In England, as elsewhere in this period, life began with a high percentage of infantile mortality: fifty-nine per cent of all children born in London died before reaching the age of five, sixty-four per cent before reaching ten.44 Many babies were exposed at birth; of these the survivors were put out to nurse at public expense, and then were placed in workhouses. Carelessness of midwives and mothers resulted in a large number of physical deformities.
If the parents were poor, the child might receive no schooling whatever. There were “charity schools,” which offered elementary education to both sexes and all classes without charge; but their total enrollment in 1759 was only 28,000, they excluded Dissenters, and they reached only a small fraction of the peasantry and hardly any of the urban poor. “The great majority of Englishmen,” says an English authority, “went unlettered to their graves.”45 In the artisan class apprenticeship was considered the best education. For the middle-class child there were private schools, usually kept by “men broken down, bankrupt, or turned out of some other employment.”46 And there were “dames’ schools,” where humble schoolmistresses taught the three R’s and much religion to boys and girls whose parents could pay. In all schools emphasis was laid upon teaching students to be content with their native rank, and to show proper subordination to the upper classes.
A small minority graduated into “grammar schools,” where, for a modest fee that taught the teachers their humble place in the social scale, the boys could add a little Latin and Greek to their R’s. Discipline was severe, class hours were long—six to eleven-thirty in the morning, and one to five-thirty in the afternoon. Much better in quality were the “public schools”—chiefly Eton, Westminster, Winchester, Shrewsbury, Harrow, and Rugby—where select youngsters, for some twenty-six pounds per year, could prepare for university, and lay up classical tags for future display. As these public schools admitted only Church of England boys, the Dissenters—Baptists, Presbyterians, Independents, Unitarians, Quakers, Congregationalists, Methodists—established academies for their youth. Here, as befitted a middle-class clientele, less stress was laid upon the ancient classics, more upon modern languages, mathematics, history, geography, and navigation.
Dissenters were excluded from the universities. Most of the students there were from moneyed families; some poorer lads, however, received scholarships from philanthropic individuals or institutions, and some “servitors” or “sizars,” like Newton, worked their way through the class-conscious halls. Both Oxford and Cambridge suffered stagnation in this period from conservatism in curriculum, methods, and ideas. Cambridge showed more willingness to enlarge scientific studies at the expense of the classics and theology; yet Chesterfield described Cambridge as “sunk into the lowest obscurity.” Oxford clung to the old theology and the fallen Stuart dynasty, and allowed no visit from the crude Hanoverian kings. Adam Smith, a student at Oxford in 1745, said he had learned little there; Edward Gibbon, who studied there in 1752, denounced the dons as ignorant tipplers, and regretted the years he had wasted in the university. Many families preferred to engage private tutors.47
Girls received rudimentary instruction in village and charity schools—reading, writing, sewing, knitting, spinning, little arithmetic, much religion. Some girls were tutored, and a few, like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, studied the classic languages and literatures surreptitiously. “My sex,” said Lady Mary, “is usually forbid studies of this nature, and folly is reckoned so much our proper sphere we are sooner pardoned any excess of that, than the least pretensions to reading or good sense.… There is hardly a creature in the world … more liable to universal ridicule than a learned woman.” She was inclined to suspect that men kept women ignorant in order the more inexpensively to seduce them.48 If we may judge from the revenues of the King’s mistresses, the women managed quite well without the classics, and needed no Ovid to instruct them in the game of love.