FIRST DAY SCHOOLS

 

During the latter half of the nineteenth century it was not that difficult to discover the whereabouts of a good many members of the Sturge family on a Sunday morning. Of course, you could be certain that they would at Meeting that morning but, well before the appointed time for Quaker worship many were to be found demonstrating the strong family commitment to the First Day Schools movement. This was to prove one of the most successful forms of working-class education in its time.

Whether it was Joseph, Charles or Wilson Sturge in Birmingham, Winifred at Bournville, Thomas Marshall Sturge in Gloucester, Walter Sturge in Bristol, Arthur Lloyd Sturge in Tottenham or other family members, they could be found making a generous contribution to their local school - whether teaching, organising or fund-raising for the building of premises for a new or fast expanding local school. Quakers valued education for their own families and their support was not limited to the initiatives of Friends,’ there was a similar support for all to have access to education, illustrated by Thomas Marshall Sturge’s promotion of the Gloucester Ragged School and the British School in that city.

Professor Alex Tyrrell, in his biography of Joseph Sturge, relates how the venture began, describing how Joseph “found the model for this experiment in 1842 when he was standing as the Complete Suffrage parliamentary candidate in Nottingham and was taken to see a Sunday school conducted by his fellow Quaker, Samuel Fox. Three years later he transplanted the idea to Birmingham by persuading some of the young Quakers of the Bull Street Meeting to combine and offer a programme of reading, writing and Scripture study for the working class youths and young men of the town. The scheme survived the harassment of a Church of England clergyman who objected to the teaching of writing in his parish on Sundays, but it was not an immediate success. Those who enrolled from an unmanageably wide age group were often unclean, disorderly and disrespectful of the Scriptures; and the young volunteer teachers were unreliable. Not surprisingly the attendance fell from 78 to 28 in 1846.

“During the next ten years, however, the experiment was consolidated and expanded. The school started to meet between 7.30 a.m. and 9.30 a.m. instead of during the evening (a test of dedication for all concerned); it concentrated on the over fourteen age group; women’s classes were started in 1848; peace and temperance themes were interwoven with the teaching; thrift was encouraged through a savings fund which offered unusually advantageous rates of interest.”

Joseph’s role was not one of teaching at the school, situated in the British School in Severn Street, Birmingham, instead “he recruited the teachers and presided over its development. Each Sunday he provided breakfast for the teachers at 7 a.m. and started the classes by reading from Scripture. He was in the chair in December 1847 when a National Friends First Day School Association was launched to co-ordinate the work of schools which had been set up on the Birmingham plan in several towns.” His involvement is commemorated in a panel of the Quaker Tapestry.

Picture: Copyright Quaker Tapestry Scheme. This photograph is just one of the 77 illustrations known as The Quaker Tapestry which is a community textile of embroidered panels made by 4,000 people from 15 countries. Further information can be obtained from: The Quaker Tapestry Exhibition Centre, Friends Meeting House, Stramongate, Kendal, Cumbria, LA9 4BH, England UK. Telephone & Fax +44 (0) 1539 722975. http:/www.quaker-tapestry.co.uk; email: infor@quaker-tapestry.co.uk

Membership of the schools reached a peak in 1910, to be overtaken by the advent of state education, but not before many thousands of scholars had benefited from the education and opportunities for advancement the scheme had offered them.

The Annual Report of the Bristol Friends’ First Day Adult School (for men) for 1888-9 illustrates the extent of these activities. Walter Sturge was Superintendent and President of Class 2, one of two run at the Meeting House at Broad Weir from 8.30 to 10 a.m. A further class met on a Sunday afternoon from 2.30 to 4 p.m. at the Mission Hall in New Street. “Any Men (above the age of 17) are invited to join the school and will be heartily welcomed.” The Report records the calling “from Work to Reward” of one teacher and the death of two men who had been in the school for upwards of thirty years.

Established in 1857, the school was well-organised and had 323 scholars registered in 1889 - a number that had necessitated the planned remove of a class to new branch premises at the Friends’ Mission Hall. It must have been quite an occasion, for the whole school assembled on the Sunday afternoon to march to the new premises, where Joseph Storrs Fry gave the opening address. The extension of the school through further branches was planned.

