Education in the 18th Century – Boys

Many fathers of boys in the eighteenth century considered it  vital to remove their sons from his mother’s exclusive influence at a relatively young age, as it was believed that otherwise he would become effeminate and identify with the delicate feminine world. Therefore, once a boy was ‘breeched’ (put into masculine clothes rather than the gender-neutral petticoats of babyhood), his removal from his mother was put into action.

Children in miniature adult clothes.

It was essential for a boy to be hardy, and John Locke in Some Thoughts on Education, which I referred to in my previous blog on childhood, recommends that boys should wear shoes of  thin leather with holes in, so that wet feet in inclement weather would  help him become accustomed to cold. Regular exposure to the elements was encouraged, along with hunting and wrestling for the upper classes. It was crucial for boys of any class to learn independence as quickly as possible, so that they could exercise both domestic responsibility and have a career or run estates, depending on their social class.

Boys from poorer families would not have the same sort of access to education as those from wealthier ones. There was no compulsory education for children in this century and poorer children would be expected to contribute to earning their keep from a very early age. Those who did go to some sort of school would attend either a charity school, a Sunday school or occasionally a Dame school (a school run by a woman in her home, who would teach very basic reading and writing, and who provided more of a childcare service than an educational one).  They would learn basic skills which might be useful to them in later life; reading (often from the Bible), writing, and basic mathematical skills. Unlike today, reading was taught before writing rather than at the same time, which indicates that literacy levels in Britain may have been higher than was once thought – it was often believed that someone who signed with an X was totally illiterate, but it’s likely that many more people were able to read than was formerly believed.

Illustration of Dame school.

That being said, schooling for the poor was not considered particularly important by most people, including parents, so even if they were lucky enough to be able to attend a nearby educational establishment, attendance would likely have been somewhat erratic, with household and income-earning duties taking priority. 

For the wealthier child, school education was standard, although boys would still be educated appropriately for the class they were expected to live their lives within.

The heart of an education in the eighteenth century was based on the classics. They would learn reading, writing, mathematics, Greek and Latin. Many would also learn logic, history and geography. Latin and Greek were crucial in preparing a boy for university, but also we must remember that this was a time when the teachings of the ancients, Cicero, Plato, Aristotle etc, were extremely influential in all aspects of intellectual life, from philosophy to mathematics, to science and medicine. It would have been very difficult for a boy to take his place in the middle or upper class adult world without an understanding of the classical teachings and literature.

Statue of Aristotle.
Bust of Plato.
Bust of Cicero.

Many young boys would start their education at home with a tutor, or alternatively at a local school. This was financially less expensive and also allowed the boys to spend their evenings at home. But the higher up the social ladder a boy was, the more likely it was that he would at some point be sent to boarding school.

Boarding school was considered advantageous as it removed a boy completely from the effeminising influence of his mother, allowed him to make important connections with other boys of his class, encouraged independence and hardiness (some of the schools were incredibly brutal, both in the treatment meted out by teachers and by other boys), and was a good preparation for university.

Illustration of Eton College.

On the negative side, outbreaks of illness were not uncommon and in times when the causes of illness were not understood, diseases could rage through a school, decimating the pupils. Smallpox was of particular concern, and many parents would ask in advance if the school had plans in place in case of a breakout of such illnesses.

If it was a wrench for parents to watch their small sons disappear into a school, not to be seen again for weeks or even months, it was certainly equally distressing for the boys to be thrown into such an unfamiliar and often brutal environment. Certainly a case of ‘sink or swim’ for many.  It did not always go well, particularly for sensitive or headstrong boys, who responded sometimes catastrophically to the experience of boarding school. Many masters, contrary to Locke’s liberal views, considered thrashing a boy to be the appropriate punishment for every misdemeanour, and one which would turn him into a man, able to take knocks without complaint.

Caricature of corporal punishment in school, George Cruikshank

Instead such treatment could in fact break a child, especially if their father was also a strong disciplinarian. It must be said that such fathers and teachers would not have considered themselves to be abusive – many genuinely believed they were preparing their sons in the best possible way for the reality of adult life in a world which we, in our pampered 21st century life, would find impossible to cope with.

From school, wealthier families would send their sons on to university. In England, Oxford and Cambridge were the primary universities, but wherever they went, as well as the education they received, they would also start to become more independent in financial matters, although many fathers kept a very tight rein on their expenses. Mothers in particular would be worried, with good reason, that their sons might be led astray, and in fact experience at university was far more a social rather than an academic undertaking, as well as a place to make useful and influential connections, as universities were very much a system of class and gender construction

Many tutors were young graduates, inexperienced in disciplining wayward youths, and the opportunities to stray from the path, as it were, were numerous. Along with the more academic subjects, based largely on classical education, young men would take lessons in dancing, fencing and music, and physical exercise was always taken seriously. Outside of that, drinking, whoring and gambling were the major preoccupations, to the irritation of their fathers.

Next month’s blog looks at female education – a very different thing!

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  1. I truly enjoyed both articles you posted. I loved the fairy story and this glimpse into schools for these boys was truly horrific! Although working with children for over 40 years I must admit to having been very tempted a few times to use some of these methods.

    1. Ha ha ha! I worked as a teacher for 15 years too, so can relate to that comment! It’s a really interesting subject, and I’m glad you enjoyed the blog – next month it’s girls’ education in the spotlight!