To those of us who find it hard to resist the opportunity of wandering around a graveyard, a headstone will often offer a personal, privileged glimpse into largely undocumented lives. This inscription marks a grave in St Mary’s churchyard, Newport, Pembrokeshire.
John Morgan, a teacher like me, died 150 years ago and played a part in the movement that took literacy levels in Wales to such an unusually high level, by European standards of the time, that in 1764 Catherine II of Russia had instructed a commissioner to report to her on the organisation of the Welsh schools.
The inspiration behind Madam Bevan’s Central School in Newport was Griffith Jones from Llandybie, Carmarthenshire, the founder of the ‘Circulating Schools’ movement. His primary concern was spiritual rather than educational and his schools had the limited aim of enabling all to read the Bible, hold family prayers and make sense of the catechism. In this he was remarkably successful. He was a gifted fundraiser, an efficient administrator and singleminded. As his purpose was to save souls, he abandoned writing and arithmetic and pared the traditional curriculum down to a minimum – reading only. He recruited able teachers and vetted, trained and supervised them, instilling such commitment that they worked for very low pay.
The schools were initially peripatetic and intensive. Tuition was arranged in churches, barns and farmhouses and took place mainly in the autumn and winter to fit in with the farming year. Children were taught earlier in the day and adults in the evenings and, significantly, all tuition was in Welsh. Pupils were expected to achieve literacy in three months and the school would move on but return at a later date to remind pupils of their previous learning.
By the time of his death in 1761, Griffith Jones had worked on his mission for 30 years, had established 3,325 schools and had taught about 250,000 pupils, or half the population of Wales, to read.
Madam Bevan of Laugharne, wealthy, widowed and usefully connected, continued his work when he died and in the following 16 years the schools taught another 150,000 pupils.
Madam Bevan died in 1779 but the movement she supported continued until the Education Act of 1870 which made provision to educate all children aged 5-13.