‘Objects of raging detestation’ the charter schools

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 2(March/April 2011), Penal Laws, Volume 19

William Ashford’s View of Dublin Bay (1794), showing, to the left, the charter school at Clontarf. (National Gallery of Ireland)

William Ashford’s View of Dublin Bay (1794), showing, to the left, the charter school at Clontarf. (National Gallery of Ireland)

Charter schools were intended to solve the problem facing a victorious people taking over a defeated, impoverished country from the 1690s onwards. With almost a quarter of the Irish population killed or exiled, the rest were needed as a labour force for the new masters of the land. Yet how was it possible to trust or employ people whose religion was believed to encourage treachery, violence and civil disobedience? Clearly, in order to retain and develop the country safely, action must be taken to Anglicise the natives.

Failure of the penal laws
The penal laws from 1695 had failed in their stated purpose of converting the Catholic Irish to Protestantism. It was time to try a gentler approach. Education was so valued by the Irish that those who could afford it paid readily for illegal ‘hedge-schools’. What if they were offered education free, with apprenticeships for boys and employment as domestic servants for girls? As a conquered people they could not, of course, expect to be educated above their lowly status, that being contrary to the divine order of things. But the children would be boarded, clothed and fed, taught to read, possibly even to write, certainly to labour at appropriate tasks. Above all, they would be removed from Catholic influences, brought up in a Protestant faith and apprenticed only to Protestants. Ireland, dotted with prosperous English-speaking Protestant communities, would then become a more secure place.
The idea of schools seems to have occurred simultaneously to several important people. Dr Hugh Boulter, primate of Ireland, mustered strong political support. Dr Maule, bishop of Cloyne, made detailed submissions regarding schools to King George II. Helped by Revd Dawson, curate of St Michan’s, Dublin, Maule was successful at the second attempt (1730) in obtaining a promise of a royal charter, which meant state sponsorship. Jonathan Swift, dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, known for his concern for the Irish poor, gave his approval. The members of the linen board, anxious to promote their industry, offered to supply—free—both the instruction and the equipment needed for pupils to process flax.

 

Jonathan Swift, dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, known for his concern for the Irish poor, gave his approval. (National Gallery of Ireland)

Jonathan Swift, dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, known for his concern for the Irish poor, gave his approval. (National Gallery of Ireland)

Incorporated Society for Promoting English Protestant Schools
The Incorporated Society for Promoting English Protestant Schools in Ireland was set up in 1733, with a committee of fifteen members. Significantly, it first met in Dublin Castle, the centre of English rule in Ireland, and it was to remain Dublin-centred. While no doubt motivated by a genuine desire to help poor children, the primary purpose was to convert a people seen as inferior. Initially, needy Protestants were included, but as the drive to proselytise took over those children went elsewhere.
One of the first landowners to respond to the project was Henry Boyle, speaker of the Irish parliament. He donated land for a charter school from his demesne at Castlemartyr, in east Cork. Other landowners followed, particularly those anxious to have a trained workforce. They contributed towards the building of their schools—each co-educational at the outset, later single-sex, and designed to take about 40 children. All institutions were intended to be self-supporting, hence the need for land to cultivate. Masters and mistresses of unimpeachable Protestant background were recruited to manage each school. They were not required to have teaching experience, nor any knowledge of the country or of the Irish language. They were to get free board and lodging, with salaries augmented by the pupils’ earnings. Some pupils were foundlings or orphans; most were from destitute Catholic families desperate to have their children fed. But no Catholic adult was employed in any charter school. A unique feature of the schools was the practice of ‘transplantation’. To make

 

John Wesley, founder of Methodism, visited charter schools during his preaching tours of Ireland in 1773 and 1785, and complained to the Incorporated Society about the grossly neglected state of the children and the unsuitability of some masters and mistresses: ‘If this be a sample of the Irish charter schools, what good can we expect of them?’ His letter was, apparently, ignored. Methodism was unpopular with the established church. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

John Wesley, founder of Methodism, visited charter schools during his preaching tours of Ireland in 1773 and 1785, and complained to the Incorporated Society about the grossly neglected state of the children and the unsuitability of some masters and mistresses: ‘If this be a sample of the Irish charter schools, what good can we expect of them?’ His letter was, apparently, ignored. Methodism was unpopular with the established church. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

it difficult for families to reclaim children, they were moved to districts as far away as possible from their homes. People who tried to prevent the removal of children from their parents could be sentenced to six months’ hard labour (23 Geo.II c.ll).

Problems
It was hoped that private donations would help to support the schools. When these were not forthcoming, state aid increased in the form of direct grants from the Irish parliament and the royal bounty, plus revenue from a tax on hawkers and peddlers. By 1758 there were 46 charter schools, and three ‘feeder’ nurseries taking children under the age of six. Each school was supervised by a committee of local gentry and clergy, with one of the latter employed as visiting catechist. No provision was made for any form of inspection. People were reluctant to question rich and powerful benefactors, and this was evident in the glowing but vague accounts of individual schools occasionally received by the Incorporated Society.
A feeling that all was not well began to grow. Instances of ‘eloping’ (absconding) from the schools increased, though penalties for attempting it were severe. No one wanted to take charter school apprentices, even when paid to do so, because so many were illiterate and ill-behaved. Significant also was the passage of legislation

John Howard, a well-known philanthropist, visited 37 of the 52 schools in existence in the 1780s and found the information furnished by the Incorporated Society to be inaccurate as to both the numbers of children and their treatment.

John Howard, a well-known philanthropist, visited 37 of the 52 schools in existence in the 1780s and found the information furnished by the Incorporated Society to be inaccurate as to both the numbers of children and their treatment.

