Working Papers from the Textbook Colloquium, No.1  

The Historical Sociology of Textbooks: a Victorian Case Study

Peter Musgrave

In 1994 Stray1 suggested a sociological way of considering textbooks. He presented a case study of the history of 19th-century Latin grammars, concentrating on the meaning of these works for, and the resulting en/decoding of them by, their users. This led him to conclude that we should approach "the historical sociology of the textbook by seeing it as the interaction of several relationships involving teachers and pupils, producers and consumers, institutions and the state."2 Whilst in no way disputing this we may ask such questions as: Why these actors? Who else might be involved? And in what ways? This paper aims to extend Stray's work by considering a historical case of Victorian textbook history.

First, however, the conceptual approach taken here must be clarified. What is a textbook? Stray gives a general definition: "a textbook is a book designed to give an authoritative pedagogic version of an area of knowledge." This definition covers all levels of education, formal or informal, and all subjects, but it does not allow the inclusion of fictional material or readers used in language study. The definition used here is: a textbook is a book designed to assist, alone or with other material, in some pedagogic purpose.3

Books can be seen as a collection of genres, many of which are divided into sub-genres. There are many types of textbook, for example, history, physics and civics books. Genres must not be seen as essentialist; they are socially determined; Sharratt has compared them to formal organisations, as being "solutions to problems." Culler has summed up the position in these words: "genres are no longer taxonomic classes but groups of norms and expectations required to account for the process of reading."4

As Stray pointed out there is a network of actors centring on the production and consumption of textbooks. Here, because our analytic starting point is genre, the focus will be the expectations of the actors forming the network. Sharratt has commented that "to write . . . is to participate in . . . an existing set of social relations, ranging from relations of production . . . to what might be termed relations of expectations." The Marxist idea of "the relations of production" is familiar, but we should note that when discussing it Marx insisted that "men [sic] enter into definite relations which are independent of their will."5 The idea of the relations of expectations is innovatory in this or any context; these relations also operate against the actor's will. To plot this network enables us to discover the influential figures in the progress of a textbook from the author, whether this is an individual or a group, to the user, be that the purchaser or the reader. Furthermore, inasmuch as actors are compelled to meet expectations against their will we can tell where and how much power is exerted on them.

Here we shall examine one subgenre of textbooks, the elementary/primary readers, used in firstly state-funded, but eventually state-provided schools of the colony/state of Victoria from its separation from New South Wales in 1851 through its becoming a state in the Commonwealth of Australia until the 1960s, when a more liberal ethos saw the end of the prescription of textbooks. Throughout attention will rest on the expectations of those involved in what may be termed the textbook process.6

1851-1873: The Era of the Irish National Reader

In 1851 at Separation the former Port Phillip District inherited an educational system from New South Wales, where in 1848 Governor Fitzroy had established a National and a Denominational Board to channel funds to schools, the latter to denominational schools and the former to schools set up on non-denominational principles as done in Ireland in the 1830s. Instruction was to be based largely on textbooks produced in Dublin by an inter-denominational committee. In 1849 G. W. Rusden, the Board's agent in Port Phillip District, spoke in Geelong about these textbooks, particularly the Irish National Readers. His remarks make very clear his expectations of elementary textbooks -- the expectations of an educational administrator. They were to be cheap -- a necessity in the view of taxpayers and, as will be seen, of parents. A Christian morality was implicit; this supported virtues such as honesty and hard work, functional for the labour force. The Irish National Readers did also contain some explicit economic information, considered apt for a laissez-faire age.7 Above all they must give no offence to any religious group; this was a requirement of their leaders and, hence, of politicians working within the limits set by the churches.8 Finally, an assumption was that these books would suit colonial children -- British children were the same everywhere.

