Vocational Schools

The 1809 Commissioners listed a group of charitable educational foundations giving a primary education as ‘English Schools of private foundation’, thereby distinguishing them from ‘classical schools of private foundation’, which taught classics and were equivalent to grammar schools. Two of the best-known schools in the first category were the Bishop Foy School at Waterford and the Rainey Endowed at Magherafelt, Co. Londonderry. Educational benefactions for foundations of this type continued throughout the century.

For instance, the MP William Handcock (0957) founded a school at Athlone in the reign of Queen Anne, Speaker Conolly (0460) endowed one at Celbridge in the reign of George I, while in 1734 the philanthropic Mrs Mercer left part of her estate to establish a vocational school for girls at Rathcool. From the beginning of the century there was a widespread concern for the provision of education for the poor, often with a strong vocational component. These enterprises expanded after the formation of the Linen Board in 1710, which supplied spinning-wheels to encourage the establishment of spinning-schools under the supervision of the local landlord.

Lord Donegall endowed primary schools at Belfast in 1777 and, in 1789, the ‘civil servant’ and MP Richard Jackson (1076) bequeathed money for the foundation of schools near Coleraine. The Earl of Abercorn had a school at Strabane, Co. Tyrone, and Sir Dermot O’Brien one at Newmarket, Co. Cork. Some landlords and their wives took a keen interest in the education of their tenants. For example, De Latocnaye found that at Bellevue ‘Madame La Touche holds here a school for twenty-four young girls who are maintained at her charges. She herself acts as school-mistress. When the girls come of age she gives them a dowry and marries them to labourers of good character.’

Conditions varied from school to school. Occasionally the children were clothed, sometimes they received board and lodgings, in some schools a small fee was charged, while in others education was given free to some or all of the children. The schools were usually co-educational and the number in each probably averaged about 50, although larger schools like those supported by Speaker Conolly and Lord Donegall could accommodate 100 children. At the end of the century bad financial administration had reduced the number of children at the Rainey Endowed School to nine boys although there had been more at an earlier period. Frequently the presentations to these schoolmasterships remained in the family of the donor.

In both Dublin and Cork there were vocational schools that had become public institutions: some of them, like the Green Coat School at Cork, had started as private foundations, but with the passage of time this school and the Cork Blue Coat School had become closely linked to the city and to public charity. Both schools were vocationally oriented and the municipal corporation exercised considerable influence over admissions and policy.

The Blue Coat Hospital was founded in 1699 by Dr Worth, Bishop of Killaloe. He endowed it with lands, stipulating that they should be let on 21-year leases only. However, the administration of this school and its affairs was entrusted to the Mayor and Corporation of the City of Cork, who in 1707 leased the endowed lands ‘for ever’, a situation that in 1809 led the Commissioners investigating Irish education to request the Board of Charitable Donations and Bequests to inquire whether the funds had been misappropriated. At the end of the century the school was described as giving a superior education to 20 to 24 boys admitted on the recommendation of the corporation, and ‘mostly the sons of decayed citizens of Cork’.

The Green Coat Hospital was founded at the instigation of Dr Henry Maule, the charity school enthusiast, who was vicar of Shandon. Private subscriptions, donations and bequests were augmented by casual donations placed in the collecting boxes held by statues of a charity school boy and girl standing outside the school. In 1715 it was declared that religion, education and labour were here combined to the admiration of all concerned.

The school attempted to combine a basic education in reading, writing and arithmetic with suitable vocational training and care was taken ‘to study the genius of the children and to fit them as best suited them, for the sea, husbandry, trades or services’. Spinning and weaving were extensively taught in the school. A master weaver was employed to instruct the boys and a spinning mistress taught the girls. The equipment was supplied by the Linen Board. Originally there appear to have been about 100 children at the school, 50 of whom were clothed each year, but by the end of the century there were probably only about half this number attending the school.

The principal foundations of a similar type in Dublin were the Blue Coat School, the Hibernian School and the Hibernian Marine School. All three were restricted to the children or nominees of certain sections of the community. The Blue Coat School was restricted to the children or nominees of the freemen or aldermen of the city. It was established in 1672 by a charter of Charles II, placed under the control of the mayor and corporation of the city of Dublin, and given a site at Oxmantown. At the end of the eighteenth century it had a splendid, if still incomplete, building designed by Thomas Ivory intended to provide accommodation for about 120 boys aged between eight and 14.

The curriculum included Biblical instruction, the tenets of the Established Church, English, Euclid, navigation and practical mathematics. Among the texts in use at the end of the century were Gough’s Arithmetic, the Universal Spelling Books, the Church of England and Stopford’s Catechisms.

