Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Lancaster, Joseph

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LANCASTER, JOSEPH (1778–1838), founder of the Lancasterian system of education, was born in Southwark, London, in 1778. His father had served as a common soldier in the American war, and afterwards added to his small pension by keeping a humble shop. Very early in life Joseph received powerful religious impressions, and was intended by his parents for the nonconformist ministry. At the age of fourteen he was impelled by a strong enthusiasm to leave home secretly, intending to go to Jamaica ‘to teach the poor blacks the word of God.’ Finding himself penniless when he reached Bristol, he enlisted as a naval volunteer, but after one voyage was, through the interposition of friends, released from his engagement. Soon after he joined the Society of Friends. Before he was twenty he obtained his father's leave to bring a few poor children home and teach them to read. He became conscious of a strong liking and aptitude for teaching and for winning the confidence of children. In 1801 he took a large room in the Borough Road, and inscribed over it, ‘All who will may send their children and have them educated freely, and those who do not wish to have education for nothing may pay for it if they please.’ His inability to pay assistants forced him to devise the plan of employing the elder scholars to teach the younger. His remarkable genius for organising made his experiment unexpectedly successful. The number of pupils grew rapidly. His school was divided into small classes, each under the care of a monitor; a group of these classes was superintended by a head monitor; and the quasi-military system of discipline, and of gradation of ranks, caused the whole establishment to assume an orderly, animated, and very striking appearance. The attention of the Duke of Bedford and of Lord Somerville was directed to his efforts, and soon afterwards the Duke of Sussex and other members of the royal family visited his institution and encouraged him with support. Such time as he could spare from the supervision of his large school of a thousand boys he devoted to lecturing in the country, and raising subscriptions for the foundation of new local schools.

He published in 1803 his first pamphlet, entitled ‘Improvements in Education,’ which set forth in detail the results of his experience. He described how his staff of monitors co-operated with him in the maintenance of discipline, and how they taught reading, writing, and the elements of arithmetic by a method of drill and simultaneous exercise. The material equipment of his school was of the most meagre kind. Flat desks covered with a thin layer of sand were used for the early exercises in writing. Sheets taken from a spelling-book and pasted on boards were placed before each ‘draft’ or class, and pointed to until every word was recognised and spelled. Passages extracted from the Bible and printed on large sheets furnished the reading and scripture lessons. Beyond these rudiments the instruction did not extend. He devised a very elaborate system of punishments, shackles, cages in which offenders were slung up to the roof, tying bad boys to a pillar in the manner suggested by mediæval pictures of St. Sebastian, divers marks of disgrace, and other appeals to the scholars' sense of shame; but his quaker principles revolted from the infliction of actual pain, and prevented him from perceiving the tortures inflicted by his own system on sensitive children. He instituted degrees of rank, badges, offices and orders of merit, which, while they undoubtedly made his school attractive to lads of ambition, tended to encourage vanity and self-consciousness. It was an essential part of his plan to enlist the most promising of the scholars in his service, and to prepare them to become schoolmasters. In this way he is fairly entitled to be recognised as the first pioneer in the work of training teachers for their profession in England. Some of the principles he advocated, and his favourite sayings, have passed into pedagogical maxims, e.g. ‘The order of this school is “A place for everything and everything in its place.”’ Of the day's work he was wont to say, ‘Let every child have, for every minute of his school-time, something to do, and a motive for doing it.’