In 1851 Governor LaTrobe established a Board of Commissioners of National Education to take over existing National Schools.The State's aim was to assist "local effort".9 This Board coexisted with the old Denominational Board, which had in large part also used the Irish books, though bought at a higher price than charged to National schools. In 1852 the Commissioners reported that they had made arrangements to secure full and continuous supplies of the excellent works published and sanctioned by the Commissioners for National Education in Ireland which we shall continue to diffuse throughout our schools as widely as possible.

The Board's new Regulation VII laid down that "the Commissioners [would] furnish gratuitously to each school a first stock of school books." The expectation was that after this initial supply schools would "meet their needs from the Board's stocks at reduced rates" -- the Second Book of Lessons sold at 5d. to National, 6d. to non-National schols and 7d. to the general public. In 1860 the Commissioners considered that these books should last four years -- durability had not been specifically one of Rusden's expressed expectations. 10

In 1862 Heale's Common School Act put all schools under one Board of Education. Its Regulations of 1864 stated that textbooks were to be provided from the Board's stock and Local Committees were to "require the scholars to pay for them, but not at a price higher than that charged by the Board plus the cost of carriage." The Board's list of books and requisites in 1864 included 268 items, of which 178 were books. One problem plagued schools for many years, namely ensuring that pupils -- or rather their parents -- paid for these books.11

The general support for the Irish National Readers ensured that by the mid-1860s three-quarters of all books sold by the Board were those of the Irish National Commissioners. Yet inspectors soon began to criticise them. The first problem was pedagogical: the gradation of material was too rapid for colonial children. The second related to content which was seen as "not suited to the colony." As early as 1854 Inspector Orlebar noted that references to climate, animals, plants and habits often related to another hemisphere.12

Thorn, the publisher of these books in Dublin, offered to publish an Australian version. Inspector Gilchrist, luckily on leave in Britain, helped to revise the Readers. These slightly adapted versions arrived in Victoria in 1871 and were quickly approved.13 Their adoption coincided with a major reform of educational structure, the 1872 Education Act.

1875-1895: Nelson's Royal Readers

The Education Act of 1872 established a state-provided free, compulsory and secular system. As far as possible the Catholics avoided these schools on principle, setting up their own parallel system. Robert Ramsay, the first Minister of Public Instruction, decided not to make any change in textbooks used, though in his view the Irish National books in "most general use" contained much that was "obsolete", because any adequate substitute was "far too expensive". He reported that Collins, the London publishers, were in touch with colonial governments about the possibility of an Australian series. Nothing came of this. However in 1875 "after careful consideration and consultation with the heads of some of the principal grammar schools" -- an odd source of advice -- Ramsay initiated a dramatic change by introducing as prescribed textbooks Nelson's Royal Readers "with such alterations as may be required". This wholesale prescription was an example of what Charles Pearson in 1878 saw as the Department's move "to substitute supervision from Melbourne for local co-operation."14 The alterations made in these Readers were mainly to comply with the secular provisions of the new Act. In 1878 Pearson reported that though some mentions of religion remained they were not "so important as to contribute any objection to the use of the series"15

Despite the downgrading of the reliance on local effort written into the 1872 Act16 parents were still expected to provide their children with textbooks except in the case of "indigent" children, and inspectors continued to press schools to be economical in the "issue of free books and slates". In 1887 Pearson, now the Minister, once more clarified Departmental policy on parental provision and reported that teachers had avoided "an indiscriminate use of free grants".17 Expectations concerning religious content were growing less strict. In 1892 on the motion of Sir Bernard O'Loghlan, a leading Catholic layman, the Legislative Assembly voted that the religious passages excised in 1875 be restored. This was achieved by 1894.18

Expectations about content continued to influence religious materials strongly. Yet, as with the Irish National Readers, common Christian morality was implicitly supported. By the 1880s this was seen to be important for a new reason, as a possible antidote to the growing "larrikanism" of the times. It was only the educators, mainly the inspectors, who were critical of other content. More particularly there were criticisms of the treatment of history. In 1886 a separate volume, The Empire, was introduced for senior classes. This contained most of the British history from the Readers, giving space for some Australasian material. The Third Reader now contained 21 pages on the "discovery" of Australia, the Fourth 49 pages on Australian explorers. Yet there were still some oddly non-Australian passages, for example, "It is a pretty sight to see wild rabbits running over the fields [sic]".19 These changes did meet the growing feeling of Australianism in the colony.

