In 1816 there was an investigation into the schools of all sorts in London, church schools, secular schools and the ancient foundations. It revealed that very few children were receiving education of any kind. In 1820 a Bill was introduced in Parliament, ‘for the better education of the poor in England and Wales’. It was intended to introduce universal compulsory education. It was defeated by opposition from the established church and the dissenters but the real problem was that unregulated child labour made the establishment of universal education impossible. Consequently the Radicals decided that educational purposes would be better served by concentrating on higher education. The mechanics institutes provided opportunities hitherto denied. The establishment of University College in Gower St in the 1820s was a significant development. Catholics and dissenters were still barred from Oxford and Cambridge as they had been for centuries. The founders of University College therefore insisted there should be no religious affilation of any sort and that the curriculum should cover all modern enquiries -medicine, engineering, mathematics, science, law and modern languages. Its fees were low and it was non-residential. The establishment of King’s College in 1831 was in deliberate opposition to University College and was intended to provide for a general education embued with orthodox religious sentiments.

Chemistry Laboratory, University College, London, 1846. Studies in the History of Education 1780-1870, Brian Simon (1960)

Paralleling these developments in higher education was the reorganisation and professionalisation of law and medicine. The Royal College of Surgeons had been founded in 1800 but its development had been hampered by the fact that bodies were not readily available to it and its reputation had been sullied by the attempt to remedy this defect by resorting to ‘body snatching’. Jerry Cruncher was such a ‘snatcher’ in A Tale of Two Cities,

Mr.Cruncher did not assist at the closing sports, but had remained behind in the curchyard, to confer and condole with the undertakers. The place had a soothing influence on him…weather his general health had been previously at all amiss, or whether he desired to show a little attention to an eminent man, is not so much to the purpose, as that he made a short call upon his medical adviser – a distinguished surgeon.

In 1833 an Act was passed that allowed for the use of the unclaimed bodies of paupers. It was about this time that examinations were first required for entry into the profession. The Medical Act of 1858 introduced ‘the registered medical practioner.’ This is one example of the establishment of a whole series of properly regulated professions in this period and the recognition of the newly powerful middle class.

The first state grant for education was voted in 1833 but it was very small,£20,000, and a report of 1840 revealed very few children were receiving education, 70% of the children in the parishes of St George, St James and St Anne were without any instruction. The consequence was the establishment of the ‘ragged’ schools, largely provided by evangelicals and intended for the children of the destitute. By 1851 there were 74 ragged schools and by 1853 this number had increased to 116. These schools did not provide instruction in the 3 R’s but were preliminary even to that -they were to keep these children off the street. The pupils at these schools were those whose ‘rude habits, filthy condition and want of shoes and stockings’ kept them from the denominational schools.

Brook Street Ragged School, Hampstead Road, founded 1843. Illustrated London News (1853), from The London Doré Saw, Eric de Maré (1973)
The ragged schools catered for children who were so poor they could not even afford the uniform necessary to attend a church school. The difficulty was that it became apparent that almost all the potential pupils at such schools were employed during the week and consequently were only available for any sort of education on Sundays. The result was that radicals evenually felt that it would be more appropriate to concentrate time and resources on secondary education for the emergent middle class.

Most poor children who went to school hardly learned anything at all. There were not enough teachers, the pupils moved too often to different schools because their parents, largely indifferent, endlessly changed their residence in the continuous search for work. The need for child labour also had its effects; in 1845 in East London the average age for leaving school was ten and a quarter, while it was not uncommon for one master to have charge of two hundred pupils. Another way to deal with pauper children was by farming them out to privately owned schools in the suburbs. There were eleven hundred such children in a school in Norwood in mid century. Their buildings were dilapidated and their teachers quite unsuited to the task. Such schools were not regulated in any way. Initially the system was the monitorial one like that illustrated at Lowood School in Jane Eyre, though later reluctant governors did provide funds for teacher training. In the meantime however there were no doubt schools not unlike Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby. By 1851 only one in nine children were attending any sort of day school. Although the idea of education commanded wide-scale public support progress was painfully slow. In 1858 the Newcastle Commsion reported of private schools that, ‘many are held in premises injurious to health, and quite unsuitable for school puposes’, while of the teachers it was said that, ‘none are too old, too poor, too ignorant, too feeble, too sickly, too unqualified in any or every way, to regard themselves, and to be regarded by others, as unfit for school-keeping’. Teaching in the private schools was, in fact, ‘a mere refuge for the destitute’.

”There was nothing of the noise and clamour of a schoolroom, none of its boisterous play or hearty mirth. The children sat crouching and shivering together, and seemed to lack the spirit to move about.’

Dotheboys Hall, Nicholas Nickleby