In 1797 Andrew Bell (1753–1832) [q. v.] had published accounts of his educational experiments in the Madras Asylum. Lancaster in his first pamphlet cordially acknowledged his obligation to Bell for many useful hints. He afterwards visited Bell at Swanage, and established very friendly relations with him. During the eight years of Bell's residence at Swanage, little or nothing was done for the establishment of schools on his method; but Lancaster within that period was carrying on an active propaganda in all parts of the kingdom, and securing the adhesion of many powerful friends. His fortunes reached their zenith in 1805, when George III sent for him to Weymouth, promised his patronage and support, and added, besides his own name, that of the queen and the princesses to the list of annual subscribers. The king concluded the interview by saying, in words which became in one sense the charter of the Lancasterian institution, ‘It is my wish that every poor child in my dominions should be taught to read the Bible.’ The fame which followed this interview intoxicated Lancaster, who was thriftless, impulsive, extravagant, and sadly deficient in ordinary self-control. He had at the same time to encounter much opposition from members of the established church. Mrs. Trimmer, one of his opponents, published in 1805 ‘A Comparative View of the new Plan of Education, promulgated by Mr. Joseph Lancaster, and of the System of Christian Instruction founded by our Forefathers for the initiation of the Young Members of the Established Church in the Principles of the Reformed Religion.’ Her main objection to Lancaster, whom she denounced as the ‘Goliath of schismatics,’ was that his system was not to be controlled by the clergy, and was therefore calculated seriously to weaken the authority of the established church. The ‘Edinburgh Review’ in 1806 vindicated Lancaster in answer to this attack, and in October 1807 published a second article, reviewing Lancaster's first pamphlet with great favour.

Meanwhile Lancaster's money affairs became grievously embarrassed, and in 1808 two quakers, Joseph Fox and William Allen (1770–1843) [q. v.], with the co-operation of Whitbread and others, undertook to extricate him from his difficulties. They paid his debts, took over the responsibility of maintaining the model school, and constituted themselves a board of trustees for the administration of such funds as might be given to the institution, which they were permitted to designate the Royal Lancasterian Society. The public interest thus excited in Lancaster's system, the patronage of the royal family, and the announcement of a long list of influential supporters, combined to induce the friends of church education to show increased hostility. It was resolved to adopt Bell's name and system, and to establish a number of elementary schools, which should be taught by monitors, but in which the management and the instruction should be distinctly identified with the established church. The National Society was founded in 1811 to carry out these principles. Controversies soon arose, embittered rather by the zeal of the friends of the two men than by their personal rivalries. On the one side were ranged Brougham and the group of statesmen and writers who afterwards founded the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and whose mouthpiece was the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ besides the Society of Friends, many liberal churchmen, and the great body of nonconformists. On the other were ranged nearly the whole of the clergy, the ‘Quarterly Review,’ and the tory party generally. The first article on the subject which appeared in the ‘Quarterly Review’ (October 1811) is generally attributed to Southey. He vindicated Bell's claims to originality, and ridiculed Lancaster's elaborate devices for maintaining discipline; and laid much stress on the importance of religious teaching. Between the two methods of procedure there were several important differences. Lancaster taught larger numbers, and had a more elaborate system for enlisting the agency of the pupils themselves in the maintenance of discipline. Moreover, his educational aims, though modest enough, were far higher than those of his rival. Bell had expressly declared his unwillingness to educate the poor too highly. Lancaster, on the other hand, not only taught the elements of writing and arithmetic, but avowed that he was precluded from offering a more generous education to his pupils by considerations of expense only. Lancaster certainly adopted, long before Bell, the practice of selecting and training the future teachers. But the substantial difference between the parties, which used for their own purposes the names of the two combatants, rested on religious grounds. The friends of Bell avowedly wished to bring the schools for the poor under the control of the church of England. Lancaster, on the other hand, always preached the doctrine that it was not the business of the public school to serve the denominational interests of any particular section of the Christian church, and that the true national education of the future should be Christian but not sectarian. His friends of the Royal Lancasterian Society were able to claim that this impartiality was not theoretical only, and to assert in their report of 1811 that, while more than seven thousand children had been brought up under his personal influence, not one of them had been induced to become, or had actually become, a quaker like himself.

