Based on childhood recollections
of Silver Street School, Edmonton
which was built in 1900 to earlier Victorian specifications.
In the early 1900s when I was at school, the average number of children in
a class was 60.
A photograph of a photograph in the Cambridge and County
Folk Museum showing a tiered classroom in the early 1900s . Note that all
the children are boys rather than boys and girls because girls and boys
were taught separately.
This classroom, like my mother's, was almost certainly
in a large custom-built Victorian school. The small schoolrooms in rural
areas were normally flat.
(Also on this site is a large scale image of a later mixed sex
In spite of the large classes, the teacher could easily see the pupils at
the back of the class because the room was tiered - or 'raked' like a lecture
The teacher sat at a specially high desk which had its own high chair, so
that she could look out over the whole of the class. I say 'she' because girls
and boys were taught separately, the boys by men teachers and we girls by women
All the women teachers were spinsters. Marriage was regarded as a
full-time commitment; so when a woman teacher married, she had to give up
teaching. All that changed during the wars when women had to take on the
jobs of the men who were overseas fighting at the front.
The teacher's desk
Teacher's high desk and high chair as used in schools
in Victorian times, the early 1900s and into the 1940s or later. Note the
hand bell on the desk for getting the children's attention. Photographed
at the Museum of Nottingham Life.
The teacher generally spoke from the high desk.
When the teacher wanted to show
us something, like letters to copy or sums to do, she wrote with chalk on a
As the floors were tiered we could easily see the board from
the back of the classroom.
The blackboard, which teachers would write on with chalk.
Photographed at Blaise Castle House Museum in Bristol.
When the teacher had finished with the blackboard or needed more space, one
of the children would be told to clean it with a duster. Fortunately it cleaned
easily because the dry chalk just rubbed off. With a lot of writing or a dirty
duster, though, there could be quite a cloud of chalk dust which got up our
noses if we were sitting near the front.
school desks and benches
When we started school, we small children sat on benches, but in later years we
were supplied with desks.
School desks were essentially the same country-wide. The main differences
between them were their size; whether they were singles or in pairs; and whether
they had seats attached.
Classroom desks with plank-style wooden seats attached.
Photographed at the Museum of Nottingham Life.
For the younger classes, the desk seats were flat planks of wood which were attached
to the body of the desk and on some desks they folded up to make it easier to
get in and out.
Classroom desks with chairs. Photographed at the Museum
of Nottingham Life.
The oldest (and largest) children had chairs but the desks themselves were
essentially the same. I suspect that all the children had chairs in private
schools which charged fees, but I can't be sure.
A classroom desk closed for use as a working surface.
Note the indent along the top, by the inkwell for pens and pencils.
An open classroom desk, showing the space for a child
to keep personal items. Both photographed at the Museum of Nottingham Life.
All the desks had lids to lean on while reading or writing. The design was
ideal as we had somewhere to keep our pencil boxes, etc. which in turn gave
us a sense of belonging in 'our' classroom.
Pencil boxes, all wood
Heating in the classroom
There was a coal fire in each classroom in winter. All the fireplaces had
to be cleaned, which was a the job of the caretaker. Every winter evening he
would also have to fill each coal scuttle with coal and firewood. Old exercise
books were used for paper. One of my teachers hid away some of the coal in a
cupboard on mild days for use later when it was cold, but when the headmistress
found out, the teacher was reprimanded.
How classrooms changed between Victorian times and the
mid 20th century
"Apart from the facts that the early 1900s
my mother could have been describing the
classrooms where I was taught in the 1940s and 1950s.
She could also have
been describing Victorian schoolrooms as shown in various books and museums.
In fact her
school was built in the last year of Queen Victoria's reign to earlier
This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in early to mid 20th century Britain, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times. It is © Pat Cryer.