The general expectation that textbooks should come from Britain had been questioned by George Robertson, who established a book-selling business in Melbourne in 1852. He published his first small book in 1855, but rejected the idea of publishing Australian textbooks, as he did again in 1871.20 However, in 1883 a motion was passed in the Legislative Assembly that "arrangements should be made that the books used in our State schools should be printed in the colony." The motion had originally also asked for the compilation of these books in Victoria. Lingering doubts over possible quality ensured that the motion only covered printing. In 1885 The Australasian Schoolmaster supported this policy and in its original form. Some copybooks and Inspector T. Brodribb's Handbook on Hygiene and Temperance were published by the Department.21

The depression of the early 1890s strengthened these views. In 1895 G. M. Prendergast, a former printer and later Minister, successfully moved in the Legislative Assembly that "class reading books and, as far as possible, all the books used in State schools should be compiled and printed in the colony." The Minister, Alexander Peacock, strongly supported this view and quickly acted on the motion.22

1895-1930: The School Paper

In 1895 Peacock was already negotiating with Nelson's about the possibility of publishing Royal Readers in Victoria. He had, however, been much impressed on a visit to South Australia with that Department's publication since 1889 of a monthly paper, Children's Hour. Because of the various recent pressures for change he set up a committee of senior inspectors to plan new readers. They recommended the publication of graded monthly papers for Grade III and above. They had a number of pedagogical reasons for this, including that, as was noted later, more Australian and up-to-date material could be included and that children could not parrot material as some did with readers.23 From 1896 to 1898 issues for Grades III/IV and Grades V/VI were introduced as the only prescribed reading material; eventually an issue for Grades VII/VIII completed the range. An inspector, Charles Long, became the editor, remaining so until he retired in 1925.24 The School Paper also sold in Tasmania, Western Australia, and Fiji. The Department had now become a major educational publisher.

Those involved in the production of The School Paper were influenced by much the same expectations as had ruled earlier in the choice of imported books. In 1922 Long included in the aims of The School Paper the teaching of "our heritage of prose and poetry", and, a new emphasis, the developing of "an understanding love of Victoria, of Australia, and of the British Empire." The first of these aims was believed to impart morality. The need for a secular emphasis continued. Two countertrends were at work. As their demand for social mobility rose the Catholics were beginning to use Departmental syllabuses and materials; in 1914 the Catholic Inspector of Primary Schools in Melbourne noted, "The School's [sic] Paper was everywhere." Yet, and perhaps due to this change, during the period 1909 to 1915 various Catholic bodies regularly complained to the Department about apparently offensive material. In June, 1908 Long minuted to Tate, "it is my practice to avoid making any reference to opinions on religious matters."25

The pedagogical expectations of inspectors grew more influential. This was particularly so after Tate became first Director of Education in 1902. Graded material, attractive presentation, up-to-date and Australian content made The School Paper more appropriate than the previous imports and supply was ensured. Finally, The School Paper was cheap, costing throughout its history 1d. per issue. It was sufficiently durable; it had to last at least a year and a protective folder was used. The expectation of parental provision was still a problem despite Regulation (now) XVII. In 1920 and 1922 debates took place in the Legislative Assembly about the free supply of school materials. Its proponents saw the chance to remove the stigma of charity from those receiving free books, whilst opponents felt such a system would subsidise the rich. No change occurred because of the cost, £132,000 for primary schools.27