In 1810 Lancaster had published his second pamphlet, ‘Report of Joseph Lancaster's Progress from 1798.’ In this report he speaks gratefully of the assistance of his friends and of the pecuniary sacrifices they had made on behalf of his system; and, summarising his own work for the past year, he records that he had travelled 3,775 miles, delivered sixty-seven lectures in the presence of 23,480 hearers, promoted the establishment of fifty new schools for 14,200 scholars, and had raised 3,850l. in aid of the society's work. To the report is appended a statement in which the trustees commend Lancaster's zeal. They record the rapid growth of the system, the establishment of Lancasterian schools in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, and, inter alia, the facts that a deputation from Caracas had come to England expressly to see the working of the schools, and that the government of that country had since sent two young men to the Borough Road to learn the system.

Lancaster at first acquiesced, though reluctantly, in the exercise of control over his institution by the committee appointed in 1808; but he soon chafed against the business-like restraint imposed by the committee, quarrelled with his friends, seceded from the society, and set up a private school at Tooting, which soon failed and left him bankrupt. In 1816 he printed at Bristol ‘Oppression and Persecution, being a Narrative of a variety of Singular Facts that have occurred in the Rise, Progress, and Promulgation of the Royal Lancasterian System of Education.’ Here he complains bitterly of the conduct of his ‘pretended friends,’ the trustees, who had, four years before, changed the name of the institution to that of the ‘British and Foreign School Society,’ and had, he said, thwarted him and injured him, and determined to carry on the work without him. The pamphlet is a petulant attack on all his former friends, whom he describes as having ‘choused him out of the management of his own institution.’ He had suffered severely from disappointment, ill-health, and poverty. He had more than once been imprisoned for debt, his troubles were aggravated by the mental affliction which befell his wife, and in 1818 he determined to shake the dust from his feet and try the New World.

In New York and Philadelphia Lancaster was received kindly, his lectures were well attended, and the way seemed opening for a new career of honour and success. At Baltimore he established a school, obtained a few private pupils, and published in 1821 a small book entitled ‘The Lancasterian System of Education, with Improvements, by its Founder.’ It is mainly a reprint of his first tract, but it is prefaced by a curious chapter of autobiography, repeating with increased acrimony his former charges. He concludes with an advertisement of his new boarding establishment, in which he promises to treat the inmates as ‘plants of his hand and children of his care.’ But a grievous illness prevented the success of the enterprise, and on his partial recovery he determined to go to the milder climate of Venezuela, and to settle for a time in Caracas, to which place he had been invited several years before. Bolivar, the first president, who had visited the Borough Road in 1810, now received Lancaster with much consideration, was present at his second marriage to the widow of John Robinson of Philadelphia, and made large promises of pecuniary support, which, however, were not fulfilled. To the last it remained one of Lancaster's many grievances that Bolivar, after taking possession of all the little property Lancaster had left in Caracas, suffered him to depart with a bill for $20,000, which, when it came to maturity, was dishonoured.

After staying a short time at St. Thomas and Santa Cruz, he returned to New York, where the corporation voted him a grant of five hundred dollars. His next attempt to establish himself was at Montreal, where, as in other Canadian towns, he met at first with a favourable reception, although his school did not flourish there. His last publication appeared in 1833, and was printed at Newhaven, Connecticut. It is entitled ‘Epitome of some of the chief Events and Transactions in the Life of J. Lancaster, containing an Account of the Rise and Progress of the Lancasterian System of Education, and the Author's future Prospects of Usefulness to Mankind; Published to Promote the Education of His Family.’ By his ‘family’ he meant his step-children, to whom he was very tenderly attached, his only child, a daughter, who had married and settled in Mexico, having recently died. The pamphlet, like its predecessors, was ill-written and almost incoherent, was plentifully garnished with italics, with large capitals, and with irrelevant quotations from the Bible. But it was less vehement than his former publications in the denunciation of his adversaries, and amounted to little more than a piteous appeal for pecuniary help, and for subscriptions to his promised larger book, which was to embody all the latest additions to the ‘Improvements in Education.’ That larger work never appeared. A few gentlemen in England issued an appeal and obtained a sufficient sum to purchase for him a small annuity. His spirits revived a little, and he contemplated a journey to England. His last letter to a friend, who had been his constant supporter at the Borough Road, is full of exultation: ‘With properly trained monitors I should not scruple to undertake to teach ten thousand pupils all to read fluently in three weeks to three months, idiots and truants only excepted. Be assured that the fire which kindled Elijah's sacrifice has kindled mine, and when all true Israelites see it they will fall on their knees and exclaim, “The Lord, he is the God.”’ This was written in September 1838. In the following month he met with an accident in the streets of New York, and received injuries which proved fatal on 24 Oct. 1838.

