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East Midlands Wilderspin National School, Barton Upon Humber, North Lincolnshire

Possibly one of the most important schools in England that revolutionised ideas on teaching infants

Some Background about Samuel Wildersopin and his ideas

Many of us will have visited Victorian school rooms and learnt of the fierce discipline in them. In fact Victorian Infant teaching was much more enlightened than I realised, as I found out during a visit to the Wilderspin National School.

The school is a typical Victorian brick building in the centre of Barton on Humber, complete with outside toilets.



The school was built in 1844 and is the only known survivor of a Wilderspin School. It was a model example of the enlightened form of schooling developed by Samuel Wilderspin which continues today. As an educationalist, he was 100 years before his time with his ideas on the education of infant children. This is the only one of his schools to have survived and it fully deserves the title of “one of the most important schools in England”.

Samuel Wilderspin was a firm believer that better education of the poor would solve most social problems. As a child he had disliked school and had been taught at home. Many of his ideas about education had roots in his own happy childhood. He believed the first seven years were crucial but this also depended on school and parents working together.

He began his teaching career in a London Sunday School before joining an Infant School in Westminster. Here he met James Buchanan who had taught in Robert Owen’s school in New Lanark. Inspired by him, he opened an Infant School in Spitalfields, a very poor area in east London and experimented with his ideas.

He quickly realised he needed to appeal to the senses of the children and use language they could understand. He also realised it was important to group children in such a way that they could all see and also be seen by the teacher. This led to the development of the gallery seen in the infant classroom here. He understood that young children need amusement and a variety of activities. School should be stimulating and unthreatening. He used marching, clapping, singing and free play outside to keep their attention. The playground was his invention with a special rotary swing to develop muscles and co-ordination. Flower borders not only looked attractive but could also be used to promote learning.


In 1824 he set up the Infant School Society with the support of Robert Owen, William Wilberforce and Henry Brougham MP. They all believed that infant schooling gave poor children “Principles of virtue and save them from a life of crime”. They believed that all children were innately good and learnt good or bad behaviour from others. It was essential to encourage the good. “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it”.

They recognised that early years education needed to be different from the very strict discipline associated with Victorian schools. It needed better facilities to engage and encourage the children as well as properly trained teachers. Wilderspin became a travelling agent for the for the Society, promoting its work and opening new infant schools across the country. He didn’t want the schools to be associated with any particular church and this lead to religious opposition. Increasing religious and political opposition caused the society to fold in 1827.

It had however sown the seeds of change and Wilderspin became a free lance educationalist and continued to publish books of his ideas. He also set up and opened the Infant School Depot which supplied educational equipment and materials to the infant schools.

Wilderspin was the archetypal entrepreneur. After a new school had been set up, he arranged a public exhibition where the children could display their progress to parents and visitors. Not only did this display his teaching methods, it also encouraged observers to think about establishing schools elsewhere.

He was responsible for establishing around 2000 schools across Great Britain and Ireland.


Wilderspin had always hoped to build his own model school in London. In 1844, he was lecturing in Barton-upon-Humber and nearby Winterton as well as training teachers in Hull and carrying out public examinations. The population in Barton-upon-Humber doubled between 1801 and 1851. Over one third of the population were under 15 and this was causing a huge social problem. Living conditions were harsh and children were illiterate. Sunday Schools were free and did provide a certain amount of education but it was Bible based. Long’s School in Barton-upon-Humber did have some free places but was closed in 1842.

This was the chance he was waiting for. A new National School was being proposed for the over sixes. As a result of Wilderspin’s influence and work, it was decided to add an infant school to the plans. Wilderspin was responsible for the design and layout of the school. The boys' school was at one end with a house for the master. Next to it was the girls' school and at the far end, the infant school.


Wilderspin was appointed Superintendent of the Infant School and taught here with his wife and daughter. This was the chance he wanted to have his own school. He wrote his “Manual for the Religious and Moral Instruction of Young Children” while he was here.

The boys and girls school were independent of the infant school and Wilderspin’s influence and ideas did not extend upwards into them. Once the children left the infant school, they were subjected to the harsh methods of Victorian education.

He worked at the school for four years before retiring and moving to Wakefield. He was awarded a Queen’s pension of £100 a year and his wife was presented with a silver whistle as a token of the children’s affection. He was involved in adult education through the Mechanics Institute and continued to lecture, advise on methods and principles of education and help teachers find positions until his death in 1866.

Sadly the infant school closed after Wilderspin left and wasn’t reopened again until 1860. The school eventually closed in 1978 and was restored as a museum.

Visiting the school and what it was like...

Pupils entered the school through the playground and the back door in ther centre of the building. The front entrance was reserved for important visitors.


The door leads into what was the girls' school. The infant gallery was on the left and the boys’ school on the right. The masters house was attached to the back of the boys' school and had its own entrance. This was later converted into a classroom and a new house built to the north. This has since been demolished.

Through the entrance is the shop selling books, sweets and a range of children’s toys. Off this, in what was originally the boys part of the school, is a reconstruction of a war time schoolroom from the 1940s. Next to it is the Victorian classroom with gas lighting, an open coal fire in a corner, wooden desks with bench seats and a dunce’s cap.



A room is set up as Wilderspin’s sitting room with a model of him asleep in front of the coal fire with his book. There is a short video about his ideas and work.


