Making Cambridge’s schools accessible to children – 1893

I’m still getting my head around the very complex set up of formal education for children in the latter part of the 19th Century. Throughout the 1800s, Cambridge like many other towns and cities went through a significant upheaval with population growth and the demands to provide for more than the bare minimum of public services. It was in the late 1800s that the political mood moved away from relying on Victorian-style charity to provide for public services, and compel the state through local councils to provide comprehensive public services through general taxation – ‘the rates’.

What “The Rates” mean.

Until 1990, local public services were in part financed ‘the rates’ – which was basically a local tax levied on the nominal rental value of the property that a household lived in. This was scrapped in 1990 by Margaret Thatcher in a huge political error that cost her her premiership. The replacement ‘Poll Tax’ – where everyone in principle paid the same contribution, was a disaster. It led to a boycott and unsustainable levels of non-payment, combined with street protests culminating in a riot in Trafalgar Square. Its replacement – the council tax – was only supposed to be a stop gap. We still have it – levels set on house price values of the early 1990s.

Inaccessible schools for young children

This opinion piece in the liberal-supporting Cambridge Independent Press, edited by Alfred Tillyard – later Mayor of Cambridge 1899-1900, makes the case for having a school board to oversee primary schools in Cambridge, which at the time were a mix of council-supported fee-free schools, and voluntary church-run schools that had fees, and the established private schools. The article from the British Newspaper Archive is transcribed below.

930519 Cambridge Indy demands School Board for Cambridge Town 1893


“Elementary Education has reached a critical stage in Cambridge, and some striking developments may be looked for before long. In the first place, free education is by no means such reality in our midst as it ought to be. The infants in Cambridge may practically be said to have free education, but the boys and the girls in far too many cases have not. For instance, in the important district of New Town, where such streets as Russell Street, Coronation Street, Union Road, and several others are inhabited by an almost exclusively working class population, there is no free school for boys or girls.

“If parents living in this part of the town claim their right of free education, they must send their children to East Road or Castle End. The large district by St. Barnabas’ Church has no free school. There are free schools for girls in Romsey Town and at Newnham, but none for boys, and the boys from these districts would have to perform the tramp, as before mentioned, to East Road or Castle End.

“To put the matter briefly, there are but two parts of the town which have adequate free school accommodation for both boys and girls — Castle End and that portion of Barnwell which extends from the East Road Schools to the Abbey School on Newmarket Road. All the rest of the town has either free schools for girls only, or no free schools at all.

“The outcome of this state of things is seen from time to time in the proceedings before the Magisterial Bench. On March 30th we reported five attendance orders granted, and four fines inflicted on parents for not sending their children to school;

  • on April 14th, five attendance orders, and one fine;
  • on April 28th, three attendance orders, and six fines;
  • on May 8th, eight attendance orders, and six fines;
  • on May 12th, three attendance orders, and ten fines.

“Twenty-four attendance orders and twenty-seven fines in about six weeks show the difficulty there is in enforcing the Education Act under present conditions.

“If free education was extended equally to all parts of the town a part of this friction would certainly disappear. The question of school accommodation, whether free or fee, is also pressing. It is an open secret that the educational authorities in Cambridge are being pressed to provide additional school places. This is the real reason of the meeting last Friday, which we report elsewhere.

“The Chairman (Mr. J. Hamblin Smith) made an appeal for £2,000 for enlarging:

  • the Catherine Street School,
  • the Abbey School, and
  • the St. Paul’s Infant School, and
  • for building a new infants’ school for St. Giles’, and
  • a boys’ school in Romsey Town.

“This is a very large amount of building for £2,000. Can all these schools be enlarged, built, and properly equipped for that sum? We doubt it.

“Then there is a further proposal to enlarge the two British Schools in.

  • Fitzroy Street and
  • New Street.

“The history of so-called voluntary schools has been in Cambridge, as everywhere else, a wearisome round of appeals, circulars, canvassing, and the whole machinery for getting money out of an unwilling public.

  • In 1877 the subscriptions to the Old Schools amounted to £970 ;
  • in 1883 they had fallen to £702 ;
  • in 1891, £546.

“This is an ominous feature. It shows an increased conviction even among the most conservative classes that primary education is a public responsibility which ought to be discharged under public supervision.

“A walk through Cambridge does not impress the observer with the importance which the inhabitants attach to the education of the young. The elementary schools are of the most unsightly appearance, and some of them attain to a depth of squalid ugliness which is painful to look upon. It is obvious that accommodation and convenience have been cut down to a minimum, and that in a town which ought to take leading place in all matters of education.

“In these last remarks we do not mean to reflect at all upon those who have so generously supported local elementary education in the post. They have done wonders, and deserve the highest praise, but public burdens are too heavy for private shoulders.

“Individuals cannot adequately the work which belongs to the whole community, and they ought not either to be asked or be expected to do it. think, then, that the time has come when all friends of progress in education should unite in promoting a School Board for Cambridge.

“The battle cry of “the rates, the rates” will at once be raised by the opposition, but this has not prevented nearly every town in England of the size of Cambridge from adopting the School Board system. Nor would a School Board make the tremendous difference which some people imagine. It would simply have’ to supply the existing deficiency, and all the voluntary schools could on as before if they wished to. The two British Schools would probably desire to come in under the Board ; the National Schools would probably desire to stay outside.

“The machinery for compelling attendance is already at work, and is being paid for out of the rates. A School Board can build schools to quite as great an advantage as any other body, and what with Government grant and fee grant a well conducted school ought to leave but a small deficiency to be made up by the rates. As for the money which must be raised by the rates, it must be remembered that there is no better spent money than that spent on education.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s