Victorian Literature Literacy
by
Rosalind Crone
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0140

Introduction

Critical to an understanding of Victorian literature is an awareness of the participants in literate culture. Hence the importance of the study of literacy. Moreover, the 19th century marked the period when many Western states, including the United Kingdom, achieved mass literacy. This process was far from homogeneous or straightforward. Yet its consequence produced the transformation and unprecedented expansion of literate culture and a revolution in communication. Literacy comprises two skills: the ability to read and the ability to write. An awareness of these two components is important because even well into the 19th century, the skills were taught separately and sequentially. The existence of large numbers of readers has complicated definitions of literacy and attempts by historians to measure its presence in society. Moreover, closely related to literacy is numeracy, or the ability to count and do basic arithmetic. As the 19th century progressed numeracy gained increasing prominence in drives to educate the masses as arithmetic was joined with reading and writing to form the triumvirate of the 3Rs. However, the study of numeracy is not included in this article, in part because, at the present time (2015), numeracy has received scant attention from scholars and also because the skills of reading and writing dominated the attention of 19th-century commentators and policymakers and were used to establish a dividing line between the ignorant and the civilized. The study of literacy in the 19th century has occupied scholars from a range of disciplines (including the social sciences, education, literature, and history) as well as subdisciplines (including social and cultural history, book history, the history of reading, and the history of writing). Because of this multidisciplinary interest, a diverse range of methods has been employed to uncover the scale and assess the impact of the expansion of literacy between c. 1750 and c. 1950. The broad interest is also reflective of the importance of literacy as a field of study in its own right. Scholars have shown how the study of literacy helps us to understand the growth of the state, the nature of the state’s relationship with its citizens, the operation of agency by individuals, and the nature of the emergence of modernity. Furthermore, David Vincent in “The Invention of Counting: The Statistical Measurement of Literacy in Nineteenth-Century England’ (Vincent 2014, cited under Alternative Perspectives on Counting) and Harvey Graff in Labyrinths of Literacy: Reflections on Literacy Past and Present (1995) demonstrate the usefulness of studies of 19th-century literacy to debates about literacy today: The 19th century not only provides a laboratory for learning about literacy (Graff), but also creates a legacy of counting and language of assessment that continues to shape public policies (Vincent).

General Overviews

The drive toward mass literacy in the British Isles during the 19th century is best understood in the context of the history of literacy in the Western world more generally and in modern Europe in particular. Such contextualization has helped scholars to avoid attaching special importance to time periods, preconditions, and drivers. Vincent 2000 uses geographical comparisons to break down any simple assumptions about the relationship between literacy and economic growth and about the role of the state, but, at the same time, this is an excellent survey text that succeeds in making sense of, and finding overarching trends in, competing national narratives. Lyons 2010 takes a different approach to the history of literacy. The author treats the subject on the basis of the history of reading and writing, prioritizing the study of the use of literate skills over the study of their measurement and acquisition. In the context of these two works, Gardner 2004 presents a very readable account of the rise of literacy in Britain largely from the point of view of the history of education.

  • Gardner, Philip. “Literacy, Learning and Education.” In A Companion to Nineteenth-Century Britain. Edited by Chris Williams, 353–368. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631225799.2004.00023.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A brief chapter that expertly sums up the rise of literacy in largely focusing on how skills were acquired. Gardner usefully introduces some of the main debates, identifies some of the leading scholars in the field, and highlights the value of qualitative sources in directing attention to the complexities of the process.

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  • Lyons, Martyn. A History of Reading and Writing in the Western World. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

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    A survey of the uses of reading and writing in Western societies from the ancient and medieval worlds to modern states. Often controversial turning points (e.g., Gutenberg’s printing revolution, the Protestant Reformation, the growth of popular literacy, etc.) are used to highlight changes and continuities in the relationship between readers and writers and their texts.

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  • Vincent, David. The Rise of Mass Literacy: Reading and Writing in Modern Europe. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2000.

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    Vincent addresses both how mass literacy was achieved in most European states by the beginning of World War I as well as its impact on societies and individuals, its contribution to economic growth, the role played by the state, and the extent of popular demand.

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Bibliographies

A small number of bibliographies provide key secondary and primary sources useful for the study of literacy in the British Isles during the Victorian period. Burnett, et al. 1984–1989 constitutes a catalogue of autobiographies written by members of the working classes that not only provide rich evidence on the acquisition and use of the literate skills, but also are themselves evidence of the use of the writing skill, a specific use that was common enough to create a new subclass in Victorian Britain, the autodidact (see the Autodidact Tradition). James and Smith 1998 gives a list of cheap popular fiction published during the Victorian period and purchased and devoured by the newly literate (for its relevance to literacy, see Using the Reading Skill). The Reading Experience Database (RED), 1450–1945 website provides a list of works published each year on the subject of the history of reading.

  • Burnett, John, David Myall, and David Vincent, eds. The Autobiography of the Working Classes: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography. 3 vols. Brighton, UK: Harvester, 1984–1989.

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    Detailed entries on more than 2,000 autobiographies of working men (and some working women) who lived in the period 1750 to 1945. Includes both those autobiographies that were published and those that survive only in manuscript form, together with their locations in libraries and public record offices.

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  • James, Elizabeth, and Helen R. Smith, eds. Penny Dreadfuls and Boys Adventures: The Barry Ono Collection of Victorian Popular Literature in the British Library. London: British Library, 1998.

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    The Barry Ono Collection, bequeathed to the British Library in 1841, contains 700 books and magazines spanning the entire 19th century. The collection focuses on cheap, popular fiction and thus it includes many examples of chapbooks, penny bloods, penny dreadfuls, and penny novelettes.

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  • Reading Experience Database (RED), 1450–1945. Milton Keynes, UK: Open University.

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    The “relevant publications” page of the Reading Experience Database (RED) website contains a list, regularly updated, of all the books, articles, and chapters published on the history and practice of reading. A significant number focus on the acquisition and use of the skill of reading in Victorian Britain and Ireland.

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Primary Texts

The “digital turn” in the humanities has led to an increasing availability of source material for the study of literacy online. With respect to the measurement of literacy and the acquisition of literacy skills, national literacy rates from 1840 together with accounts of popular schooling, inspection reports on schools, and legislation on elementary education can be found in the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers. JSTOR provides access to a large number of 19th-century pamphlets and periodicals, including the journals of the statistical societies in England. The latter in particular include articles that highlight the attempts of contemporaries to wrestle with data on literacy and its meaning and that provide examples of early surveys of reading habits. A growing interest among academics and the general public in street literature has led to the digitization of collections of ephemera and newspapers (John Johnson Collection, the Word on the Street, British Library Nineteenth-Century Newspapers). Since the 1990s two ambitious academic projects have emerged that seek to chart the use of reading skill (the UK Reading Experience Database (RED), 1450–1945) and the use of writing skill (Writing Lives), largely among the newly literate who lived during the 19th century. The majority of print and manuscript sources for the study of literacy are scattered in local archives. However, one enduring printed source used often and to great effect, and widely available, is Mayhew 1968.

Introductory Works

To understand literacy in the 19th century it is fundamental to acquire, first, an awareness of how the subject has been approached by different generations of scholars (Trends in the Study of Literacy) and, second, a knowledge of the key differences in the experience of the four nations that comprised the United Kingdom (National Trajectories).

