Although there are sporadic references to limited educational facilities in Madeley from the mid-16th century onwards the first evidence for any kind of sustained provision of elementary education dates from the late 18th – early 19th century when a number of Sunday Schools were created by both the established and non-conformist churches. It is important to remember that most of these did not aim to foster either general ‘self-improvement’ or ‘education for education’s sake’. They were didactic institutions which aimed at encouraging children to read the Scriptures and to ‘understand and practise every moral virtue’.


The earliest Sunday School in the district seems to have been established by John Fletcher. He was Vicar of Madeley from 1760 – 1785 and, although remaining an Anglican clergyman all his life, he was a friend of the Wesley brothers and is credited as one of the founding fathers of Methodism. He was responsible for building a Meeting House at Madeley Wood ca. 1777 and stipulated that Sunday Schools should also be held there. He established further local Sunday Schools in 1784 and 1785.

By 1818 Sunday Schools were meeting in the Madeley Wood and Coalport Wesleyan chapels and at St. Michael’s, Madeley. A separate church Sunday School was set up in the Brockholes ‘house of industry’ in 1821.

By the end of the 1830s free elementary education was being offered by three Anglican and three Wesleyan Sunday Schools. Between them these are recorded as providing for 486 girls and 395 boys (note the gender discrepancy). There were also eighteen fee-paying schools catering for 615 pupils.

In 1829 the Sunday School in St. Michael’s Churchyard had become known as the Madeley Parochial Infants School and, in 1844, it moved to the ground floor of the new National School across the road from the church. In 1853 it moved again to its own premises in the former Wesleyan Chapel in Church Street.


John Fletcher’s 1777 Meeting House / Sunday School on Jockey Bank also took day pupils from an early date. It ceased to be a Chapel in 1837 and in 1858 a new Wesleyan Infant school was built on Madeley Hill to accommodate increasing numbers of children and to provide living quarters for a teacher. The original building was still used for older children and, eventually, the two were merged to form the Madeley Wood Wesleyan (later Methodist) School. This school was known locally as ‘The Green School’ apparently because of its location at Madeley Wood Green.

Ironbridge Parochial Infants School was built at the bottom of Madeley Hill in 1833. A Coalbrookdale Church School was founded by Mrs Abraham Darby in 1831 and Ironbridge Ragged School in Milner’s Lane was opened by Quakers and other local businessmen in the 1840s in an upper storey provided by the Maws. Finally the Lloyds parochial School was established ca. 1852 by the Madeley Wood Company in a former warehouse. By 1862 it was managed by John Anstice himself and several ladies of the Anstice family worked there in a voluntary capacity.

Most of these institutions were maintained largely by the patronage of local industrialists and philanthropists assisted by subscriptions and collections organised by the clergy with some support from fees. Later in the 19th century government grants became available but it was a source of irritation to the private benefactors that, even when they were prepared to cover costs, many parents preferred not to send their children to school – presumably finding it more useful to employ them around the home or to send them out to work.
By 1871 there were church schools serving all parts of the parish and a rare example of a non-denominational school provided by the management of the Coalbrookdale Company. There was no local public provision for learning beyond the elementary stage although some ‘night schools’ had sprung up which offered opportunities for 11-18 year-olds. A school of art, founded for Wenlock borough in 1856, gradually became concentrated in the Coalbrookdale institution as awareness dawned that a technically competent workforce would provide advantages for a competitive company.


Libraries were founded from the 1830s and reading rooms were established. By 1864 the Vicar of Madeley was patron of a working men’s subscription library which had 200 members by 1903. The Ironbridge Mechanics Institution flourished between 1840 and 1852 and the Coalbrookdale Literary and Scientific Institution was set up in 1853. There was a literary and artistic institute in Coalport by 1856 and, at Madeley, the Anstice Memorial Institute was opened in 1869. The building incorporated a reading room, a library and a large lecture hall.

As the 19th century progressed, and literacy improved, newspapers became more common opening the eyes of the community to events in the wider world. Britain’s need for a skilled workforce was recognised by the 1870 Education Act. This provided a framework of education for children aged 5 – 13 by creating elected school boards empowered to fine parents who absented their children from school. From 1880 education for children between 5 and 10 became compulsory and the school leaving age has been gradually extended ever since.


Although John Fletcher had been anxious that children of the workers should learn ‘the three Rs’ educational levels among the mining community varied enormously. Thanks to the Sunday Schools a fair few could read the scriptures, although many could not even do that and few were capable of more and evidence suggests that even those who had learned the rudiments of literacy in childhood did not make use of that faculty later in life. Many could barely write their own names and there is little evidence of reading beyond the Bible and some prayers. Where wider reading is attested it usually took the form of ‘improving’ works such as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress although the schools did their best encouraging the use of spelling books and a widely-used volume called (optimistically) Reading Made Easy and known to the local lads as ‘Ready-ma-daisy’!

John Anstice believed that many of the boys employed in the pits attended evening schools run after hours by some schoolmasters. However, the family had little direct contact with the ‘coal-face workers’ and the accuracy of this belief is questionable.

Part of the problem was that, until the later part of the century, there was no compulsion to attend school (apart from parental pressure in religious families who encouraged their children to go to Sunday School) and many children never did. The Rev. Thomas Ward of Dawley wrote ‘Many do not learn to read or write before they leave school, and have no time to improve afterwards, being employed all day in the mines, or works, or on the pit-banks. There are a great number of the miners who are unable to read and very few can write.’

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