Studies carried out in 1961 (W. P. Baker) and 1973 (Schofield) based on parish marriage records have shown that male illiteracy was about 40% from the 1700s, and had declined to around 33% by the mid-1800s. By the 1900s it had all but disappeared. However, female illiteracy was around 60% in the 1700s, and had only declined to 50% by the 1840s. The decline in female illiteracy was much more gradual, but male and female rates were about level by the 1870s.
Of course, the problem is that parish marriage records don’t actually prove literacy, only whether or not you were able to sign your name. For that you wouldn’t technically need to be able to read or write any more than that! Generally, we assume that if you can write you can therefore read, so that these parish records studies might actually miss out those who can read but not write. But I also think lots of people might have been able to write their names and not much else. They only give us a very limited view, whereas in fact there would have been lots of degrees of literacy.
This useful Wiki from Leeds University, has the following to say:
“Reading was seen as a primarily passive skill and one which could be taught by more or less anyone who could themselves read, many children in the eighteenth and nineteenth century could read by the age of seven or eight. Writing, however, was seen as a vocational and primarily male skill usually taught by male tutors who also taught arithmetic and often other basic business or trade skills: throughout the 18th and much of the 19th centuries, very few children had learned to write by the age of seven or eight. Beyond that age access to education fell sharply for children of working parents as this was the age widely seen as the point at which a child's labour may be considered valuable enough to utilise. In 19th Century England, approximately 33% more children were able to read than to write.”
The gender bias here is interesting, and backs up roughly the figures from the parish registers. Boys were more likely to have been taught to write as a vocational skill. When it comes to couples where the man signs but the woman doesn’t, of which there are certainly examples in my tree, perhaps the women were not wholly uneducated, but simply could not write? I can’t think of an example in my own tree where the man can’t sign but the woman does. I’d be intrigued to see if anyone has?
The other thing that strikes me is the connection between literacy and work. Contrary to our modern society, where literacy is almost imperative to work, in the nineteenth century children were sent to work from a young age, at which point their meagre education, perhaps by one of their parents, seems to have stopped. Only those who were expected to go onto bigger and better things were taught to write, which effectively makes literacy a class barrier. Hardly surprising then that some middle- and upper-class people were against education for the poor, fearing that it would lead them to revolution!
The other side of the argument was usually from protestant groups, who felt that educating the masses gave them direct access to religious writings and therefore would increase morality, reducing crime and other social problems. And it would seem that most parents wanted to give their children some sort of education, but had to put the economic needs of the entire family first.
By the mid-nineteenth century the state was becoming more active on education, and others like immigration and health – it’s at this point that the state as we know it is born, I suppose, and ‘education education education’ quickly becomes a central tenet of its responsibilities. Between 1870 and 1880 legislation was passed that all children aged between five and ten must attend school. This date obviously ties in with the rise in literacy rates recorded from the parish registers , though obviously the children who began their compulsory education in the 1880s wouldn’t have married until around 1900 at the earliest (implying that in fact literacy began to improve of its own accord at an earlier point – perhaps public feeling led the policy rather than vice versa?) Presumably then it wasn’t until the early to mid-twentieth century that illiteracy declined to the 1% rate of today.
By chance my blog feed also brought up this post today, on the same subject, showing how reforms in education began at a local level at a much earlier date. I found this particularly interesting as my boyfriend actually went to Farmor’s School.
I can only say thank god I was born in this day and age really. I love reading, and can’t imagine not being educated, not being able to write this blog!