Trends in the Study of Literacy

Despite the multidisciplinary interest in the theme of literacy, a number trends in the literature are discernible. The first generation of scholars to approach the subject hailed largely from education and literature. A substantial rise in literacy from the late 18th century to the early 20th century was inferred from the increasing provision of elementary schooling and the proliferation of print. These early scholars could be described as “optimistic”; even if the quality of the literature produced for the masses was questionable, the provision of universal elementary schooling was regarded as progressive and increased access to reading and writing was considered beneficial to the individual. At the same time, economists began to make connections between literate societies and economic growth, using evidence from Britain, the first industrial state, to argue that at least 40 percent of the population needed to be literate before an economy could successfully modernize. The influence of these early studies is evident in the approach of Stone 1969, arguably the first historian to seriously address the subject of literacy. As social historians grew increasingly interested in literacy, a new focus on the measurement of literacy together with acquisition of the skills ushered in a phase of revisionism. Pessimism pervaded many of these studies, as historians disputed the motives of educational reformers and the impact of their schemes, problematized the relationship between literacy and economic growth, and questioned the benefits of literacy to the newly literate individual, who was neither empowered nor materially better off. Hugely influential in the cultivation of this pessimism was Canadian scholar Harvey Graff, who articulated the “literacy myth” (Graff 1991). At the same time, the revisionists demonstrated how much could be achieved at the grassroots level outside the control of the establishment, highlighting the vitality of popular demand for literate skills. Houston 1983 and Stephens 1990 take stock of the achievements of the revisionists while proposing a new agenda for future scholars, namely more research on the use of the skills and the meaning of literacy in everyday life. The challenge was accepted by the third generation of scholars, or “post revisionists.” Yet these scholars were also heavily influenced by the linguistic and cultural turn in the humanities, which diverted attention away from quantitative studies toward an examination of the cultural impact of literacy. The history of literacy was largely morphed into the history of reading. The focus on reading communities and individuals imposed limits on what could be concluded about the use of literate skills—for example, patterns and trends in society as a whole. Vincent 2003 sees in this the “wholesale destruction of the founding concepts and assumptions” (p. 418), and the author calls for a return to the study of literacy, in which practices of reading and writing are situated within their material and institutional contexts.

  • Graff, Harvey J. The Literacy Myth: Cultural Integration and Social Structure in the Nineteenth Century. 2d ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1991.

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    Using 19th-century census data from three Canadian towns, Graff argues that far from being an agent of social mobility or economic development, the attainment of literacy served to reinforce rather than challenge the social hierarchy and structures of inequality in society. Originally published in 1979.

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  • Houston, R. A. “Literacy and Society in the West, 1500–1850.” Social History 8.3 (1983): 269–293.

    DOI: 10.1080/03071028308567568Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A review article on studies of literacy in the West, especially Europe. Houston breaks down the study of literacy into three categories: the characteristics of literacy, the drivers behind the push toward mass literacy, and the meaning of literacy in stressing the role played by literacy in reinforcing social hierarchies.

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  • Stephens, W. B. “Literacy in England, Scotland and Wales, 1500–1900.” History of Education Quarterly 30.4 (1990): 545–571.

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    Stephens outlines two quantitative approaches to the study of literacy—counting publications and counting signatures—and suggests new research is needed on the gradations of literacy, numeracy, and the significance of literate skills in everyday life.

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  • Stone, Lawrence. “Literacy and Education in England, 1640–1900.” Past & Present 42.1 (1969): 69–139.

    DOI: 10.1093/past/42.1.69Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Highlights the concerns of social historians as they first tackled the subject of literacy in the late 1960s. Using existing research and his own data on literacy rates at the turn of the 19th century, Stone suggests some reasons for the popular acquisition of literacy, focusing on the role played by church and state.

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  • Vincent, David. “The Progress of Literacy.” Victorian Studies 45.3 (2003): 405–431.

    DOI: 10.2979/VIC.2003.45.3.405Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This is a paper of two (related) parts. Part 2 looks at the way in which successive generations of scholars have broken down the study of literacy into discrete investigations. The author calls for a return to the study of the wider context in which skills were acquired and used. Part 1 is an example of the kind of research Vincent believes would reinvigorate the subject: a study of the Universal Postal Union between 1874 and 1914.

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National Trajectories

Although all four nations in the British Isles had achieved near universal literacy on the eve of World War I, the paths each took were far from homogeneous. Moreover, crucial cultural differences must be acknowledged, not to mention competing nationalisms in many accounts of change, both contemporary and historical. For example, mid-19th-century Scottish officials regularly emphasized the superiority of educational provision in Scotland over that of neighboring England, which they believed had resulted in notably higher literacy rates. While it is true that a parish system of education had been established in Scotland as early as 1696, it was neither compulsory nor free, and Houston 1985 calls into question the efficacy of such a system, the extent of disparity between literacy rates in Scotland and England, and the uniqueness of the Scottish experience as a whole. Furthermore, the existence of “nonofficial” languages in the Celtic nations further complicated the assessment and meaning of literacy for contemporaries, as well as scholars today. The texts cited in this section provide an examination of the measurement, acquisition, and use of literacy in England (Vincent 1989), Scotland (Houston 1985), and Ireland (Daly and Dickson 1990). Wales is noticeably and regrettably absent. It is often subsumed in studies of literacy in England because of the nature of its union with England. Moreover, as the authors of these texts point out, it is important to remember that the rise of mass literacy within each of the four nations was similarly a heterogeneous experience, with stark differences between regions, urban and rural environments, and men and women.

  • Daly, Mary, and David Dickson, eds. The Origins of Popular Literacy in Ireland: Language, Change and Educational Development. Dublin: Trinity College Dublin, 1990.

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    One of the only studies of literacy in Ireland during the 19th century. Together, the authors of the chapters in this edited collection provide a useful overview of the acquisition and use of literacy, including, importantly, literacy in the Irish language.

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  • Houston, R. A. Scottish Literacy and Scottish Identity: Illiteracy and Society in Scotland and Northern England, 1600–1800. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511522598Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Even though Houston’s research is largely concentrated in the period before Victoria’s reign, his study attempts to understand the extent of the uniqueness of the Scottish experience of literacy and especially the perceived superiority of the Scots in terms of their literacy rates in the mid-19th century. As such, it constitutes a valuable introduction to the history of literacy in Scotland.

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  • Vincent, David. Literacy and Popular Culture: England, 1750–1914. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511560880Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    One of the most influential studies of literacy in the British Isles. It has relevance to every section in this article. Vincent’s study of how and why literacy spread during the period 1750–1914 addresses the importance of the family as a driving force, the relationship of literacy to occupation, and the functions of literacy, highlighting the primacy of recreation, the impact of literacy on oral culture, and the use of literacy in politics.

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The Measurement of Literacy

Who could read and write? As David Vincent writes, “the act of counting constitutes a necessary point of entry” (Vincent 2000, p. 8, cited under General Overviews), both for the study of literacy and for the study of literate culture in the 19th century. The seeming obsession of social historians with the measurement of literacy when they first turned their attention to the subject in the late 1960s and 1970s was, in large part, a response to the inferences made by educational and book historians about the spread of literacy and the claims made by economists about the relationship between literacy and economic growth.

Counting Signatures

The problem of how to measure literacy was solved through the application of the signature test. Given the sequential instruction in literate skills (reading before writing) until at least the mid-19th century, the ability to sign, as demonstrating some experience in penmanship, likely signaled the achievement of literacy. There are pitfalls with this measure: it overestimates the number able to use writing to communicate and underestimates the number able to read, imposing a strict definition of literacy that ignores the importance of “partial,” or “reading” literacy in the past. However, Schofield 1968 emphasizes the overriding benefits of its use, as a measure that is universal, standard, and direct, and social historians were encouraged to seek occasions in history at which large numbers of men and women were required to officiate a document through signatures and marks. In Britain, the requirement from 1754 for brides, grooms, and witnesses to sign the marriage register provided historians with a long series of data to interrogate prevailing assumptions about the spread of literacy. Attention first focused on the period of industrialization (c. 1750–c. 1850, and fierce debate erupted between scholars in works such as, on the one hand, Schofield 1973 and Sanderson 1972, who argue that few industrial occupations required a literate workforce and that industrialization had a negative impact on literacy rates, and, on the other, Laqueur 1974 and West 1978, who cast doubt on the depressing impact of industrialization on the education of the masses. As that debate reached a stalemate, social historians uncovered further complications in the spread of literacy, not only during the period of industrialization, but also, and perhaps more importantly, during the reign of Queen Victoria, when national literacy rates compiled by the Registrar General from the marriage registers began to show a consistent year-on-year decline in illiteracy. Local studies of signature evidence emphasized the randomness with which literate skills were passed from one generation to the next (Levine 1979); the impact of geography, including the differences between town and country and the differences between towns (Stephens 1987); and the inconsistency of gender, as in some communities women were more literate than men (Vincent 1989). Through their labors with the data, historians have found that the only consistent feature of literacy was occupation (Schofield 1973, Vincent 1989), a conclusion that helped to usher in a sense of pessimism about the drive to mass literacy.

