Early in the Victorian era, wealthy families would have a nanny to care for the children. Oftentimes, she would teach them the basic skills of reading and writing. For girls, the mother might teach them to sew, to sing, or to play a musical instrument. Fathers often taught their sons Latin.

During the same time period, poor children rarely learned to read or write. From a young age, sometimes 5 years old, they were expected to work and help provide for the family. Some communities attempted to educate their poor children and established Ragged schools. Supporters of the school would provide a teacher or teach the children themselves.

The 1870 Education Act

Education changed for children with passage of the 1870 Education Act that made school mandatory for everyone between the ages of 5 and 13. Girls and boys attended community schools to learn the three R’s, Reading, wRiting, and aRithematic.

The School Day

School days started at nine and ended at five with a two hour break for lunch. School houses were not cheerful places. It was believed that being able to see out of a window would distract students. So, tiny windows were placed high on the walls to provide ventilation. In most schools there was only one room and one teacher. The teacher would have older students, usually between 9 and 13, help her teach the other students. Most lessons were learned by repeating after the teacher and some schools had as many as 100 students. The noise would have been overwhelming.

Paper was a luxury that most students could not afford. Written lessons were completed in chalk on a slate board. Older students occasionally had paper journals called copy books. Pens were more like paint brushes with a metal tip, called a nib, at the end. The nib was dipped in a jar of liquid ink. Spills were common. Because the ink was hard to control, students would often end up with blotches on their paper. Either offense was grounds for punishment.

Discipline and Punishment

Discipline during the Victorian era could best be described by the phrase, “spare the rod and spoil the child.” Teachers used a cane to dole out punishment, boys across their bottoms and girls across their hands or legs. The long days and dreary conditions made the students harder to control. Teachers were known to become so angry with children that they would crack the cane. A jar of birch switches, in water to keep them supple, was kept in the classroom as a backup.

Unruly children were not the teacher’s only concern. When school became mandatory for all children, there were parents angry because their children would not be earning wages for the family. Teachers could expect to be attacked and had to learn how to fight to fend off angry parents.