Home > Blog > ‘Education of the Masses’ by Sylvia Pankhurst

Libertarian Marxism

‘Education of the Masses’ by Sylvia Pankhurst

An article by Pankhurst.

by Jordan Levi



11 min read

Photo by vnwayne fan on Unsplash

“You cannot educate the mass.”

How often that phrase is heard in the working class movement; and what a cruel blasphemy against the human mind is contained in those cruel words!

The facts of history expose the falsity of the silly saying, which comes with peculiarly ill grace from those who profess to be scientific workers for a Communist Millennium in which all shall be cultured, equal co-workers for the Commonweal.

Nevertheless it is often precisely amongst those Socialists and Communists who make the loudest boast that they are scientific students and workers for the cause, that the evil saying is oftenest heard and repeated parrot-like.

The phrase sounds more logical, though it is no less unjust, when it is used by the would-be dictators and admirers of dictatorship, who consider that the mass of the earth’s people should be but pawns, to be used for the profit of some few controlling rulers. Such opinions may be uttered by those who are satisfied with a state of society which develops a privileged class served by toiling millions, to whom culture is denied, lest they aspire to be other than hewers of wood and drawers of water and to develop also the higher attributes of the human being. No one who desires an equalitarian society should countenance such an ignoble view.

Chemical and mechanical inventions are making possible an ever greater and more excellent production, with a lesser expenditure of labour. Therefore from this time onwards humanity may free itself when it chooses from the necessity of dividing itself into thinking, cultured classes, on the one hand, and labouring exploited classes on the other. True Socialists, and above all true Communists, must not only believe in the possibility of educating the mass, but must loyally dedicate themselves to the labour involved, both in self-education and in assisting others to acquire education.

Few of the nineteenth century pioneers of mass education in the British Isles claimed to believe in general social and economic equality. Not theirs was Communist vision of a classless order of society, For the most part they limited their ambitions to bestowing upon the children of the masses the simplest rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic. Some chiefly aimed at securing the salvation of the souls of the masses after death, by teaching them religious hymns and precepts, and giving them the knowledge, of reading which would enable them to read the Bible and follow the Church service. Some hoped that if the ignorance of the poor children were enlightened they would behave with greater decorum and prove more useful employees. Even the least broadminded of the educationalists recognised, however, that the oppressed masses were possessed of human intelligence which could be trained and cultivated.

Yet the task of the nineteenth century educationalists was a gigantic one. The children of the workers were sent to work in mines and factories sometimes so early as five years of age, and were kept at their labours for upwards of twelve hours a day. The ill-paid parents were forced to depend on the earnings of their children. It very often happened that the father was unemployed, the mother and children being chosen in preference because their wage was smaller.

Public money was not then devoted to education. Only charitable funds or the contributions of the poor parents themselves could be depended on to finance the schools. Elementary education was not yet compulsory.

Most of the children either received no education at all or attended Sunday schools. In many districts there were no day schools, in some districts there were not even Sunday schools. There were a limited number of “National” and “British” schools maintained by voluntary donations. Some poor men and women ran schools as private ventures of their own, obtaining a meagre living from the pence paid by the parents of poor children. These teachers, some of them disabled workmen, some widows, were for the most part themselves little educated, having taken to teaching as the only means of obtaining a livelihood. The Report of the Royal Commission into “The Employment and Condition of Children in Mines and Manufactures” presented in 1848, revealed a tragic condition of affairs.

The Commissioners stated: –

“The funds of the National and British schools are utterly insufficient to enable the Committees of management to instruct a sufficient number of teachers.

“With one exception, all the Commissioners concur in expressing a strong opinion of the general want of qualification for their office of the persons at present engaged in the task of instruction, the great majority of the teachers being ignorant and untrained, and without the slightest conception of any regular system or method of teaching.”

