1810 - Sunday School
In the 1780s, many Nonconformist churches started to establish Sunday schools 'to train up the lower classes in habits of industry and piety'. Many poor children were taught to read in these Sunday school lessons and the education they received was not always restricted to Bible classes and religious instruction. Sunday school buildings were usually fairly basic structures and the facilities they provided were minimal. By 1868, however, it was possible to claim that the Sunday school movement had been 'by far the most efficient instrument for excavating a portion of the heathen population from the general mass of ignorance and depravity'. Around this time their role began to change. Day schools run by the British and National Societies were offering a more broadly based education and the Sunday schools were able to concentrate far more on specifically religious teaching. Why did many children not go to school on weekdays?
For many poorer people, a weekly Sunday school was the only education they could provide for their children - assuming they felt it was necessary. Here a basic literacy could be acquired, though not for its own sake. In 1791 the children of Lincoln were being 'taught to read...and instructed in such plain religious truths as they can understand; such as will direct and fix their faith, improve their hearts, and regulate their manners.' Writing was held to be less essential -the Wesleyans, for one, opposed its teaching in their Sunday schools. By 1800, the Sunday School movement was well established nationwide and some extended their activities to weekday evenings (during the day, of course, many children would have been at work). Despite the restricted curriculum, there is little doubt that Sunday schools made a great contribution to improved literacy, especially among girls. In 1841 an inspector reported that the Sunday schools of Norfolk were, for both sexes, 'until recently the chief instrument of instruction, and in many parishes still such.' One Sunday in 1851 a census was undertaken and of the 2.4 million children registered as belonging to a Sunday school, no fewer than 1.8 million were attending on census day. The Sunday school shown in the illustration stands at Great Horwood in Buckinghamshire. It was fitted up early in the 19th century 'as a school house and a place of worship'. It had formerly been a barn and the marks in the brickwork where the original doors had been are clearly visible, at either side of the wooden porch. It is now a Congregational chapel. The pointed windows - very common among ecclesiastical buildings of this date - were cut into the walls without the benefit of structural arches. The one-room interior is plain and retains its original seating, facing the pulpit. Probably Sunday school was held before or between services; no special facilities seem to have been provided, because teaching by instruction required little by way of equipment.