Paradigm, Vol 2, Number 1 (January, 2000

Supplying "a want long since felt":
The Irish Lesson Books and the promotion of literacy for the poor in England

Hilary Minns

The Irish Lesson Books that form the subject of this article were part of the burgeoning market in children’s reading primers in the first half of the nineteenth century. They were first published in the 1830s by the Commissioners of National Education in Ireland and were widely used in British poor schools over the next thirty years.1 I have been particularly excited by some the writing to be found in this set of readers, and want to suggest that they hold an important place in the history of literacy teaching, not only because they contain varied examples of written discourse, but perhaps even more because some of the lessons in the books address poor children directly as learners in their own right.

The books themselves reflect some of the complex issues that have always attended literacy teaching, and two distinct ideologies emerge from their pages. The first typifies the familiar expectation of the text as moral teacher and imparter of social values and beliefs. Predictably, perhaps, the Irish Lesson Books contain carefully selected stories and poems that reflect and reinforce the desirable cultural values of the day. The other influence at work in these readers is perhaps more unexpected, and it has to do with a shift in emphasis away from the text and towards the young reader &emdash; including an astonishing invitation to children to reflect on the learning process itself.

Formal literacy teaching in the nineteenth century was &emdash; just as it is now &emdash; as much to do with the transmission of acceptable social values, as it was to do with the teaching of reading. There was on the whole an unquestioned assumption that the content of school readers, and the transmission of this content, provided an opportunity to inculcate children with forms of conventional morality within the existing social order. In this respect, the Irish Lesson Books hold much in common with other nineteenth-century school texts. Harvey Graff explains this well with particular reference to the Irish Lesson Books:

In these daily lessons, pupils were taught the rationales for government, military and police, private property, rich and poor, and the interdependence of the social classes. By explicit example and description, the duties of citizens, the necessity of obedience, cleanliness, industriousness, sobriety, honesty, and frugality were brought home to them. By drill, repetition, and memorisation, youngsters absorbed a code for social behaviour.2

An illustration from the title page of Sequel No. II to the Second Book of Lessons underlies this message. The potent symbol of young children going into their National School in Ireland suggests a common, disciplined routine for the children of the poor. The illustration leaves no room for doubt that school is the place to go to if you wish to learn.

"Every school in Great Britain and Ireland is beginning the business of the day", the lesson begins &emdash; as though schooling were a characteristic of childhood itself, rather than an imposed (and fairly new) structure that had inserted itself into poor children’s lives. "Boys and girls of all ages are pouring by thousands and tens of thousands into the streets and roads and lanes, often over bogs and mountains, on their way to school", the lesson continues. Young readers are asked to think about the value of their education within the social system by an author who represents the views of a socially conscious organisation:

 The government, that is, those who govern in the Queen’s name, gets leave of parliament, that is, the gentlemen who are chosen to overlook the government, and watch over the concerns of the people, to set apart a sum of money for building schools, paying teachers, and other expenses belonging to them; but the number of schools is so great that this money would not be sufficient, unless the gentry gave their help towards it, and a number of them do give ground and pay part of the expenses when they find that a school is wanted in the neighbourhood. So you see that there are a great many persons in your country and in England who are kind and care for you, though most of them never saw you.3

The role played by the poor school in promoting a shared cultural context where children could work in cohesive harmony is clear, and the lesson reminds children that they should show their gratitude to their unknown benefactors by learning their lessons well. It also reinforces the notion of social order as something that is settled and invariable. It is easy to forget that this passage was written for young children to read in a graded primer, but of course literacy teaching was then &emdash; and still is now &emdash; regularly used to reinforce ideas of discipline and conformity.4 In 1834 some of the lessons in the Irish texts put the pressure to conform squarely on the shoulders of children who were not sufficiently "serious" about their learning, as this moral lesson shows:

Anne Byrne, though she was ten years old, was not a good girl. She did not do as she was bid. One day when she ought to have gone to school, she went to play; and when at last she came to school, she was too late. Then she was put down in her class. The clock struck twelve, and the boys and girls went out to play, but Anne could not go too. She had to stop and learn her task.5

