Early Charity and Charter Schools

Earlier in the century, the desire to proselytise for social as well as religious reasons had been strengthened by the increasingly stringent penal laws. In 1712 a memorial was presented to the Lord Lieutenant, the Duke of Ormonde, by several of the nobility, gentry and clergy of Ireland requesting that schools ‘be erected in every parish in Ireland for the instruction to the Irish children gratis in the English tongue and the Catechism & religion of the Church of Ireland’. The memorialists were also anxious to provide clergy who could speak Irish and to print books in the Irish language so ‘that so many souls may not be abandoned to utter ignorance, infidelity & barbarity on the one side or left prey to schismaticks, or Dissenters on the other’.

This idea received practical support from the Rev. Edward Nicholson, who maintained a school for 24 poor boys at Trim and also established a number of schools in Connacht. To Nicholson these schools represented ‘the only sure and certain way of exterminating popery and immorality with all sects and schisms throughout our nation’.

In 1717, Dr Henry Maule joined with Edward Synge, Archbishop of Tuam, and Brigadier-General Stearne, the corresponding member in Ireland for the English Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, to found an Irish counterpart and also to encourage ‘the more general establishment of charity schools’. The Irish charity school movement was a instant success, and before the end of 1717 there were 100 schools with some 2,000 pupils. By 1724 there were 159 schools educating 2,211 boys and 542 girls.

Four new schools were established in 1725, and the number of students reached 3,000 over the next five years. At this point the movement peaked, as although nine further schools were established the number of students remained stationary and then began to decrease. The decline of the Irish movement was ascribed, probably correctly, to the lack of a strong middle class to provide it with adequate support and sustained enthusiasm.

Subscription schools attracted smaller benefactors. These started in Dublin in 1704, and by 1717 there were 15. They were managed by committees of subscribers. Many of these schools were directly connected with the Established Church and their incomes were often augmented by Sunday collections taken at the church door. They provided rudimentary elementary education combined with vocational training and instruction in the tenets of the Established Church. The majority of these schools were in the towns.

A report was made in 1791 based on the school returns from all the dioceses except Armagh, Meath, Elphin, Kilmore and Cashel. It revealed that out of 838 benefices there were parish schools in only 361, and that the total number of children being educated in them was about 11,000. In approximately half of the parishes, 403, the incumbent made no contribution towards the salary of a schoolmaster, and in the remainder the statutory duty had been commuted to 40s a year. Every parish in the city of Dublin had a school where the pupils received bed and board as well as instruction. These institutions left much to be desired and, in 1798, they were roundly condemned by the Rev. James Whitelaw.

From its inception, there were certain reservations about the charity school policy. For instance, in 1719 Archbishop King commented to a friend that he was afraid that their existence might make the clergy remiss in their duty to give religious instruction, and that the schools might fall into the wrong hands, for: ‘if once they came to have legal and settled endowments … they will be managed as other charities that are on that foot.’ Also, he was sceptical about the consequences of teaching ‘a vast number of youth of both sexes to read and write’, commenting that ‘I can’t say … what use cunning and designing men may make of a body of people so prepared and disposed.’

By the 1730s the declining momentum of the privately sponsored charity school movement was viewed with increasing concern in government circles. To counter it, Primate Boulter placed his great political and ecclesiastical weight behind a scheme for establishing a public corporation to encourage primary education. Writing to the Duke of Newcastle in May 1730, he said that:

The ignorance & obstinacy of the adult papists is such that there is not much hopes of converting them. But we have hopes if we could erect a number of schools to teach their children the English tongue, & the principles of the Christian religion, we could do some good among the generation that is growing up.

Boulter’s concern was strengthened by the findings of the 1731 parliamentary Report on the Growth of Popery, and ‘a humble proposal for obtaining His Majesty’s Royal Charter to incorporate a Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge among the poor natives of Ireland’ was signed by the four archbishops, the Chancellor, 12 bishops, 19 peers and over a hundred gentlemen and beneficed clergy.