  • Laqueur, Thomas W. “Debate. Literacy and Social Mobility in the Industrial Revolution in England.” Past & Present 64.1 (1974): 96–107.

    DOI: 10.1093/past/64.1.96Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A direct response to Sanderson 1972. Through a reexamination of the signature data from the marriage registers, Laqueur argues that industrialization halted a preexisting decline in literacy among the laboring classes. He also presents evidence that suggests that the acquisition of literacy could have widened career opportunities for a portion of the working class.

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  • Levine, David. “Education and Family Life in Early Industrial England.” Journal of Family History 4.4 (1979): 368–380.

    DOI: 10.1177/036319907900400404Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Levine uses parish registers of baptisms, marriages, and burials to reconstitute family units in Shepshed, Leicestershire, and thus examine literacy within family units. The author found that literacy was a randomly distributed characteristic, only partially influenced by parental achievement, thereby challenging the educative role played by the family in the process of socialization.

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  • Sanderson, Michael. “Literacy and Social Mobility in the Industrial Revolution in England.” Past & Present 56.1 (1972): 75–104.

    DOI: 10.1093/past/56.1.75Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Sanderson examines the signature data for Lancashire to show that in the period of the Industrial Revolution, rates of literacy fell into decline (i.e., between 1780 and 1820). Sanderson uses this evidence to challenge the notion that industrialization needed a literate workforce.

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  • Schofield, Roger S. “The Measurement of Literacy in Pre-industrial England.” In Literacy in Traditional Societies. Edited by Jack Goody, 310–325. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1968.

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    In this very readable essay, Schofield balances the benefits and drawbacks of using signatures, concluding that the signature test offers historians the best chance of understanding the spread of literacy over long periods of time as well as the ability to compare the experience of different states.

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  • Schofield, Roger S. “Dimensions of Illiteracy, 1750–1850.” Explorations in Economic History 10.4 (1973): 437–454.

    DOI: 10.1016/0014-4983(73)90026-0Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Schofield’s attempt to extend the Registrar General’s series of data back in time to the period of the Industrial Revolution (i.e., 1750–1840) using surviving parish marriage registers. He finds that occupation is the most consistent feature of literacy, and that fluctuations in literacy rates for men suggest that literacy was more likely to be a product rather than a cause of economic growth.

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  • Stephens, W. B. Education, Literacy and Society, 1830–1870: The Geography of Diversity in Provincial England. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1987.

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    A survey of regional and local variations in literacy across England using marriage register data. Stephens discusses at length the factors that generated such diversity, including local occupational structures, attitudes to education, and religious conditions.

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  • Vincent, David. Literacy and Popular Culture: England, 1750–1914. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511560880Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An alternative view of the marriage register data, showing that the dividing line between the literate and the illiterate was false; more important than individual literacy was the presence of literacy within families; and much could be achieved without the involvement of the state in the provision of education.

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  • West, Edwin G. “Literacy and the Industrial Revolution.” Economic History Review 31.3 (1978): 369–383.

    DOI: 10.2307/2598759Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    West links signature data from the marriage registers with evidence of the changing provision of education to show that education did not decline in the period of the Industrial Revolution; instead, he argues that the Industrial Revolution created conditions favorable to the growth of education.

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Alternative Perspectives on Counting

Detailed examination undertaken during the 1970s and 1980s of evidence from marriage registers largely gave way to more qualitative studies of literacy in the following decades. However, a handful of scholars have continued to present new perspectives on the measurement of literacy. Historians have long been aware of alternative sets of data on literate skills though often they have been hesitant to make use of them. Yet when used cautiously and creatively these statistics can offer fresh insights into not only the spread of the skills, but also their use. For example, Vincent has mobilized statistics on the mail in Great Britain (Vincent 1989, cited under National Trajectories) and the wider world (Vincent 2000) to measure the application of literate skills, especially writing, between c. 1850 and the advent of World War II. Mitch 2005 links evidence from marriage registers and the census to chart the long-term impact of literacy on social mobility. Nicholas 1990 and Crone 2010 show that data on the literacy of convicted criminals can be used to expose further trends in patterns of literacy. In particular, Crone 2010 makes use of the separate testing of literate skills at prisons to explore the dimensions of the reading public in the Victorian period. Finally, David Vincent returns to marriage registers to study their use by contemporaries to better understand the practice of counting as invented by the Victorians and inherited by today’s public policymakers (Vincent 2014).

  • Crone, Rosalind. “Reappraising Victorian Literacy through Prison Records.” Journal of Victorian Culture 15.1 (2010): 3–37.

    DOI: 10.1080/13555501003607644Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Crone shows how separate testing of skills in prisons as well as collection of other data, such as age, occupation, and schooling, can be used to shed new light on the diffusion of skills throughout the working classes.

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  • Mitch, David F. “Literacy and Occupational Mobility in Rural versus Urban Victorian England: Evidence from the Linked Marriage Register and Census Records for Birmingham and Norfolk, 1851 and 1881.” Historical Methods: A Journal of Quantitative and Interdisciplinary History 38.1 (2005): 26–38.

    DOI: 10.3200/HMTS.38.1.26-38Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Mitch shows how signatures on marriage registers combined with census data can be used to measure the impact of literacy on social mobility, and he finds that literacy was at least as important, if not more so, in facilitating social mobility in rural Norfolk compared with urban Birmingham.

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  • Nicholas, Stephen. “Literacy and the Industrial Revolution.” In Education and Economic Development since the Industrial Revolution. Edited by Gabriel Tortella, 47–66. Valencia, Spain: Generalitat Valenciana, 1990.

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    Nicholas uses a sample of more than 10,000 men and women transported to New South Wales between 1817 and 1840 to expose trends in rates of literacy during the Industrial Revolution, which, at first, improved but then worsened during the 1820s.

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  • Vincent, David. The Rise of Mass Literacy: Reading and Writing in Modern Europe. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2000.

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    From its establishment in 1874 the Universal Postal Union (UPU) began collecting statistics on the flow of mail in different countries. These statistics offer a different perspective on the spread of literacy. For example, at the turn of the 20th century, Sweden had a substantially higher literacy rate than Italy, but the Italians wrote more letters.

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  • Vincent, David. “The Invention of Counting: The Statistical Measurement of Literacy in Nineteenth-Century England.” Comparative Education 50.3 (2014): 266–281.

    DOI: 10.1080/03050068.2014.921372Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A useful examination of the way in which the Registrar General in England stumbled upon the potential of signatures and marks in marriage registers to present a summary of the spread of literacy across the country, as well as the criticisms to which the Registrar General subjected his data.

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The Acquisition of Literacy

How were literate skills acquired and why? These two questions are inseparable because to understand the acquisition of literacy, it is necessary to understand the relationship between supply and demand. The 19th century witnessed a major proliferation in educational institutions, and early scholars inferred from this an expansion in the literate population. Also intriguing is the way in which the downward curve of illiteracy in the Victorian period matches increasing government expenditure on elementary education. But the relationship between literacy and schooling was far more complicated. Historians have challenged the motives behind church- and state-driven literacy campaigns and highlighted the range of opportunities, formal and informal, for instruction in reading and writing. They have questioned the quality or level of education received at the schools available to the masses, and they have drawn attention to the crucial element of popular (or working class) demand for literate skills, which essentially made possible the achievement of mass literacy. Useful overviews of the process of acquisition are provided in Sutherland 1990 and Stephens 1998. Again, important differences in the provision of educational institutions within the four nations can be identified. For example, although a national system of education had been established in each nation by the end of the 19th century, the paths that led to this point often diverged. Yet, at the same time, educational reformers used examples of education in other nations in the United Kingdom to argue for increased government intervention. Sutherland 1990 and Stephens 1998 cover England, Wales, and Scotland. For an overview of the literature on schools in the Celtic nations during the 19th century (Scotland, Wales, and Ireland) see Raftery, et al. 2007.

