From small beginnings: the early days of Severn Street Adult School

Joseph Sturge, author unknown, 1859 (Birmingham Portraits Collection)

On 14th May it is the anniversary of the death of one of Birmingham’s prominent citizens, Joseph Sturge, who died in 1859. A successful Quaker businessman, a generous philanthropist and an active campaigner, he is perhaps best known for his work in the anti-slavery movement and the establishment of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (now known as Anti-slavery International). However, he was a man of many interests and it is his role in beginning the adult education movement in Birmingham which is the subject of this blog post.

On 12th August 1845, concerned by the behaviour of the men and teenage boys he saw in the city’s streets on Sundays, Sturge invited some of Birmingham’s younger Quakers to his house in Wheeley’s Road, Edgbaston to discuss whether they could establish an adult school for them.  It was to be another 25 years before compulsory primary education would be introduced and many adults at this time had started work as young children so levels of literacy among the working classes remained low.  Sturge had been impressed by a visit in 1842 to what is now seen as being the earliest of the adult schools, established in Nottingham in 1798, and he wanted to set up a similar school in Birmingham. The Nottingham school was run by a Methodist, William Singleton and subsequently taken over by a Quaker, Samuel Fox. Non-denominational classes took place on Sundays, teaching men and women reading and writing classes based on the Bible.

The group of Birmingham Quakers agreed that such a school should be established  for,

‘…those who are not & have not been in the way of receiving any instruction in other schools.’

(Severn Street First Day School minute, 12th August 1845, SF (2016/043) 1524 part 1 of 2).

Once a list of volunteer teachers had been drawn up and a set of regulations decided upon, a notice was printed and circulated with the following invitation:

‘A school is intended to be held on First day (Sunday) evenings, from 6 to 8 o’clock, at the British School rooms in Severn Street, chiefly for the purpose of affording instruction in reading and the Scriptures and in writing, to youths and young men from fourteen years of age and upwards, who are invited to attend. The school to commence on the 12th of 10th month (October) , 1845.’

(Severn Street First Day School minute, 10th October 1845, SF (2016/043) 1524 part 1 of 2)

Severn Street First Day School minute stating a notice would be printed and circulated to advertise the newly formed Severn Street Adult School, 10th October 1845 (SF (2016/043) 1524 part 1 of 2)

On the evening of the 12th October 1845, twelve teachers welcomed to the school over a hundred men and teenage boys who were described in the committee’s first report, dated 1847, as,

‘…in the darkest ignorance, unable to tell the letters of the alphabet, and by their disorderly conduct … quite destitute of moral or religious training.’

(Severn Street First Day School report 1847 (SF (2016/043) 1524 part 1 of 2).

Severn Street School in ‘The Story of Severn Street and Priory First-Day Schools, Birmingham’ by William White, 1895 (L18.6)

In the first year of opening, attendance at the school was high throughout the winter months, but once summer came, it dropped dramatically. Sturge suggested that some of the teachers should visit his friend Samuel Fox in Nottingham to see whether any approaches and methods used at his successful adult school could be adopted at Severn Street. Following this visit, a number of changes were made. From April 1846, it was decided to alter the time of classes to Sunday morning, from half-past seven to half-past nine, and so the Early Morning School model which was to go on to thrive across numerous suburbs of Birmingham, was born. Classes were preceded by breakfast for the teachers at 7am in or near the school, kindly provided by Sturge, who regularly attended. Although he did not teach himself, he frequently accompanied the teachers and started the day’s lessons by reading a chapter from the Bible.

Severn Street Adult School list of classes and teachers, December 1845 (SF (2016/043) 1524 Severn Street First Day School Teachers Meeting minute book, 1845 – 1852)

Adults and teenagers were separated into two classes which followed the same format: writing was taught for the first hour, followed by a Bible reading from a teacher and a scholar and then time was spent on reading and spelling, with the last part of the lesson being reserved for the teacher to test the scholars. Weekday evening classes of arithmetic, geography and grammar were also available. The school had a small and popular lending library, which in 1847 comprised 350 books, and from 1848, a Savings Fund was established. Tea parties followed by lectures on a variety of subjects such as the solar system or chemical experiments took place for the scholars, as did excursions to the countryside. Administrative matters relating to the running of the school were dealt with at the Teachers’ meeting, held once a month at Sturge’s house.

Attendance improved once ‘Reward tickets’,  valued at ½ d were introduced for scholars arriving punctually for 7.30. They could collect a number of these and exchange them to receive an equivalent value of copy books, Bibles and other suitable reading material. Punctuality was also an issue for teachers, who were subjected to fines of 1d, later increasing to 2d, if they were not on time for their class.

The teachers faced some opposition from some in the area around the school. A neighbouring vicar wrote to the Severn Street Adult School Committee, protesting at the teaching of writing on a Sunday. He wrote:

 ‘Surely a young person may read, and, under the teaching of God’s Holy Spirit, understand the Scriptures without knowing how to write… Writing is for another end and object, for secular purposes – to be used in business – to qualify for situations in life-and not for spiritual purposes; and cannot be placed in the same necessity as reading, which is essential in order to know the Word of God.’

(SF (2016/043) 1524 Severn Street First Day School Teachers Meeting minute book, 1845 – 1852 part 2 of 2)

Despite such opposition, in 1848 Friends started a similar school for women and girls over the age of twelve on Ann Street (now Colmore Row), while men and teenagers continued to apply for places at Severn Street Early Morning School. The school’s report for 1848 records that for that year there were 56 fourteen to nineteen year olds on the waiting list, some of whom had been waiting three months for a place.  It goes on to explain that large class sizes were making teaching more difficult and that an insufficient number of Friends were willing to offer their services as teachers.

Average weekly attendance at Severn Street Adult School, 1847 (SF (2016/043) 1524 Severn Street First Day School Teachers Meeting minute book, 1845 – 1852)

This continued to be a problem for the following two years but additional teachers were found and by 1850, 300 scholars were registered at the school, with an average weekly attendance of 213. By 1859, the year of Sturge’s death, there were 535 scholars. Severn St. Adult School went on to flourish throughout the remainder of the 19th  century and by the time of the school’s jubilee celebrations in 1895, additional classes and branch schools had been established across the suburbs of Birmingham, and membership had reached 3000 across the city.

Eleanor (Project Archivist)


SF (2016/043) 1524 Severn Street First Day School Teachers Meeting minute book, 1845 – 1852

Currie Martin, G. (1924) The Adult School Movement, Its Origin and Development, London: National Adult School Union.

Rowntree, J. W. and Binns, H. B. (1903) A History of the Adult School Movement, London: Headley Brothers.

White, William (1895), The story of the Severn Street and Priory First-day Schools, Birmingham, London: Headley Brothers.


One response to “From small beginnings: the early days of Severn Street Adult School

  1. Pingback: ‘A Union of Adult Schools in the Midland Counties’ | The Iron Room

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