Chalmers points out that the moral tale was the direct descendant of Puritan literature and was frequently used in eighteenth-century reading primers "when it was realised that the step from the alphabet and syllabarium to the Bible was too great".6 Literacy teaching always has the potential to be used as an instrument of social control &emdash; though, conversely, there is nothing new in the notion of the child as an "active learner" nor in the idea of teachers who have always recognised this potential in their pupils.7 Cornelia Connelly, for example, who took over the running of the Roman Catholic poor schools in Derby in 1846, encouraged her infant teachers to ask the children questions about the text, and instructed them to "accept the answers of the children, however simple". Cornelia Connelly’s methods were designed to help young children to believe in themselves as readers, and she showed insights into the learning process that are perhaps surprising to some modern educators. "All exercises," she wrote, "should consist of sentences, not mere strings of words".8 She had recognised that reading was not simply about mastering letter-sound relationships, then syllables, then whole words, but that it also had a great deal to do with children’s need to understand the writing on the page. Her view of reading, of course, was potentially dangerous to the social order, because it invited children to make their own interpretations of the text &emdash; and perhaps even to read against it. It is worth remembering, as Chalmers points out, that we can never know if teachers used reading material in the way they were expected to; in addition, of course, it is possible that children taught themselves to read by using their own preferred methods.9

The origins of the Irish Lesson Books

In 1831, after the formation of the Board of Commissioners for National Education in Ireland, the British government asked the Commissioners to select and publish a series of elementary books for the use of multi-denominational schools under their management. These books were to be "in harmony with the most improved methods of instruction" and "adapted to a comprehensive system of education" that the Commissioners were charged to administer.10

The supreme achievement of the unpaid Irish Commissioners who undertook this task was to oversee the publication of forty-one books between 1831 and 1851. The books included ten Lesson Books, as well as four anthologies of verse, an agricultural class book, Lessons on Christianity, and manuals of needlework and accounting. The Commissioners accomplished a difficult and daunting task, particularly since the books had to be acceptable "in a moral and religious point of view to all classes and denominations" and were also expected to meet "the essential requisites of cheapness and merit".11 Three of the Irish Commissioners responsible for this task were Archbishop Murray, the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Richard Whately, Archbishop of the Church of Ireland, and the Reverend James Carlile, an ex-moderator of the Presbyterian Synod of Ulster. It could be argued that the breadth and intellectual force of such a group gave unprecedented strength to the books being discussed here. There is no doubt that the political appointment of these powerful men ensured a fair representation of Catholic and Protestant interests; in addition, the government directive placed the responsibility for poor children’s early moral training &emdash; and their learning &emdash; firmly in the hands of the church. James Carlile had overall responsibility for producing the school books, and he corresponded with eminent educationalists and churchmen about the content and style of each. All seven Commissioners read and approved each manuscript before it went to print, in "a process of meticulous preparation, revision and rewriting".12 Alexander McArthur, Carlile’s brother-in-law, compiled the five main Lesson Books in the series. He later became headmaster of the Commissioners’ Model School in Dublin.

The sale and distribution of the Irish Lesson Books

That the Irish Lesson Books were popular is unquestionable. The Commissioners were right in maintaining that their books "supplied a want long since felt, namely &emdash; good books, at a moderate price".13 By 1851 300,000 books had gone into Irish National Schools, and the Committee of Council for Education had authorised the sale of 100,000 books to English poor schools and workhouse schools. In addition, the colonies were supplied with the Irish Lesson Books.14 Some texts were translated into various European languages or else adapted for use in schools in particular countries.15 Many of the books remained in print from the 1830s to the 1860s and some were still being re-issued in revised editions early in this century.16

The Roman Catholic authorities in England urged the managers of poor schools to purchase the Irish Lesson Books since they had no set of reading texts of their own (and were not to have until the 1860s). Indeed, the Catholic Poor School Committee reported in 1852 that until they could produce their own series of books, "the publications of the Commissioners of National Education in Ireland form[ed] the best educational course procurable in the English language".17 The success of the Irish Lesson Books aroused the predictable jealousy of large educational publishing houses, whose sales were threatened, particularly since the British government subsidised the cost of the Irish Lesson Books. The publishers Longman and Murray formally complained to Lord John Russell that the Irish Lesson Books were "sold in England at prices below those for which such books [could] be sold by booksellers in this country".18 The government’s eventual response was to withdraw the right of the Irish Commissioners to publish their own texts from 1852 onwards. The government also insisted that schools outside Ireland had to buy the Lesson Books directly from the publisher at full price,19 a ruling that aggrieved the Catholic Poor School Committee.

