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Florence Cole as a child

Classrooms in schools for working class children in the early 1900s



Based on childhood recollections of Silver Street School, Edmonton which was built in 1900 to earlier Victorian specifications.

Class sizes

In the early 1900s when I was at school, the average number of children in a class was 60.

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Tiered classrooms

tiered Victorian school classroom

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 tiered classroom.)

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 theatre.

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The teachers

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 teachers.

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.

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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.

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.

Teachers seldom walked around. They generally spoke while sitting at the high desk.

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The blackboard

When the teacher wanted to show us something, like letters to copy or sums to do, she wrote with chalk on a large blackboard.

As the floors were tiered we could easily see the board from the back of the classroom.

A typical Victorian and Edwardian school blackboard, which teachers would write on with chalk.

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.

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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, common in Victorian times to the 1960s, with plank-style wooden 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, common in Victorian times to the 1960s, for use with chairs rather than the attached plank-style wooden seats

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.

Child's school desk, common in Victorian times to the 1960s, with the lid down to serve as a writing surface. Note the indent along the top, by the inkwell for pens and pencils

A classroom desk closed for use as a working surface. Note the indent along the top, by the inkwell for pens and pencils.

Child's school desk, common in Victorian times to the 1960s, with the lid open to show the space for keeping things

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.

Old wooden pencil boxes

Pencil boxes, all wood

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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.

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How classrooms changed between Victorian times and the mid 20th century

Apart from the facts that the early 1900s classrooms

  • were tiered

  • were large enough for 60 and

  • were heated with coal fires,

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 Victorian plans.

Pat Cryer
webmaster and daughter of the author

  

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times. It is © Pat Cryer.