  • Raftery, Deirdre, Jane McDermid, and Gareth Elwyn Jones. “Social Change and Education in Ireland, Scotland and Wales: Historiography on Nineteenth-Century Schooling.” History of Education 36.4–5 (2007): 447–463.

    DOI: 10.1080/00467600701496690Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A review of the state of the existing literature on schooling in the Celtic nations. The authors set out social and economic conditions, unique to particular nations, that had an impact on educational change.

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  • Stephens, W. B. Education in Britain, 1750–1914. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998.

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    Much more than just an introduction to the history of education in Britain, the volume focuses on the relationship between education, society, and the economy. Particularly useful is the author’s description of the different types of schools that emerged throughout the period and his discussion of the relationship between school attendance and literacy.

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  • Sutherland, Gillian. “Education.” In The Cambridge Social History of Britain. Vol. 3. Edited by F. M. L. Thompson, 119–169. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

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    A useful survey of the educational opportunities available to all levels of society in England, Wales, and Scotland during the period 1750–1850. Sutherland provides a valuable chronological overview and summaries of the main themes, including the intentions of educators, the impact of religion, and the increasing involvement of the state.

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Popular Demand

From a relatively early stage in the study of literacy, scholars voiced their awareness of the importance of popular demand in driving literacy rates—for example, see Laqueur 1976—how else could the achievement of substantial literacy rates across the British Isles by the early decades of the 19th century be explained? However, more recent critiques of the benefits and potential uses of reading and writing for the newly literate working classes, as well as an analysis of the roles played by different agents in the drive toward mass literacy, have deepened our understanding of the nature of popular demand. Mitch’s cost-benefit model of analysis shows that popular demand for literacy largely stemmed from a desire to read entertaining fiction; however, popular demand also ensured the success of a national and compulsory elementary education system in England after 1870 (Mitch 1992). Vincent 2000 (cited under General Overviews) similarly stresses the primacy of parental demand in the rise of mass literacy, a factor that was not limited to the English experience.

  • Laqueur, Thomas W. “The Cultural Origins of Popular Literacy in England, 1500–1850.” Oxford Review of Education 2.3 (1976): 255–275.

    DOI: 10.1080/0305498760020304Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Laqueur shows how the motivations for becoming literate cannot be considered apart from their socioeconomic context, nor can specific motivations be analyzed in isolation from others. Men and women learned to read and write because they became submerged in an increasingly literate culture.

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  • Mitch, David F. The Rise of Popular Literacy in Victorian England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.

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    Mitch uses evidence from government reports, statistical society publications, print culture, and marriage certificates to weigh the benefits of attaining literacy against the costs. Particularly useful are comments on the extent to which literacy improved prospects in the labor market, the influence of the family, and the impact of increased access to public schools as well as compulsion on school enrollments.

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Church, State, and “the Establishment”

The roles of church and state in the drive to mass literacy have long been debated by historians. The church was a campaigner for and supplier of education before the 19th century. The Reformation gave the skill of reading new prominence as reformed churches stressed the importance of Bible reading at the level of the individual. By the 19th century, churches hoped to combat the perceived rise of secularism and disorderly behavior among the lower orders through religious education, for example, through Sunday schools in all nations, through public day schools run by the National Society and the British and Foreign Society in England and Wales, and through the assembly schools in Scotland. The state lent support to their efforts, as early as 1696 in Scotland with the establishment of the parish school system under the influence of the Presbyterians (though the state refused further support for the assembly schools in the 1820s—see Anderson 1995) and in England and Wales from 1833 with the provision of government grants to the public day schools as well as support for workhouse schools. In Ireland the state arguably demonstrated more commitment and earlier, with the establishment of a national system of education in 1831 (Akenson 1970). To these efforts must be added those of philanthropic individuals and societies, often religiously motivated but most of all concerned about social discipline, that supported various infant schools, ragged schools (which were later transformed into industrial schools), and factory schools. These cumulative efforts led one prominent group of historians to conclude that education in the Victorian period was a form of social control, used by the state, churches, and elites to secure the social hierarchy (Johnson 1970, Colls 1976, McCann 1977). Subsequent scholars have argued that an exclusive social control thesis is too simplistic, as it overlooks the complex motives of the educational reformers and denies the agency of the students. Although church and state hoped to direct popular demand for literacy, the power of that demand came to shape the instruction that was provided. Moreover, for much of the 19th century attendance at these schools was neither compulsory nor free; nevertheless, many working-class parents chose to make use of them (Vincent 1989, cited under Counting Signatures; Laqueur 1976, cited under Popular Demand; Hurt 1979; Anderson 1995). Yet popular demand can also be overemphasized. Several historians have highlighted the importance of the establishment of national systems of education in England, Wales, and Scotland, as well as compulsory education across the British Isles, in the eradication of remaining pockets of illiteracy in the closing decades of the 19th century (Stephens 1987 and Vincent 1989, both cited under Counting Signatures; Mitch 1992, cited under Popular Demand).

  • Akenson, Donald H. The Irish Education Experiment: The National System of Education in the Nineteenth Century. London: Routledge, 1970.

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    The most comprehensive account of the establishment of a national system of education in Ireland in 1831, and its development over the course of the 19th century. The role of these schools in tackling the “problem” of illiteracy in Irish society is directly addressed in the concluding chapter.

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  • Anderson, R. D. Education and the Scottish People, 1750–1918. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198205159.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Anderson explains in detail the extent of the parish school system in Scotland and the reasons for Scotland’s adoption of a national system of schooling in 1872 following the example set by England and Wales. The author demonstrates the limits of a social control thesis, and, like other scholars on England (e.g., Stephens 1987, cited under Counting Signatures), attempts to link literacy rates with school attendance figures.

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  • Colls, Robert. “‘Oh Happy English Children!’ Coal, Class and Education in the North-East.” Past & Present 73.1 (1976): 75–99.

    DOI: 10.1093/past/73.1.75Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A discussion of the establishment of colliery schools in Northumberland and Durham during the 1850s. An expression of the social control thesis but also useful in charting the rise of a specific type of formal school that emerged in the early Victorian period as a result of legislation, namely one established by owners of industrial businesses for the children they employed.

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  • Hurt, J. S. Elementary Schooling and the Working Classes, 1860–1914. London: Routledge, 1979.

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    An attempt to study the growing government intervention in elementary schooling from the point of view of the working classes, focusing on such issues as the establishment of school boards, school meals, and the impact of compulsion on attendance and attitudes.

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  • Johnson, Richard. “Educational Policy and Social Control in Early Victorian England.” Past & Present 49.1 (1970): 96–119.

    DOI: 10.1093/past/49.1.96Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The first expression of the “social control” thesis with respect to education for the poor in England. Johnson looks in detail at the intentions of elite educational reformers, in particular those expressed in the Minutes of the Committee Council on Education in 1846.

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  • Laqueur, Thomas W. Religion and Respectability: Sunday Schools and Working-Class culture, 1780–1850. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1976.

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    The author charts the rise of Sunday Schools from the evangelical movement of the late 18th century through the first half of the 19th century and challenges the extent to which Sunday schools were used by elites to reassert cultural hegemony over the poor. Laqueur argues that Sunday schools were largely indigenous working-class institutions.

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  • McCann, Phillip, ed. Popular Education and Socialisation in the Nineteenth Century. London: Methuen, 1977.

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    A collection of essays on various aspects and types of formal schooling in the 19th century, all of which examine the extent to which popular schooling could be regarded as an agent of political socialization.