One new, temporally powerful, expectation affected the content of The School Paper. In 1919 the Victorian Conference of the Australian Labor Party adopted a motion, pacifist in nature, about Departmental publications. In 1924 a Labor government came to power in Victoria. The Minister, Jack Lemmon, created an uproar by ordering the Department to follow this policy and Long obeyed as editor of The School Paper.28 By 1926 a new government was in power and Peacock once again minister. The School Paper followed a more Janus-like policy: both the League of Nations and the ANZACs were given space. Another change was that from 1928 a monthly supplement, "Made in Australia", was included in the issue for Grade VII/VIII, containing articles on Australian industry. The Melbourne-based "Made in Australia" Council, an "offshoot" of the nationalistic Australian Natives Association,29 sponsored this in answer to the growing expectation that schools should play a role in preparing leavers not merely by inculcating an implicit Christian morality, but also by providing specific material about the work force, somewhat ironic at a time of severe unemployment.

1928-1960s: The Victorian Readers

By 1925 senior Departmental officials made a major change in policy on textbooks. For some years they had apparently felt the need for more contemporary content in The School Paper. They decided that the Department would issue a set of prescribed readers "in order to provide additional graded reading material"; The School Paper was to continue as supplementary material. Committees of teachers, inspectors and artists under Long, recalled from retirement, produced these. The Reader for Grade VIII was introduced in 1928 and those for the remaining grades by 1930.30

The expectations of the practitioners and the educational administrators were clearly paramount in the introduction of the Victorian Readers. The other expectations isolated earlier continued to be influential. Gradation and content were affected by the pedagogical need to maintain interest. Thus, Australian material was to the fore, though English "classical" verse and prose was plentiful, because as James McRae, then inspector in charge of primary schools, put it, a "sounder treatment of literature" was needed, being "the most important subject for instruction in any school, both from the point of view of its immediate value and of its influence in later life";31 the influence referred to was moral, to which good literature was believed to contribute. Much of the material used in the Readers, as might be expected in view of Long's editorship, had already appeared in The School Paper. The Preface to the Eighth Reader, the first produced, clearly showed this "inculcation of a sound morality" to be one aim of the series as also was to teach "a pride of race based in the English speaking heritage."

The expectation of secularity remained influential, but there were now far fewer complaints of bias from Catholics or other denominations. God was given en passant mention, but, as before, the Christian moral code was implicit. The lack of religious bias in these Readers is demonstrated by their wide adoption in private schools of all denominations once the Departnent's own schools were supplied. In 1934 the Catholic Education Office introduced The Children's World, an equivalent to The School Paper; this was done, not in criticism of the Department's paper, but mainly to support a new Catholic History syllabus, recognised by the Department for its Merit (i.e., grade 8) examination, but containing material seen as unsuited for use in State schools.

Perhaps more influence was felt from the expectation of cheapness and durability at this time of depression. The Department made much of the low price of the Readers, 4d. for the First and 1s. 3d.for the Eighth. The expressed policy was that there would be no frequent revisions. The first revision was made in 1940, though the Sixth (revised) did not appear till 1953. To obviate expense for parents the promise was made, "no further revision would be made for at least ten years."32 The revisions of content were on the whole driven by pedagogical considerations; materials thought difficult or obscure were replaced.

The use of these Readers gradually petered out in the 1960s as more liberal educational attitudes gained power and more pedagogically "progressive" materials became available. They were, however, a great success and sold widely outside their area of prescription.


