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Antar Abdellah.  This chapter explores the history of literacy and creativity in 19 th century in Britain; it was a century of enormous technological.

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Presentation on theme: "Antar Abdellah.  This chapter explores the history of literacy and creativity in 19 th century in Britain; it was a century of enormous technological."— Presentation transcript:

1 Antar Abdellah

2  This chapter explores the history of literacy and creativity in 19 th century in Britain; it was a century of enormous technological and social change and a particularly significant time for literacy.  As listeners and occasionally as readers, the laboring poor had been engaged with print since at least the Reformation, if only in the form of the Bible and Common Prayer Book.  What makes the 19 th century so fascinating is that not only did so many more readers gain access to so much more imaginative literature, but that the newly literate also began to find means of self-expression through the written word.

3  Resources for creativity ranged from traditional oral activities and popular vernacular texts to new opportunities for written communication and the increasingly available works of English literature.  This chapter, then, focuses on the literacy practices of the newly literate mass of the British population.  It looks at the dynamics of everyday creativity along two axes of change.

4  First, there is the interaction between the individual reader and writer and broader political, social and economic forces.  In promoting mass literacy the government was responding to the pressures created by the Industrial Revolution.  Second, the shift of emphasis between oral and written forms of communication - opportunity for imaginative discourse.

5  This chapter therefore begins with defining literacy itself.  Likewise, it looks at how new forms of popular reading responded to the complex communication strategies of the newly literate.  Furthermore, it examines the most characteristic forms of everyday writing in the era.


7  The concept of literacy can be defined very broadly as a person’s ability to read and sometimes write down the cultural symbols of a society or social group.  Basically, the economic innovations of the 18 th and early 19 th centuries led to important changes in the working life of many people who were drawn to work in factories.  Child employment meant that many children were denied the disciplines of schooling.  Factory schools, Sunday schools, evening schools and infant schools were all designed to accommodate the consequences of industrialization.

8  Two developments flowed from this. First, much attention was given to the education, training and competence of elementary school teachers.  Rote methods were given more intellectual methods of instruction.  Secondly, there was a major expansion of the school curriculum promoted alongside the spread of elementary education.  Children began to be taught through secular as well as religious topics.  Another educational consequence of economic change was that writing began to enter the core curriculum of schooling.  Some argued that writing, a business skill, should not be taught in Sunday schools, while others claimed that it would promote crime;  Many assumed that writing skills would elevate people above their proper station in life.

9  The stamp duty on newspapers and the tax on paper were both substantially reduced in 1836 and finally abolished in 1855 and 1861 respectively.  Books and newspapers became more readily available with the Public Libraries Act of 1850 and communications were improved by the introduction of the Penny Post in 1840.  It is only in the course of the 19 th century that reading gradually became a private rather than a public act for the mass of the population.  Until the 1830s, anyone who could read, was expected to read aloud and share their reading with family, friends and workmates.

10  Attempts have taken two main forms: a counting of institutions and a counting of signatures on marriage registers and legal documents.  Counting the number of schools tells historians little about the education that went on in them, the average attendance, length of the school year or average length of school life, all of which have a direct relevance to levels of literacy.  Counting signatures likewise poses problems. It may lead to an overestimation of literacy levels as individuals may be able to sign but have little else in the way of literacy skills.

11  Reasons:  The dynamic areas of growth in the education system were no longer the charity schools for the working population but private fee-paying schools for the upper- classes and grammar schools for the middle-classes.  Secondly, children were drawn into the new processes of industrialization and there were increased opportunities to employ them from an early age.  This too militated against working-class children receiving an education that would make and keep them literate, especially in industrial areas.  Under these circumstances it would not be surprising if literacy rates did drop.

12  From 1830, levels of literacy began to rise, a process that continued for the rest of the century, though inevitably with regional variation in pace.  Literacy rates were published by the Registrar General for each census year in percentages. 1841185118611871 Male67.369.375.480.6 Female51.154.865.373.2

13  The social control argument dated back to the Sunday Schools, the Charity schools and beyond.  These suggested that schooling and literacy would make the poor unfit for the performance of menial [unskilled] tasks because it would raise their expectations.  Even worse, the acquisition of literate skills would make the working-classes receptive to radical and literature.  This was the essential dilemma: whether to deny education to the poor and so avoid trouble, or whether to provide ample education in the hope that it would serve as an agent of social control.

14  By the late 1830s, the latter ideology dominated the minds of policy makers as education was seen as a means of reducing crime and the rising cost of punishment.  The role of the state as well as religious societies was crucial in developing literacy levels, some historians have pointed to the large sector of cheap private education where the working-classes bought education for their children outside the church and state system. I  Many in the working-class rejected the new National and British schools and chose slightly more expensive, common day schools.  Parents often regarded the teachers as their employees and they fitted in with working-class lifestyles.

