Social History

Wilderspin National School, Barton-upon-Humber,

North Lincolnshire - Part 1

Some history

Many of us will have visited Victorian school rooms and learnt of the fierce discipline in them. In fact Victorian Infant teaching was much more enlightened than I realised, as I found out during a visit to the Wilderspin National School. 

The school is a typical Victorian brick building in the centre of Barton on Humber, complete with outside toilets.

Wilderspin National School, Barton-upon-Humber

The school was built in 1844 and is the only known survivor of a Wilderspin School. It was a model example of the enlightened form of schooling developed by Samuel Wilderspin which continues today.  As an educationalist, he was 100 years before his time with his ideas on the education of infant children. This is the only one of his schools to have survived and it fully deserves the title of  “one of the most important schools in England”.

Samuel Wilderspin was a firm believer that better education of the poor would solve most social problems. As a child he had disliked school and had been taught at home. Many of his ideas about education had roots in his own happy childhood. He believed the first seven years were crucial but this also depended on school and parents working together.

He began his teaching career in a London Sunday School before joining an Infant School in Westminster. Here he met James Buchanan who had taught in Robert Owen’s school in New Lanark. Inspired by him, he opened a Infant School in Spitalfields, a very poor area in east London and experimented with his ideas.

He quickly realised he needed to appeal to the senses of the children and use language they could understand. He also realised it was important to group children in such a way that they could all see and also be seen by the teacher. This led to the development of the gallery seen in the infant classroom here.   He understood that young children need amusement and a variety of activities. He used marching, clapping, singing and free play outside  to keep their attention. The playground was his invention with a special rotary swing to develop muscles and co-ordination. Flower borders not only looked attractive but could also be used to promote learning.

In 1824 he set up the Infant School Society with the support of Robert Owen, William Wilberforce and Henry Brougham MP. They all believed that infant schooling gave poor children “Principles of virtue and save them from a life of crime”. They believed that all children were innately good and learnt good or bad behaviour from others. It was essential to encourage the good.  “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it”.

They recognised that early years education needed to be different from the very strict discipline associated with Victorian schools. It needed better facilities to engage and encourage the children as well as properly trained teachers. Wilderspin became a travelling agent for the for the Society, promoting its work and opening new infant schools across the country. He didn’t want the schools to be associated with any particular church and this lead to religious opposition. Increasing religious and political opposition caused the society to fold in 1827.

It had however sown the seeds of change and Wilderspin became a free lance educationalist  and continued to publish books of his ideas. He also set up and opened the Infant School Depot which supplied educational equipment and materials to the infant schools.

Wilderspin was the archetypal entrepreneur. After a new school had been set up, he arranged a public exhibition where the children could display their progress to parents and visitors. Not only did this display his teaching methods, it also encouraged observers to think about establishing schools elsewhere.

Wilderspin had always hoped to build his own model school in London. In 1844, he was lecturing in Barton-upon-Humber and nearby Winterton as well as training teachers in Hull and carrying out public examinations.

The population in Barton-upon-Humber doubled between 1801 and 1851. Over one third of the population were under 15 and this was causing a huge social problem.  Living conditions were harsh and children were illiterate. Sunday Schools were free and did provide a certain amount of education but it was Bible based. Long’s School in Barton-upon-Humber did have some free places but was closed in 1842.

This was the chance he was waiting for. A new National School was being proposed for the over sixes. As a result of Wilderspin’s influence and work, it was decided to add an infant school to the plans. Wilderspin was responsible for the design and layout of the school. The boys school was at one end with a house for the master.

Wilderspin School,

Next to it was the girls school and at the far end, the infant school.

Wilderspin School, Barton-upon-Humber

Wilderspin was appointed Superintendent of the Infant School and taught here with his wife and daughter. This was the chance he wanted to have his own school. He wrote his “Manual for the Religious and Moral Instruction of Young Children” while he was here.

The boys and girls school were independent of the infant school and Wilderspin’s influence and ideas did not extend upwards into them. Once the children left the infant school,  they were subjected to the harsh methods of Victorian education.

He worked at the school for four years before retiring and moving to Wakefield. He was awarded a Queen’s pension of £100 a year and his wife was presented with a silver whistle as a token of the children’s affection. He was involved in adult education through the Mechanics Institute and continued to lecture, advise on methods and principles of education and help teachers find positions until his death in 1866. 

Sadly the infant school closed after Wilderspin left and wasn’t reopened again until 1860. The school eventually closed in 1978 and was restored as  a museum. The post code is DN18 5QP and the grid reference is TA 032221.

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