Their HMI, William Marshall, raised this crucial issue in his annual report of 1851:

Having mentioned last year the growing disposition to use the books of the Irish Commissioners which are now to be found in the great majority of Roman Catholic schools and which are very highly appreciated, I may perhaps venture to express a hope that those books may not be removed from the schedule of the Committee of Council. It is of very great importance in the schools in which they are now exclusively used, that the facilities for obtaining them at a reduced cost should not be diminished. The loss of this advantage would be seriously felt by the promoters of the Roman Catholic schools.20

The structure of the Lesson Books

There were originally five main Lesson Books in the series, and their design is fairly uniform. Closed, they measure just over three inches by five inches, yet they were "thick" enough to give small children the satisfaction of holding a "real" book.21 Each reading lesson is headed by a list of words drawn from the text that follows, and children were expected to learn these words by heart before reading the lesson itself. Words of two syllables or more were hyphenated to emphasise each separate syllable, and children were probably taught to pay attention to the sounds and shapes of the letters within each word. But how children were actually taught in the classroom is unclear, and Chalmers reminds us again that the method of teaching "depended upon the inclination of the teacher".22 What is significant is that the individual words that preceded the lesson were drawn from the text itself; in other words, the focus was on learning words in the context of the passage. Other reading primers still presented children with lists of isolated words to be memorised.23 The First Book of Lessons (first published in 1831) is made up of sentences of one syllable only and describes events in the everyday world that would have been familiar to many nineteenth-century poor children: "Snap bit a rat; its leg bled; it is in a trap; do not let it snap" (p. 11). Some sentences in this first reader were written in the passive voice, and though the words appeared short and relatively simple, they might have been difficult for young children to read and understand: "A flail is used to part the grain from the straw" (p. 28). 24

The Second Book of Lessons and Sequel No. II to the Second Book of Lessons contain a wider vocabulary and introduce the reader to geography, English grammar, natural history, biblical history, and the zoology of birds and quadrupeds. The Third and Fourth books follow this pattern, adding more detailed instruction in each area. Children who graduated to the Fourth Book of Lessons (first published in 1834) were instructed in natural history, political economy and poetry as well as in moral and religious teaching. The Irish Commissioners decided to include a great deal of geographical information in the Fourth Book, which has eighty pages dedicated to this subject.25 The editor of the Fifth Book of Lessons (first published in 1846) notes that the book was written "for the instruction of more advanced pupils". This particular book was later to come in for much criticism because it contains highly technical lessons in specialised fields. Titles of lessons include: "Vegetable and Animal Hydrostatics", "Mechanical properties of Fluids" and "Pneumatics and the Mechanical Properties of Air". The Commissioners quickly recognised that the "advance" from one book to another was "not sufficiently gradual",26 and each book had supplementary texts published alongside it so that, just as in modern reading classrooms, children could read more books at the same level of reading difficulty before progressing to the next main reader in the series.

Recently, Margaret Meek has drawn our attention to the "untaught" reading lessons that children meet in books.27 She supports her arguments with examples taken from modern children’s books used in modern classrooms, but it is significant that there are opportunities in the Irish texts for similar "untaught" reading lessons. Teachers in poor schools who allowed pupils to handle the books and leaf through their pages, presented children with a reading lesson in itself, one which allowed them to become familiar with the book as cultural object. Meek suggests that "the most important single lesson that children learn from texts is the nature and variety of written discourse, the different ways that language lets a writer tell, and the many and different ways a reader learns".28 Again, she refers to modern texts, but children who read the Lesson Books met a variety of genres within the same book &emdash; stories, poems and factual prose, including biography, and although we can never be sure, it is likely that exposure to a variety of genres helped these children to develop a sense of the possibilities open to them through books.29 In addition, each Lesson Book had organisational features such as contents lists, main titles and subtitles. The use of a variety of punctuation marks guided children’s understanding and increased their ability to read aloud with expression. Another untaught skill offered by the books was the "reading" of illustrations for various purposes. The editorial body put a great deal of thought into the appearance and layout of the Irish Lesson Books. Modern research into the cognitive processes involved in learning to read allows us to infer that nineteenth-century children who progressed beyond initial competence, probably gained a great deal more from these texts than the obvious and testable skills of reading aloud correctly and committing facts to memory.

Official reactions to the books

Poor schools had been using the Irish Lesson Books for almost thirty years before the Newcastle Report (1861) singled them out for particular criticism. The Report conceded that they were "the most popular [books] of all" but at the same time it condemned their "dry outlines of grammar and geography". The report complained that the books "abound[ed] with words, needlessly introduced, which [were] quite incomprehensible to a child." In 1851, some ten years before the Newcastle Report was published, the Catholic Poor School Committee had already advised its teachers that the series "differ[ed] in merit", and that their classroom collections "should not comprise the Fifth Book".30 The Fifth Book of Lessons also came in for particular criticism in 1861 and the Newcastle Report noted that its science lessons were in a "form too technical for the purpose" &emdash; though I wonder if the dense information was too specialised for the teachers to follow, and that they simply did not know how to read it.31 In spite of these criticisms the Fifth Book of Lessons was reprinted in 1865 and again in 1866.

