I was reminded whilst watching a television programme the other day of the time as a child when I attended Sunday school. Like many children of my age I was packed off every Sunday afternoon to attend classes at a nearby chapel. My parents weren’t particularly religious I think it was more about getting a little peace and quiet from us after Sunday lunch more than anything else. I can’t say I benefitted much from the experience but there was one annual treat that I am thankful for and the effect of it has stayed with me through out my life.
Every year on prize giving day each pupil was reward for their attendance to Sunday school with the gift of a book. We were very poor and books were a luxury and apart from Christmas when if you were lucky you might receive an annual from a relative books were not something we came to expect and so an adventure book as a prize was something very special. I believe that one of the books I received was ‘Treasure Island’ by Robert Louis Stevenson which remains to this day on of my favourite stories.
Another treasured memory I have of my Sunday school experience was the annual Sunday school outing and one outing has remained in my memory. On the day in question we all piled into a double decker bus and I recall most of us boys made our way onto the top deck. The Journey must have been less than 18 miles to our destination which was Markeaton Park on the outskirts of Derby but to us kids it was as good as a trip to the coast. I recall having a Mary Poppins like experience on arrival at the park. We were led up the path which was on a small rise and has we crested the rise there in front of us was a bridge across a lake and on the other side was a small fair with all the usual fairground attractions and I remember thinking that somehow we were about to enter a magical Kingdom.
So all in all Sunday school was not a bad experience,
The Sunday school we attended though was a far cry from the early days of the movement. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century children as young as eight years old were working in factories 6 days a week. I was shocked when researching my own family tree to discover in a census of a great grandfather of mine whose trade was lace making to find a granddaughter of his residing with him having her listed occupation being a lace drawer at only 8 years of age. Unless you were a household of means it was very unlikely that your children would have had the opportunity of schooling. Robert Raikes one of the pioneers of the Sunday school movement had witnessed that many of the children brought up in slum conditions who were illiterate went on to a life of crime and imprisonment. He saw schooling as the best prevention, but Sunday was the only day when they were not working. The first Sunday school was set up in a private house in 1780 and was only for boys. Reading and writing was taught and the text used for this purpose was from the Bible. Later girls were allowed to attend and within two years several schools opened in and around the Gloucester area. Similar stories were going on in other parts of the country and soon these new free forms of education became established in the community.
Within seven years it was estimated that nearly a quarter of a million children were being taught in Sunday Schools. This was almost three percent of the population. The children aimed at in the scheme were those whose parents could not afford day schooling or children already in employment and so at work during the week.