The Sunday school teachers were unpaid. It was common for them to give their services in rotation, each teacher attending one Sunday a month. Many National and British. school teachers were also unpaid. The Sub-Commissioner for Lancashire stated in relation to the mining population:-

“It was my intention to have laid before the Central Board evidence of the effects of education …. I found, however, that the case was hopeless; there were so few either of colliers or their children who had even received the first rudiments of education.”

In Oldham and its vicinity for a population of upwards of 100,000 people, there was only one small public day school for working class children, and one infant school, also “some petty dame schools of the poorest description to which the children are sent to be out of the way,” and some factory schools for children employed there between nine and thirteen years of age. Of such factory schools the following dismal account is given:

“The schools which answer the requirements of the Factories Act, in regard to the children working short time, between the ages of nine and thirteen, commonly have masters appointed by the factory owners themselves, who, in making the appointment, are more influenced by a feeling of charity towards some dependant than by any ardour in the cause of instruction. The school fee is generally stopped by the employer out of the children’s wages and he pays the teachers…. To show the light in which such things are regarded, yonder house at the corner has under it a cellar, and in that cellar, is kept the school for the enormous factory on the other side. The Act requires an attendance of only two hours, and the instruction is such as the conscientious feelings of such persons as are employed there may prompt.”

Four-fifths of the young people of Oldham were reported to be attending Sunday schools whilst:-

“Not one in five can write …. and if the number of misspelled and illegible scrawls be deducted the stated proportion will be considerably reduced.” The Sunday schools of Oldham were begun in 1793. They were at first mainly secular; but gradually the religious bodies forbade other instruction than reading and Scripture lessons in these schools. Of the north Lancashire coal fields it was reported: – “The education of the workpeople has been almost wholly neglected…. darkness reigns throughout.”

Amongst Lancashire children interrogated by the Commissioners such replies as the following were common:-

“I never went to school in my life; I can neither, read nor write.”

“Nay, I work here in the dark six days; I can’t shut myself up on Sundays too.”

In the West Riding of Yorkshire the report declares:-

“The only provision for the education of the collier population is Sunday-schools.”

Bradford and Leeds.

“The great majority receive no school instruction whatever. In most Sunday schools no attempt is made to convey secular instruction beyond reading.”

Halifax neighbourhood.

“The Sub-Commissioners examined 219 children and young persons at the bottom of coal pits and found only 81 that could read an easy book, not more than 15 could write their names… the whole of the remaining number were incapable of connecting two syllables together.”

It was estimated that not one in seventeen of the Yorkshire colliery children was able to read or write. In one place in Yorkshire with a population of 2,000 persons, the only instruction, beside the mistress of a dame school was:

“An old cripple, the wise man of the county, spoken of with unfeigned reverence by the witnesses examined in this neighbourhood, and who united the offices of schoolmaster and fortune teller.”

“Never went to day, night, or evening school.”

“None of us ever went to day school or Sunday school.” Such replies were constantly made by the children to the inquiries of the Commissioners.

The Staffordshire inquiry revealed that by far the greater number of children in employment did not attend even the Sunday schools. “We are too hard worked for that,” many of them said, and some explained that on Sunday: –

“We have dinner at one and then go upstairs and lie down on our backs for three or four hours or more and enjoy our rest.”

In South Staffordshire, Leicester, and Warwickshire, where children were commonly sent to work at five years of age, the chief means of education was reported to be the Sunday school.

In South Staffordshire it was reported that there were no schools of any kind for less than a fourth of the uneducated youth. Even Sunday schools were absent in many parts.

In Shropshire; –

“The children depend chiefly for the little education they receive in Sunday schools.”

From Derbyshire the reports were the same:

“There are no other means of instruction for the children employed in labour than Sunday schools. There are indeed some National schools, from which, however, the collier children are excluded by the rules of the schools. The constant answer of the coal owners and agents, ‘No School, no reading room, no club, nor anything of the sort connected with these coal works.’”

