Education, Literacy and Publishing in Victorian England

Education, Literacy, and Publishing in Victorian England“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
~ Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

274 Goring, Jack, Autobiographical notes, MS, pp.332 (c. 27,000 words). Brunel University Library.
274 Goring, Jack, Autobiographical notes, MS, pp.332 (c. 27,000 words). Brunel University Library.


Education in Victorian England remained mostly for children from upper-class backgrounds. Most children did not attend school and went out to work and earn money for their families. However, as time passed, the people of the Victorian age were beginning to see the value in teaching their children to read and write. The Church of England began to encourage education in children so they would be able to read the Bible. As education grew in importance, various types of schools began to appear around England in hopes of furthering education. More


Governesses were the most popular form of education for those in the upper class. A governess would be a woman who would come in and teach a family’s children the basics of reading and writing up until approximately age ten. Governesses would teach both boys and girls (“Education”). Once too old for a governess, young boys would often be sent to a public school while the girls’ education would stop, unless furthered by the parents (“Victorian England”).

Public Schools

Public schools were schools that charged a fee for richer children (almost exclusively boys) to attend to further their education past the basic reading and writing skills taught to them by their governess. These public schools served to begin molding young boys into Christian gentlemen, though this ambition is criticized to have caused ignorance in the men about economic, political, and social challenges in Victorian England. Scholarships were sometimes offered to those whom showed great promise but may have had difficulties paying for the school’s tuition. Often, members of the middle class were the recipients of these scholarships. The ambition of the middle class was growing and the importance of higher education was becoming more profound and sought after. Many of those in the upper-middle class sought this education in their children in hopes that they would move into the aristocracy, rather than being genuinely concerned with the education of their sons. These public schools were often plagued with issues of inadequate teaching, bullying, and poor learning environments (“Landow”). In 1870, Parliament passed the Forster’s Education Act, which made all parts of Great Britain provide education to all children age 5 to 12. This led to a rapid development of more public schools. These schools, however, were not free and not mandatory to attend, and many could not afford the school pence each week. However, by 1891, the school pence was abolished and education had become mandatory (“Education).

"The Lamb and Flag" Ragged Schools. Illustrated London News 6 January 1849, p. 12. Scanned image, caption information, and text by Philip V. Allingham.
“The Lamb and Flag” Ragged Schools. Illustrated London News 6 January 1849, p. 12. Scanned image, caption information, and text by Philip V. Allingham.

Ragged Schools

Ragged schools were the only schools designed for poor children. They got their name from the rags that the children often wore while attending. They originated from Sunday schools were children were taught to read the Bible. One man, John Pounds, is considered the “founder” or ragged schools as he was the first to have a documented class of 30 to 40 children in his house whom he was teaching to read (“Education”). This idea of ragged schools quickly spread through London, and eventually nearly forty thousand children were being taught in Ragged Schools. By 1844, a Ragged Schools Union had formed to provide free education to working class children through these schools. They consisted not only of poor children, but of orphans and the children of drunks and convicts who could not be properly cared for. The classes were often taught by volunteers in the community, and sometimes even the older children were used to teach the younger ones. Sometimes, a “Dame School” also formed. These schools were often taught by just one woman, and cost a few pennies for working class parents. It was more of a day-care than a school, however, as the most the dame ever taught was usually the alphabet or how to sew. These became separate from Ragged Schools once it became a requirement for ragged school education to be free (Landow).

Education for Girls

Education for girls was extremely limited in Victorian England. If the family was wealthy enough to afford a governess, that was usually the only form of education a girl would get. Girls did not also receive the same education as boys; while the boys’ focus was often on classic literature, girls’ studies focused more on French, music, and “practical” female skills such as sewing (“Victorian England”). Once old enough, it was assumed that a woman’s sole purpose was to marry and have children, so there was little want or need to provide them with education. Women who did not marry early were often forced into becoming governesses themselves or a caretaker for her elderly parents or her sibling’s children. However, education for governesses themselves began to improve in 1848 with the founding of Queen’s College, where girls over the age of twelve were permitted to further their education. Ten years later, Cheltenham Ladies’ College was founded, followed by more public schools for wealthy and upper-class women (Landow). In 1878, London University admitted women to two of their colleges (“Education”).