At the age of 14 the children were either apprenticed to a suitable Protestant tradesman, with a fee of £5, or trained as seamen.

A few years later the Commissioners of the Board of Education reported that there were 130 boys, clothed at a cost of £16 p.a.

The Hibernian School in the Phoenix Park was founded in the 1760s for the purpose of ‘maintaining, education and apprenticing the orphans and children of soldiers in Ireland’, and children who could certify this background were admitted between the ages of seven and 12 years. In 1805 there were 374 children – 271 boys and 103 girls – and ‘they appear to be kindly and humanely taken care of.’ Its administration had a distinctly military flavour: Carr visited it and stated that on the academic side the instruction of the children was in the hands of a serjeant-major of instruction assisted by six serjeant-assistants. On the vocational side, there was a serjeant-master tailor, a serjeant-master shoemaker and a serjeant-master gardener.

The 1809 Commissioners noted with regret that the children were often reluctant to embark on a military career, as on completing their training they were often either apprenticed or returned to their parents. Carr had also expressed surprise that they were apprenticed to trade instead of being sent into the army, where he felt that they would make excellent non-commissioned officers. A farm attached to the school served the dual purpose of providing food for the institution and giving the boys some practical instruction in agriculture.

The boys were taught tailoring and shoemaking, but the girls were instructed to make both their own and the boy’s clothes, as well as in household skills. From the age of 14 upwards the children were apprenticed to suitable masters – the boys to shoemakers, tailors, smiths, etc. and the girls to mantua-makers, glovers, milliners, etc. Both sexes found employment as servants, for whom there was always a ready market.

The Hibernian Marine School (or Society) for the sons and orphans of seamen of the Royal or Merchant Navy was founded in 1760 to meet this continuous demand, although at this time it had accommodation for only 20 boys. In 1775, the School was incorporated by Royal Charter and by the end of the century it had a ‘plain substantial building’ which could accommodate about 120 boys. On admission the children had to be vouched for and give proof that they were indeed the children of a seaman. Once admitted they were given a nautical uniform and taught reading, writing, arithmetic and navigation. When they reached a suitable age they were apprenticed to the masters of merchant vessels, who in accepting them as apprentices waived the usual fees.

Although Great Britain and Ireland were both islands and the navy was the first line of defence, comparatively few of those who attended the Hibernian Marine School went into the Royal Navy. The Commissioners of the Board of Education reported in 1813 that there were only 110 boys in the school although there was accommodation for 160, ‘and on this charity so important to a maritime country we have been obliged to make a report which we are unwilling to repeat’.

The trade and commerce of the towns was still controlled by the guilds. Entry to the guilds was by apprenticeship, and the elected representatives of the guilds formed the corporations of Dublin, Cork and some other cities. The master-craftsmen in the guilds had given proof of their skill in their respective crafts and they were responsible for training apprentices, controlling the journeymen and maintaining standards in their trade. Strangers applying for admission often had to supply a proof piece to demonstrate their skills.

During the last quarter of the century, the Belfast Charitable Society sponsored a school for the poor children under its care. The children were taught to card and spin cotton and the school was instrumental in encouraging the development of the cotton manufacture in that city. By 1800 cotton was Belfast’s major textile industry. As cotton was a factory-based industry, this development marked another stage in the industrialisation of the north

The Irish parliament kept a vigilant eye on the activities of the various guilds. For instance, in 1703, after hearing the report of an inquiry into the textile trade, the House of Commons resolved that ‘it is very prejudicial to the said Trade that any Master shall keep above two apprentices at the one time or release them from their apprenticeship under the term of seven years.’ This was neither the first nor the last time that parliament interested itself on this point. Masters wished to increase the number of their apprentices for both the fees paid by the apprentices and the work that a skilled apprentice could perform. In the case of children educated at charitable foundations these fees were paid either by the institution or, in the case of a private school, by the landlord.

One of the major preoccupations of the vocational charitable schools was to train the children either for the home-based textile industry or for domestic service. John Carr, writing in 1806, reported that:

There is a noble school for Catholic children at Killarney. When they are old enough to quit the seminary they are ardently sought after as servants, as well by protestant as catholic families … this is one amongst many powerful instances which may be adduced to prove that the great object of Irish government ought to be the illumination of the minds of the lower orders, without aiming at proselytism … How many years are to roll away in storm and bloodshed, before this plain but important truth shall be admitted or acted upon?

This sentiment, which undoubtedly had a great influence on educational thought in the formative period prior to 1833, was echoed in the report of 1812 which stated that in any new experiment in education ‘it [shall] be explicitly avowed, and clearly understood that as its leading principle no attempt shall be made to influence or disturb the peculiar religious tenets of any sect or description of Christians.’