Moral lessons

Reformers who advocated the teaching of literacy to poor children in the middle decades of the nineteenth century risked the disapproval of those who feared the power of a new literate class. There appears to have been an ideological battle fought over the heads of those who received the education, between educational reformers and those who wished to maintain the status quo. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the reading primers that were put into poor children’s hands were heavily weighted towards lessons that taught children about the difference between right and wrong. There were early moral lessons for beginning readers in the First Book of Lessons where children had to read &emdash; in words of one syllable: "A good boy will not tell a lie" (p. 19). Cleanliness had an important role in moral training too, and a lesson about the cat in the Second Book contains an exhortation to children to follow the animal’s example:

I dare say you have seen her sitting on a sunny window, licking her paws, which is her way of washing them.
I wish that children would learn of her, to keep their hands and faces clean. 32

It is quite unusual to find this explicit link between moral training and the factual observation of an animal in this particular set of readers, though it is a common occurrence in early nineteenth-century textbooks, as we shall see later. Even so, messages of control and restraint do appear throughout the Irish Lesson Books and are mainly carried through instructive stories that model the kind of childhood circumstances poor children probably encountered in their everyday lives, together with the practical knowledge of how to deal with them. Sequel No. II to the Second Book of Lessons contains a short and fascinating account of the life of William Hutton, drawn from his autobiography.33 It describes how he was obliged to leave school at the age of seven and to begin work in a Derby silk mill in order to support his family, "getting up at five o’clock every morning, and enduring many hardships" (p. 43). After a life of "prudence and industry" he became a successful trader &emdash; "one of the richest men in Birmingham" (p. 54). The events of Hutton’s life are set out in this lesson to show children how dedication to hard work can help them to avoid poverty in their own lives, and how they can rise in the world through "steadiness, perseverance, activity, and love of knowledge" (p. 41). We are perhaps not surprised to learn that William Hutton, having "conquered all his difficulties", spent his "leisure time" in "reading and gaining knowledge" (p. 54). There is a suggestion here that children should emulate Hutton’s achievements and two significant moral lessons emerge about the purposes and nature of reading itself. Firstly, that reading is about "gaining knowledge"; secondly, that a good, virtuous and successful person can aspire to reading as a leisure time activity itself.

Such stories leave no room for ambiguity, and though there is an invitation for poor children to enter the world of their imagination through Aesop’s fables and stories of children in distress, there has been a conscious decision by the editors of the Irish Lesson Books to exclude the world of magic. There are no fairies, no witches, no wolves or wizards to be found on these pages. Chalmers points out that the urge to educate the poor always went hand-in-hand with a need to control their reading material, and one way in which this was done was by "encouraging the reading of moral tales at the expense of fairy tales".34 The Irish Lesson Books were firmly rooted in this tradition. What we see are stories that are for the most part set in the real world. They are about everyday incidents that the teacher and the reader can make moral judgements about. The omission of the folk-fairy tales of Ireland seems strange &emdash; after all, Ireland was the country that generated these books &emdash; but the Commissioners were constrained by a policy of British cultural assimilation that chose to discourage all reference to Irish heritage. In addition to producing texts that were acceptable to the British government, the Commissioners also had to satisfy the demands of school managers and secular and religious teachers everywhere &emdash; including the sister who said that she would be never be content to see books filled with "pagan stories, ridiculous fables and scraps and odds and ends of every kind of knowledge".35 Clearly, it would have been too dangerous for this sister to present "pagan stories" and "ridiculous fables" to pupils, because of the possibility that the child might stray too far from the path of truth. What she had not understood, however, was that every time children listened to, or read, any lesson from the Irish readers, they could represent the experience to themselves in their imaginations, stepping backwards through time, living in other places and in other circumstances, and encountering people with very different life styles from their own. So although the world of magical fantasy was kept at bay in this series of readers, there is no reason to suppose that children were not able to engage imaginatively with the lessons they read.36

Lessons on how to be a reader

A great deal of the writing in Sequel No. II to the Second Book of Lessons makes the connection between reading and morality quite explicit. Richard Whately compiled this book, and he set out the literacy requirements authoritatively for poor children when he told them:

The next things you learn are for your own use and advantage. You learn to read. I wish I could make you perceive what an advantage you gain by knowing how to read. 37

But then something unusual happens, and we have the first sight of a shifting ideology, away from the text and towards the reader. It happens when Whately helps his audience of child readers towards an awareness of what is involved in learning to read. He takes a more liberal stance towards the reader &emdash; a stance that highlights again the tensions between those who sought to control children’s thinking as well as their reading habits, and those who trusted them to form their own response. Again, I take the liberty of overlaying the text with a modern analysis of the reading process as we understand it today. At a time when reading was commonly concerned with distinct articulation, correct pronunciation and rote-learning, Whately patiently explained to the children themselves that they should always try to understand the words of the author because this was fundamental to successful reading. This is what he said:

Mind, I do not, by reading, mean merely repeating aloud the words and sentences in your book, but understanding the meaning of them, as you understand the conversation of any one who speaks to you.

