Past Life

Lor­raine Child on the Sun­day schools of Robert Raikes

Cotswold Life - - INSIDE - Lor­raine Child Con­tact the­[email protected]­in­ter­

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

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