15  A major factor in rising literacy was the creation of a teaching profession in elementary schools..  The 1850s saw the rapid rise of a schoolteacher class: there were 681 certificated teachers in 1849 but 6,878 ten years later.  A further important factor was the role of Her Majesty’s Inspectors first appointed in 1839 to ensure that the state grant was spent properly.  Four things mopped up the illiteracy of deprived groups who would have remained a hard core of illiterates: the ragged, workhouse, prison and factory schools. Ragged schools began during the early 1840s and the Ragged School Union dated from 1844.  They charged no fees and took the poorest children for a basic education, depending for their support on a circle of philanthropists including Charles Dickens.  Finally, factory schools were created by the 1833 Factory Act that obliged factory owners to ensure that their child workers received a regular education either in a factory schools or outside before being allowed to work. This was firmly enforced. All these measures helped the most disadvantaged groups.

16  The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, established in 1826, issued a library of cheap, short books on popular science, history and all types of secular subjects to combat the strong tradition of radical literature.  The Society was particularly influential in spreading science to a broad and diverse population.  By providing the same information, in the same format, for all readers, the Society democratized learning across the social boundaries of the period.  The commercial market also played an increasingly important role for literate society with the sensationalist ‘penny dreadfuls’, serialization of novels by authors such as Dickens, Gothic and romantic novels and the railway reading of W.H. Smith.


18  Eventually, literacy proportion had risen by the 1860s before the advent of state secular schools or free or compulsory education.  However, one and a half million children, 39% of those between 3 and 12 years old were not at school and there was a further million children without school places.  The 1870 Act filled in the gaps in areas where voluntary provision was inadequate. The building of non-sectarian schools, the work of 2,000 School Boards and compulsory education after 1880 finally led to the achievement of mass literacy by 1900.


20  Almost all craftsmen were educated by the beginning of the 19 th century, and some applied their literacy in the course of their business.  The first flood of popular literature produced in response to the rapid expansion of urban communities and the increasing communication skills of their inhabitants were essentially hybrid in form.  The broadsides, which were produced in response to notorious crimes and executions, were sold for a penny in astonishing numbers.  At this stage they were produced by hand-operated iron-frame presses.  The broadsides included two dimensions of creativity in popular reading: firstly, the interplay between the conventions of a genre and the particularity of a narrative, which in these cases were based on real events; secondly the level and form of active response that the purchased material required or provoked in the consumer.

21  The term ‘multimedia’, = different visual and print forms are brought together in cheap, standardized products.  The broadsides belonged to the era when the market comprised literate, illiterate and all the intervening levels of partial literacy.  Unlike the simple binary measures of the Registrar General terms, the broadsides mirror an immense range of realization in this era of transition.  There are obvious parallels between the treatment of crime in the broadsides and in modern tabloid newspapers. Equally, broadsides as hybrid literary and oral form with the presentation of sensation on television or film.  The broadsides and the Sunday newspapers which began to appear in the I840s provoked consternation amongst moralizing observers, but they can also be seen as evoking ethically disciplined response from the readers.

22  Through his capacity to generate what would be now termed a multimedia industry, he created what was widely viewed as a new ‘reading public’.  Alongside the brilliant exploitation of the format of cheap serial publication, his characters and narratives were translated into plays, songs, prints, plagiarized versions and a host of three-dimensional objects such as mass-produced a set of leading characters.  A "reading public" embraced those who read every line of the novels and those who never read a word Dickens wrote but felt themselves familiar with his literary creations and followed their adventures.

23  Explorations of ‘unknown’ England were characteristic of this period. They exploited the middle-class fears about the rapidly urbanizing society in which larger numbers of the laboring poor lived adjacent to but hidden from their more educated superiors.  Wilkie Collins was the first to address the issue of popular reading and in anticipation of his subsequent career as a novelist, he made a particular feature of penetrating a secret world with its ‘mysterious publications’.  Collins’ conclusion, that ‘the Unknown Public is hardly beginning as yet to learn to read’, was a challenge both to his own readers and to subsequent scholars of popular literature. The modern study of the full range of popular reading practices begins with Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy in 1958


25  Penny post, or penny postage, was an invention of Sir Rowland Hill.  The first stamps cost a penny, hence the name.  Before Hill's innovation, postage was generally paid by the recipient, not the sender of a letter.  The reforms that became known as the penny post essentially established the framework used by post offices to this day.  Rowland Hill was a teacher and administrator at schools, and was known for its high educational standards and groundbreaking use of student government to handle disciplinary matters, and Hill authored a book on his progressive education techniques.  In 1837, Rowland Hill published Post Office Reform -- Its Importance and Practicability  Hill argued that the rate should be low, he suggested the "penny post" and offered calculations showing that postal rates could be greatly decreased and frequency of delivery increased, if all deliveries within England were charged at a single rate based on weight.

