ONE of the great virtues of old newspapers is that they include detailed reports on a variety of community activities.

This enables the story of everyday events to be told, often with results that add to – and sometimes conflict with – standard accounts or people’s memories. In the context of local history, this has opened to investigation many areas formerly been neglected.

One of these is the history of the Sunday school movement. For me, this followed naturally on from a PhD on Congregationalism in Edwardian Hampshire that I obtained from Birmingham University in 2015, as well as work on the religious history of Basingstoke from 1800 to 1925 for the New VCH Project, and research for the Avenue 2020 Project in Southampton.

Year by year the number of people who can remember going to Sunday School gets fewer. What was once a weekly event is now largely history. Today, many clergy favour ‘all-age worship’ and some even see Sunday schools as an agent in the growth of secularism.

In fact, as well as being of interest in its own right, it can be argued that the Sunday school era has some parallels with today. The lack of provision of youth facilities, it is believed, fuels urban violence and crime. Every generation, it seems, has the challenge of ‘dealing with the young’.

When equivalent issues were faced in the past, it was generally a local churchman who took up the baton. Even before the advent of the Elementary Education Act of 1870, which made provision for the teaching of all children between the age of 5 and 12, many schools were founded by progressive individuals, both Anglican and nonconformist.

Hence, as a window on social history, the rise and fall of the Sunday school provides insights into the mores and habits of ordinary people. Their initial objective, as pioneered by the Gloucester clergyman and philanthropist Robert Raikes, was to provide basic literacy to children who would otherwise get no education.

The matter came to a head in the Edwardian period, when urbanization and movement of families meant that many young people were no longer constrained by the sort of ‘surveillance’ that prevailed in a village setting.

At the time nearly every church, Anglican or nonconformist, had a Sunday school and about 80-90 percent of all children were attached to one. And there was close association between those who ran them, especially nonconformists. They shared experiences, set up training schemes, provided libraries and so forth.

Sunday schools were highly visible in many communities, holding such red-letter events as parades, outings to the seaside and anniversaries, offering children ‘treats’ of all kinds.

A focal point for local Sunday schools was the Hampshire Congregational Union, which in 1908 held its autumn gathering in Bournemouth. The chairman was Southampton bookseller H.M. Gilbert, who “emphasised the supreme importance” of “the problem of how to deal with the young”.

To bring a new approach to the issue, the HCU had renamed its Sunday School Department the Young People’s Department. Its activities were diligently recorded, providing copious statistics which led to league tables for the six schools in the county with the largest numbers of scholars who went on to join the church.

The concern of many churches for the young extended to the provision of such contingent organisations as the Band of Hope (a temperance movement), Boys’ and Girls’ Brigades, Young People’s Institutes and especially Christian Endeavour Societies, which sought to bridge the gap between Sunday school and full church membership and train the next generation of Church leaders.

In some areas, churches banded together to serve the young, as with the Romsey and District Sunday School Union established in 1897, which by 1904 had 21 members, including five Baptist, four Wesleyan Methodist, six Primitive Methodist and four Congregational churches.

One of the key purposes of Sunday schools was to secure the future and even the survival of adult congregations. At a meeting of the London Street Congregational Church, Basingstoke, former minister Alfred Capes Tarbolton claimed that “the key to the future lay very largely with the laying of…Christian faith and knowledge in the youngest minds”.

Equipping young people for “the journey through life” was another aim of Sunday schools, and in particular avoiding “laziness, selfishness, falsehood, temper and procrastination”, according to John Draper, Andover’s Congregational pastor.

As Bournemouth deacon Ernest Lane put it, the aim was to produce “spiritually sound, intellectually strong and morally mighty men and women”, whilst Joseph Sellicks from Newbury said we should be “turning out good and useful citizens for [the] nation”.

There were many others who strongly believed in the power of Sunday schools to achieve these ends, including Robert Skinner of Ringwood, Francis Cooper of Sarisbury Green, Henry Perkins of the Albion Congregational Church, Southampton, and William Cuthbertson of Crondall.

A star teacher was Robert Howarth of Ripley, a village just east of the Dorset border, formerly a schoolteacher before entering the ministry, whose scholars attended Sunday school twice in the day. Their reward was winning the Shield of Honour in the National Sunday School Scripture Examinations year after year.

Not surprisingly perhaps, the majority of Sunday School teachers were women, though equally unsurprising, with an all-male pastorate, positions of authority – such as school superintendent, secretary, treasurer, auditor and librarian – were held by men.

Obtaining Sunday school teachers was an ongoing issue. Equally, providing lessons that held scholars’ attention was a challenge. Reginald Thompson, pastor of the London Street Congregational Church defined the appropriate lessons for various age groups as “repetition of Bible stories”, for those between five and eight, but for older scholars up to the age of 14, who “could learn more than they could be taught”, lessons with “a more scientific basis” were required.

The reform of teaching at Sunday schools inspired nationally by Canadian George Hamilton Archibald took a more practical approach. Noting that children were taught by “seating them on uncomfortable backless benches and extorting them to listen” he advocated “changing the furniture” and adopting a far more participative approach.

Despite these and many other initiatives, such as the construction of new facilities including the impressive Nicholson Memorial Hall in Gosport, Sunday schools struggled to retain the support of parents and their children.

It is easy to be dismissive of the role of the Sunday school in days gone by, but many of the sentiments expressed would surely be supported by many people today.

More on this subject can be found an article of mine in Congregational History Society Magazine, Volume 7, 2013. For more on Hampshire, visit: and

Barry Shurlock is on holiday.