J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Schooling for Soldiers and Their Children

Yesterday I discussed the likelihood that the British military establishment in Boston included hundreds of children, and raised the question of where, if anyplace, those youngsters went to school.

I haven’t found evidence that soldiers’ sons were among the boys in Boston’s public schools. The Latin Schools were too genteel and impractical for enlisted men’s children (though Gov. Francis Bernard educated some of his sons by that route in the 1760s). The records of the Writing Schools are sparse, but I’ve kept my eyes open for protests in town meetings about the public expense of educating soldiers’ sons, or any anecdotes about local boys studying alongside such outsiders. And I’ve found nothing.

The most common form of schooling in Boston wasn’t public, however. Boys were expected to know how to read before they entered a Writing School or Latin School at around age seven, and New England’s Puritan heritage meant that region valued female literacy more than any other part of the British Empire. Hence, the town had many private reading schools for boys and girls, often kept by neighborhood women in their homes. (I suspect these doubled as what we’d call day-care centers.) We have practically no records on those businesses. Did soldiers’ children attend lessons like that?

I now suspect many did, but not in local homes. Rather, the British military community itself probably offered that sort of informal education. The rest of this posting is, as you’ll see, almost entirely indebted to author Don Hagist, who wrote about this topic last month on the 18cWoman list.

In A System for the Compleat Interior Management and Economy for a Battalion of Infantry, first published in London in 1768, Capt. Bennett Cuthbertson wrote:

From the common people (the English in particular) employing their children very early, in works of labour, their education becomes totally neglected, and as the Soldiery is in general from that class, many of them (although otherwise properly qualified for Non-commission-officers) can neither read nor write, which being absolutely necessary for those employed as such, it would be of infinite improvement, if (as is the case, in some of the Corps of Scotch Hollanders) every Regiment was to establish a school, under the management of an old Soldier qualified for such an undertaking, and to be supported by voluntary contributions from the Officers; by which means, not only the Soldiers, who were desirous of improvement, might be taught to read and write, but also the children of the Regiment, which institution, besides the advantage it must always be, to have a number of men so far well qualified for Non-commission-officers, would likewise be a real charity, by educating children, who from the poverty of their parents, must ever remain in a state of ignorance.
(I find it interesting that Cuthbertson thought Scottish units were ahead of “the English” in educating children.) With Mark Tully, Don has transcribed the complete text of Cuthbertson and three other military manuals from the period on a CD-ROM titled The Compleat Cuthbertson.

Cuthbertson’s recommendation was echoed in 1776 by Thomas Simes in A Military Guide for Young Officers:
A Serjeant, or Corporal, whose sobriety, honesty, and good conduct, can be depended upon, and who is capable to teach writing, reading, and arithmetic, should be employed to act in the capacity of school-master, by whom soldiers and their children may be carefully instructed: a room or tent should be appointed for that use; and it would be highly commendable if the Chaplain, or his deputy, would pay some attention to the conduct of the school.
This passage appears in Don’s article about “The Women of the British Army in America.”

Of course, it’s one thing for these writers to say it would be a good idea for the officers and chaplain of a regiment to establish schools for illiterate enlisted men and children. It’s another for the regiments actually to act on those ideas. I have a bunch of good ideas myself, but I haven’t heard from the capital about implementing them.

Don has found documentation that the 32nd Regiment of Foot, stationed in Ireland during the Revolutionary War, did establish a school “for instructing the younger Men in Writing & Arithematick.” In addition, during the British army’s occupation of Newport, Rhode Island, in 1777, a local schoolmaster named Joseph Rhodes kept accounts for “Schooling Soldiers Children.”

Finally, Don can quote Roger Lamb, whose books he’s edited into A British Soldier’s Story: Roger Lamb’s Narrative of the American Revolution. In 1774 Lamb was a young soldier in Ireland with valuable skills. He wrote:
Indeed it would almost have been impossible for me to have supported life with any degree of comfort, had it not been, that I was employed by a serjeant and his wife to teach their son writing and arithmetic. These people were very kind to me, frequently inviting me to their table; and paying me beside.
In addition, on the Revlist Steve Rayner quoted the British reform activist William Cobbett (1763-1835) describing how in the 1780s he tutored a Yorkshire solider named Smaller in his “ABC,” and the man “was promoted as soon as he could write and read; and he well deserved it, for he was more fit to command a regiment than any Colonel or Major that I ever saw.”

As Cobbett, Cuthbertson, and the sergeant who paid Lamb to tutor his son all knew, the army needed literate enlisted men to help keep records. Being able to read, write, and calculate well could thus allow a smart young man to rise above the rank of private. And that probably meant that soldiers and their wives did what they could afford to help their children learn the same valuable skills.

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