26  For the mass of the population, the principal arena for self-expression on paper lay in correspondence.  In 1840, the Whig government attempted to transform the engagement of the laboring poor with the practice of writing.  With Hill’s reform, a letter would now cost the flat rate of a penny, with the payment signified by the new device of an adhesive postage stamp.  The Penny Post reduced revenues by 75 per cent, losing the government nearly £l.2m in revenue, many times more than it was directly investing in schooling.  Charles Dickens was particularly disappointed. He had seen the reform as a means of creating a writing public as extensive and as active as the reading public he had called into being.  Instead, the Penny Post had revealed how little progress had been made, in spite of all the schools and writing manuals. The occasional letter which was attempted served only to highlight the deficiencies of the working class’s grasp of the basics of written communication drew the newly educated into the postal system.  READING B.


28  A biography is a detailed description or account of someone's life. It entails more than basic facts, such as education, work, relationships, and death, a biography also portrays a subject's experience of these events.  One in-depth form of biographical coverage is called legacy writing.  The genre of working-class autobiography constituted the most sustained form of prose writing by the newly literate in the 19 th century.  Research has located about a thousand texts written by men and sometimes women born during the 19 th century. Their authors lived in varying conditions. In their ranks are to be found beggars, thieves and labourers, and also the relatively prosperous amongst the working class, such as skilled artisans.  Their authors engaged with broad currents of socio-economic and political change, and in doing so they organized their narratives in ways which reflected wider currents of understanding about the formation of character in the period.  Two short extracts from autobiographies have been selected which have a multiple significance for the issues of literacy and creativity. They are a product of a growing sense by working people that they could make their own lives, outside the narrative of religious destiny and in spite of the socio-economic and political conditions.

29  The growth of local newspapers from mid-century also provided part-time or even full-time opportunities for those whose horizons otherwise remained confined to manual labour.  The acquisition of some kind of proficiency as a writer assisted the task of writing a memoir, but there remained crucial questions of purpose, truth and structure.  In the hands of the least experienced autobiographers the task could look simple. Anthony Errington[ 1823, p. 26]dealt with the question of intention in a single sentence. ‘The reason of my wrighting the particulars of my life and Transactions are to inform my family and the world’.  Another early autobiographer, Benjamin Shaw[1826], wrote with home-made spelling in a home-made book with home-made pen and ink, and fashioned his own defense of the reliability of his enterprise.

30  Every account of a life dealt with the limitless range of recollected events and experiences by deploying a narrative strategy derived from an oral or literary discourse.  The genre was fed by two streams, the spoken tradition of family reminiscence and the religious tradition of spiritual self-examination.  Benjamin Shaw began in the first tradition, supplying conserved biographies of his relatives, and then tried the second.  Shaw taught himself to write at the age of twenty in order to correspond with a literate sweetheart.

31  He became a classic case of the literate mentality, fascinated with printed learning in all its aspects, and with the organizing power of writing.  His memoir was not only structured by his search for hooks but fully indexed, as were the collections of aphorisms and medical cures he made in separate notebooks.  Leatherland (1862, p. 1) presents himself as moral lesson, showing his readers ‘the blessed results of virtuous actions, and warning them to shun the breakers upon which others have been wrecked’.  Whilst Leatherland was saving up pennies to buy fairy stories his mother was reading to him, ‘Bunyan, Addison, Watts, Cowper, and others were known for their simplicity’. Just as their schooling was a matter of inconsistent attendance and incomplete learning, so their lives as readers were hand-to-mouth existences, with no final control over what could be read or how it could be connected together.

32  The defining characteristics of the age were abundance and the absence of control.  The combined impact of state intervention, technological advance, economic growth and the development of a new literary market offered the labouring poor possibilities of reading and writing.  Those who sought to engage in literary creativity in its modern sense struggled both to earn a living and to make sense of cultural traditions that embraced fairy tales and folk songs and the flowering of the novel form in the 19 th century. Their autobiographies bear witness to the possibilities of the first phase of modern mass communication, and to the immense difficulties faced by those most determined to exploit them.

33  Learning to read in an early 19 th century classroom was in its substance and implications utterly unlike the contemporary British system.  The pedagogy, the availability of texts in the home and the market, the nature of other non-literate modes of expression and imagination, the impact of material deprivation on the process of learning to write and the implications of becoming literate for an occupational future, were all particular to the period.  In each case there are the complex journeys between bare competence and sophisticated command, between scarce and unrestricted access, between passive possession and active use of skills, between the intervention of the person and the standardization of the product, between old and contemporary mechanisms for generating, transmitting and storing ideas and information.

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