Social education

Leicester adult education centre by Helen Wells. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a ccby2 licence.

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James Hole (1860) fascinating discussion of social education, Chapter VIII of “Light, More Light!” On the present state of education amongst the working classes of Leeds, London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, pages 107-125.

[Page 107]

THERE are some agencies which, though they cannot be classed as schools, have an educational influence of the most powerful kind. That view of education which limits it to mere scholastic instruction, is narrow and incomplete. Let any one analyse the influences that have formed his own character, and he will find he has had many more “schools and schoolmasters” than those which commonly pass under those names. Just so with any community, whether comprising a nation or a town. Whatever tends to render the conditions of social existence more favourable, — physically, intellectually, or morally, – has an educative tendency. The character of the ordinary literature of the working classes, – the possession of the means of comfortable support,—habits of economy,—the character of the streets and dwellings,—the kind of amusements,—all exercise a most potent influence in educing or stunting the faculties and moulding the character. Although [page 108] we have hitherto only dwelt upon that school education which falls more specifically within the scope of this Essay, a few remarks on collateral topics may not be out of place.

Throughout the country a very decided improvement has taken place in the character of the literature perused by the working classes. The improvement, commenced a generation ago by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge in their “Penny Magazine,” and the “Saturday Magazine” of the Christian Knowledge Society, immediately followed by the publications of Charles Knight and Chambers, has, during the last ten years, gone on at a greatly accelerated ratio. Since that time, the “London Journal” and the “Family Herald” (the periodicals of largest circulation among the operative classes) have greatly improved; and. John Cassell’s publications have replaced the numerous ones by Lloyd, and are an immense improvement thereon. There used also to be issued several serials of an immoral and profligate character but they are nearly all extinct. The only ones now published to which the term immoral can be properly applied, are two reprints from stereotypes, which will probably issue as long as the [Page 109] plates last. The penny newspaper press is very good in its character, and its daily circulation is now six times greater than the circulation of all the daily papers before the penny press.

Tolerably complete statistics have recently been obtained by Mr. John Pickering, Secretary of the Leeds Mechanics’ Institution, of the circulation of newspapers and periodicals in Leeds; the total results of which are as follow :—

Circulation of Newspapers and Periodicals in Leeds,

May, 1860.

Daily. Weekly. Weekly. Monthly.
Literary and
: •~- 19,727 6,454 26,181
Religious. .. 2,375 7,968 10,343
Temperance . 374 14,672 15,046
Total . . 2,540 24,937 22,476 29,094 51,570

The particular items of which this table is composed will be found in an Appendix,* and afford interesting indications of the character of the [Page 110] popular literature. Compared with data of the same kind, obtained by the Rev. Mr. Hall in 1852 and 1858,* there seems to be a considerable improvement, both in quantity and quality.

The amount of money expended per annum in the above publications is as follows

Weekly Monthly Total
Literary and Scientific £4,564 3 10 £1201 0 0 £5,765 3 10
Religious 485 15 4 833 10 6 1,319 5 10
Temperance 81 0 8 564 14 6 645 15 2
Newspapers 4021 2 0 11,841 1 0 15,862 5 0
£23,592 9 10


Mr. Pickering estimates that of this amount there is expended—

By the working class . . . £9,244 11 10

By the middle and upper classes . 14,347 18 0

Total  .      .      .   £23,592 9 10

Leeds, fortunately, suffers less from poverty than most manufacturing towns, owing to its possession of numerous and distinct departments of productive industry, which prevent the serious fluctuations experienced by towns mainly dependent on a single branch of manufacture. Wages are not high, but [Page 111] they are more certain. Rents also are low; and the neighbourhood of a well-cultivated agricultural, as well as a rich and well-wrought coal district, together with facilities of conveyance, insure cheapness of both food and fuel. Thus the large majority of the working classes are free from that extreme indigence which is sometimes a fostering cause of despondency, followed by recklessness and crime.

The working classes of Leeds show a very creditable amount of economy, though doubtless there is still much room for improvement. In the Leeds Savings Bank there are 12,411 depositors* (8,144 males, and 4,267 females), and the amount of deposits on the 20th November, 1859, reached the large sum of £339,890 12s. 8d.: allowance must be made for the fact, that a portion of this amount was for Trust accounts and charitable societies, and also that the Bank embraces a district beyond the borough. Besides this Bank, there are in Leeds eighteen branches (comprising about 3,600 depositors) of the West-Riding Penny Savings Bank, with deposits to the amount of £2,000; in addition to many other similar Penny Banks in [Page 112] connection with schools and places of worship. * Several Building Societies must be noted, one of which (the Leeds Permanent Benefit Building Society) has received from its members, in the twelve years it has been established, the sum of £750,532 9s. Od.** Add to this the Sick Benefit Societies, under various names, containing probably about 36,000 members, insured against sickness, and for a sum at death. Then there is the Co-operative Flour and Provision Society, consisting of 3,000 members, possessing a capital of £10,000, employed in furnishing themselves with flour, groceries, and other articles, at the cheapest rate. Here is the germ, which it only requires an increased intelligence and self-denial on the part of the working classes, to develop into one of the most gigantic


