclidis – Elementorum libri XV Paris, Hieronymum de Marnef & Guillaume Cavelat, 1573

    Credit: Hzenilc via Wikimedia Commons


Meanwhile all was not going well in Britain. Anxiety about foreign industrial competition inspired the Great Exhibition of 1851. In the preceding years the government had endeavoured to make education more widely available. But in most schools this was simply intended to cover the ‘four Rs’, reading, writing, ‘rithmetic, and religion. Often the older pupils had to teach the younger ones.

At this point Lyon Playfair gave a lecture, ‘On Three Important Chemical Discoveries from the Exhibition of 1851,’ ostensibly about advances demonstrated at the Crystal Palace. But it was a Trojan horse for his concern about education.

‘It was obvious that when improved locomotion gave to all countries raw material at slight differences of cost, that any superiority in the intellectual element would more than balance the difference. The Continental States, acting on a perception of this truth, saw that they could only compete with English industry by instructing their populations in the principles of science. Hence have arisen, in their capitals, in their towns, and even in their villages, institutions for affording a systematic training in science; and industry has been raised from the rank of an empirical art to that of a learned profession. The result is seen in the fact that we now meet most European nations as competitors in all the markets of the world.’  

The government introduced Indian Civil Service entry by competitive exam in 1855. This and a similar reform proposed for the home Civil Service went some way to raise the nation’s interest in educational attainment.

Michael Faraday, the prime example of the self-made man, presented a lecture in 1858: ‘On Wheatstone's Electric Telegraph in Relation to Science (Being an Argument in Favour of the Full Recognition of Science as a Branch of Education)’. At that moment the laying of the first transatlantic cable, though not in Wheatstone’s care, was being reported with excitement by the press.

Faraday was an advocate of self-education in science. Habits of mind were trained by the challenges presented in experimentation. He does not even mention schools.

‘[Sir Francis] Bacon, tells us in his instruction, that the scientific student ought not to be as the ant who gathers merely, nor as the spider who spins from her own bowels, but rather as the bee who gathers and produces.’



Science was rare in schools. But at least schools taught the four R’s properly, right? Not always.

In 1861, the Reverend Alexander D’Orsey opened a can of worms in his lecture ‘On the Study of the English Language as an Essential Part of a University Course’. The study of English (except the basic mechanics of reading and writing) is revealed, surpisingly, not to be part of a normal middle class school education.

According to D’Orsey, language is the instrument of thought, scientific or otherwise. At home, problems arose because parents were: ‘allowing vulgar, uneducated servants to surround their children’.

But he believed that school was no better. It says in the write-up of the lecture:

‘[D’Orsey] adverted to the sad condition of English teaching in most of our National Schools, proving his assertion from the reports of the inspectors. He had ascertained that in our great Public schools, no direct attention was paid to English.'

  • Harrow school

    Credit: NARA

  • names carved into a school desk from the 1800s

    Anthony Trollope graffiti in Harrow school

    Credit: Matt Brown via Flickr

Latin was the main thing, of course, but in other countries the native tongue was not neglected.

‘The speaker then rapidly sketched the results of this imperfect teaching, as shown in the stagnant condition of the great mass of our population… Millions of our countrymen never opened a book. Of the thirty millions in these islands, fourteen millions never entered a place of worship… And how could it be otherwise with peasants whose stock of words was limited to 350…?’ 


In 1867 the simmering pot boils over. Harrow schoolmaster and clergyman, Frederick Farrar bravely steps up to give a talk ‘On Some Defects in Public School Education’. Was there, he asked, too much emphasis on sport and Latin verse? He spoke of ‘poor boys ploughing barren poetic fields.

Meanwhile, a public inquiry, the ‘Clarendon’ Commission, had since 1861 been looking into the quality of education at the upper class public schools including Eton, Harrow and Rugby because complaints had arisen, and were aired in parliament. The separate ‘Taunton’ Committee was probing the next tier of schools of concern to the new aspirational middle classes. These enquiries had yet to report. (A third report, the ‘Newcastle’, looked at the supposedly rudimentary needs of all the rest.)

‘We commonly see boys ready to sacrifice everything to cricket… they talk cricket, think cricket and dream cricket, morning, noon and night… This mania of muscularity has its share in the hunger-bitten poverty of our intellectual results.’

‘I must avow my distinct conviction that our present system of exclusively classical education… is a deplorable failure… Classical Education neglects all the power of some minds, and some of the powers of all minds.’

He was back again the following year. By that time he had a book out, ‘Essays on a Liberal Education’. In his view even education in the classics and literature was dire.

‘The question then is not whether education is to be literary or scientific, but whether it is to be scientific or nil.’

Laurence Scales leads London tours focused on the history of science, invention, and medicine. He is a graduate who has worked in various engineering industries.

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