To conceptualise textbooks as a genre promotes a profitable mode of descriptive analysis and the addition of the idea of compulsion, i.e., power, can extend this to a causal level. Genre as defined here implies expectations. A web of expectations grows up between those in, for instance, the textbook process; this network influences the decisions made by those with varying degrees of power in respect of the form, the content and the style of books used in an educational system. As expectations change, often under the influence of pressures from those in social institutions external to education and transposed into this system, so the genre will change to meet the new problems met. In this way over the last millenium textbooks have taken the form of horn-books, battledores and multi-media kits.33

The case-study presented here illustrates in a less dramatic form these generalisations at work over a century rather than a millenium. Furthermore, by its very nature, relating to state-provided schools, it covers a wider range of actors than did Stray, who focussed on private schools. In 1848 Rusden, an administrator, outlined contemporary expectations, imported from Britain. The situation was influenced by the expectations of those in religious, familial, political and economic positions. Actors in each of these social institutions were influenced by each other. Parents slowly came to accept, some under compulsion, that they were expected to provide their children's textbooks. Politicians never forgot the expectations of those in the various denominations. Here is most easily seen the way in which changing expectations affected content; as the presenting problem changed so did the solution, that is , the genre.

This last process is also well exemplified in the innovation introduced by Peacock, a politician, in 1896, when a monthly paper, a total redefinition of the form of the textbook, solved many educational problems. This new form existed as the prescribed reading material until in the late-1920s a new solution, very like that extant before 1896, was found to meet the changed expectations of educationists.. Long, the loyal administrator, implemented both the previous change and its reversal. Because during these years there was a general expectation in Victoria that the curriculum should be free of overt political influence this was rare. An exception was under Labor in the early 1920s when a pacifist policy was decreed. Politics can also affect expectations in a more indirect way through, for example, changing ideas of how social justice shall be achieved. The gradual easing of Catholic susceptabilities had a stronger influence on content because of the laity's demand to access higher levels of schooling, then mainly provided by the State.

Economic expectations were for three-quarters of a century met by the religious expectation that an uncontroversial Christian morality be taught. Only after the 1914-1918 war when Victoria really began to industrialise did the expectation grow that relevant specific economic content be taught; the Department used external resources, supplied by industry itself, but also with a nationalistic intent, to provide a supplement in The School Paper. This is a good example of the process that Sharratt terms "transposition" whereby expectations are carried from one societal institution to another.34

Stray's phrase, quoted in the first paragraph, "the interaction of several relationships", provides a starting point for constructing a framework to consider the historical sociology of the textbook. Here his phrase has been extended and clarified by the use of the concept of genre. Around any genre there is a web of expectations, complex in nature, especially since expectations are often transposed across the social system. These expectations, as with the Marxist idea of relations of production, are historically contingent. The possibility of change is built into such an analysis. Sharratt himself held that this mode of analysis does not result in a causal explanation, but "seeks to suggest a more precise framework with which (causal) preoccupations may be pursued."35 Yet, if following Marx in the case of factors of production, we remember that expectations too can be more or less compelling, that is subject to varying degrees of power, we are led to consider which actors in the textbook process can enforce their expectations. Here we are moving towards a causal historical sociology of the textbook.



1. C. Stray, "Paradigms Regained: towards a historical sociology of the textbook," Journal of Curriculum Studies, 26 (1), 1994, pp. 1-29. I wish to thank Chris Stray for comments on this and an earlier version of this paper.

2. Stray, p. 24.

3. Stray, p. 2. This definition and the approach taken here parallels the discusssion at the Salisbury Textbook Colloquium of October, 1998 as reported in C. Stray. "Afternoon Discussion," Paradigm, no. 45, 1999, p. 45.

4. B. Sharratt, Reading Relations (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1982), p. 313; J. Culler, The Pursuit of Signs (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), p.123.

