A Short Account of the Rise and Progress of the Lancasterian System [1]
Joseph Lancaster

Joseph Lancaster commenced a school in his father's house, in London, in the first month, 1793. Here, under the protecting hand of a pious parent, he, undesignedly, formed the outline of a system of education, which has since extended its ramification over the circumference of the globe.

At the time of his commencement he was only 18 years of age, but he possessed that ardour of mind, which is always indispensable to carry on a great design, with a feeling undismayed by obstacles which may impede its progress: for assuredly there never yet was any great and good purpose developed among men, without encountering in its career, different degrees of malignity, envy, prejudice, and mental littleness. ...

To fill up his time in the most useful manner, he requested a room in his father's house in which to commence school, on reduced terms, for the sake of the neighbouring youth. This was cheerfully granted, on which he purchased some old boards, and personally fitted up his school with his own hands. Though the desks and forms were not fitted up in a carpenter like manner, yet they were stable and neat enough for every useful purpose. The first cost did not amount to more than five dollars, and with his father's table and purse for a resource, he thus commenced an institution, which hath drawn forth the opposition of the bigot, the envy and persecution of men eager in pursuit of popularity, but too idle to earn it; — and expanded the energies of the truly benevolent, to aid in diffusing a flood of intellectual light over the benighted horizons of both hemispheres.

One hundred pupils were soon admitted, and found themselves at home with a teacher, who consulted their happiness while solicitous for their improvement. Numbers were soon found among the scholars, whose parents were unable to bear the expense of their education. Their teacher visited the parents of these at their own habitations, and endeavoured to impress on their minds, such facts as would render them more alive to the parental duty of education; and when he found their means really deficient, rather than fine and hopeful youths should be left destitute, he taught many of them without remuneration. This increased his numbers, but left his income only adequate to his own board and comforts. Having no means of paying ushers, he was compelled to employ one pupil in teaching another, and as his scholars increased, to digest a plan of conducting his school, which should be a guide to his juvenile teachers, and render their duties systematic and regular. Thus originated, from unpremeditated causes, a system which has gradually advanced to maturity, and bids fair for extension, much higher than the elementary knowledge to which it originally gave its powerful aid.

In a short time, the first school room was found not large enough; a work shop was fitted up as the second: a room was then hired away from the parental house, and after another change to neighbouring premises, a building was commenced on the author's own foundation and expense. Three hundred pupils were admitted first, and afterwards, increased, to the number of eight hundred boys and two hundred girls. On the outside of the original building, he placed a printed notice 'all that will, may send their children, and have them educated freely, and those that do not wish to have education for nothing, may pay for it if they please.' He had now discovered that it was possible in that country, to educate three, and even four children, in elementary knowledge for twelve months for a single guinea, and that the increase of numbers was only the increase of energy and economy. ...

The school soon excited much attention and enquiry; visitors not satisfied with seeing, were anxious to take home some outlines of the system in print. Foreign princes, ambassadors, peers, commoners, ladies of distinction, bishops and archbishops, Jews and Turks, all visited the school with 'wonder waiting eyes,' and were equally desirous of carrying home a memorial of the interesting scenes they had witnessed. This led to a publication which had an extensive demand, and that was soon succeeded by a second; — a third impression consisted of three thousand five hundred copies in octavo, which was instantly followed by a demand for two thousand more, and an abridgment of several thousand copies; the public reviews and extracts of these, excited great attention. In general they were received with animation and delight, except one instance of bigotry in a poor aged female, who dreamed the church was in danger, and the bishops asleep at their posts, and therefore, she strove mightily to awaken them to as much vigilance as would prevent any Quaker running away with the church steeple, though he might not know what to do with such an uncouth and cumbersome thing afterwards.

From the year 1798, to the year 1804, curiosity and benevolence were alike on the tiptoe, to ascertain the progress of this system in its local origin, and for some time a notion prevailed, that much of its success depended on personal ability, which could not be transferred or taught. The perfection to which it eventually arrived, enabled J. Lancaster to be occasionally absent, and demonstrated the fact, and established conviction, that much of its utility might be transferred to others, and the plan extended over the nation by such means.