From Cumberland the same story.

“The mental destitution in which the collier’s children are growing up is fearfully great.”

From Durham: –

“With the exception of the education they receive at Sunday school. … the collier children of this great district receive no education of any kind whatever.”

In Durham and Northumberland many teachers were disabled workmen; some taught for a few months of the year and worked in the pits the rest of the time. Their knowledge was limited as intelligent pitmen complained: –

“When an accident has rendered a workman incapable of bodily labour and reduced him to the condition of a pensioner he often proposes himself as a candidate for a schoolmastership, and should a vacancy occur in the colliery where his misfortune happened he deems himself and is deemed by others indisputably entitled to the suffrages of all parties.”

From North Wales was reported:

“Amongst the collier boys not one in ten read with “anything approaching correctness. It is an uncommon circumstance to meet with one who can readily write and cast accounts.”

From South Wales came may such reports: –

“The means of education are adequate only to the education of a very small proportion of the rising generation…. In the parish of Gelligan, for instance, with a population of 15,000, there are four schools with an attendance in the whole of 80 to 90, being little more than one-sixth of the population.”

“The schools of the lowest order.”

“Schooling is out of the question, there not having been a schoolmaster in the village for some time.

“Few men of this neighbourhood send their children to school; indeed if they had the desire there is no school for them. One-fourth probably know their letters; certainly not more.”

“I consider the rising generation more ignorant than the present.”

“I should certainly be within bounds when saying that not one grown male or female in fifty can read.”

The educational state of the factory population was said to be greatly superior to that of the mining. Yet it was reported from Birmingham that only 48.5 per cent, of children between 5 and 15 years were receiving instruction; a few in day, the majority in Sunday schools, and 51.5 per cent. were not receiving any form of instruction whatsoever.

In Wolverhampton not half the children went even to Sunday schools, the majority receiving no education at all.

In Sheffield only about a third of the children attended school, and of these 63.43 per cent could not write even fairly. Many of the teachers were “scarcely able to read and quite unable to write their own name.” In Sheffield one of the teachers was a convicted felon, who had taken to teaching simply because he could find no other source of employment.

A Lambeth shopkeeper was desirous of employing a girl and boy able to read writing, the one to serve in the shop, the other to deliver parcels. Though four or five children applied each day for the work, he had to wait six weeks before he was able to discover two who could fulfil this simple requirement.

A mistress in a Birmingham school was asked whether she gave moral instruction to the children. She replied: “No, I cannot afford it for 3d. a week” (the fee paid by the parents). Another answered, “How is it likely when they can hardly say their A.B.C?”

The teachers, untrained and uneducated, had little influence with their scholars. One of the commissioners in the Birmingham district replied “that several of the National and British charity day schools he visited were in a state approaching to riotous.”

The Sunday school teachers were “selected from the congregation rather on the grounds of moral and religious conduct than of any peculiar fitness for the office of teacher.” This commissioner added that although instruction in the existing schools was: –

“with few exceptions exclusively limited to religious knowledge, a most awful ignorance was generally evinced upon this. In the Sunday schools of the Established Church and in those of some dissenting congregations, reading in the Scriptures, or religious books, is the only instruction given. Consequently the children who have attended no other schools than those, and they constitute a large class, have no knowledge of writing or accounts. As regards any general information even of the most limited kind, such as the situation of Scotland, the names of the four quarters of the Globe, etc, do not think that more than a dozen of those whom I questioned, including a large number of young persons between thirteen and eighteen years of age, had any knowledge at all upon the subject. Of the history of their own country little or nothing was known.”

A Wolverhampton Commissioner reported: –

“One young person of seventeen years did not know how many two and two made, nor how many farthing’s there were in twopence, even when the money was placed in his hand. Some boys had never heard of such a place as London, nor of Willenhall, which is only three miles distant, and in constant communication with Wolverhampton. Some have never heard the name of Her Majesty, nor such names as Wellington, Nelson, Bonaparte. …. Among all those who had never even heard such names as St. Paul, Moses, or Solomon, there was a general knowledge of the characters and course of life of Dick Turpin, the highwayman, and more particularly of Jack Sheppard, the robber and prison-breaker.”