 There is an intellectual honesty at work here, and a cultural interpretation of children’s reading behaviour that goes far beyond an expectation of simply memorising the text. Whately then endorses the value of reading silently, and describes the process by using an image of the mind "taking from the eye":

When you read [words and sentences] by yourselves, they are to you a silent language, which your mind takes in from your eye instead of your ear.

Whately’s passion for the written word is obvious, and what is of particular interest is his focus on the reader. He offers child readers the support and encouragement of a member of the literate community. His words suggest too that children who read this lesson have already had, or will one day be given, experience of reading alone from their own copy of a book &emdash; something that might have been new to them &emdash; and he therefore projects on these young readers an image of themselves as experienced readers handling a book. C. M. Cipolla argues that "techniques and values [for teaching reading] are not unrelated"38 and here surely is a case in point. Whately’s encouragement to read silently is a direct invitation to children to view themselves as independent readers, in possession of a book.

I have yet to come across a modern reading primer that addresses its child readers explicitly about the reading process, as this one does, and invites them to contemplate what their new-found skill might entail. My tentative suggestion &emdash; in the absence of first-hand information &emdash; is that Whately’s reading lesson had the potential to become a liberating force in children’s learning. He undoubtedly knew this; as someone who directly controlled the process by which literacy was channelled to the poor, he must have been acutely conscious of the tension that was set up between empowering young readers and controlling their reading choices. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that he tried to influence their reading diet:

Of course, you may make a bad use of reading, for there are bad books in the world, as well as good ones, which you may read; but so you may make a bad use of any of God’s gifts &emdash; of speaking especially, as I fear many people do.

And here lies the tension. Literacy is a formidable tool. Teaching poor children to read opened up new possibilities for them and gave them the skills to learn from "bad books" as well as from "good" ones. It is to Whately’s credit that through this reading lesson he gave teachers an opportunity of extending children’s curiosity and involvement in the manner in which they read.

Natural History accounts in the Lesson Books

There is another kind of discourse to be found in the Irish Lesson Books, and it goes even further than Whately’s reading lesson in promoting the kind of learning that is centred on the child rather than on the text. It is present in the natural history lessons &emdash; a feature that can be found in many earlier school textbooks, and therefore something that is not unique to this series.39 It is perhaps no coincidence that Whately told young readers that the "face of nature" would remain "blank" to them before they could read, because they had not yet "learned to think about what [they] saw".40 I have already hinted that there may be more to the Irish Lesson Books than the simple morality lessons that were the mainstay of popular nineteenth-century education, and though Whately may have been suggesting a theology of nature here, it is the natural history lessons in the Irish Lesson Books that, to my mind, offer poor children a major inducement to become literate.

I indicated earlier that this series of books did not as a rule employ the strategy of using the animal kingdom to promote moral virtues, even though the link between the natural world and spiritual and moral goodness was quite explicit in other readers. Jean Russell-Gebbett, for example, discovered that the lessons in the SPCK "Natural History" series were "interrupted regularly to remind the reader of God’s hand in creating the wonder of the world or to reflect on life itself".41 In the Irish Lesson Books such interruptions are rare. Certainly, there is one lesson that asks children to take ants as a shining example of industriousness because they "don’t wear their time out in sleeping or play / But gather up corn in a sun-shiny day".42 But this is unusual. For the most part, the natural history lessons in the Irish texts are written in a style that offers a particular intellectual freedom to children by encouraging them to respond imaginatively to the information that is presented to them in the text. HMI [Her Majesty’s Inspector] William Marshall reported that "the outlines of natural history [were] effectively taught" in the Roman Catholic schools in Derby &emdash; schools which used the Irish Lesson Books.43 On his previous inspection he had already noted that the children had "a considerable acquaintance with natural history, and could also explain with precision natural phenomena, such as the rainbow, the tides, etc. and readily give their information in another form when required to do so".44