* It is most important that these Penny Banks, now so rapidly spreading, should be well organized, and strict precautions taken to ensure safety, as any fraud or failure among them would destroy the confidence of the working classes in them, and do incalculable injury. A proper method of keeping the accounts, a guarantee for the funds, and a fair percentage of interest is ensured to the Penny Banks affiliated with the West-Riding Penny Bank, of which there are now (July, 1860,) 92 branches, containing 15,000 depositors and £16,000 in deposits. For the conditions and advantages of this Bank, see Appendix L.


** This large sum was paid by 16,221 members and depositors of loans. The total amount invested was £382,627 4s. lOd. by 1,280 borrowing member,.

[Page 113] social revolutions. It would be easy to accumulate similar facts, but these will suffice to indicate how much the working classes are doing to elevate their social position. In a few large establishments, Sick Clubs and Savings Banks have been established with the best results, and there is no reason why they should not exist in all mills and workshops of any magnitude. The employers should encourage and aid them, if only from a regard to their own interests, but any interference in their management would be injurious, perhaps fatal.

The physical condition of the majority of the working classes of the town would have been good, had it been subjected to proper municipal regulations during the last thirty years. Decent houses and well-drained streets are scarcely less important than good wages, or Day and Sunday Schools but notwithstanding ~an enormous sum expended in making drains, there are many miles of houses, yards, and streets, unconnected with the main drainage!

In Leeds the reprehensible mode of building cottages back to back, has been almost universally the custom, and in spite of its known evils, it is allowed to go on, no steps being even contemplated [Page 114] to check its growth. The unfortunate dwellers in miserable streets so constructed sometimes struggle for a while to maintain an aspect of decency about their little dwellings, but at last the accumulating filth renders it impracticable, and they give up the contest in despair. One privy to four cottages has been settled to be the legitimate allowance in Leeds; but this liberality of supply has been by no means universally attained. A favourite plan, and almost inevitable upon the back-to-back system of building, is to plant the privies for a number of houses in the centre of the row, with a sleeping chamber over them! Every question of convenience, or even of common decency, seems sacrificed to the one consideration of getting the largest possible return for the money invested.*

In this, as in all other investments of capital, the builder of cottages looks merely to the profit In interest of his money; and perhaps the only mode, or at any rate the likeliest way, of getting better dwellings for working people, would be by the formation of companies, which, by purchasing a site of adequate dimensions, might erect dwellings combining all needful provisions for health, and economy In cooking, washing, and other needful household afffairs,—a space of ground for drying clothes and children’s recreation; and which there Is now experience enough to shew can be done at a fair profit, and with a perfectly safe Investment. A few such groups of houses would compel greater attention to these necessary provisions on the part of all builders. And if the decent working man would set down a few requisites for his abode, and as far as practicable Insist on having them, builders would bid for tenants having such notions, —the best evidence of their being trustworthy tenants.

[Page 115] To add to these evils there is, of course, the gin-shop and the beerhouse, as if to blot out the last lineaments of humanity, already nearly destroyed by the other associations of these wretched neighbourhoods.

“Vices festering to despair,
Or sorrows petrifying to vices; not
A linger touch of God left whole on them;
All ruined, lost—the countenance worn out
As the garments, the will dissolute as the act,—
The passions loose and draggling in the dirt
To trip the foot up at the first free step!”

No one can ever tell, statistics cannot reach the vast amount of evil done, and of good arrested, by these places. A distinction must, however, be drawn between some public-houses and a few of the more respectable beerhouses, generally well conducted, and the dramshops and lower class of beerhouses. Apart from the besotting influence of the drink, the low beerhouse is too often the focus of depravity for a whole neighboi~irhood, a place where gambling and card-playing constitute quite as great attractions as drinking, and where prostitutes are regularly kept. Often they are resorted to by mere youths of both sexes, who speedily lose the good impressions they may have gained in the [Page 116] Day or Sunday School, and where they rapidly graduate in vice and criminality. Then there are other places where the attractions are perhaps less coarse, but not less seductive, nor ultimately less pernicious—the casino and singing rooms. Comic songs of a more than doubtful character, recitations spiced with double entendre, dancing, semi-dramatic performances, and mere buffoonery, accompanied by tobacco smoking and drinking, are the ordinary attractions of such places. One place of the kind in Leeds has a larger nightly attendance than the Evening classes of all its 17 Mechanics’ Institutes put together!

