logo - Join me in the 1900s early C20th
Florence Cole as a child

How writing was taught
in Victorian and Edwardian schools

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This group of pages is based on childhood recollections of Silver Street School, Edmonton which was built in 1900 to earlier Victorian specifications.

Learning to write 1900s style - sand trays

One of my earliest memories of school in the early 1900s was being given a tray of sand to write out my letters with my finger. It had the advantage that there was no serious rubbing out to do. To start afresh, we children only had to shake the tray.

Double-sided child's writing and drawing slate from the early 1900s   Lined side of a double-sided child's drawing slate from the early 
		1900s; also a slate pencil

Double-sided child's slate from the early 1900s, from the effects of Anne Davey's mother-in-law. The left-hand photo shows one side of the slate which is plain and the right-hand photo shows the reverse side which has lines scratched onto it to guide children's writing. The photo also shows the special pencil for use with the slate. I have been unable to confirm what the slate pencils were made of. The most likely information on the internet suggests that they were of a soft slate composition or soap stone. The writing on the slate came out white.

Old folding slate and slate pencils, as used in the early 1900s for school children to practise writing

This folding children's slate was photographed in Salisbury Museum and labelled as made in Germany for the English market, 1910.

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Learning to write 1900s style - slates and slate pencils

Later came slate and a 'slate' pencil, which made a horrible scratching noise and was very dirty because we would spit on the slate to rub bits out.

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Learning to write 1900s style - pen and ink

A girl at school in the early 1900s, showing her drawing on a slate

A girl in the early 1900s, showing her drawing on her slate.

China ink well set in a hole in a school desk - common from Victorian times to the 1960s

China ink well set in a hole in a school desk. Note the indent alongside for pens and pencils.

Later still came pens with nibs which had to be repeatedly dipped in ink, and the nibs got twisted and had to be replaced quite frequently.

Each child's desk had an inkpot made of white china which was set into a specially made hole. Ink pots were filled each week by children who the teacher designated as class monitors.

Nib pen and replacement or alternative nibs.

Nib pen and spare nibs. Photographed at the Tilford Rural Life Centre. Nibs could be eased out and new ones or ones with a different stroke thickness could be eased back in their place.

The heavy than fading off appearance of writing made with a pen and nib where the nib had to be repeated dipped into ink - typical of much writing in the first half of the 20th century.

Part of a letter written with a pen that had to have its nib continually dipped into ink. Note how the writing is dark after the nib has just been dipped into the ink and fades off until the nib is next dipped in. Note also that the ink is blue, which was the standard in the 1940s and 50s, and probably before.

The ink never seemed to stay where it was supposed to. Somehow it always travelled up our second fingers and we had to be very careful indeed not to get blots onto our clothes or our exercise books, which was very frowned upon.

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Learning to write 1900s style - chalk

We also had chalks which seemed to me to be even more trouble.

This was because I, like most girls, wore a pinafore over my dress. Pinafores were white and sleeveless with frills round the armholes. Some were embroidered, some had a ribbon threaded through them and were very pretty.

Girls wearing the white pinafores, standard dress, early 1900s

Girls wearing the white over-pinafores that so easily got dirty - but which presumably washed more easily than the dresses underneath. Photo courtesy of Gwen Nelson.

One day I got my pinafore in an awful mess at school with the chalks, and I was afraid to go home. The girl who lived next door and was much older than me found me crying. She took me home and went in to my mother with me.

Learning to write in the 1940s

I was also taught to write with such a pen in the 1940s. Later we graduated to fountain pens which stored ink, so didn't need to be repeatedly dipped in an inkwell. Ball point pens were strenuously disallowed on the grounds that they ruined handwriting.

Pat Cryer

Fun and games with pen nibs

I used to break the nibs to make them into twin pointed flightless darts. This must have been a common practice in schools, as an old friend from The Latymer tells me that he also used to make the nib darts. He even fitted them with paper flights. The target was usually the underside of the lid of classroom desks.

Desmond Dyer

Reproduction Victorian and Edwardian school writing tools: bottles of ink, china ink pots. pens with replaceable nibs, writing slates with slate pencils.

Reproduction Victorian and Edwardian school writing tools - as displayed in the museum shop at the Museum of Reading - bottles of ink, china ink pots. pens with replaceable nibs, writing slates with slate pencils.

It would not be advisable to use the ink pots without first securing them in the hole of a desk - see photo above - as they would easily get knocked over, and ink stains badly.

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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.