Marshall’s evidence is particularly interesting in this context, because even though the writers and editors of the Irish Lesson Books were constrained by pedagogical conventions, the natural history lessons reveal a discourse that addresses children directly and encourages them to use their reading to do something with, and therefore to respond with energy and purpose. They are told that the kind of knowledge they need in order to learn about the natural world "requires observation, that is, looking about you, and taking notice, rather than learning", as one writer put it.45 "Rather than rote-learning", I think the writer means, because these lessons are all about encouraging children to look around them and discover things about the world they might not have noticed before. Evidently the writer here knew that the elements of awe and wonder were part of the learning process. The Commissioners explained that works of a "strictly scientific character" in the books were "prepared by Teachers and other parties, eminently qualified for the task",46 and indeed I hear an experienced teacher’s voice running through the text of these natural history lessons, setting the scene by introducing children to the subject matter in a familiar context. So the lesson that begins: "When you are at play on the common, or in the fields"47 offers a direct invitation to children to enter a familiar environment &emdash; a prelude to showing them how to look afresh. This extract about the flight of birds could be a forerunner to the Guinness Book of Records48 because it uses a particular form of factual knowledge to identify records relating to speed, time and distance. Furthermore, it does not shy away from presenting children with a huge amount of information in one short paragraph:

The Flight of Birds is very curious and interesting &emdash; a little creature like the swallow, for instance, will fly at the rate of ninety miles an hour; and there is one kind of pigeon which can be trained to return from a considerable distance to the place whence it came.

Fifty-six of these birds were once brought over from Holland, and turned out in London at half-past four in the morning; they all reached their dove-cots in Holland by noon. So that they performed a journey of 300 miles in seven hours and a half.49

The joyousness and freshness of this writing are common to many natural history texts and may have contributed to the popularity of this subject in the nineteenth-century.50

Many of the natural history lessons in the Irish readers include examples of the use of the personal narrative voice, as we shall see below. This was a common form of writing in nineteenth-century natural history texts, both those that were written for children and those written for adults. When this "voice" is used in the Irish Lesson Books it has the immediate effect of shifting the emphasis away from the text. It is almost as though the writer is in conversation with the reader, and expects an imaginative response. In this next extract, children learn that the writer is an enthusiastic reader of natural history texts, and so here is another untaught reading lesson: Writers who care about their subject are also readers. Moreover, the writer appears to enjoy sharing this knowledge:

 The cries and calls of birds form a sort of language between them. A gentleman, who has written the most interesting book about birds I ever read, says &emdash; "We once happened to hear a loud outcry amongst a parcel of sparrows, tomtits, and chaffinches; the noise was evidently not their usual note of pleasure, neither was it the clamorous scream they utter when fighting. The battle occurred within a yard of our window, too near for a hawk to venture; neither was there a cat within sight, &emdash; nothing of the sort; but still the din increased, and the bush shook again with flutterings of wings, and clacking of tongues; when at last we espied a pair of inquisitive eyes, and a little sharp snout poked out from the twigs, at the bottom of the bush. It was a weasel, which, on seeing that it was discovered, took to its heels; and in an instant the cries of the sparrows ceased, and the whole party dispersed.51

The writer offers children another reading lesson too, by introducing them to another writing voice and another writing style. There is enormous respect for young learners here, and the writer shows children how to observe birds in a way that teaches them to become careful observers. The narrator then sets out to tell another story. "I shall relate one which I have read", says the writer, taking on the role of story-teller and inviting children to read a story about a raven called Ralph who looked after an injured dog. "The raven," the writer tells us, brought bones for the dog and "attended him with peculiar marks of kindness." The text continues as follows:

 One night, by accident, the stable door had been shut, and Ralph had been deprived of his friend’s company all night; but the hostler found, in the morning, the door so pecked away, that, had it not been opened, Ralph would soon have made his own entrance.52
  •  In the next lesson, "Story of a Robin", the teacher-narrator addresses the readers directly, using a first-person narrative voice, and telling them the story of this particular bird that made quite an impression: "I well remember a family of robins that used to come, in the cold winter days, regularly, to be fed at our nursery window," says the writer.53 There is nothing shallow or reductive about these natural history lessons. These writers seem genuinely interested in their accounts and in the world of nature generally. Significantly, there appears to be a new and impressive optimism here, to do with children having their own sense of physical space and the time to understand the fascinating world of natural history.


    Fashions in literacy teaching come and go, and I have used examples from the Irish Lesson Books to illustrate the kinds of instruction that had its roots in two impulses: the book as moral preacher, emphasising conformity, and the book as awakener of a sense of wonder, emphasising curiosity and individual response. Nineteenth-century poor children, being adaptable creatures, no doubt lived with this inconsistency, just as today’s pupils are expected to adapt to shifts in methods of literacy instruction. There is another thing too: children in today’s classrooms have access to exquisitely produced information books, and some of these do indeed echo the best of nineteenth-century material. But many do not. They are superficially attractive, but their impoverished textual world presents children with no opportunity to go out and look, smell, touch and feel, nor to take their own emotional and practical worlds of knowledge into the world of the book. There are surely lessons in the Irish Lesson Books that we can learn from today.