Oxford and Cambridge were the ancient universities, and had three requirements to attend: You had to be male, be unmarried, and be a member of the Church of England. Later, small colleges began to form, grouped as London University in 1836 (“Education”). As time went on and more men became interested in furthering their education, more universities such as Durham and Birmingham. At university, much more was expected of the students than what learning they had aquired in primary and secondary school: “Instead of passively acquiring established knowledge, students were expected to learn how to do original research, helped by the new institution of the research seminar” (Landow). University also served as a ground for men to make friends and important connections to further them in their future status as a gentleman or career (“Victorian England”).

Important Dates in Education

1817: School for Jewish children founded.
1818: John Pounds’ Ragged School gained popularity and spread the idea throughout London.
1833: The English government begins to award grant money to schools.
1833: The Factory Act requires employers to provide half-time education to all workers under 13, but the act was almost never practiced or enforced.
1844: Ragged Schools Union formed.
1844: Parliment passes another law requiring children working in factories to be given six half days of schooling every week, and it was better practiced than The Factory Act.
1848: Queen’s College founded.
1870: Parliment passes the Forster’s Education Act, requiring all parts of Britain to provide schools to children age 5 to 12.
1880: Schooling becomes mandatory in England for both sexes.
1889: Schooling age raised to thirteen.
1891: School pence fee abolished, and all primary education becomes free.
1898: Over 90 grammar schools for girls had been founded.

Victorian postal accessories.


Before Victorian times, literacy was a skill that few possessed. The high prices of paper, ink, and postage, and time consuming methods were enough to turn many away from learning to write or sending letters. With only the educated upperclass able to read, and few able to write, the distribution of books was not a common trade. The Penny Post, which allowed sending of letters for only a penny as its name suggests, made a comeback at the start of the Industrial Revolution (Golden). As postal products and books became more readily available to the upper and lower class alike, a market for literacy began to form. Reading and writing instruments became accessible for both leisure and professional use. This increasingly literate population greatly impacted the publishing industry and demand for the printed word never wavered (Barrett).

Literacy is defined as the ability to read and write. In Victorian England, literacy increased due to heavier emphasis put on education, especially among working class children. There was a heavier emphasis put on education because of industrialization. Once industrialization began in England during the early 18th century, working-class people were drawn to factories, seeking employment in them. Child employment also began to increase. As a result, many of these children were unable to attend regular schooling. New schools (such as factory schools, sunday schools, evening schools, and infant schools) were built to fit the needs of industrialization. The new schools sought to cater to an industrial society. The higher emphasis on education focused on both secular and religious teachings, particularly those that were more intellectual than rote methods used in earlier teachings. The purpose of teaching both secular and religious lessons to children was to help them understand how the world works, so that they don’t question it. Higher emphasis on education was one consequence of industrialization, and that consequence ultimately lead to a higher emphasis on literacy, especially the ability to write. There were mixed feelings about the ability to write being promoted. Some people thought that writing was an essential business skill, while others thought that teaching children to write would cause them commit crimes in the future or worse it would make people go beyond their proper place in life. Nonetheless, writing became associated with economic prosperity. Also, a lot of clerks were hired at factories and industrialized businesses, so writing became an essential tool in running these businesses. Reading skills began to spread through technological advances such as the printing press and cheap, mass-produced steels pens. Taxes on stamps and newspapers began to decline and eventually became abolished, therefore books and newspapers increased in availability.


