Lorraine Child on the Sunday schools of Robert Raikes
Having grazed on the lower slopes of religious education as a child, I recall a cloistered world of goodness in thought and deed, a keep-net of captured souls. My parents, conventional in marriage at the parish church and the baptisms of their daughters in holy water, were not demonstrably religious; it was often the way in the 1950s. Such rituals were inherited and rarely questioned, in the same way that men were waved off to work and the wavers stayed at home, a division of labour based entirely on gender.
My sojourn at Sunday school inculcated Christian probity as though my moral compass was bent. It wasn’t. Innate goodness shone from my dimples to my soul – right was right, and wrong was unthinkable – but the incident with Mrs Jelling’s cat could have befallen any seven-year-old vet. In bandaging his back legs together with hair ribbons, I failed to consider that he might get up and walk. My guilt and shame swiftly released the tripedal tabby’s satin bonds, with nothing but his dignity bruised. Satan had entered my soul and taken it to the dark side, so, as penance, I cut off my ponytail. Ribbons were clearly provocative.
In 1880, education for all children aged from five to 10 years became compulsory, but instruction of poor children was introduced over 100 years earlier. William King, dissenter of Dursley, initiated Sunday school in 1778, but the foundation of them is attributed to Robert Raikes in 1780, son of a printer, born in Gloucester in 1736. His father, also Robert, established the Gloucester Journal in 1722 – later operated by his son – and was involved in the burgeoning business of herbal remedies. Raikes senior is listed with William Dicey, printer of chapbooks and newspapers, Benjamin Okell and John Cluer on a patent re-issued in 1726 for Dr Bateman’s Pectoral Drops, an opiate-based remedy for all things sore and gouty.
Raikes junior believed that religious education was essential, a moral scythe to cut brutish behaviour from its roots and improve children untouched by the reforming hand of piety or education. Endeavours to remove noisy urchins from the streets on a Sunday for religious instruction would nourish their souls with an afterglow of goodness, like spiritual porridge. Promoters of the scheme, such as social reformer Hannah More, were accused of being moral guardians beset with concerns that the poor were bestial and in need of correction. Reading and writing – the twin forces that were as vital as good drainage and fresh air – were the levers that would raise them from the gutter. Disturbingly, once the unlettered could read, a whole world was unlocked, opening avenues for sedition and dissent, so it was prudent to provide safe, biblical texts to quell and contain the newly informed. People of discernment and learning, however, were above such impulses and could indulge in any amount of salacious or irreverent material. Opponents of improvement believed that the suppression of education kept the lower orders in their place, ‘only a few degrees above their cattle in intellect’, according to one 19th-century commentator.
Teachers were paid one shilling and sixpence per Sunday, salaries met by Robert Raikes and Revd Thomas Stock, who furthered the foundation of Sunday education. Accounts vary of where in Gloucester the first Sunday school opened, but most state Sooty Alley, in the kitchen of Mrs Meredith, who found the children unruly. Raikes then employed a Mrs Critchley, my family name in Gloucester, who proved to be ‘strong-willed and capable’, being the landlady of The Trumpet Inn. This stubby Georgian building on the corner of Southgate Street and Norfolk Street now accommodates pates rather than pints, but its walls must hold whispers of a nascent crusade to educate and improve the minds of the poor. In his mission to shine a God-fearing light into the darkest courts and alleyways, Raikes proclaimed “few pleasures equated with the conversation of men who are endeavouring to promote the glory of God”. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t mention the women at the moral coalface struggling to instil Christian values into the hearts and minds of little heathens. His 16th-century house in Southgate Street is now an inn, wonderfully restored both within and without.
My parents always maintained that I was auspiciously conceived during a rousing chorus of Fight the Good Fight, belted out by the Salvation Army, collecting alms in the neighbourhood. Maybe it was the clash of the tambourines. Maybe it was all those ribbons.
Robert Raikes’ House, Southgate Street, Gloucester