A practical guide to Victorian values, part two: teaching

My previous post looked at how the Victorians enforced their values. Equally important are the institutions which taught those values in the first place, including the family, the school and the wider society.


In early modern Europe, the family was basically an economic unit. The home was the workplace. Children’s education took place by the by, as they took part in the household’s economy. In the Victorian period, this changed. Homes and workplaces were separated. The family specialized in childrearing, in an expanded sense. The Puritans had been the first to think this way, in a process Christopher Hill called the “spiritualization of the household”. Eighteenth-century educationalists like Rousseau had continued the trend. Now, mothers were put in charge of the newly specialized cultural transmission unit.

The focus of the family was far more on character formation than on technical skills. Victorian parents used much the same methods as modern parents for bringing up their children: they praised good behaviour; scolded or punished bad behaviour; tried to set an example; and kept their children away from bad influences. But the way they did it was very different — more explicit, self-conscious, and self-confident. Here’s a Victorian father writing in his son’s journal:

John Davis, wake up! Perform your duties better. Let not your time be wasted and lost. Consider. Can these bright days and these rich opportunities of your boyhood return to you? If you do not improve them in acquiring knowledge and in fitting yourself for a useful and happy life, will it not cause you bitter remorse as long as you live?

What, no Dad jokes? Here John Davis is receiving a parental admonition. This was originally a Puritan practice, in which Christians warned their peers over their sins. In time, this peer-to-peer admonition became parental admonition. Fathers' letters were crammed with moral strictures. In the eighteenth century, sobriety, time discipline and prudence with money were key themes; later, Victorian fathers wrote of resolution, struggle and manliness.

Another Puritan practice, which still exists in the United States, is the family conference, where the household would come together to discuss some pressing practical issue by prayer and discussion. In general, collective prayer was central to many families' lives. Prayers did not take a stereotyped form, but applied Christianity to family members' everyday affairs. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, as fathers' authority waned, this collective institution was replaced by private bedtime prayers with mother.

The family was central to this era: families pervade its literature, its politics and its economics. The new institution seems to have been widely popular, in fact, almost universally loved. It was the basic production unit of Victorian character.


Schools, like families, focused on character formation, not technical skills. This was agreed on from every conceivable political point of view. Sarah Trimmer, the Anglican educational reformer, wrote that reading and writing were “very inferior things in comparison with upright conduct”. Ruskin, the romantic Tory-turned-socialist, said “education does not mean people to know what they do not know. It means teaching them to behave as they do not behave… training them into the perfect exercise and kingly continence of their bodies and souls”. Dry-as-dust utilitarian James Mill categorized education as improving “intelligence, temperance and benevolence”, i.e. knowledge, self-control, and one’s attitude to others.

The centrality of character was not pie in the sky, but rooted in practical concerns. Honest and reliable workers were needed in an economy where performance measurement was barely possible. And so schools practiced as reformers preached. They devoted many hours per week to religious instruction. Forty per cent of the content of the Salisbury Reader, one widely-used textbook in England, was religious, with the rest being vocabulary lessons and stories. More than this, they wove values into their curriculum. The New England Primer, used in American schools for centuries, mixed moral lessons into the ABC:

Character education techniques developed over time. Early Protestant reformers had focused on teaching catechisms, like the Church of England’s, which Peter Laslett described as “still familiar and evocative” in 1951:

My duty towards my neighbour is to love him as myself, and to do all men as I would they should do unto me: to love, honour, and succour my father and mother: to honour and obey the King and all that are put in authority under him: to submit myself to all my governors, teachers, spiritual pastors and masters: to order myself lowly and reverently to all my betters: to hurt nobody by word nor deed: to be true and just in all my dealings: to bear no malice nor hatred in my heart: to keep my hands from picking and stealing, and my tongue from evil-speaking, lying and slandering; to keep my body in temperance, soberness, and chastity: not to covet nor desire other men's goods; but to learn and labour truly to get mine own living, and to do my duty in that state of life unto which it shall please God to call me.

Later methods grew more sophisticated. Teachers were supposed to set examples. Even school organization, with its timetables and written rules, taught a lesson in punctuality and orderliness. Later in the nineteenth century, sports started to be used to teach teamwork, leadership and fairness. An 1846 government report described school as “a little artificial world of virtuous exertion”, to counteract the bad examples found in the real world.

This was the golden age of the public schools (in the British usage meaning paid for and private). Reforming heads like Thomas Arnold of Rugby laid down their core principles: independence of the headmaster; the pastoral role of teachers; loyalty to the school; ruthless expulsion of bad apples (social exclusion again!); and self-government by the older boys. In this youthful society, where almost half the population were under 18, headmasters had enormous prestige, like Ivy Leagure vice-chancellors today. They were also almost always clergymen, and their chapel sermons could exert an influence over young men that only Jordan Peterson achieves today. One ex-pupil wrote of Arnold “I felt a love and reverence for him as one of quite awful greatness and goodness, for whom I well remember that I used to think I would gladly lay down my life.” Public schools were for the elite, but their cultural prestige spread far. Hundreds of thousands of children who could never have afforded the Rugby fees read about Billy Bunter and Greycoats School in the Boys’ Own Paper.

At the other end of society, Sunday Schools taught basic skills — and moral character — one day a week. Their pupils were in demand: one manufacturer wrote “Whenever steady men are wanted for confidential positions, the masters or overlookers apply to the superintendents of the Sunday school.” There were conflicts over the curriculum. Parents tended to prefer reading and writing, while school staff wanted more focus on religion and ethics: an example of the tension between the private returns to technical skills, and the benefit to the community of character education.


Books were central to a literate society. But the most important purpose of books was to edify, not to educate. More than one fifth of books published in Britain between 1816 and 1851 were religious — as much as fiction, drama, poetry and science put together. And this is counting titles, not physical copies: many of the largest print runs were probably for religious books. The Bible itself was absolutely central, and 70 to 90 per cent of English households owned one. It provided a common reference and language for reformers and conservatives, and even for atheists. It was the book by which most children were taught to read in the family. Public bibles were provided on reading stands in railway stations. The Book of Common Prayer was also common. Pilgrim's Progress, written in 1678, remained popular throughout the period. Beyond these basics, other religious books included sermons. As a historian put it in 1935: “Sermons held... the place that is now held by novels. Everybody read them.”

Gradually, as incomes rose, this small canon was supplemented by a wider range of literature. From the 1850s, public libraries were developed, partly because books were thought to offer an alternative to drinking. For those who could afford it, children's literature also developed, moving from open moralizing towards adventure stories whose heroes behaved well, but were also appealing to their readership.

Conclusions to follow

I don’t want to overburden this post, so I’ll write one more, drawing some lessons. First, cui bono? Whom did all this enculturation benefit? In particular, was it a ploy by the elite to create an obedient working class? Second, did it work? Lastly, does this history have lessons for today, and if so, what?

If you liked this content, then I would love you to do three things:

  1. Subscribe to this newsletter. It’s free, posts are occasional, and subscribers make me happy.

  1. Share Wyclif’s Dust on social media. This newsletter is a new venture, so by telling your friends and/or followers, you’ll be doing me a huge favour.

Share Wyclif's Dust

  1. Read about the book I’m writing. It’s called Wyclif’s Dust, too. You can download a sample chapter.