Three-fourths of the children employed in the potteries of Staffordshire could neither read nor write. Child employment depopulated the schools. A school teacher at Risley, in Lancashire, said: “When I first came into this district my scholars stayed much longer with me, but now that a child of seven years old can earn 2s. 6d. to 3s. per week the temptation to send them to work is too great for the parents.”

We have not dwelt upon the terrible physical hardships imposed upon the children whom it was sought to educate. It was all, too common for children to be ill fed, ill clothed, and harshly ill-treated whilst working upwards of twelve hours a day. Witness after witness testified that they knew of children coming to work without breakfast at seven a.m., and working till eight p.m. without food. Many children were apprenticed to small masters by whom they were maintained. It was testified by witness after witness that offal, the flesh of animals that had died, and meat and fish that had gone bad was often bought for apprentices, some masters keeping 30 or 40 of the unfortunate children.

All sorts of manufacturing work was carried on under crude and brutal conditions. The children thrust into premature and excessive labour, suffered from occupational diseases and malformation. The Nottingham lace workers were afflicted with eye troubles. The pottery workers from lead paralysis and collic in the glazing departments, and injury to the lungs in the scouring rooms. The glassblowers from blindness, rheumatism, and other ailments. The mining children had the hardest lot of all, and were so tired by their toil that they often, had to be led or carried home from the pits and usually fell asleep before they could be put to bed. They were frequently injured by falls of coal or rock, or by the tubs and machinery. Their work being mainly to push or drag the tubs along the narrow workings, was excessively arduous; they became dwarfed, bowlegged, crippled and otherwise deformed, suffered from curvature of the spine, abcesses and boils on the head from pushing the coal tubs with it; and on the back from getting it scraped on the rocks as they bent to their load, and from carrying coal on the back. They contracted heart trouble through excessive exertion, lung trouble through the lack of ventilation in the mines, eye trouble, rheumatism, boils from working in salt water, rupture and disease of glands and joints.

Every occupation, entered upon so early and followed under such bad conditions, brought its crop of ills. The educationalist might almost have been pardoned who in those days had said despairing: “One cannot educate the mass.” Yet progressive people continued to persevere, and from amongst the most miserably exploited arose some who strove to raise themselves, and their fellows.

The state of the workers in the nineteenth century, which the report of the Royal Commission of 1843 recalls to us, is not the state of the workers in this country to-day. You will admit that fellow workers in the emancipation movement. You will admit that much has been done to spread enlightenment and to make enlightenment possible by those who went before us.

It will profit us nothing to discount the efforts of the pioneers by the false assertion that everything done to bring education to the masses was done purely to make them more useful to the exploiting class.

The exploiting class was indeed by no means so far seeing, even in self-interest, as such a course would denote. The exploiting class, as a class, was opposed to popular education, and retarded every step of its progress.

The unreadiness with which the exploiting class met progressive endeavour, even in a matter which must advantage itself, is shown by the fierce fight made by the vested interests of the day against the introduction of railways and the locomotive. The landlords, who were to gain so much from the railways, were in the vanguard of the struggle against them.

Those whose guiding motive in life has been to preserve their personal privileges and to serve their personal gains, have always opposed educational and other reforms affecting the masses. The lovers of humanity, including those whose love was limited, have carried through such reforms, in spite of the prejudiced, the selfish and the ignorant in all classes.

Having begun with the three “R’s” at the Sunday school the reformer of successive generations, their own ideas expanding with success, went on to establish compulsory primary education for all children, special schools for defectives, secondary schools, evening schools, university extension lectures, technical schools and classes, scholarships, the universities, and so on, till the vast educational net-work we have to-day has been built up.

