Dame schools

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Education was not compulsory for children aged 5 to 10 in England until 1880. Prior to that date the education was a preserve of the elite and was only received by children whose parents could afford to pay. Children from working class backgrounds could not expect to receive any form of formal schooling.

It was common for children to attend Sunday School, with an estimated 1.5 million 5-15 year olds attending in the mid nineteenth century. However Sunday Schools only provided religious instruction, and not a balanced education. The poorest of British children may have been lucky enough to attend one of Lord Shaftsbury’s ‘Ragged Schools’ of which there were 200 across Britain, providing a basic education for children from working class homes. Children residing in the Workhouse would also have received a form of education, but their experience of schooling was likely to have been extremely basic (Higginbottom 2003).

Charles Dickens made reference to Dame Schools in his novel ‘Great Expectations’. Dame Schools were a phenomenon of the Victorian era, and there is a great contrast in the levels of education pupils of these unique schools received.

They were titled Dame Schools as these enterprises were often run by elderly women from their homes. They catered for the youngest of children, often from the poorest of families, aged between 2 and 5; children too young to work.

Some of the young pupil were taught the 3 R’s, Reading, wRiting, and aRthermatic. However some of these schools also taught the pupils skills that would help them to find work when they were old enough, for example knitting or sewing. As was the norm in Victorian times, any instruction would have been didactic and the pupils would have learnt ‘parrot fashion’ repeating words, spellings and sums until they had memorised them.

These establishments were mainly provided as a form of child care for parents who had no choice but to go out to work. It was common for fees to be as much as 4 pence a week.

The women who ran these schools were rarely trained, and many undertook other forms of work such as washing or sewing whilst supervising the children, adding strength to the argument that Dame Schools were simply another form of child care.

It is difficult to estimate how many Dame Schools were operating in Britain during the Victorian era as they were privately run, and there was no formal registration process. The 1851 census report for Glossop in Derbyshire lists 6 Dame and Infant schools in the area, catering for 578 children between them (Lockie 2001). Records from Wales list 85 Dame Schools, caring for or educating 1,842 children (Grigg 2005)


Grigg, G (2005) Nurseries of ignorance?’ Private adventure and dame schools for the working class in nineteenth century Wales, http://www.ingentaconnect.com/ (Visited 08-July-05)

Editors note: You will need to register for this site, which is free, and search for 'Nurseries of ignorance', to see the abstract. The full text must be purchased. Athens passwords are accepted.

Higginbottom, P (2003) Education for the poor, http://users.ox.ac.uk/~peter/workhouse/education.html (Visited 08-July-05)

Lockie, R (2001) Glossop Schools, Derbyshire, http://www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/DBY/ (Visited 08-July-05)

Useful Links

Website designed to guide history pupils and teachers. Offers a wide variety of information from all historical periods.
http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/ (Visited 08-July-05)

Nettleworth Primary School
Gives a brief and basic overview of the type of schooling a Victorian pupil could have expected.
http://www.nettlesworth.durham.sch.uk/time/victorian/vschool.html (Visited 08-July-05)

The Victorian Education
This website breaks down all the types of education of offer during the Victorian period using a case study of the Somerset area.
http://www.gober.net/victorian/reports/schools.html (Visited 08-July-05)