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“Modes of Learning”

“Modes of learning” is a useful phrase coined by R. A. Houston (Houston 1985, cited under National Trajectories) to describe the range of avenues by which working-class men and women could acquire literate skills. Formal schools—or church-sponsored and state-supported day schools—were just one option, and where there was a choice they were not always the most popular, not least because their demand for regular attendance could weigh heavily on the family purse. This partially explains the success of the Sunday School movement (mentioned in Church, State, and the “Establishment”), as children were able to use their day of rest from work to learn to read and (sometimes) to write (Laqueur 1976), as well private working-class schools, known as “dame schools” in England, Wales, and Scotland and as “hedge schools” in Ireland (Gardner 1984, Hoban 1982, McManus 2002). Historians have regularly voiced awareness of instruction in literate skills at home, by parents, siblings, extended family, and others, as well as the practice of self-teaching, mainly as a result of close studies of the autobiographies of working men and women (see the Autodidact Tradition, Vincent 1989, cited under National Trajectories and Humphries 2010, cited under the Autodidact Tradition). Crone 2015 demonstrates how the data collected on literacy and schooling in prison registers can shed light on the extent of at least exclusive home schooling. Not all literate working people acquired their skills in childhood either. And some who did learn as children lost their skills, only to relearn them as adults. Although Mitch 1992, cited under Popular Demand, using a cost-benefit analysis, casts doubt on the effectiveness of evening schools for adults in the Victorian period, the importance of post-school education is emphasized in Harrop 1984, and the existence of schemes for educating specific groups of illiterate adults is given attention in Crone 2012 (prisoners) and Blanco 1966 (soldiers). In the period before the establishment of compulsory elementary schooling funded by the state, formal schools in concert with private schools and other semi-formal and informal modes of learning made significant headway in the drive to mass literacy. By the time compulsion was introduced (1880), less than 5 percent of the population remained illiterate. This fact has led scholars, in works such as West 1970, to argue that state involvement in the provision of education was unnecessary as the free market was capable of eradicating illiteracy. These contentions generated significant debate at the time (Kiesling 1983), although they were later disproved by historians who investigated the effects of compulsion (Stephens 1987, cited under Counting Signatures and Mitch 1992; see also Popular Demand).

  • Blanco, Richard L. “Education Reforms for the Enlisted Man in the Army of Victorian England.” History of Education Quarterly 6.2 (1966): 61–72.

    DOI: 10.2307/367419Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Blanco charts the slow institutionalization and growth of regimental schools within the British army from the turn of the 19th century until the aftermath of the Crimean War. Particular attention is given to the role of the army schoolmaster and the value placed on literacy within the rank and file.

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  • Crone, Rosalind. “The Great ‘Reading’ Experiment: Debates about the Role of Education in the Nineteenth-Century Gaol.” Crime, Histoire et Sociétés 16 (2012): 47–74.

    DOI: 10.4000/chs.1322Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Prisons were providers of elementary schooling in the 19th century, as demonstrated by Crone in this case study of the compulsory school established at Reading Gaol during the 1840s and 1850s. Although an extreme example, the case study provides an insight into the motivations of reformers and the role of education in the modern penal regime.

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  • Crone, Rosalind. “Education in the Working-Class Home: Modes of Learning as Revealed by Nineteenth-Century Prison Registers.” Oxford Review of Education 41 (2015): 482–500.

    DOI: 10.1080/03054985.2015.1048116Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Crone harnesses data on literacy and schooling from the Suffolk prison registers to explore the incidence of home schooling (broadly interpreted) in 19th century rural England. The data suggests that exclusive home schooling among the poorest in society was relatively rare, and the majority were only taught how to read.

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  • Gardner, Phil. The Lost Elementary Schools of Victorian England. London: Croom Helm, 1984.

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    A seminal text that rescues the private working-class schools (or dame schools) from obscurity while also challenging the dominant view of the poor quality of education received in these establishments.

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  • Gomersall, Meg. “Ideals and Realities: The Education of Working-Class Girls.” History of Education 17 (1988): 37–53.

    DOI: 10.1080/0046760880170103Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Gomersall examines the extent to which education of working-class girls differed from education of working-class boys in the period 1800 to 1870, that is, before the establishment of a national system of state education. Particular attention is paid to contrasting experiences in urban and rural environments and issues such as attendance, as well as differences within the curriculum and levels of achievement.

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  • Harrop, Sylvia A. “Adult Education and Literacy: The Importance of Post-school Education for Literacy Levels in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.” History of Education 13.3 (1984): 191–205.

    DOI: 10.1080/0046760840130302Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Harrop brings together a diverse range of sources to demonstrate the incidence and importance of learning or relearning literate skills in adulthood. The author considers the impact adult education had on literacy rates and concludes that adult education played a vital role in the establishment of a literate society.

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  • Hoban, James. “The Survival of the Hedge Schools: A Local Study.” Irish Educational Studies 3 (1982): 21–36.

    DOI: 10.1080/0332331830030205Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using surviving local records from Roscommon County, Hoban demonstrates the continuing dominance of the Irish private schools (or hedge schools) after the introduction of a national system of schooling in Ireland in 1831 until c. 1870 despite stiff opposition.

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  • Kiesling, H. J. “‘Nineteenth-Century Education according to West: A Comment.” Economic History Review 36 (1983): 416–425.

    DOI: 10.2307/2594973Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    See also E. G. West, “Nineteenth-Century Education History: The Kiesling Critique.” Economic History Review 36.3 (1983): 426–434. An example of the debate about the ability of the free market in education in Britain to eliminate illiteracy in the 19th century. In particular, Kiesling takes issue with West’s methods for counting schools and scholars and emphasizes the poor quality of the statistics in general.

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  • McManus, Antonia. The Irish Hedge School and Its Books, 1695–1831. Dublin: Four Courts, 2002.

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    An account of the hedge school phenomenon in Ireland from the enactment of the first penal laws in 1695, which forbade Catholic education, to the eve of the establishment of a national system of education in 1831. Particularly useful is discussion of the curriculum and the reliance of hedge school masters on the penny chapbook industry for texts to teach, which helped to sustain their role in popular culture.

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  • West, E. G. “Resource Allocation and Growth in Early Nineteenth-Century British Education.” Economic History Review 23.1 (1970): 68–95.

    DOI: 10.2307/2594564Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    West’s article sparked debate about whether mass literacy in Britain could have been achieved without the involvement of the state in the provision of elementary education. The article is also a useful example of efforts by historians to determine the spread of different forms of elementary education by counting schools and scholars.

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Mechanics of Instruction

There are many ways to teach a child or an adult to read and write. Some are more successful than others. Moreover, the study of pedagogy is important because it sheds light on the intentions of educators as well as the potential uses to which literate skills could be put. At the start of the 19th century, in most “schools” literate skills were taught in sequence and in ways that had not changed for centuries (Vincent 1999). Sequential or partial instruction continued in some institutions, for example Sunday schools, for several decades more, the consequence being that a large proportion of semi-literates existed in 19th-century society. An increasing number of providers in the educational market led to a degree of experimentalism in pedagogy, for example, Bell and Lancaster’s monitorial systems adopted by the National schools and the schools of the British and Foreign School Society, Samuel Wilderspin’s infant schools, and David Stow’s “Glasgow System” of teacher training (Steward and McCann 2000). However, the emphasis on morality and the primacy given to Bible reading in the church schools often limited both the quality and the relevance of the education that many children received (Goldstrom 1977, Vincent 1983). When the government began to make financial grants to church schools from the 1830s, a concern with receiving value for money led to ever-increasing influence over the curriculum through the new inspectorate, the Revised Code, and the system of payment by results. The process is described at length in Vincent 1989 (cited under National Trajectories). Yet the subject of the curriculum in the late 19th century remains a topic of debate among historians, between those who highlight its continued irrelevance to pupils, who then failed to realize the potential uses of literacy after leaving school (Humphries 1981), and those who point to particular instances whereby schooling, and the acquirement of literacy, transformed lives (Rose 1993).

  • Ellis, Alec. Educating Our Masters: Influences on the Growth of Literacy in Victorian Working-Class Children. Aldershot, UK: Gower, 1985.

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    Ellis provides a very helpful discussion of teaching methods and curriculum, and it is useful to read this alongside Vincent 1989 (pp. 73–92, cited under National Trajectories). Ellis also provides an overview of the different books used for teaching literate skills.

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  • Goldstrom, J. M. “The Content of Education and the Socialisation of the Working-Class Child.” In Popular Education and Socialisation in the Nineteenth Century. Edited by Phillip McCann, 93–109. London: Methuen, 1977.