If, as we believe it may be assumed, that the proportion of public-houses and beerhouses to population is about the same in the out-townships as within the township of Leeds, the statistics collected by Mr. Baker, in 1839, will show that there has been a very great decrease of this pernicious influence in the last 20 years, owing doubtless to the progress of popular enlightenment, and especially to the exertions of the Temperance Society. In 1839 there was one public-house, or beerhouse, to every 182 of the population (township), whereas in 1860 there was only one such house to every 266 (borough), or [Page 117] a decrease of 31 per cent. in proportion to the population.* Had it not been for the beerhouses, in which almost the entire increase has taken place, the improvement would have been greater than it is. ** These evils have been alluded to from the conviction, that before the machinery of education, however perfected, can produce any great and striking effect upon the mass of improvidence, profligacy, and crime, the other conditions of a correct social life must be inaugurated. Better cottages and streets, and fewer drinking houses, are essential.

Another important element of individual and social education1 is the public amusements; and their character (whether as cause or effect) is no bad index to that of the people themselves.

The ancients very wisely treated their games as national institutions, and the Greeks especially made


* The following are the statistics referred to in the text

Year. Inns. Beer-
Total Estistimated
Township .

Borough .









In 1858,
1 in 184

1 in 266

** Inns in the Township of Leeds – – 1839 – 215, 1860 – 238

[Page 118] them contributory to both mental and physical development. Among ourselves, the stimulus of private gain is trusted to supply whatever amusements are demanded by the people, whose tastes are, therefore, pandered to instead of elevated, and this with no check except the lax one of public opinion, and, in extreme cases, of police regulation.

Impressed by the evils resulting from the amusements ordinarily presented to the working classes of Leeds, a few gentlemen, in 1853, established a society called the “Rational Recreation Society.” Owing to want of means, it never went beyond affording cheap Saturday evening concerts. It once made an unproductive appeal to the public on behalf of a gymnasium. The effect of the society’s operations was in a great measure to supersede the system of full-dress expensive concerts, and to present the public with the highest class of music at a very moderate price. This was a great benefit, but unfortunately it reached mainly the middle class, and those in social positions immediately above the operative classes; in this respect strikingly corresponding to Mechanics’ Institutions, which, however beneficial, have not sufficiently reached the class to whom they nominally belong. During the seven [Page 119] seasons the concerts were held in the Music Hall, the proportion of the total admissions was as follows :

At 3d. . . 26 per cent.

At 6d. 41 per cent

At 1s. . . . 33 per cent


and during the two seasons the concerts have been held at the Town Hall, the proportions have been as follows :—

At 3d. – . 33 per cent.

At 6d. – . 33 per cent

At 1s. – . 34 per cent

Besides the above concerts, 20 evening organ performances were given in 1859, at a charge of 3d., and yet the highest number present was 794, and the average attendance only 544. These facts are not very encouraging, yet there is no doubt that the taste for good and refined music is rapidly diffusing. It has not yet reached the operative classes to any considerable degree, and it may be doubted whether the attendance at the lowest places of entertainment has been appreciably diminished. When there is a circus, however, or any popular spectacular entertainment, the beerhouse keepers are loud in their complaints of the serious diminu- [Page 120] tion in their receipts. The drama in Leeds is very inferior, and such as would not be tolerated in the smallest continental town; and the associations connected with the theatre generally are, it might almost be said, so incurably bad that it is in vain to speculate upon what might be done by it under better arrangements. The attendance at the theatre when a dramatic performance of the higher order, by artists of acknowledged merit, is given, proves that there is no want of appreciation for excellence, in what might be the most elevating of recreations, and the instrument of rendering our people acquainted with the noblest poetry in the world. A new theatre ought to be erected in Leeds, and if the middle and upper classes supported it, it would be commercially remunerative, and thus enable it to dispense with the representation of pieces of an improper character, and to remove the grosser associations connected with it. The attractiveness of this kind of amusement is manifested in the crowded audiences that attend dramatic readings in the Mechanics’ Institute, and operas in the Town Hall, stripped of the action and scenery of the drama, and which serve as occasional and successful substitutes.