The Industrial Revolution of the mid 1700’s to late 1800’s brought population and social change to Victorian England. With its iron ore and coal deposits, Britain was the center of the Industrial Revolution. As the birthplace of the movement, Britain saw waves of immigration and emigration. Many Britons left the country in search of better work and living conditions, while others flocked to cities in the United Kingdom for whatever jobs they could find. This population influx created a larger market for media as the middle and upper class membership rose. Raw materials and finished products could then be transported in more efficient ways than ever before via steam locomotive railways. Electric telegraphs and the postal system opened new branches for communication. This, combined with the addition of mass production machines, increased the distribution of letters, advertisements, newspapers, and books. Advertisements printed in newspapers, which were now distributed in greater quantities, also strengthened the job market. The myriad of small, hand-pressed centered workshops scattered across the country were soon replaced by relief and intaglio printmaking machines that accommodated the rise in demand for printed media (

The Economy

Victorian England was a time of evolution for the country. As products became mass produced and readily available, demand shot up alongside the need for machines in the work place. These urban areas attracted many travelers from the country with their potential for work, higher education, and increased standard of living. As the quality of life continued to rise for the upper and middle classes who could afford the brand new products, there was soon a surplus of lower class workers. With too few jobs to accompany the rush of factory hands, working conditions plummeted. Any worker was easily replaced with another of any age, or machine in some cases, to do the life-threatening industrial work for an incredibly low wage. The region was soon overpopulated with the disease and pollution riddled lower class (Eliot).

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An edition of the “penny family weekly” London Journal. Editions were published weekly for a penny.

The Process

When an author decided to publish their work, communications amongst many different manufacturers were set into motion. A manuscript was sent to a typographer where, with paper and ink purchased from their respective manufacturers, the type was set and printed. These original manuscripts were rarely marked with designer specifications and edits. Depending on the scale of the work, type setting was sometimes divided among several compositors to ensure a speedy production. This copy was then corrected and reprinted as a proof. Publishers were paid based on the amounts of type set, rather than hours worked, with fines for each mistake, so it was in their best interest to ensure quality and efficiency. On occasion, authors preferred to edit a proof two or three times before sending it off to a pressman. Presses set adjacent to one another made doubles of each page, cutting production time in half. With each letter on a separate, freestanding stamp, type often shifted between prints, resulting in some differentiation between copies. If a specific work was expected to be in high demand and require a second printing, a plate would often be created from the press. By casting the types in plaster and filling it with lead, a metal plate was made from the mold. This form of printing, often called stereotype, was much faster than hand printing yet led to smaller pages due to the shrinkage of plaster as it hardened. These pages were then sent to a bindery where some were bound in cloth and others were bought to be bound and sold elsewhere (Shillingsburg).

Genres and distribution

The most popular literature of the time was found within another work of print. Inserted in periodicals like newspapers or magazines, serialized fiction stories came out in weekly or biweekly editions. Many plots were not previously planned so this way, the story could continue for as long as the public desired it to. After completion of a serial, it was reprinted as a whole. Similarly, novels were often published in a number of installments, based on popularity. Breaking up stories allowed publishers and retailers to maximize their profits, circulating several copies of each at the same time (Barrett). Other popular works of the time include poetry, drama, histories, and other miscellaneous subjects (Eliot).

The Printing Press in Action


Barrett, Charlotte. “Victorian Publishing History.” Great Writers Inspire: Learning from the Past.
“Education.” Education. The British Library Board, n.d. Web. 09 May 2014.
Eliot, Simon “Images of the Victorian book: Publishing – Introduction.”
Golden, Catherine J. “Postal Products: Postage stamps, Stationery, Letter Racks, Paper Clips, Ink Wells, Desk Sets, Portable Writing Desks.” Staff. “Industrial Revolution.” A&E Television Networks
Landow, George P. “Education in Victorian England.” Education in Victorian England. N.p., 13 Oct. 2003. Web. 09 May 2014.
“Literacy: revised version”. n.p. Web. 19 Jan 2011.
The London Journal [image]
Shillingsburg, Peter L. “The Production House.”
“Victorian England.” Victorian England. University of Wisconsin, n.d. Web. 08 May 2014.
Victorian postal accessories [image]