    1. This series of books was originally published in Dublin, under the direction of the Commissioners of National Education in Ireland. The series is often known as the "Irish Lesson Books" or the "Irish Readers".

    2 . H. J. Graff, The Literacy Myth: Literacy and Social Structure in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Academic Press, 1979) (p. 45).

    3. Sequel No. II to the Second Book of Lessons, (1856), pp. 3-4.

    4. The National Literacy Strategy, which the government recently introduced into English primary schools, derives much of its thinking from the same source that inspired the Irish Lesson Books. The assumptions that inform this Strategy are designed to move the teaching of literacy away from the child-centred approaches that characterised primary teaching in the 1960s and 1970s, towards a view more reminiscent of the traditional moral teaching to be found in nineteenth-century poor schools. So, for example, the writers of the "Training Modules" have advised teachers that the success of the Strategy "relies on pupils understanding the consequences of their actions and accepting responsibility for their own behaviour" (Module 1: The Literacy Hour. Practical Suggestions for Organising Directed Independent Work, DfEE, 1998, p. 2). Furthermore, there is a conscious shift away from the child learner and towards the text, as this spoken extract from a training cassette illustrates: "Traditionally we haven’t stayed with the text and I think that’s going to be the biggest shift for teachers. They’ve used wonderful literature and poems but they haven’t traditionally stayed with it. They’ve said: ‘This character is frightened in this book &emdash; tell me about you being frightened’, or ‘create a piece of music about an experience’, rather than looking again and again for evidence in the text" (Cassette 4, Side 1: Shared and Guided Reading and Writing at Key Stage 2, (Fiction and Poetry), DfEE, 1998.

    5. Second Book of Lessons, (1855), pp. 17-18.

    6. G. S. Chalmers, Reading Easy 1800-1850: A Study of the Teaching of Reading (London, The Broadsheet King, 1976) (p.13).

    7. By "active learner" I refer to the premise that children, given the right encouragement, can become "active, inventive meaning-makers" who learn to "make sense of the text by using the context, the pictures, their previous knowledge of stories and their (mainly implicit) understanding of how language works". See M. Styles and M. J. Drummond, The Politics of Reading (Cambridge, University of Cambridge Institute of Education and Homerton College, 1993), (pp. 7-8).

    8. These extracts are taken from Cornelia Connelly’s Book of the Order of Studies (1863), and cited in J. Bastow, "The Development of Catholic Elementary Education in the Nineteenth Century, in the Five Counties of the Diocese of Nottingham" (M. Phil., University of Nottingham, 1972), (p. 171). A copy of the Book of the Order of Studies is held at the Convent of the Holy Child Jesus, Mayfield, Sussex.

    9. G. S. Chalmers, (p. 2).

    10. Correspondence of Messrs. Longman and Co. and John Murray with the Right Hon. Lord John Russell M.P., etc. etc. etc. on the Publication of School Books by Government at the Public Expense: the Statement of the Commissioners of National Education in Ireland, in reference thereto: and the Reply of Lord J. Russell to the Messrs. Longman and Co. and J. Murray (Dublin, HMSO, 1851), (p. 13).

    11. Correspondence, (p. 13).

    12. J. M. Goldstrom, The Social Content of Education, 1801-1870: A Study of the Working Class School Reader in England and Ireland (Shannon, Irish University Press,1972). See pp. 61-90 for discussion of issues concerning the Irish texts.

    13. Correspondence, (p. 17). Goldstrom reports that bulk ordering of the readers, and the falling price of paper, brought costs down considerably (see p. 86). In 1849 The First Lesson Book could be purchased by the public for 2d, the Second Book for 7d, the Third Book for 1s 2d, the Fourth Book for 1s 4d and the Fifth Book for 1s 8d. Copies of these books were available to poor schools through the Committee for Council on Education for about half this price (See The Catholic School, No. 8, July 1849, pp. 116-127 for further details). I have not so far been able to discover the actual costs of reading primers produced by publishers such as Longman and Murray.

    14. D. H. Akerson, "The Irish National System of Education in the Nineteenth century" (Ph.D. Harvard University, 1967), pp. 316-317.

    15. See P. Musgrave, "Readers in Victoria, 1851-1895", Paradigm (26, 1998) for a discussion of the editorial adaptation of the content of Irish National Readers for use in the Colony of Victoria. The British Library holds a copy of the First Book of Lessons for the use of Government Primary Schools in Malta (1888-9).

    16. The Third Book of Lessons was re-issued in 1905. A copy of this particular edition is held in the Institute of Education library of the University of London. The First Book of Lessons was re-issued in 1921. A copy of this edition is held in the British Library.