It would not be justifiable to claim for either Lancaster or Bell personally a high rank among the founders of popular education in England. Lancaster's character was unstable; he led an irregular, undisciplined, and heavily burdened life, and died in poverty and obscurity. But he had a finer and more unselfish enthusiasm than Bell, a more intense love for children, more religious earnestness, and a stronger faith in the blessings which education might confer on the poor. It is very touching to see in his latest diaries and letters the picture of a broken-hearted and disappointed man, welcoming, nevertheless, such faint rays of hope as came occasionally to relieve the gloom of his solitude, and never wholly losing confidence in the mission with which he believed himself to have been divinely entrusted. After being disowned by the Friends on account of his financial irregularities, he yet continued to hold, instead of a meeting, his Sunday-morning silent services, and to sit alone, waiting for the visitation of the Divine Spirit.

The great expectations in which, at the beginning of the present century, both educational parties indulged with regard to the future of the ‘mutual’ or ‘monitorial system’ of public instruction have not been, and are not likely to be, realised. It was merely a system of drill and mechanism by which large bodies of children could be made orderly and obedient, and by which the scholars who knew a little were made to help those who knew less. Neither the writings nor the practice of Bell and Lancaster threw any light on the principles of teaching, or were of any value as permanent contributions to the literature of education. But relatively to the special needs and circumstances of the age, and to the wretched provision which then existed for the education of the poor, the work of these two men was of enormous value. They aroused public interest in the subject. They brought, at a very small cost (about 7s. per head per annum), thousands of children into admirable discipline, and gave them the rudiments of education, and some ambition to learn more. What is of still greater importance, they treated the school from the first as a place of ‘mutual’ instruction, as an organised community in which all the members were to be in helpful relations to each other; and all were brought to take a pride in the success and fame of the school to which they belonged. There can be little doubt that the sense of comradeship and corporate life was unusually strong in the old monitorial schools, and that it was scarcely inferior to that of the best public schools of our own time. But the inherent intellectual defects of an educational system dependent wholly on ignorant and immature agents, though not visible at first, revealed themselves before many years; and in 1846 the newly constituted education department took the important step of superseding monitors by pupil-teachers, all of whom were required before apprenticeship to pass through the elementary course, and afterwards to receive regular instruction and to be trained for the office of teacher. The pupil-teacher system itself has now been to a large extent displaced by the employment of adult teachers.

A portrait of Joseph Lancaster by John Hazlitt is in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

[Life of Joseph Lancaster, by William Corston, 1840; Sketches, by Henry Dunn, 1848; The Museum, 1863; Leitch's Practical Educationists, 1876; Edinburgh Review, vols. ix. xi. xvii. xix. xxi.; Quarterly Review, vol. vi.; Joseph Fox's Comparative Review of the Publications of Bell and Lancaster, 1809; The New School, by Sir T. Bernard, 1810; Donaldson's Lectures on Education; Southey's Life of Bell; Professor Meiklejohn's Life of Bell; American Journal of Education, 1861; Reports of the Royal Commissioners on Popular Education, that of the Duke of Newcastle, 1855, and of Lord Cross, 1886; Reports passim of the British and Foreign School Society.]

J. G. F-h.