It is hard, today, to consider the extent of the impact of such a school on the lives of the scholars. In addition to the Sunday classes, there were quarterly Prayer and Praise Meetings, a subscription of 1d per month to join the library and a Bible and Hymn Book Fund - that assisted the purchase of Family and Pocket Bibles and hymn books. An Evening School gave instruction in Reading and Writing and it is reported that “many bright and instructive evenings were thus spent.” A “Mutual Improvement Society” met on Tuesdays in the Winter for an “interesting programme of Debates, Essays and Lectures.” For the summer, a Rambling Club met on Saturday afternoons. Social Teas were arranged and the Easter Tea Meeting for the year was addressed by William White of Birmingham, the then national figure of the Adult School Movement, who is reported as warmly encouraging his audience to “go forward.”

Temperance was promoted through monthly meetings, and class teachers were on hand to receive pledges on Sunday afternoons. 103 scholars had received assistance from the Benevolent Boxes, totalling £19-8s-6p in the past year and Walter Sturge was also the Treasurer of the Savings Bank. “Dispensary notes” were given in cases of severe illness. A Burial Club was organised, scholars under the age of sixty could join for 6d and then pay “three half-pence” per week for a benefit of £10 after ten years of membership on the death of the member or lesser amounts for his family. There were fines to be collected from those in arrears and, once again, the indefatigable Walter Sturge was Treasurer.

Entitled “Sundays in Birmingham,” an account exists of the Severn Street School showing a similar commitment by teachers and scholars that amounted to much more than an opportunity to provide and gain education. For many membership of the school became a foundation for their life and lifestyle.

For the visitor to that city it was suggested that a visit to one of the early morning adult Sunday-schools “will give the stranger an insight into this interesting world of social and religious life. It will probably be the greatest surprise of the day and prepare him for the revelations that are to follow. He will probably be advised to choose the Severn Street schools to begin with, the movement having originated here forty-five years since by the veteran Quaker Mr Joseph Sturge. Or he may find his way to one of the ten other schools which have developed from the Severn Street centre, numbering altogether some three thousand adult scholars; or again he may choose to visit one of the Church of England schools, founded for the same purpose. In any case he must be up betimes, for the schools begin at 7.30.

“Here, then, before daylight, on the cold, dark, or wet morning of winter, as well as in the better weather of the summer, the visitor will find Birmingham working-men trooping into the cheerful, well-lighted, well-equipped school rooms. Many of them must have risen at six in order to breakfast and reach the school, walking probably two and three miles by the regular time. A stranger will be struck by their intelligent appearance and serious manner, and will get an excellent impression of the Birmingham workmen who can so spend their Saturday nights as to be ready for 7.30 school on Sunday morning.”

With the quaint style that Victorian literature presents today, a scholar is supposedly interviewed by the visitor; “You see, sir, we must get to bed earlier on Saturday night if we are to be early at school, and that means knocking off some of the drink as well. How many of us, through coming to school broke off our lazy, lie-a-bed habits of a Sunday morning! Are we not a deal happier and better off now, improving in reading and writing and trying to learn some of the good that’s to be got from the Bible?”

Another testimony endorses the theme; “I can truly say our school has been a great comfort to me and my wife and family. Thank God, I don’t put out any bad words now, and I often think of the beautiful words of the Bible. It was a hard job at first to get up on Sunday morning, but now it is easy, and it makes me feel quite lively as I am going along to think of meeting so many kind friends.” At that time there were seventy-three scholars who had been members of the class for twenty-years or more.

The teachers showed similar dedication and Alderman William White, who had carried on Joseph Sturge’s work at Severn Street and nationally, had for more than forty years attended at six o’clock every Sunday morning, save for one month in the summer.

It is surely remarkable that that one school had had six teachers who were in turn to become the Mayor of Birmingham. Charles Sturge was amongst that number, for twenty years walking every Sunday from Edgbaston to the school. Such was the success of the Adult School movement, supported by all religious groups, that by 1884 the Midland Adult Sunday School Union, formed to promote and assist the schools in that district, could boast some 25,000 scholars. The Methodists take the credit for the original concept but the early energy and enthusiasm of Joseph Sturge played no small part in laying the foundations for the success of the whole movement.