Granted that education is still greatly defective to-day; but few prejudiced persons are found to express a doubt that if the requisite care be expended, the average child can be rendered capable of assimilating a university education. By law it is insisted that every child shall be given a primary education, unless it is imbecile or insane, and even if it be mentally deficient or an invalid, some sort of education shall be provided for it.

Educationalists do not stop short at attempting the education of the masses in a country like this with a compactly situated, and relatively small population.

The work of education is being carried on even by people who do not claim to hold the far-reaching equalitarian ideas of Communism, in such vast and difficult countries as India, where the burden is weighted by differences of race and tongue, difficulty of transport and travel, and primitive conditions of life in large areas, and by the fact that some of the communities have developed only an early form of civilisation of their own.

The educationalist is taking to such peoples the basic rudiments of education, reading, writing and arithmetic and other branches of learning. Primary, secondary and higher education is carried on in India by the native and European educationalists, and by the departments of Government. The complete eradication of illiteracy in India is aimed at. Nay, more, various educational movements aim at inculcating in the people, even in the most primitive tribes, their own religious and political ideals, especially the latter. The doctrines conflict, but the propagandists persevere. The British Government makes considerable efforts to spread imperialism or rather love of the British Empire, and also the current Government view of the duties of a citizen amongst the school children, the students and the people in general.

The British Government knows that the masses, even of vast India, with, its diverse races and cultures, can be educated and influenced. It uses its power largely to direct the sort of education that shall be given.

When the British Government was determining its educational policy in India years ago, Sir H. Lawrence advised that the Government should educate the higher classes of India and leave them to educate the lower classes. Sir John Lawrence, his brother, urged that the Government should educate the lower classes and leave the higher classes to educate themselves. The policy of Sir H. Lawrence prevailed. The result is that only 3.39 per cent. of the Indian people are touched by the educational system, whilst the proportion of the Indian male population in the secondary schools and universities is actually higher than in England and Wales. The more privileged sections of Indian society have grasped education for themselves and in the main, have left the masses in ignorance. In this they have followed the general example. India has had its quota of altruists and enthusiasts for the commonweal.

Every movement and every interest that desires to change or maintain, or in any way affect the social order, must go to the masses in the last analysis. Force may overthrow governments, and set up governments, but even governments cannot long remain, unless they obtain the acquiescence of the governed. Still more an equalitarian society, functioning, not under authority and economic pressure, but by the common will, can never arise and flourish save by the active co-operation of the masses.

Let us face the facts, comrades, the education of the masses is a large and strenuous task, but there can be no communism until the masses desire Communism and act Communism.

We cannot take part in the work of education till we are ourselves deeply imbued with the Communist ideal and unless our thoughts and our desires are constantly turning towards it.


A system of society in which the land, the means of production, and distribution are held in common.

Production is for use, as and when required, not for profit, exchange or sale.

The organisation of production and distribution is by those who do the work.

Each workshop is an autonomous unit working the general welfare and mutual harmony with the other workshops producing the like utility, also with those from whom the raw material is received and to whom the finished articles are transmitted.

Communism is a classless order of society in which all shall have leisure and culture, and all shall be secured from want.

For further information apply to the Manager, “Worker’s Dreadnought,” 152, Fleet Street, E.C.4.

Tags: Marxism, Socialist Ideals

Photo of author
Impossibilist; "ultra," if you will.

Related Articles

‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’ by Karl Marx

A posthumously published pamphlet written by Marx.

‘The Struggle Against Fascism Begins with the Struggle Against Bolshevism’ by Otto Rühle

An article by Rühle.

‘The Socialisation of Society’ by Rosa Luxemburg

An article by Luxemburg.

‘The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control: The State and Counter-Revolution’ by Maurice Brinton

The Introduction to Maurice Brinton's classic pamphlet.
Share to...