On February 3, 1855, The Illustrated London News published an article entitled “Education in the Mining Districts.” This article presents an optimistic depiction the construction of a new school house and chapel in the working class mining district located in Wednesbury. The local iron works, owned by John Bagnall and sons, constructed the new establishment. They did so in order to prove “a munificent provision for the educational and religious requirements of the numerous persons employed in, and dependent upon, the extensive ironworks of Messrs. John Bagnall and Sons.” They also built a day school for residents of the mining district, who previously had available only a night school Bagnall had also funded. According to the article, “A school-master has also been engaged for the past twelve months, under whose care a flourishing night-school has been formed, numbering about 240 scholars, varying from eight to twenty-two years of age, the entire expense having been born to Messrs. Bagnall.” The article next describes the design of the new school and chapel. The school consisted of three major school rooms — the boy’s school room, the girl’s school room, and the infant’s school room. A large, crimson curtain separated each of the rooms. During times of worship, these curtains could open to create an expansive, open prayer space: “The schools, when thrown open for Divine service, form one large room, 129 feet long, with a depth of 53 feet in centre and 3 feet in the transepts, and 30 feet in height to the point of the roof, which is open.” As the article describes, citizens were “anxious to establish a day-school on a scale commensurate with the necessities of the district.”

“Education in the Mining Districts” depicts a typical school house for working class citizens. The ragged school act of 1844, which provided free education to working-class children, likely inspired Bagnall to construct a school for his employees. Many social commentators helped to fuel the creation and continuation of ragged schools (Smith), but Charles Dickens, who called for a massive change in them, also depicted working-class schools in Great Expectations. Pip does not attend a ragged school; Mrs. Wopsle charges her pupils twopence a week (Dickens 79), whereas ragged schools were free. Despite this discrepancy, the idea of the ragged school likely inspired the school that Pip initially attends, just as ragged schools likely inspired Bagnall’s school. Pip attended a simple school, similar to Bagnall’s school; Mrs. Wopsle’s school house consisted of only one room, which she rented (79). However, Dickens described working class schools in his novel much less favorably than did The Illustrated London News.

According to “Education in the Mining Districts,” the citizens of Wednesbury anticipated the creation of the new school and were “anxious to establish a day-school on a scale commensurate with the necessities of the district, a present commodious edifice has been erected by those gentlemen, at a cost of 5500.” In contrast, “Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt kept an evening school in the village; that is to say, she was a ridiculous old woman of limited means and unlimited infirmity, who used to go to sleep from six to seven every evening, in the society of youth who paid twopence each week, for the improving opportunity of seeing her doing it (79).” Conversely, when Pip gains his fortune, Mr. Jaggers informs him,

There is already lodged in my hands, a sum of money amply sufficient for your suitable education and maintenanced . . .. It is considered that you must be better educated, in accordance with your altered position, and that you will be alive to the importance and necessity of at once entering on that advantage. [171]

The description of Pip’s school and his need for further education once he rises in social class displays Dockens's disdain for the state of ragged schools, which contrasts with the optimistic tone of The Illustrated London News.

Dickens’s criticism of ragged schools in The Daily News furthers this point. As he writes in an article entitled “Ragged Schools”,

The close, low chamber at the back, in which the boys were crowded, was so foul and stifling as to be, at first, almost insupportable. But its moral aspect was so far worse than its physical, that this was soon forgotten. Huddled together on a bench about the room, and shown out by some flaring candles stuck against the walls, were a crowd of boys, varying from mere infants to young men; sellers of fruit, herbs, lucifer-matches, flints; sleepers under the dry arches of bridges; young thieves and beggars — with nothing natural to youth about them: with nothing frank, ingenuous, or pleasant in their faces; low-browed, vicious, cunning, wicked; abandoned of all help but this; speeding downward to destruction; and UNUTTERABLY IGNORANT.

Although Dickens here seems extremely harsh, he points to a severe problems with education in Victorian England, something that Great Expectations treats comically.

Bibliography

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. London: Chapman & Hall, 1861. Print.

Dickens, Charles. “Ragged Schooling.” The Daily News 13 Mar. 1852. Print.

“Education in the Mining Districts.” The Illustrated London News 3 Feb. 1855: 13-14. Print.

Smith, Mark. “Ragged Schools and the Development of Youth Work and Informal Education.” Web. 13 May 2010.


Victorian Overview Victorian History Victorian Education

Last modified 19 May 2010