The Bristol School Movement: Setting the stage for organized literacy education

In February 1812, the local Auxiliary of the Methodists’ Bible Society was holding its second annual meeting in the port city of Bristol, England. The Society was discussing how they had been giving out Bibles across the city. A letter was read aloud that explained there really was no point in doing this because many whom they visited simply could not read (Martin, cited in Quigley, 2006, p. 26). It was ultimately decided: “Not being able to read [the illiterate poor] were unlikely to be benefited by the possession of the Bible” (Martin, cited in Quigley, 2006, p. 37). So they elected to stop giving them out. It is a remarkable story and a humble beginning for the field of adult literacy.

Dr. Thomas PoleThe story is told by Dr. Thomas Pole in what is known today as Pole’s History (1816/Verner, 1967). In it, he argues the case as to why England should teach what he and most in his time called “the illiterate poor” to read. Why bother with “such people”?

This was the first time the term “adult education” ever appeared in English print. Pole goes on to tell the story of the Bristol Institution for the Instructing Adult Persons to Read the Holy Scriptures, what is very likely the first organized school for adult literacy in the English speaking world and has made an ongoing impact, even to today. The stage gets set.

When the Auxiliary decided to stop giving out Bibles, Pole tells how a remarkable man, William Smith, whom he describes as “a poor, humble, and almost unlettered individual...occupying no higher rank than that of a door-keeper to a Methodist chapel, without the slightest knowledge of what had been done in another province,” conceived the idea of instructing the adult poor to read the holy Scriptures (Verner, cited in Quigley, 2006, p. 38). With the help of Stephen Prust, a “distinguished member of the Society of Friends” and local tobacco merchant, they began taking names of those who might want to attend “a school for persons advanced in years” (Hudson, cited in Quigley, 2006, p. 38).

The first two literacy learners in documented history to enter the room rented for their school were William Wood, age 63, and Jane Burrace, age 40. That was on March 8, 1812. The idea caught on; soon 11 men and 10 women followed “with the numbers increasing every week, until the rooms were filled” (Hudson, cited in Quigley, 2006, p. 4). Smith expanded the school. He “engaged other apartments in the same neighborhood, for the reception and instruction of the illiterate poor, who were daily applying to him for admission” (Hudson, cited in Quigley, 2006, p. 38).

Remarkably, this humble door-keeper of the Methodist church went on to “relinquish three shillings weekly from his small wages of eighteen shillings per week” to cover the expenses of the school (Hudson, cited in Quigley, 2006, p. 38).

The rise of the adult low literacy stereotype

We have no photos or further information about William Smith, but we can clearly see how Pole and many of his day understood the singular purpose for Smith’s school was as follows: “Perusal of the sacred scriptures and other religious books, have a tendency to moralize and Christianize the minds of men. Instead of idleness, profaneness and vice—they inculcate diligence, sobriety, frugality, piety, and heavenly-mindedness” (1816/Verner, 1967, p. 18).

The stage was set. We glimpse how the general perception of those Pole was talking about was that they were considered the “lower classes” or “illiterate poor.” Considering the context, Pole was bravely making the case for those whom most thought were not to be trusted. One prevailing stereotype in early 19th century England was that these “illiterate poor” were to be feared. They were often seen as criminals or soon-to-be criminals. Interestingly, writing was not taught in the early days of the Bristol Schools because “the prevailing attitude was that teaching the lower classes to write would just tempt them to commit forgery” (Moore, 1967, p. 29).

A second stereotype that has grown and continued to today is one of pathos. Through the later 19th and into the 20th century, the illiterate adult has been depicted as less of a threat (although examples remain) and more as a romanticized “pathetic victim.” We can see how Charles Dickens explored and, to a large extent, reified this view through the Victorian era with sympathetic figures such as Joe Gargery, Pip’s uncle in Great Expectations, who is shown to be a large, gentle figure but “simple minded.” Pip tries to teach Joe to read and later regrets his feelings of contempt for his low-literate uncle.

The two prevailing stereotypes of “good and evil” have been so ubiquitous into the 20th century that I was able to research and depict these stereotypes as they appeared in the popular press through, especially, the 1970s and 1980s (Quigley, 1997). One clear category was “The Illiterate as Heroic Victim.” Another whole category was “The Simple Immigrant.” Others that constantly appeared were “The Simple American Worker” and “Simple African Americans” and “Simple Southern Whites.” Seen today, the stereotypes would be laughable if they were not so offensive. Nevertheless, these images have yet to be challenged or substantively reversed. Unlike any other form of adult education, low literacy is still seen as an individual deficit within our class structure.

History’s take away

One major “take away” that strikes me is how the roots of the adult literacy field are based in volunteerism, selflessness and compassion. Irrespective of public perceptions or stereotypes, the driving force for William Smith—the humble church door-keeper who stepped up and paid room-rent from his own pocket, and Dr. Thomas Pole—who wrote our first history, was simply to help adults who wanted to learn to read and write. The initiative for our field came from ordinary people concerned for others.

The Methodists’ Bristol Schools spread across England with "24 schools for men and 31 for women and a total membership of 1,581” by 1816. Adult schools then spread to Ireland, New York, Philadelphia and Sierra Leone (Kelly, cited in Quigley, 2006, p. 39).

Today, thousands of teachers and tutors teach adult literacy in what can only be called “humble surroundings.” Many are still volunteers. Many are part-time teachers with no possibility of tenure or job-security. Here is the beginning of our 200-year history…a Bristol School Movement that is a testament to the “kindness of strangers.”

Read More

Moore, L. (1997). The thieves opera: The mesmerizing story of two notorious criminals in eighteenth century London. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Quigley, A. (1997). Rethinking literacy education: The critical need for practice-based change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Quigley, A. (2006). Building professional pride in literacy: A dialogical guide to professional development. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing.

Verner, C. (Ed.). (1967). Pole’s history of adult schools: A facsimile of the 1816 edition. Washington D.C.: Adult Education Association of the U.S.A.