At this time the duke of Bedford and the late lord Somerville, who when not influenced by artful and designing men, were always kind and worthy, countenanced a plan for training schoolmasters, whom Joseph Lancaster, in the ardour of his zeal, offered to train gratis; whereas the public ought in justice to have compensated services, of which they had the sole benefit.

The personal virtues and mind of the late king of England, George the third, were much in character like an American aloe; long in growing, longer in blowing, but blooming in beauty at last.[2] Towards the close of a long reign, piety eminently enthroned itself in his heart, and his good wishes for his people, increased by the expanding power of the love of God, and man within him. He became the author's friend and patron, he placed his own name at the head of the list of subscribers, and influenced his family. In the king it was principle — in his family it was the force of example, and it is only to be regretted for themselves and mankind, that their virtues neither equal nor resemble their father's.

Thus originated another era in the history of the system, exhibiting a spectacle strange and new in the British annals; — a monarch taking an humble individual by the hand, and in a character of fatherly regard to the people, introducing him to the nation as a teacher of youth, and sanctioning him by a support, which, useful and honourable as it was, produced to him as much envy as usefulness.

The episcopal clergy, corrupted by the influence of the unchristian manner in which church and state are linked together in England, found all this exertion for the education of youth in the king and in the dissenter, a reflection on the supineness of their church, and on the rusty mitres and dusty lawn of its lazy prelates. Yawning, they stretched wider than usual, mouths ever open for good wine and good living, and sagaciously observed, such influence was too much for any dissenter to have, on which they began a persecution of intrigue, untruth, and deception, more compatible with the principles of pandemonium, than the meek, mild, unsullied purity of motive in Christian bishops. But a difficulty arose, — it was a novel thing in England for 'the church to be in danger from the king: ' while the king continued the friend of Lancaster, they could have little hopes of successfully running down the latter, as the mass of the people were alienated from the bishops by their ungodly lives and priestcraft. ...

Still royal firmness did comparatively little, and noble countenance less, to introduce the system to the country. The press had done much, and the example of high authority was cherishing and cheering to an infant concern; but when the plan was to be extended over the nation, personal influence however exalted was too weak, and the press still exerted on too small a scale to move the mind of millions; but another change of operation took place, which carried conviction and astonishment in its train, and left behind it, in many places, institutions reared in its unexpected and rapid progress; — reared for the education of youth, by hundreds, thousands, and accumulating tens of thousands. — Family afflictions compelled J. Lancaster to retire into the country, for the change of scene and for the benefit of his health. He received an invitation to deliver a public address on education. This he did to about two hundred persons, in a small Baptist chapel. Finding his labour acceptable, and being then in Somersetshire, he crossed the Bristol channel into Wales. Here again he lectured in succession at Swansea, Carmarthen, Bristol, Dover, and Canterbury in Kent, and the university of Cambridge, where he received from the deputy regius professor of divinity, a vote of public thanks 'for his instructive lecture,' amidst the acclamations of many of the tutors, professors and students of colleges.

At all these places committees were formed, funds raised, and schools actually established on the system. This was putting a powerful lever in motion; it brought the hesitation of the benevolent to a decided point; it opened the way for personal intercourse, between the friends of the system and its founder. It called to public duty, and embodied firm as a phalanx in favor of education, the hidden friends of rising youth and orphan poor. They were drawn as doves from 'the cleft of the rock,' bearing the olive leaf, to seek and serve the cause. Now it was needful for the founder to compass a nation, and though much absent from home, he was neither idle nor remiss, in keeping up a correspondence which, from its extent, involved no small expense and care. In fact, so much time was spent in this kind of public secretaryship, that private comfort and duties were materially infringed. Thus, the founder of the system continued for years to toil and labour, to promote schools from one extreme of Great Britain and Ireland to the other, and sometimes returned to London with the thanks of ten or a dozen public meetings at a time; but what are 'thanks' in general? a ceremony which implies public civility, or good will; but in many cases, are alike destitute of gratitude or sincerity, and, at any rate, a poor compensation for the sacrifice of the prime of a life, spent in national services.

Source: Joseph Lancaster, The Lancasterian System of Education ... (Baltimore, 1821), pp. vii-ix.

[1] Original spelling and punctuation have been retained in the documents, with the exception of obvious typographical errors, which have been corrected. — ED.

[2] The aloe is a genus of the lily family. — ED.