Dr Bell’s system

Reading the post on Julia Maitland’s letters, one of our readers, Tony Fairman, was struck by the reference to “Dr Bell his sytem”. He kindly sent us his notes on Dr Bell, for others to read. The notes relate to the work Tony has been doing on Higher-class schooling of the Lower Classes: England 1800-70.

1797. Andrew Bell, An Experiment in Education, made at the Male Asylum of Madras. London.

Preface. v. In the education of youth three objects presented themselves to my mind: to prevent the waste of time in school; to render the condition of pupils pleasant to themselves; and to lead the attention to proper pursuits. In other words, my purpose was to make good scholars, good men, and good Christians.

p. 11. … writing the letters with the finger in sand … [p. 13] The same manner of writing on the sand is practised with the double letters and words of two letters. In like manner the digits and numbers are taught. Then the scholar proceeds as usual till he begins dissyllables, when he is never allowed to pronounce two syllables till he has gone through the child’s first and second books, and a spelling book. The advantage is manifest; for the moment you allow the scholar, he will put the syllables together and pronounce the word at once; to which, indeed, every learner is of himself disposed. The only difficulty is, to teach them to read syllables by themselves, and words by [p. 14] themselves, and not a whole sentence at once, as many boys, who have come to this school after some progress, do. And in this case they make continual blunders, not only in the beginning and middle, and especially in the terminations of words; but also constantly mistaking one word for another, leaving out and introducing words at random. It is on this account that the scholar is not allowed, for some time after he reads a word at once, to join two words together, as in the usual mode of speaking and reading, but is directed to pause awhile [sic] at the end of every word; and whenever he mistakes any word he must read it by syllables, as thus, “com-men-da-ble.”

1844. Robert Southey, Vol. I. The Life of the Rev. Andrew Bell, D.D. LL.D. F.As.S.  F.R.S.ED. Prebendary of Westminster, and Master of Sherburn Hospital, Durham, Comprising the History of the Rise and Progress of the System of Mutual Education. John Murray, London. Vols II and III by his son the Rev. Charles Cuthbert Southey. B.A.

Vol. I. p. 171. the teachers [in the school in Madras] themselves had every thing to learn relating to the management of a school. They were men who had never been trained in tuition, but were taken from very different occupations […] [p. 172] He [Bell] found also, that whenever he had succeeded in qualifying a man for performing his business as an usher in the school he had qualified him for situations in which a much higher salary might be obtained with far less pains. […] [p. 173] […] happening on one of his morning rides to pass by a Malabar school, he observed the children seated on the ground, and writing with their fingers in sand […]  the usher at last declared it was impossible to teach boys in that way […] [p. 174] He bethought himself of employing a boy, on which obedience, disposition, and cleverness he could rely, and giving him charge of the alphabet class. The lad’s name was John Frisken; he was the son of a private soldier, had learned his letters in the Asylum, and was then about eight years old.  […] What the usher had pronounced to be impossible, this lad succeeded in effecting without any difficulty. […] Accordingly, he appointed boys as assistant teachers to some of the lower classes, giving, however, to Frisken the charge of superintending both the assistants and their classes, [p. 176] As to any purposes of instruction, the master and ushers were now virtually superseded. They attended the school so as to maintain the observance of the rules […] Their duty was not to teach, but to look after the various departments of the institution […]  The master’s principal business regarded now the economy of the institution […]

Vol. I. p. 185. No less than forty-six boys, in the lower classes, receive their elementary letters from a youth trained in the school himself, who learned his letters there, and who is not yet twelve years of age ….

1980. Denis G. Paz, The Politics of Working-class Education in Britain, 1830-50.  Manchester UP.

p. 4. the Anglican Andrew Bell and the Quaker Joseph Lancaster developed independently a method that promised cheap and efficient instruction for large bodies of pupils. Their method, monitorialism, was a system of instruction wherein the master taught each lesson to a group of able students (monitors) who in turn taught the rest of the children.


Joseph Lancaster’s British and Foreign School Society was founded in 1808. Rev. Andrew Bell’s National Society (also known as The Madras System) was founded in 1811. Both were charity movements and aimed to teach reading, and mechanical writing to children of the poor, lower classes, aged about 7-12. Both also aimed to teach the children their ‘station in life’ through the Bible. Bell was Church of England and Lancaster Quaker. Apart from that religious difference, their teaching methods and content were identical. Neither taught children to compose or use writing for self-expression, but only to form the letters in the conventional ways, and to practise their lettering by copying from the Bible and other religious literature. Schools of both societies were started all over England by the middle and higher classes for the lower classes.

Many thanks for sharing your ntoes with us, Tony.

Tony Fairman is coming to Leiden to give a guest lecture on his work on minimally-schooled letter writers on 7 November 2012.


Tony Fairman (left) on a previous visit to Leiden (2007).

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1 Response to Dr Bell’s system

  1. Annemiek Korf says:

    If I didn’t know better I would say that that was David Crystal on the left! But maybe they just really look alike…

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