This leads into the Wilderspin schoolroom, a large room which was the infant school for children aged 2-6. It could accommodate up to 150 children. They could be taught together as a large group, or in smaller groups with the help of a monitor. Hanging on the wall by the door are white pinafores and caps. Every child was expected to wear these in school as their clothes might be dirty or poorly mended.


It is a big room with large windows to provide plenty of natural light but carefully arranged so the children were unable to see out of them. There were gas lights although in winter the children were sent home early if there wasn’t enough light to work.


At the far end of the room near the teacher's desk is an open coal fire with a bucket of coal and a piano. Music was seen as an important part of a child’s education and singing was used to reimforce learning. At the other end of the room is the gallery of steps. All the children sat on here during group lessons. The youngest children were at the front allowing the teacher to see all the children at once.


The children had to stand to answer questions. Questioning began with the youngest children at the front and worked up the gallery getting more difficult. A large map would have been suspended from the ceiling and lowered for teaching. Under the gallery was a storage place to hang coats.

In the open space are ‘teaching posts’. These were used by monitors (older children) who were allocated seven younger children. A picture from the wall would be attached to the post and the monitor would question the group about it. Once the lesson was finished, the monitor would sit on their stool in front of the post. The children were encouraged to work out answers for themselves rather than learning by rote. There are examples of boards on the walls with flowers, leaves, birds, wild animals, shapes.



The monitors had a set of guideline questions to be asked which could be varied and made more complicated for the older children. A booklet on the teacher’s desk contains examples of questions. Those on flowers began with simple recognition of the plant and where it was found. This then developed into the idea of cultivated plants or weeds and how to grow crops. It ended with a discussion of poisonous or medicinal plants.

Not only were they expected to know the names of the different shapes, the shapes boards led onto discussions of straight, crooked or curved lines. Children were expected to know the difference between parallel, diverging and converging lines and what happens if you extend them. They were also expected to know the difference between acute, obtuse and right angles.

Wilderspin thought parents needed to take responsibility for the health and progress of their children. at school. Parents were expected to send their children clean and washed with their hair cut short and clothes well mended by half past eight. If a child arrived half an hour late, they were sent home. This was designed to make parents take responsibility for getting the children to school on time. Mothers were very busy during the day and didn’t want the older children under their feet.

There was no school on a Saturday to give the teacher a rest, the “infant system being so laborious”. The school room also needed to be thoroughly cleaned and mothers were obliged to wash children’s clothes on a Saturday as "they may not have sufficient change of clothes and must not break the Sabbath by washing on a Sunday".

Parents were given a copy of the school rules on a pasteboard so they could hang it up at home, not only to remind the children but also remind the parents of their duties. “It is earnestly hoped that parents will see that their own interests as well as that of their children is strictly observed by obeying these rules.” Among other things parents were exhorted to “give them good advice, to accustom them to family prayer but particularly see that they repeat the Lord’s Prayer when they rise in the morning and when they retire to rest.” Parents were asked to set a good example and reminded that “we are assured in the Holy Scriptures that if we train up a child in the way he should go, when he is old he will not depart from it. Therefore parents may be instrumental in the promotion of welfare of their children in this life and of their eternal happiness in the world to come.”

There was also a set of rules for the teachers. Top of the list was a warning that children with whooping cough, ringworm or other contagious disease must be refused admission until perfectly restored. This was followed by a reminder that the business of the school should begin precisely at the time appointed and on the shortest days, school should not be dismissed before 4pm.

Some rules are still relevant today “Teachers should be with the children in the playground. This is absolutely essential to prevent accidents, to attend to the moral and physical training and, above all, to see that the children acquire habits of honesty and kindness to each other.”

Teachers needed to pay most attention to children learning to read and were expected to adhere to the plan of education laid down by Wilderspin in his book “The Infant System”. This is remarkably far sighted. Emphasis was laid on the importance of exercise. Children should be able to think for themselves and a spirit of enquiry should be excited. He did not believe in rote learning.

Children needed to respect private property and have strict regard for the truth. Teachers should practice what they teach. It emphasised the importance of patience and the disadvantages of using heavy discipline. ”Never frighten the children.” Corporal punishment was not allowed and often the children acted as a jury to decide punishments for misbehaviour or playground arguments.

The book in true Victorian fashion, also laid down clear guidelines for dealing with juvenile delinquency, considered the causes of early crime and remedies for existing evils.

Principles of infant education were laid down along with requisites for an infant school and hints for conducting it with rewards and sanctions. Topics to be taught included language, grammar, arithmetic, geography, PE, music, nature study....

Through a door is the infant playground which was walled and separate from the older children. Wilderspin attached great importance to the playground and there was plenty of space for the children to run and play. The tall pole was designed to let children hang and swing, so developing their arm muscles. Round the edges was a flower border. Wilderspin believed that gardening and an appreciation of nature played an important part in a child’s development. Children were taught respect for the living world and flowers were rarely picked. Apparently he recommended the planting of strongly scented flowers to mask the smell of the children.


A brick storage shed has a video recording of people describing their schooldays in the building 70-75 years ago. Wooden playground toys including hobby horses, hoops and skipping ropes were provided for the children to play with.

The outside toilet was an earth closet with two benches on either side with five holes in them. Ashes from the coal fires were used and there was a small trapdoor to empty the contents. Small pieces of newspaper hanging on the walls served as toilet paper. Mains water and water closets were built around 1900.



This is a fascinating visit and designed to appeal to all ages. It brings a strong blast of nostalgia with it.


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