    17. Fifth Annual Report, Catholic Poor School Committee, 1852, (p. 27).

    18. Correspondence, (p. 3). See also note 13 above.

    19. Akerson, (pp. 329-331).

    20. William Marshall’s report appears in The Catholic School, 1851, Vol. 2, No 11, Oct 1852, (p. 313).

    21. It is not clear if this is a standard measurement but there does appear to be a certain uniformity in the size of books produced for the young in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. For example, the 1830 edition of Mrs Williams’ Syllabic Spelling, measures 3 x 5.3 (London, Whittaker, Treacher & Co). The 1861 edition of Mrs Mortimer’s Reading Without Tears; or, a pleasant mode of learning to read, measures 3 x 4.2 (London, Hatchard & Co).

    22 G. S. Chalmers, (pp. 31-32).

    23. See, for example, the lists of phonically-regular words to be learned in F. L. Mortimore, Reading Without Tears; or, a pleasant mode of learning to read (first published 1850).

    24. Sentences written in the passive voice can generally be more difficult to understand because they communicate their information obliquely. In this instance the reader is not told directly who is responsible for using the flail to part the grain from the straw. It is unlikely that children’s spoken language would have included the use of the passive voice, though they would almost certainly have met this grammatical form in the Bible.

    25. There was a growing interest in this subject. See, for example, the work of Richard Phillips in John Issitt, "Introducing Sir Richard Phillips", (Paradigm, 26, 1998), pp. 25-45.

    26. Editor’s note, Sequel No. II to the Second Book of Lessons, (1856).

    27. M. Meek, How Texts Teach What Children Learn (Stroud, Thimble Press, 1988), (p. 7).

    28. M. Meek, (p. 21).

    29. The Irish Lesson Books were not unique in presenting children with a variety of genres in one volume. Charles Vyse’s New London Spelling Book, first published in 1777, contained Fables, A Guide to Grammar, Rules of Moral Conduct, Lessons in Natural History, a Brief Introduction to the Arts and Sciences, Outlines of History and Geography and Tables. (See G. S. Chalmers, pp. 55, 57-62, 162).

    30. Third Annual Report, Catholic Poor School Committee, 1850, p. 8.

    31. British Parliamentary Papers, Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Inquire into the State of Popular Education in England (The Newcastle Report) 1861, Vol.1, (p. 351).

    32. Second book of Lessons (1855), (p. 34).

    33. W. Hutton The Life of William Hutton (London, Craddock and Joy, 1817).

    34. G. S. Chalmers, (p.15).

    35. "A nun’s plan of education." The Catholic School, Vol 5, No. 2, 1851, p. 125.

    36. The importance of fostering the imaginative response had been discussed early in the nineteenth century. Ian Michael finds one William Enfield regretting that education was "calculated, almost solely, for the exercise and improvement of the understanding and memory" (Ian Michael, The Teaching of English: From the Sixteenth Century to 1870 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987), (p. 248). See also p. 250 for further discussion.

    37. Whately’s advice on reading appears in Sequel No. II to the Second Book of Lessons, (1856), (pp. 8-10).

    38. C.M. Cipolla, Literacy and Development in the West (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1969), cited in J. L. Dobson, "The Interpretation of Statistical Data on the Levels of Literacy in Nineteenth-Century England and Wales" in G. Brooks, A. K. Pugh, Studies in the History of Reading (Reading, University of Reading, 1984), (p. 46).

    39. For example, Charles Vyse’s New London Spelling Book, first published in 1777, contained illustrated lessons on "The Kanguroo" [sic] and "The Zebra".

    40. Sequel No. II to the Second Book of Lessons, (1856), (p. 9).

    41. J. Russell-Gebbett, "Moralising and Dirty Fingers": Nineteenth-Century Science Textbooks in two Nottingham Schools", Paradigm (26, 1998), (p. 4).

    42. Second Book of Lessons, (1855), (p. 144).

    43. The Catholic School Vol 3, No. 2, Oct 1854, (p. 82).

    44. The Catholic School Vol 2, No. 7, Sept 1851, (p. 193).

    45. Sequel No. II to the Second Book of Lessons, (1856), (p. 132).

    46. Correspondence (p. 16).

    47. Second Book of Lessons (1855), (p. 36).

    48. Guinness Book of Records, Guinness Company. Annual publication.

    49. Sequel No. II to the Second Book of Lessons (1856), (p.134).

    50. See N. Jardine, J. A. Secord, E. C. Spary (eds) Cultures of Natural History (Cambridge University Press, 1996). This fascinating volume discusses the history of natural history from the 16th century to the late 19th century.

    51. Sequel No. II to the Second Book of Lessons (1856), (pp. 135-136).

    52. ibid., (pp. 151-152).

    53. ibid., (p. 153).

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