The Lancasterian School
Joseph Lancaster and the Lancasterian School, Shrewsbury
This photograph of closely packed children seems to have even greater impact in our socially distanced times. It shows pupils in the yard of the Lancasterian School at its site on the corner of Beacals Lane and Albert Street, Shrewsbury. As the captions indicate, it has been known by a variety of names, it has also occupied three sites, but for the majority of these it has been called the Lancasterian and locally “the Lancs”.
The school originally opened in 1812 and was located under the walls of Shrewsbury Castle as this copy of a contemporary painting shows.
The construction of the railway station forced its move to a temporary site at Union Wharf, near the canal terminus, until the replacement school at Beacals Lane was completed.
This building, designed by Edward Haycock, opened in 1851 and remained the school’s home until its closure in 1988.
The school took its name and inspiration from Joseph Lancaster, 1778-1838. When he first set up a school to teach poor children in London, far more children than he anticipated wanted to attend. He could not afford to employ other teachers so, instead, he developed a system where by the more able students taught the younger and less able. In 1801, he opened a school at Borough Road, Southwark that grew to teach 1000 pupils.
In 1803, Lancaster published a pamphlet detailing his method. As was typical of the time, the title was descriptive but far from short or snappy:
Improvements in education as it respects the industrious classes of the community; containing among other important particulars, an account of the institution for the education of one thousand poor children, Borough Road, Southwark; and of the new system of education on which it is conducted.
Shropshire Archives ref. D 35.6
Lancaster gave lectures promoting his school and his system began to draw attention, particularly amongst more radical, non-conformist groups. He began to attract benefactors and other schools, based on his principals, began to open. Katherine Plymley noted in her diary in 1809, the idea of establishing a Lancaster School at Shrewsbury (Shropshire Archives ref. 1066/76).
However, by 1812, when the Shrewsbury school opened, Joseph Lancaster was coming under increased criticism. He may have been an inspirational teacher and passionate advocate for teaching the poor but not such an able administrator. There were allegations of financial mismanagement and Lancaster was eventually declared bankrupt. In 1818 he went to the Americas where he continued to promote his methods of education.
A charity was established and funds raised by public subscription to support the school at Shrewsbury in 1813; this is probably why the inscription on the school building gives this date. The school established a good reputation and the building has been extended a number of times to accommodate more pupils and improve facilities. At its height, it had 600 pupils on its roll.
Shropshire Archives holds a number of records for the school under the collection ref ED5316/2; there are Log Books from 1892 and admission registers from 1915, as well as a series of building plans. When the school closed in 1988, a souvenir magazine was produced, ref q D35.6, which records recollections of some of the many generations of local children who were educated there.
After its closure, the building was taken over by the prison service and it is currently being converted into apartments.