This resulted in the foundation of the Charter School Society. Unfortunately, although the Society represented a genuine desire to educate and improve the life and prospects of the poorest members of the community, it demanded, in addition to a temporal loyalty to the established government, an unacceptable spiritual allegiance to the Anglican Church and thus the package, which by the standards of the day was well intentioned, was bitterly resented.

The structure of the Charter School Society marks an interesting phase in the development of public administration. A firm, if not very successful, attempt was made to consolidate its auspicious beginning by placing the Society on a sound financial and administrative basis. Arrangements were made to collect private donations in a systematic way; for instance, a corresponding society was formed in London to collect and remit donations made by absentees. George II made it a royal grant of £1,000 p.a. and this was continued until 1794 by his successor.

From time to time the Society received bequests: for instance, in 1740 Mrs Anne Hamilton left an estate valued at £35 19s 6d, which at the end of the century was worth £250 p.a.; in 1763 Dr Pococke, Bishop of Ossory, left the Society an estate which by the beginning of the nineteenth century had an income of £846 p.a., and by the same time the income from a bequest made by Lord Ranelagh in 1760 had risen to £1,748 p.a.

The Society attracted the first parliamentary grant towards elementary education in the British Isles. This was given by the Irish parliament in 1747, when the Society was allocated the proceeds of a tax on hawkers and pedlars in the city of Dublin. For approximately the next 40 years this tax produced an annual revenue of £1,150. Thereafter it declined.

But from 1751 onwards parliament gave recurring and increasing grants to the Society averaging £3,500 p.a. in 1751–61, £5,820 in 1761–71, £6,100 in 1771–81, £9,000 in 1781–91 and £11,850 in 1791–1801. The rising grant partly offset the decline in the tax on hawkers and pedlars. It has been calculated that in all the Society received over £1.25 million in parliamentary grants. But it was still too little and spread too thinly for the Society’s ambitions.

The business of the Society was transacted through a board which met on the first Wednesday in every month. Throughout the eighteenth century three committees reported to this board. The principal committee was the executive committee, which was annually elected on the first Wednesday in February. Throughout the year it met every Wednesday, and more frequently if required. The other two committees were concerned with law and accounts. From 1804 there was a fourth committee which met to examine the qualifications of masters, mistresses and assistants appointed to the schools.

Unfortunately, the prospect of free housing and the proceeds of free labour in addition to a small salary – masters and mistresses averaged £12 p.a., while ushers received £5–7 p.a. – led to many unsuitable appointments. Canvassing for these positions was very common and patronage was often involved. The immediate supervision of each school was under a local committee consisting of the principal Protestant gentlemen and ladies of the neighbourhood. But, although the secretariat had evolved precisely to avoid this problem, links between the local administration and the central secretariat often became tenuous.

Under the terms of their charter, these schools were supposed to admit not only Catholics but also ‘other poor natives of Ireland’. But in 1775 the Board passed a resolution confining admission to the schools to Catholic children, and this practice was confirmed by a further resolution in the ensuing year. Two exceptions to this were the schools – at Roscommon and Athlone – supported by the Ranelagh bequest, which had been endowed exclusively for the education of poor Protestants. The resolutions were rescinded in 1803, but for the last quarter of the eighteenth century the dubious benefits of the rest of these schools were confined to Catholics.

In accepting children the Charter School Society undertook to provide them with board, lodgings, clothes and all the materials necessary for their work and instruction, as well as bibles, prayer books and catechisms. One of the Society’s more disagreeable features was the removal of children not only from their parents, but also from the locality of their birth. There can be little doubt that this was done in order to further the Society’s acknowledged policy of proselytisation. In 1788 Mr Gibbons, the Secretary to the Charter School Society, stated that ‘the motive of transplanting them is to remove them from the influence of popish parents.’

By 1809 this was no longer an accepted policy, and although ‘transplantation’ still occasionally took place it was done with the greatest care and only to prevent overcrowding in certain schools, particularly those in the vicinity of the capital. Furthermore, some degree of mobility was inevitable when children graduated from the nurseries to the schools.