(in 1749) explicitly to punish masters who ‘had carnal knowledge’ of their female pupils. By 1782, when it had won some right to control legislation, the Irish parliament began to question the very high cost of financing these schools. John Howard and Sir Jeremiah Fitzpatrick were commissioned to report on them.

John Howard
Howard, a Londoner from a wealthy, devout Calvinist family, was a well-known philanthropist who, following personal experience of prison in 1750s France, became a prison reformer. He visited 37 of the now 52 schools, and found the information furnished by the Incorporated Society to be inaccurate as to both the numbers of children and their treatment. Most were not taught anything; there was no time for that, as they were kept at work seven days a week to earn money for their masters. Many children were too dirty and neglected to attend any church. Employers economised on their clothes and food to save money. Well-run schools did exist, but only as rare exceptions.

Sir Jeremiah Fitzpatrick, a Paris-trained doctor, was appointed the first inspector general of Irish prisons and knighted by the lord lieutenant in 1782. In the same year, in a report to the Irish parliament, both he and Howard recommended that the charter schools be closed down. (Royal College of Physicians, London)

Sir Jeremiah Fitzpatrick, a Paris-trained doctor, was appointed the first inspector general of Irish prisons and knighted by the lord lieutenant in 1782. In the same year, in a report to the Irish parliament, both he and Howard recommended that the charter schools be closed down. (Royal College of Physicians, London)

Sir Jeremiah Fitzpatrick

Sir Jeremiah Fitzpatrick, a Paris-trained doctor, was appointed the first inspector general of Irish prisons and knighted by the lord lieutenant in 1782. In the same year, in a report to the Irish parliament, both he and Howard recommended that the charter schools be closed down. (Royal College of Physicians, London)
Howard’s colleague Fitzpatrick was a unique and mysterious figure. Born (c. 1740) into a Catholic family in Kilbeggan, he is next heard of in Jervis Street, Dublin, as a Paris-trained doctor with a sympathy for prisoners, which led to his being appointed the first inspector general of Irish prisons and knighted by the lord lieutenant in 1782. Such honours only went to members of the established church, so Fitzpatrick ‘conformed’ in 1780, later reverting to his original faith. This account of his visit to the Kilkenny charter school shows how he worked:

‘The house is situated a mile from the city. There were 32 children, many of them very small and almost all looked miserable; and their wretched appearance was enhanced by their being barefooted and ragged. Though boys, they were employed in carding and spinning, and sat on stools and stone-seats in a cold work-shop. On the morning of the day of my visit it snowed heavily, yet the room in which they were at work was without fire, although it was ready for lighting. I asked why it was not lighted? A person who superintended the labour of the children demanded of them (with an angry tone of voice) why they had not lighted it before? Two of them with a look of terror arose and instantly obeyed. After having examined the situation of the house, where I found the beds abominably filthy, education most culpably neglected, and many of the children afflicted with itch and scald, I rode off; but suspecting from what I had seen that the children would not long enjoy the benefit of the fire, I returned on foot through the fields, and found that they had already extinguished it by pouring water on it.’

History does not tell us what Sir Jeremiah Fitzpatrick said to the school proprietors, but it does record what he and John Howard said to the Irish parliament in their joint report. Between them they visited most of the charter schools, and reached a radical conclusion. Attempts to improve them were pointless; the project should be closed down. But the political climate had changed. Revolution in France caused Ireland’s ruling caste to fear revolution here, so any critique of their pet project was threatening. The report lay on the table of the Irish House of Commons, with no action taken.
John Howard returned to England and to gradual public acceptance of his work as a prison reformer. Jeremiah Fitzpatrick found his plans to reform the entire Irish prison system frustrated by those unable to tolerate plain speaking, especially when it came from a papist. He developed a new career in England as inspector of health for the land forces (1794–1802) and died there in 1810.

The experiment ends
The Act of Union (1800) temporarily led to a period of increased funding for charter schools, but the political climate changed again. Threats of Napoleon invading made it expedient to allow Catholics to join the militia, army and navy. Attempts to convert Catholic children were gradually dropped, and Catholic schools were allowed to exist officially. Opposition to charter schools became more organised and confident. In 1825, with Daniel O’Connell’s help, a royal committee of enquiry into education in Ireland commissioned Revd William Lee, an inspector for charity day-schools, to inspect charter schools as well. Even where physical conditions had improved, he reported:

‘In the charter school all social and family affection are dried up, children once received into them are as it were the brothers, the sisters, the relations of nobody! They have no vacation, they know not the feeling of home; and hence it is primarily, whatever concomitant causes there may be, that they are so frequently stunted in body, mind and heart.’

By comparison, he said, even the poorest day-school children were ‘vastly superior in health, appearance and intelligence’.
Other inspectors found evidence of corporal punishment of children brutal even for that time; of severe bullying meted out to pupils born outside wedlock; and of many cases of sexual abuse, perpetrated by the peer group as well as by adults. The Committee of the Incorporated Society came under censure for failing to inspect. Funding was withdrawn from the schools. The 2,000 children remaining in them were sent home or to other institutions. The Committee altered its role to that of provider of secondary education for children of the Church of Ireland community.
And unfortunately, as Judge Gerald Fitzgibbon predicted, distrust of the whole evangelical movement was implanted in the minds of the Catholic population. HI

Helena Kelleher Kahn is a returned emigrant who graduated from social work to social history.

Further reading:
G. Fitzgibbon, Ireland in 1868 (Dublin, 1868).
O. MacDonagh, The inspector general (London, 1982).
K. Milne, The Irish charter schools, 1730–1830 (Dublin, 1997).
J. Robins, The lost children: a study of charity children in Ireland, 1700–1900 (Dublin, 1987).

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