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Sources for studying Victorian Schools
Freeland School Oxfordshire photographed by Henry Taunt around 1900 ©  English Heritage.NMR

If your school was built during the Victorian period or earlier you have a wonderful resource to use. If your school is modern then you could choose to study a nearby school or, if you organise a residential study week, a school situated near to where you stay. In either case you could try to arrange for your pupils to visit, maybe you could do an exchange visit with a school studying Britain since 1930.

Another alternative may be to visit a site where they have reconstructed a Victorian schoolroom including open air museums such as the Black Country Museum or Beamish, or historic buildings such as Sudbury Hall or Shugborough. Many of these sites offer the opportunity for pupils to experience a Victorian lesson, sometimes in costume. For details of your nearest museum or site visit the 24hour museum website.

Many activities can be done based on the buildings themselves but if you want your pupils to find out about how the school functioned and see evidence of the pupils who attended in Victorian times then you will need to find some archive sources.


Sources available locally

Schools have had to keep extensive records since 1863 and may have even earlier ones. Not all the old records have survived but, if they have, may still be at the school. If not they may have been deposited in the local record office or archive. If you do not know where your local archives are kept then click here for advice on finding them.


The most useful sources will be school log books and admission registers.

Salop Street School, Wolverhampton, log book reproduced by kind permission of Wolverhampton Archives & Local Studies.School Log Books were written up by the headteacher and recorded important events in school life such as the visit of an inspector or governor, closure of the school or new member of staff. They put in attendance numbers and recorded epidemics and visits of the school nurse. Inspectors' reports were written out in full.

If the school held a celebration for a National event such as Queen Victoria's Jubilee it may be recorded. If you are lucky there might even be a programme or photograph tucked into the book.

Pupils were not generally recorded unless they did something out of the ordinary such as suffering an accident or passing an examination.

Part of page from SS Peter and Paul RC School admission register 1895, reproduced by kind permission of Wolverhampton Archives & Local Studies

Pupil information will be found in the admission registers that record the arrival and leaving of every pupil and include details such as their date of birth, address, parents' names and date of and reason for leaving. The information is regarded as confidential for a period of time but entries made in the Victorian era are now all likely to be freely accessible.

 

Schools also had to keep punishment books that recorded misdemeanors and the punishments meted out. A few of these have survived and can be seen. These are also confPupils at Woodfield Avenue school, Penn, Wolverhampton, reproduced by kind permission of Wolverhampton Archives & Local Studies.idential documents and may have restricted access.

 

Many old school photographs have survived of both buildings and pupils. Again you may find them at the school or deposited at the archives but many will be in the homes of former pupils or their families. An appeal in a letter home or in the local press may produce a good response. People may also have certificates, presentation books, medals or old school magazines and these, again, can also be found in archive collections or in local museums.

If you want to find out about the history of the school and there are no log books, other, more general, sources may be of help.

The Victoria County History is compiling and publishing histories of all parishes county by county. Your local reference library will have the volumes that have been completed for your county. The parish surveys are very detailed and will include a section on education and information on all its schools. If you visit their website you can find out if the history of your parish has been published.

If your school building is of architectural interest it may be included in the relevant volume of the Pevsner Architectural Guides by Nikolaus Pevsner. Their website also includes a useful timeline and glossary of architectural styles.

Trade directories were produced throughout the nineteenth century either based on the county or town. Even small villages were described and schools were always mentioned, frequently with a small amount of information including the date it was built.

Click here to view a page from a trade directory

It is worth looking in old local newspapers, which you will find either in the archives or in the local reference library. There was often an article on the opening of the school. You will need the date of opening which will be in the first log book if it exists. Otherwise there may be a foundation stone or plaque recording the opening.
Many schools opened to the pupils on one date and then had an official opening, sometimes several months later. In my experience the official opening is more likely to have been reported.
Local newspapers also generally included the minutes of the school board meetings and you can find information there regarding the building and opening of schools.Interior plan of Trowbridge Boys British School reproduced by kind permission  of  Wiltshire  & Swindon Record Office

Click here to view an extract from an old newspaper.

The original school board minutes may be in the archives and building plans for the school or later extensions may also be there. Wiltshire Community History website is aiming to put the history of every Wiltshire school, past and present, on the web and includes images of the sources they have used including plans.

 

Another useful source, which should be available in the local archives or reference library, is a printed copy of the report of the children's employment commissions for your area. Several commissions were set up during the early Victorian period. They typically investigated children working in a particular industry such as coal mining or the metal trades and included interviews with the children. They were questioned about their working life but also about their education. The questions asked to test the children's literacy, numeracy and religious knowledge are very illuminating.

Click here to view a page from an employment commission.


Sources available nationally

The National Archives has the records of central government and includes correspondence that went to and from school boards plus material relating to individual schools such as Government Inspector's [HMI] reports and plans.

Visit their website for a reader's guide to their education sources.



Follow any of the links below for more information on Victorian Schools

Victorian Schools : Suggested Learning Activities

Please note that the inclusion of a listed building on this website does not mean it is open to the public.