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    A detailed examination of the readers used by the schools founded by the National Society for Promoting Religious Education and the schools of the British and Foreign School Society to teach pupils how to read and write, highlighting the reduction in religious content from the 1840s onward as Bible-based education came under attack.

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  • Humphries, Stephen. Hooligans or Rebels? An Oral History of Working-Class Childhood and Youth, 1889–1939. Oxford: Blackwell, 1981.

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    Humphries uses oral testimonies from those who were children between 1889 and 1939 to highlight the resistance of working-class youth to the education enforced on them by the state. Of particular interest are the discussions on responses to the curriculum and on the “school strikes” led by children at various times from 1889 onward.

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  • Rose, Jonathan. “Willingly to School: The Working-Class Response to Elementary Education in Britain, 1875–1918.” Journal of British Studies 32.2 (1993): 114–138.

    DOI: 10.1086/386025Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Rose uses evidence from British working-class autobiographies and interviews conducted as part of a University of Essex oral history project (the same source material used in Humphries 1981) to argue that the majority of working people subjected to the new board schools after 1870 found their elementary schooling to be a positive experience and learned not only the basics (3 Rs) but often substantially more.

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  • Stewart, W. A. C., and W. P. McCann. The Educational Innovators, 1750–1967. 2 vols. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000.

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    The authors provide a detailed account of the theories and contributions of educational reformers and practitioners, both British and those who had an impact on British pedagogy, between 1750 and 1967. Perhaps more relevant for studies on the instruction in the elements of reading and writing is the first volume covering the years 1750 to 1880. Originally published in 1967.

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  • Vincent, David. “Reading in the Working-Class Home.” In Leisure in Britain, 1780–1939. Edited by John K. Walton and James Walvin, 208–226. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1983.

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    Vincent uses the report of Frederick Liardet for the Central Society for Education in 1838, written in the wake of the popular uprising in rural Kent, to show how the predominance of religious texts in the homes of laborers combined with a narrow Bible-based education in the elementary schools had made the people vulnerable to the claims of the demagogue “Sir William Courtney.”

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  • Vincent, David. “Reading Made Strange: Context and Method in Becoming Literate in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century England.” In Silences & Images: The Social History of the Classroom. Edited by Ian Grosvenor, Martin Lawn, and Kate Rousmaniere, 180–197. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.

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    Vincent draws attention to the processes of change and continuity in the methods of instruction in reading during the 19th century. He shows how the focus on systems within the inspected classroom stigmatized more informal practices of the private schools and home instruction, which ultimately served to “make reading strange” to the working-class child, potentially limiting its future application.

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The Use and Meaning of Literate Skills

It is through the study of the use of the skills of reading and writing that we can understand the meaning of literacy to the individual and the impact of the expansion of literacy on society. Scholarly attention to the use and meaning of literacy can be found as early as the 1950s when two foundational texts were published—Hoggart 1968 and Altick 1998. Richard Altick is often regarded as one of the “founding fathers” of modern “book history” and especially the “history of reading,” his influence at least equal to that of the emerging Annales school of history and French scholars such as Lucien Febvre, Henri-Jean Martin, and Robert Darnton. In contrast, Richard Hoggart had a profound influence on the evolution of studies of working-class life and culture, cultural studies, and the study of literacy. Admittedly it took some years before the impact of either Altick or Hoggart was felt. Disenchantment with the measurement of literacy also contributed to the rise of interest in the use and meaning of literacy as well as a sense of pessimism with the benefits of literacy that came to color many accounts of the acquisition of literacy during the 19th century. If the prospects of material improvement through the achievement of the literate skills were so limited, then why was popular demand for the skills so strong?

  • Altick, Richard D. The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800–1900. 2d ed. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1998.

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    The inaugural study of the spread of skill in reading in 19th-century Britain. Altick charts the proliferation of education and the growth of working-class literary institutions, but the book is most significant for its attempt to grapple with evidence of reading and the use of publishing statistics. Originally published in 1957.

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  • Hoggart, Richard. The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working-Class Life with Special Reference to Publications and Entertainments. London: Penguin, 1968.

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    Hoggart draws upon his own experiences as well as other evidence to chart the consequences of mass literacy on working-class culture from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. While the growth of print culture gave ordinary people new opportunities to practice skills and made available to them a wide variety of reading material, Hoggart argues that commercial imperatives could dramatically limit the freedom of men and women in their use of the skill of reading. Originally published in 1957.

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Cultural Impact of Popular Literacy

What impact did the spread of literacy have on traditional popular culture? How were new readers and writers integrated into existing literate culture? Historians have stressed the adaptability of popular culture. Just as the dividing line drawn by the signature data in society was false (literates and illiterates were neighbors, spouses, and siblings see Vincent 1989, cited under National Trajectories), so too was the division between oral and literate culture. Print was used to give new life to narratives that had circulated through oral storytelling, while oral culture appropriated new material from print. New publications were read aloud and publishers included features, such as illustrations and rhymes, that made their wares accessible to the illiterate (Vincent 1982, Fox and Woolf 2002). Anderson 1991 shows that the proliferation of print expanded rather than diminished the presence of the visual in popular culture. A study of the rural community in the three parishes of Boughton, Herne Hill, and Dunkirk in Kent in the late 1830s, Raey 1991 demonstrates just how little separation existed between those who could sign their names and those who could not. Moreover, the acquisition of literacy had done little to protect the laboring poor from the charisma of the demagogue “Sir William Courtney” and the bloody insurrection Courtney invoked. Brantlinger 1998 captures the fears of the guardians of “high culture” of the potential damage mass literacy could inflict on literate culture, evident, they argued, in the emergence of low-brow cheap fiction. From an entirely different angle, Dobraszczyk 2009 shows how new forms of information collection necessary for the operation of the state following the passage of the Reform Act of 1832 was made possible through the expansion of literacy.

  • Anderson, Patricia. The Printed Image and the Transformation of Popular Culture, 1790–1860. Oxford: Clarendon, 1991.

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    Anderson charts the emergence and success of cheap illustrated publications for the lower-middle and working classes from the 1830s onward, comparing these with the crude images of the existing broadside and chapbook trade to show how increasing literacy and expanding print culture breathed new life into the role of the visual in popular culture.

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  • Brantlinger, Patrick. The Reading Lesson: The Threat of Mass Literacy in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

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    Brantlinger draws attention to the many discourses about novels and novel reading between 1790 and 1900 that expressed fear about the potential damage to society inflicted by the growth of cheap print and the spread of literacy, including debates about the relationship between popular education and crime as well as anxiety about the representation of the working classes in the “industrial” novels of the mid-19th century.

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  • Dobraszczyk, Paul. “‘Give in Your Account’: Using and Abusing Victorian Census Forms.” Journal of Victorian Culture 14.1 (2009): 1–25.

    DOI: 10.3366/E1355550209000575Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Dobraszczyk charts the development of the census form over the course of the 19th century and uses forms completed by householders together with accounts in newspapers and periodicals to examine the response of the public and especially the ways in which people used their reading and writing skill to complete the forms.

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  • Fox, Adam, and Daniel Woolf, eds. The Spoken Word: Oral Culture in Britain, 1500–1850. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2002.

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    A collection of essays charting the coexistence of, and the relationship between, oral and literate culture. Most of the essays focus on the Early Modern period, but these are useful for understanding the role of oral culture in the 19th century. Several chapters examine the impact of bilingual cultures in Wales and Scotland. The essay by Bushaway charts the adaptability of oral culture over an extended period.

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  • Raey, Barry. “The Context and Meaning of Popular Literacy: Some Evidence from Nineteenth-Century Rural England.” Past & Present 131.1 (1991): 89–129.

    DOI: 10.1093/past/131.1.89Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using local sources together with the report of Frederick Liardet to the Central Society for Education in 1838, Raey puts literacy rates determined by signature evidence back into their cultural context in three parishes in rural Kent. The result is to highlight the complexities of popular literacy and especially the way in which literacy was used (or not) by those who had acquired it.