5. Sharratt, p. 311; K. Marx, Preface to A Critique of Political Economy, 1857, quoted Sharrett, p. 57.

6. A much fuller account of the various readers here discussed can be found in the following papers by this author: "How Should We Make Australians," Curriculum Perspectives, vol. 14, no. 3, 1994, pp. 11-18; "Readers in Victoria, 1896-1968, I: The School Paper and Children's World," Paradigm, no. 15, 1994, pp. 9-22; "Readers in Victoria, 1896-1968, II: The Victorian Readers." Paradigm, no. 16, 1995, pp. 1-12; "Was there a 'Departmental Index' (The Argus, 24. 8. 10) in Victoria between 1872 and 1930?" Education Research and Perspectives, vol. 22, no. 2, 1995, pp. 17-29; To Be An Australian?, Paradigm Papers, no.1, (Cambridge: The Textbook Colloquium, 1996); "Readers in Victoria,1851-1895." Paradigm, no. 26, 1998, pp. 10-17; "Distributor and Publisher: Victorian Education Departments and the Supply of Textbooks, 1851-1945," Education Research and Perspectives, vol. 24, no. 1, 1997, pp. 48-62.

7. J. M. Goldstrom, "Robert Whately and political economy in school books, 1833-80." Irish Historical Studies, 1966, No. 58, pp. 131-46.

8. A. G. Austin, George William Rusden (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1958), pp. 133, 135.

9. D.Grundy, "The Political Economy of the Denominational Schools in Victoria," in S. Murray Smith (ed.), Melbourne Studies in Education, 1981, (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1981), p. 127.

10. Report of the Commissioners of National Education (CNE),1852, pp. 7,11,12 and 19; CNE, 1860-1, pp. 7-8, 17 and 18.

11. Report of Board of Education (BE), 1864, p.151; BE, 1865, p. 14.

12. BE, 1867, p. 24; CNE, 1854-5, p. 69.

13. BE, 1871, p. xxix.

14. Report of the Minister of Public Instruction (MPI), 1874-5, pp. xii-xiii; Report of the Royal Commissioner on the State of Public Education in Victoria, 1878, pp. 92-94.

15. MPI, 1875-6, p. xviii; MPI, 1877-8, p. xvi; State School Books in Victoria, a report by C. H.Pearson, Parliamentary Papers Victoria, 1877-8, paper C.17, p. 2.

16. Grundy, p. 137.

17. MPI, 1874-5, p. 55; 1881-2, p. 204; 1887-8, p. xii; Special Case File (SCF), no. 760.

18. Victorian Parliamentary Debates (VPD), vol. 68, pp. 282-92; MPI, 1893-4, p. xvi.

19. Royal Reader, 2 (Edinburgh: Nelson, 1895), p. 42.

20. J. Holroyd, George Robertson of Melbourne, 1825-1898: Pioneer Bookseller and Printer (Melbourne: Robertson and Mullins, 1962), pp. 16, 19 and 43.

21. PDV, vol.44, pp. 1186-90; Australasian Schoolmaster, March, 1885, pp. 136-137; MPI, 1888-9, p. xxi.

22. PDV, vol.77, pp. 1379-1382.

23. MPI, 1895-6, p. 15; 1913-4, p. 23; SCF no. 1061.

24.R. J. W. Selleck, "Charles Long," Australian Dictionary of Biography.

25. C. X. O. Driscoll, "Catholic Primary Schools, Archdiocese of Melbourne, Report for the Year ending 30th September, 1914," Tribune, 3 December, 1914; SCF no. 1114.

26. E. Sweetman, C. R. Long, and J. Smyth, A History of State Education in Victoria (Melbourne: Education Department, 1922), p. 283.

27. PDV, vol. 155, pp. 533-48; vol. 160, pp. 491-503.

28. B. Bessant, "Empire Day, Anzac Day and the Flag Ceremony and All That." Historian, no. 25, 1973, pp. 36-43.

29, A. W. Hannan, Patriotism in Victorian State Schools, M.A. Thesis, LaTrobe University, 1977, p. 162.

30. MPI, 1926-7, p. 10.

31. MPI, 1926-7, p. 23.

32. MPI, 1939-40, p. 4.

33. An excellent introductory source on the history of textbooks is H. Carpenter and M. Prichard, The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), under the headings: ABC Books, Battledores, Books of Instruction, and Horn-books.

34. Sharratt, p.87.

35. Sharratt, p. 92 (emphasis in original).