In the early 1750s Bishop Pococke, during his tour of the country, visited 24 charter schools and reported favourably on them. They appear to have followed the usual pattern of a well-intentioned enthusiastic beginning followed by a slow degeneration, for when they were visited by John Howard and John Wesley, in the 1770s and 1780s, they were in such a state of neglect that both reformers condemned them absolutely. Any improvement was probably short-lived, as when Wesley visited the charter school at Ballinrobe in 1785 he found that for 14 or 15 boys there were three beds and for 19 girls five, and ‘for food I was informed the master was allowed a penny farthing a day for each. But what are they taught? As far as I could learn, just nothing!’

Howard, reporting to the House of Commons, declared that ‘the state of most of the schools which I visited was so deplorable as to disgrace Protestantism and to encourage Popery in Ireland rather than the contrary.’ Among the recommendations that he made for their improvement were that ‘the committee of fifteen should pay the greatest attention to the remarks of a respectable local committee’, that allowances for food and clothing should be increased, as the penury of the Society was self-defeating – the state of the children did not encourage donations – and that the schools should be clean, in a good state of repair and efficiently managed.

Sir Jeremiah Fitzpatrick, the Inspector General of Prisons, who visited 28 charter schools in 1786–7, likewise reported on the deplorable physical and educational condition of the children, the dreadful filth and disrepair of the school fabric and the unkempt and unimproved state of the school lands. He also remarked that the masters and mistresses should ‘be prohibited from selling milk, butter and cheese’ – a custom that appears to have been a schoolmaster’s perquisite in eighteenth-century Ireland.

Another problem was the calibre of the masters and mistresses. For instance, the master of the school at Charleville was an alcoholic, and the master of the Monasterevan nursery alleged that he was an apothecary but appeared to be poisoning the children while charging for their medicines. Masters and mistresses who used the children as sweated labour for their own profit were only too common. At the same time, there were those that took their duties seriously. For example, at Killoteran, although the children were in rags, they were clean and Howard found that ‘the mistress and her daughters were teaching the little children to read.’

Early in 1788 the House of Commons received a report on the ‘State of the Protestant Charter Schools’, which revealed the near-disastrous consequences of what had been intended as a beneficial scheme. This was followed by a wider inquiry in 1791. After the Union a commission was established to inquire into education in Ireland, and in 1813 it compiled a report based on evidence collected between 1808 and 1812. Neither of these reports, nor the literacy figures in the 1841 census – the first available – gave an attractive picture of Irish education in the late eighteenth or the early nineteenth century.

The active development of the Charter School Society was over approximately 30 years – 1733–63. In all there were 53 schools for children from six to ten and four nursery schools for infants from four to five years old. Enthusiasm for the movement peaked between the years 1748 and 1751, when 15 new schools were founded. After 1763 the system declined into a state of decay from which the Irish parliament failed to effect any improvement, and not even the strictures of John Wesley and John Howard could arouse it.

The first indication of decline in the movement was the closure of a school in 1764 for reasons of economy. This was followed by the closure of six more in 1773 for the same reason. By 1790, 46 of the original 53 schools were still in operation; the total was further reduced when the school at Castle Carberry, Co. Kildare, was burnt down during the 1798 rebellion. In 1800 charter schools were to be found in 28 of the 32 counties, the exceptions being Carlow, Leitrim, Cavan and Fermanagh.

While the motives behind the foundation of the Charter School Society had been political and social as well as religious, it was the Society’s emphasis on proselytisation, and the means that it felt justified in employing to achieve that end, that made the whole movement so distasteful and secured its failure. Financial inadequacy and administrative incompetence were undoubtedly contributory causes of this failure, but the principal reason was the concept of the Society itself.

Its chequered career was summed up in 1809 when the Commissioners reported that ‘we feel ourselves bound to state, that during a very considerable period of its existence, it appears to have fallen short of attaining the purpose for which it was established,’ adding that there was evidence that the conversion of many of the scholars had been short-lived. The 1791 return of the Commissioners of Irish Education’s Inquiry gives 1,798 children in these schools in 1790. Nevertheless, it is extremely difficult to discover the actual number of children attending them at any given time, as it was in the interests of both the Society and the masters and mistresses to inflate the figures.