Apprenticeship, with its structured approach to hands-on-learning and its effective application of adolescent brawn, had largely created the conditions for England’s spectacular industrial growth. Yet apprenticeship was to become the first major casualty of the Industrial Revolution, while the grammar schools were to linger on in their unreformed state for a further half century.
How did English education come to lose the significance of apprenticeship? Was it social snobbery? In 1805 the citizens of Leeds, a city pulsating with new industrial and commercial activity, petitioned parliament to amend the foundation deeds of their ancient grammar school, established so that the curriculum could be broadened to include modern and commercial subjects. A reasonable enough request it would seem, but when the petition came before the Lord Chancellor Eldon he threw it out, claiming that it was “a scheme to promote the benefit of the merchants of Leeds at the expense of poor classical scholars”1.
It’s important to understand who Eldon was for he was to be vastly significant in shaping Victorian class prejudice in the next twenty years. Born the third son of a coal merchant from Newcastle, Eldon’s grandfather had made his living delivering coal from a horse-drawn cart2. As a boy the future Lord Chancellor attended Newcastle Grammar School where, though not a great scholar but possessing a prodigious memory for facts, he entered the law. “As pompously patrician as only a self-made man can be”3, Eldon was zealous in holding down the interest of the class of people he had but recently ‘ascended’ from, and zealously defended the privileges of the class to which he aspired. Eldon’s ruling meant that every school in the land was prevented from teaching German, French, mathematics or any other subject except Latin and Greek, until 18404.
The merchants of Leeds, it seems, had a more informed understanding of education than did the aristocracy and gentry. For centuries the wealthy had sent their sons as boarders to Eton College for their teenage years, largely to keep their adolescent passions out of the way. Eton was far from being a tranquil place5. High spirited youngsters were bored at the senseless formalities of school life and regularly took out their frustration on the teachers who, in turn, retaliated with frequent and often merciless flogging. Dr. Keate, the Headmaster of Eton in the 1780s, once claimed to have flogged eighty boys in a day. At night time as many as two hundred boys were locked up in their houses with no adult supervision, and bullying and sexual intimidation were rife6.
Horatio Nelson7, the son of a country clergyman of limited means, was a product of what was to become a popular, if limited, alternative to boarding schools. Nelson had been well educated in his early years and was versed in English literature and the Bible, as well as in Greek and Latin. Neither his father nor his mother wished him to go to a boarding school. Nelson’s uncle, William Suckling, was Captain of HMS Raisonable and agreed in 1770 (?) to take with him as a midshipman the eleven-year-old Horatio, a mere ‘squeaker’ with his voice still unbroken. Within eighteen months Nelson had already sailed to the Caribbean and to the Arctic. While the sons of the wealthy stagnated in boarding schools plotting rebellion against teachers, these early teenage midshipmen were learning how to use sextants on the tossing decks of Georgian warships in the teeth of Atlantic gales. They had to think on their feet, if they could stay on them! Furthermore they, and the rest of the crew (often pressed men taken directly from the jails) had to mess together. Midshipmen matured quickly, and could go far.
In 1791 the Admiralty dispatched HMS Discovery8 to what is now known as the Pacific Northwest (Seattle, Vancouver and Victoria Island) on an important mission that was to last two or three years. The First Lieutenant on that ship was Peter Puget who, like Nelson, had risen from ‘genteel poverty’, became a ‘ship’s boy’ at the age of ten, then a midshipman, and years later an admiral. As Discovery prepared to leave England with a crew of ninety-nine, the admiralty unexpectedly sent along a further fifteen midshipmen ─ sons, nephews or cousins of some of the most influential men in England, including the prime minister’s own nephew9. The idea was catching on rapidly, to learn a real skill as a participating member of a highly functional team, was a better preparation for a working life than sitting in a classroom bored out of your mind.
However, peace with France was to come twenty years later, and the navy was inevitably scaled down. Officers were placed on half pay, and no midshipmen were recruited. Apprenticeship obviously places demands on adults that have financial implications, but it’s probably the best way yet discovered to smooth the transition from childhood to adulthood. Only now, after a lapse of some two hundred years, is England beginning to realise that quality education needs more than just schooling10. But be careful as to how the word apprenticeship is now defined as its true meaning is about much more than just vocational preparation; it’s about an all-inclusive model of learning in which intellect and application are continuously combined.
Thesis 40: 24th August 2006