Rowntree A-Z

Adult School Movement

One man in five and one woman in three could neither read nor write in mid-Victorian York. The first adult school (which grew out of ‘first-day’ schools, referring to the first day of the week, Sunday) were set up by Joseph Rowntree (Senior) and other leading Quakers. Many members of the Rowntree family, and especially John Stephenson Rowntree were involved in 1848 at Hope Street to teach youths ‘to apply the teaching of the Bible to everyday life and the problems of society’. Using scripture lessons, the classes taught men to read and write. Separate classes for women were also set up.

Rowntrees as teachers

Almost every member of the Rowntree family was involved with this educational programme, perhaps the most innovative contribution of the Rowntrees to York. Joseph Rowntree was aged 21 when he first took charge of a class of nine men and nearly 60 when he finished teaching at the adult school every Sunday morning. Not only did these classes enable him to learn much about the life of poor people, but also he remained close to the daily grind of the poor and illiterate, and took a real interest in their personal lives.

Educating the whole person

Part religious, part educational, the adult school was also concerned with leisure and the well-being of the whole person. Out of these adult schools came a social club, an allotments society with 150 plots of land, a savings bank, library and temperance society. There were choral competitions, cricket and fishing matches, and even unusual activities like linnet singing, and aircraft building – all suggestive of an unmet need for diversified leisure provision in York. Between 1902 and 1906 the membership of the four schools rose from 729 to 2,373 members.


F. Gillman, York’s Adult School.

Mark Freeman has worked extensively in this area, especially with reference to the Quaker Rowntrees.

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