[Page 121] Leeds has no doubt enough of the ruffianism which culminated recently in the national prize fight ;* but on the whole it is more than usually free from gambling, and those brutal and cruel sports which, in the face of “Bell’s Life,” are fast dying out in this country. Its amusements are less gross and less demoralizihg than in most other large towns. All classes are fond of out-door amusements, to which Woodhouse moor, now the property of the town, and the beautiful scenery in the neighbourhood, give special inducements. Much, however, yet remains to be done to render out-door recreations available to the great majority of our operatives. Woodhouse moor has now been drained, but it ought also to have a good carriage road round it, planted with trees, and interspersed with shrubs and flowers; and horses should no longer be permitted to injure the surface, and make it unfit for walking or games. The moor would then become a resort at all times pleasing to the eye, and especially grateful in hot weather. In one corner a gymnasium might be placed, similar to those in the people’s parks at Manchester, which form such an admirable counter-


* Many thousand copies of the account of this disgraceful exhibition were printed and sold in Leeds.

[Page 123] active to the evils of confined and sedentary employments.* Woodhouse moor, however, is from its situation incapable of meeting the wants of the industrial thousands in the crowded townships of Hunslet and Holbeck, and at the East end of Leeds, who need far more the invigorating and refreshing opportunities of such exercise grounds than do those of Headingley. Hunslet and Holbeck moors should, also, be secured, and made pleasant and perpetual places of resort for the inhabitants. The growth of manufactures and trade is crowding the people into still narrower spaces, where the fresh breath of heaven is oppressed with noisome gases, and the blue sky dimmed by smoke. The accumulation of wealth is fencing round every green field, and enclosing every moor. The river, that once flowed free for all, and nearly as pure as its source,


* The Rifle Corps movement is an important adjunct to the promotion of physical education. If properly conducted, and It should become extensively and permanently established, with its practice ground in the neighbourhood of every large town, and with its periodical contests, it will become an institution of great national importance. Free swimming-baths ought to be established in Leeds, and in every large town. Their general introduction would tend to diffuse habits of cleanliness which are almost impossible In the crowded dwellings of the working classes. It would also save many lives, lost from want of a knowledge of the art of swimming.


[Page 123] is now appropriated for the pleasure of a few, or turned into an inky noisome stream. The civilization which absorbs so much, should give somewhat more than it does of the blessed influence of pure air and light, and free space, to those thousands so long “cabined, cribbed, confined,” in miles of close streets and filthy alleys, that they seem to have lost almost the consciousness of their deprivation.

Some of the proposals in this Essay will no doubt incur expense; and if looked at without reference to results, a very large cost. We cannot have Day Schools, Night Schools, Schools of Science and Art, Museums, Galleries of Fine Art, without expense. But the truth remains, that the economy which counts cost without caring for results, is as short sighted, and in the end as mistaken, as it is mean and ungenerous. The wise husbandman counts not the cost of the seed alone, but the value of the crop. Look for a moment at the other side of the account Calculate the loss which we sustain in the value of the ignorant workman, merely as an industrial machine, by inferior skill, waste of time, and of material. To this large loss, add that sustained by neglect of the laws of health [Page 124] and the simplest sanitary conditions, inducing sickness and shortened lives. Add, again, our large poor-rate, which in 99 cases out of 100 is a tax levied by ignorance upon intelligence, of improvidence upon thrift. Add, again, the vast cost of our many charitable institutions, which is another form of poor-rate, but levied with less fairness. Add, again, the cost of the various items of crime, the value of property destroyed, the expenses of law, of the gaol, and of the police, and we shall get a total compared with which tenfold the sum now spent in the education and social improvement of the people would be a mere trifle. Tested by utilitarian views alone, that expenditure which is wisely devoted to the education of the people, to their moral, physical, intellectual, and social improvement, is of all outlays the most economical An obligation of the strongest kind rests upon each of us to do all he can in the way best suited to his means and capacity, towards ameliorating the social condition of the people amidst whom he dwells. He who attends solely to his personal comforts, or self-advancement, fails not only in the performance of duty, but loses the best cultivation of his own faculties, as well as the purest of sympathetic [Page 125] pleasures. Nor need we set up one form of activity in preference to another. There is, unfortunately, too much need for all. Whether it be in the Ragged School, the Sunday School, the Mechanics’ Institute, the Temperance Society, or in any other mode of action calculated to raise his fellow-men, is of secondary consequence: let each one “do the work that lies nearest to him.” The main point is, that he does the work he is fitted to do, with singleness of purpose, and “that whatsoever his hand findeth to do, he shall do it with his might.”

This piece has been reproduced here on the understanding that it is not subject to any copyright restrictions, and that it is, and will remain, in the public domain.

Picture: Leicester adult education centre by Helen Wells. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a ccby2 licence.

Updated June 2019.

Last Updated on June 20, 2019 by