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  • Vincent, David. “The Decline of the Oral Tradition in Popular Culture.” In Popular Culture and Custom in Nineteenth-Century England. Edited by Robert D. Storch, 20–47. London: Croom Helm, 1982.

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    Vincent uses the efforts of 19th-century antiquarians, both of the working class and of polite society, to collect and transform into print as much of the folk culture of the ordinary people as possible before its inevitable decline to expose the overlap that existed between oral and literate cultures well before the rise of mass literacy.

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Using the Reading Skill

The use of the skill of reading in 19th-century Britain has attracted a great deal of interest. The first wave of historians drew attention to the proliferation of print intended for new readers from the 1780s onward. Some material was produced by social elites concerned to provide appropriate reading material for the newly literate and, by so doing, to secure the social hierarchy, but the majority of such material was produced by profit-hungry publishers, many of whom came from the class which they sought to entertain (Pederson 1986, James 1974, Neuberg 1973). The English experience has received significant attention, but for different national perspectives, see Donaldson 1986 and Ó Ciosàin 1997. The next generation of historians of readership sought forms of evidence that demonstrated a reader’s engagement with texts. David Vincent uses surveys of books present in people’s homes to shed light on what was read by the working classes (Vincent 1983). Jonathan Rose suggests a new approach to reception history in seeking evidence of the responses of common readers to the texts they read (Rose 1992), drawing largely upon valuable work already completed in Vincent 1982 (cited under the Autodidact Tradition) and suggesting his own book, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (Rose 2001, cited under the Autodidact Tradition), as an example. The emergence of a third generation of studies of working-class readers is evident in the recent contributions of Esbester 2009, with its attempt to recover evidence of reading of ephemera, and Hilliard 2014, which, in a similar manner to Vincent 2014 (cited under Alternative Perspectives on Counting), returns to the surveys of popular reading habits relied upon in earlier studies of working-class readers to better understand the act of recovering and analyzing evidence of reader response.

  • Donaldson, William. Popular Literature in Victorian Scotland: Language, Fiction and the Press. Aberdeen, Scotland: Aberdeen University Press, 1986.

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    Donaldson focuses on the role played by the popular press in Scotland from the 1840s onward in the dissemination of popular culture. He examines those newspapers published primarily for the working classes, as evident by their price (cheap) and distribution (weekly), and that included a judicious mix of serious news content and entertaining fiction.

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  • Esbester, Mike. “Nineteenth-Century Timetables and the History of Reading.” Book History 12 (2009): 156–185.

    DOI: 10.1353/bh.0.0018Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The author draws attention to the importance of ephemera in the everyday reading experiences of 19th-century British subjects. Esbester uses 19th-century timetables alongside surviving evidence of how these were used (anecdotal, marginalia) to demonstrate, on the one hand, how readers adapted to this new form of information presentation, and, on the other, how timetables were developed to improve the reading experience.

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  • Hilliard, Christopher. “Popular Reading and Social Investigation in Britain, 1850s–1940s.” The Historical Journal 57 (2014): 247–271.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0018246X13000332Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The rise of popular literacy combined with the proliferation of publications was followed by attempts by literary critics and social scientists to investigate the reading habits of the masses. Hilliard draws attention to the context in which these studies were produced, the larger problems of class and culture they addressed, and their legacy for studies of working-class reading.

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  • James, Louis. Fiction for the Working Man, 1830–1850: A Study of the Literature Produced for the Working Classes in Early Victorian Urban England. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1974.

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    James charts the rise of popular fiction, that is, cheap fiction written by literary hacks and published in penny numbers by a new generation of printers for the newly and barely literate working classes who were hungry for entertaining texts. Originally published in 1963.

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  • Neuberg, Victor E. “The Literature of the Streets.” In The Victorian City: Images and Realities. Vol. 1. Edited by Harols J. Dyos and Michael Wolff, 191–209. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.

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    An account of the conditions in which street literature (defined narrowly as broadsides and ballads) were created and sold in the Victorian city (primarily London). Neuberg shows how these publications bore a close resemblance to the popular literature of the preindustrial period while, at the same time, they were unique to the 19th century.

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  • Ó Ciosàin, Niall. Print and Popular Culture in Ireland, 1750–1850. London: Macmillan, 1997.

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    A detailed study of the various forms of popular print that existed in 19th-century Ireland, within the context of the growth of literacy rates, the survival of oral culture, and the existence of two languages, Irish and English.

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  • Pederson, Susan. “Hannah More Meets Simple Simon: Tracts, Chapbooks and Popular Culture in Late Eighteenth-Century Britain.” Journal of British Studies 25.1 (1986): 84–113.

    DOI: 10.1086/385855Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Pederson examines the motivations behind the establishment of the Cheap Repository of Moral and Religious Tracts in 1795, showing that concern about political radicalism was just one part of a broader campaign for the moral reform of popular culture, as well as the techniques used, namely the adoption of the forms, writing styles, and distribution channels of popular literature.

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  • Rose, Jonathan. “Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.” Journal of the History of Ideas 53.1 (1992): 47–50.

    DOI: 10.2307/2709910Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that previous studies on what the working classes read, whether they could read, and how they read committed a series of fallacies that need correction through an examination of evidence of actual reader response. Rose suggests where this evidence might be found and why we should regard it as representative and useful.

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  • Vincent, David. “Reading in the Working-Class Home.” In Leisure in Britain, 1780–1939. Edited by J. K. Walton and J. Walvin, 208–226. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1983.

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    Vincent brings together evidence from surveys of books within working-class households (predominantly Frederick Liardet’s report for the Central Society for Education in 1838) with evidence of reading found in working-class autobiographies to shed light on the domestic reading of the laboring poor in the 19th century.

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Using the Writing Skill

Less attention has been paid to the use of the skill of writing by the newly literate in the 19th century. Scholars have tended to focus on the use of reading, in part because of the nature of the surviving evidence, but also because, arguably, greater opportunities existed for its application. With the exception of Howard 2012, which not only links the practice of writing to the conditions in which it was acquired, but also highlights the growth of self-writing (or autobiography) among the working classes (see also the Autodidact Tradition), and Dobraszczyk 2009 (cited under Cultural Impact of Popular Literacy), which touches upon the use of the skill of writing in completing forms, such as the census, in the 19th century, most investigations into the use of the skill of writing by the newly literate have focused on letter writing. For example, Vincent has examined the democratization of the postal service, first in Britain with the introduction of the penny post and new commercial initiatives such as greetings cards and postcards (Vincent 1989) and then throughout Europe (and the wider world) with the formation of the Universal Postal Union (Vincent 2000, cited under Alternative Perspectives on Counting). Golden 2009 builds upon Vincent’s work, focusing on both the need for a reformed postal service in Victorian Britain and its outcomes. Whyman 2009 reminds us that a postal service existed before 1840 that was regularly used by ordinary people, while the essays in Barton and Hall 2000 highlight the ways in which letter writing can be used to study social practices. Particular communities of letter writers are treated in Tony Fairman’s essay, “English Pauper Letters 1800–34, and the English Language,” which draws attention to the uses of letter writing by the very poorest section of society, namely the destitute seeking help from the authorities (in Barton and Hall 2000), and in Fitzpatrick 1994 and Jones 2005, which examine surviving letters sent to and from Irish and Welsh migrants, respectively, demonstrating the impact of migration in encouraging and expanding communication through the written word. Finally, Lyons 2012, the very latest study of ordinary writers, presents evidence from the European experience.

  • Barton, David, and Nigel Hall, eds. Letter Writing as a Social Practice. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2000.

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    Even though the contributions to this volume span a wide timeframe (18th to the turn of the 21st century) and geography (including Britain, the United States, and Africa), each entry offers a valuable contribution on the practice of letter writing. Particularly relevant, however, are the contributions by Tony Fairman (on 19th-century pauper letters and the place of dialect in the development of the English language) and Nigel Hall (on the materiality of 19th-century letter writing).

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  • Fitzpatrick, David. Oceans of Consolation: Personal Accounts of Irish Migration to Australia. Cork, Ireland: Cork University Press, 1994.

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    Fitzpatrick studies a collection of 111 letters, the majority sent from Irish migrants in Australia to Ireland between 1853 and 1906, selected to highlight the impact of migration on familial relationships. Most letters conformed to a particular formula regardless of the level of education received by the writers and this finding has implications for considering the main function of writing home.

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  • Golden, Catherine J. Posting It: The Victorian Revolution in Letter Writing. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009.

    DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813033792.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Golden examines both the reform of the postal system at the opening of the Victorian period (addressing the questions of why and how) and the outcomes of reform (positive and negative repercussions). However, it is only in chapter 5 that she looks in depth at letter writing practices in the Victorian period.

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  • Howard, Ursula. Literacy and the Practice of Writing in the 19th Century: A Strange Blossoming of Spirit. Leicester, UK: National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, 2012.

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    Arguably the most comprehensive study available on working-class writing in 19th-century Britain, Howard focuses both on the circumstances by which the skill of writing was acquired and on the uses of the skill, primarily letter writing and autobiography loosely defined, the latter receiving the most attention. She demonstrates that writing was needed and practiced widely, but the texts produced can be understood only within the context of their learning communities and class.

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  • Jones, Bill. “Writing Back: Welsh Emigrants and Their Correspondence in the Nineteenth Century.” North American Journal of Welsh Studies 5.1 (2005): 23–46.

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    Jones looks at the way in which emigration from Wales to the United States and the Commonwealth territories in the 19th century generated a substantial body of correspondence, which tells us about not only the practice of writing, but also the experience of migration. In particular, the many letters written in Welsh provide an insight into the spread of skills in reading and writing in Welsh.

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  • Lyons, Martyn. The Writing Culture of Ordinary People in Europe, 1860–1920. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139093538Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The examples of ordinary writing in this book are drawn almost entirely from France, Spain, and Italy. However, Lyons uses this source material to highlight gaps in our understanding of the use of the skill of writing by the newly literate and to encourage further research using similar source material available in other modern European states.

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  • Vincent, David. Literacy and Popular Culture: England, 1750–1914. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511560880Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Vincent includes a section on the establishment of the penny post in Britain in which he discusses the motives of reformers of the postal system, examines the statistics of postal flows, which increased dramatically in the second half of the 19th century, and considers the role played by greetings cards and postcards in encouraging the newly literate to make use of the skill of writing.

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  • Whyman, Susan E. The Pen and the People: English Letter Writers, 1660–1800. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199532445.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Whyman concentrates on the period immediately preceding that addressed in this article. However, the book is important because it reminds us of the existence of a functioning postal network before the Victorian period (namely 1840) and the use of the post by ordinary people. Whyman’s book also provides a useful point of comparison with ordinary 19th-century letter writers.

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Expanding the Skills

For some working-class men and women, possession of the elementary skills was not enough. Societies and institutions emerged in the 19th century that encouraged the further education of literate artisans and laborers, all of which contributed to the expansion and evolution of literate culture. Not only were libraries established by radicals (Baggs 2006) and local authorities (Burch 2006), but mechanics’ institutes also appeared (Royle 1971). All of these institutions provided access to texts that would otherwise have been out of reach. The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, founded in 1826, aimed to further educate skilled workers and their families through providing cheap publications on a range of scientific, technological, and historical subjects (Anderson 1991, cited under Cultural Impact of Popular Literacy). Harrison 2007 provides an excellent overview of the emergence of the adult education movement in the 19th century, and the influence of Harrison’s work has been such that the phrase “Learning and Living” has been adopted by scholars to sum up the process by which literate skills were acquired and used by the working classes; acquisition and use were often neither sequential nor linear, as learning was a lifelong process heavily influenced by the ebb and flow of living. Finally, with the source base available, the further education of women cannot be ignored—Purvis 1989 treats the topic admirably.

  • Baggs, Chris. “Radical Reading? Working Class Libraries in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” In The Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland. Vol. 3, 1850–2000. Edited by Alistair Black and Peter Hoare, 169–179. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

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    Baggs examines the origins and functions of independent working-class libraries in Britain during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The author demonstrates that these libraries were established to serve the interests of a broad reading public that existed within the working class and not solely to promote access to radical reading material.

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  • Burch, Brian. “Libraries and Literacy in Popular Education.” In The Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland. Vol. 2, 1640–1850. Edited by Giles Mandelbrote and K. A. Manley, 371–387. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

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    The author provides an overview of the possibilities for working-class adults in expanding their skills through the emergence of different types of libraries that specifically catered to their needs, including subscription libraries at workplaces such as mines and factories and mechanics’ institutes.

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  • Harrison, John F. C. Learning and Living, 1790–1960: A Study in the History of the English Adult Education Movement. London: Routledge, 2007.

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    Harrison examines the emergence of a range of institutions to meet the demands for adult education in England from the early 19th century to the mid-20th century, balancing the demands of the recipients with the intentions of the educators. Originally published in 1961.

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  • Purvis, June. Hard Lessons: The Lives and Education of Working-Class Women in Nineteenth-Century England. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

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    Purvis examines the campaigns by women to gain access to the mechanics’ institutes and working men’s colleges and the degree of success they enjoyed. Although, from the national perspective, female membership in the institutions to which they gained access was tiny, this disguises important regional variations, the establishment of some institutions specifically for women, and the radical approach to women’s further education pioneered in some colleges (for example, in London).

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  • Royle, Edward. “Mechanics’ Institutes and the Working Classes, 1840–1860.” The Historical Journal 14 (1971): 305–321.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0018246X00009626Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An early study of the rise of mechanics’ institutes in England and Wales but useful as it challenges the pessimism that had emerged surrounding their authenticity as working-class institutions by reexamining the evidence on the functions of the institutes, their membership, and their relationship to other working-class organizations.

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The Autodidact Tradition

The spread of literacy combined with the proliferation of print brought into being a new subclass in society: the autodidact. Overwhelmingly male, autodidacts came from laboring or artisanal backgrounds and, after a lifetime of learning and cultivating their literate skills, used them to compose reflective life narratives. Some were motivated by evangelicalism, others by political radicalism and class struggle; a small number were assisted by journalists or sociologists to commit their stories to paper. The great majority were accounts of self-improvement that highlighted the role of books and learning in the intellectual and moral improvement of the writer, a trait that appealed to the Victorian appetite for self-help. Most importantly, the autobiographies provide detailed and unrivalled insights into the process by which literate skills were acquired and developed as well as evidence of the uses to which these skills were put, from satisfying an appetite for entertaining and educational literature to the act of writing a memoir. David Vincent is the first historian to seriously mine this rich body of source material, showing how it could be used to expand our understanding of literacy and the act of reading, but at the same time drawing attention to its limitations (Vincent 1982). (This first study was further enhanced by Vincent 1989, cited under National Trajectories.) Taking the evidence of reading supplied by the autobiographers at face value, Jonathan Rose uses these accounts to reconstruct a detailed history of reader response, highlighting patterns in the writers’ engagements with texts to explore the makeup of the intellectual life of the British working classes (Rose 2001). Jane Humphries subjects the autobiographies to quantitative methods to chart patterns in the working-class experience of the Industrial Revolution, including trends in the acquisition of literate skills (Humphries 2010).

  • Humphries, Jane. Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511780455Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Extracted data from 617 autobiographies form the backbone of this study. Its primary focus is to uncover trends in the experience of childhood and child labor, but, a crucial aspect of both of these themes is schooling and the acquisition of literate skills as this shaped childhoods and was determined by the need for child labor.

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  • Rose, Jonathan. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.

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    Although Rose marshals several collections of evidence of reading, including social surveys, school records, and opinion polls, this book primarily focuses on the testimonies of readers found in working-class autobiographies. Rose uses these to chart reading patterns and preferences and to show how the working classes appropriated literature from “high culture” for their own purposes.

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  • Vincent, David. Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Autobiography. London: Methuen, 1982.

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    A study of 142 autobiographies, predominantly of men who lived in the period 1790–1850. While recognizing their limitations (including their representativeness and the use of particular narrative conventions and formula in their composition), Vincent shows how the autobiographies can be used as sources for social and economic history, and especially for understanding working-class culture and the role that books played in the life of the working-class intellectual.

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