State Library and Tasmanian Archives Blog

Reading, Writing & Arithmetic: The Public School Curriculum 150 Years Ago

Part of a cover of a book. Text reads: "Longmans' British Empire readers".
Cover of the Longman’s British Empire Reader, a standard text in Tasmanian Schools c. 1910.

What would you have learned at a Tasmanian public school in 1869? Mostly, just reading, writing and arithmetic, from a teacher not much older than yourself, in a class of 40-60 students, and in a textbook that your grandfather might have read in Ireland thirty years earlier. The texts might have been boring and out of date, but the reasons why are fascinating. That’s because the public school curriculum in 1869 was deliberately designed to be bland and uninteresting, in order to avoid social conflict. What follows is the story of a journey – from the idea that education needed to reform and contain children, to the radical idea that children in public schools should be inspired to learn, and to become curious and informed citizens. Read on to discover more!

For an audio introduction to this story, check out our interview with ABC Radio!

“Boisterous Rudeness” and “the Fiercest Wild Beasts” – Irish National Readers and the Tasmanian Curriculum, 1869-1885

The Tasmanian curriculum in 1869 was not supposed to excite children’s curiosity, or to spark their creativity, or even to foster a love of learning. In the eyes of some Tasmanians, the main purpose of public education was clear: to warehouse rowdy working-class children, keep them away from respectable people, and teach them some manners. As the Tasmanian Times pointed out on the 7th of July,

“…a boisterous rudeness is the characteristic of most school-children in and around this city, and it is not difficult to perceive how habitual ungentleness … in the child may grow into the offensive ruffianism which makes our streets dangerous at night.” 

“THE COLONIAL BOY.” The Tasmanian Times, 7 July 1869: 3

Nineteenth-century administrators looked to religion to turn boisterous children into respectable citizens, but that presented its own problems. Tasmania was a multi-ethnic community with a large Catholic population, largely descended from Irish convicts. Sectarian tensions between Protestants and Catholics ran deep, sometimes bubbling out into violence. One of the biggest episodes was the Chiniquy Affair in 1879, when the Southern Tasmanian Volunteer Artillery was called out to suppress a riot outside the Hobart Town Hall sparked by visit of a controversial ex-Catholic priest from Canada, Charles Chiniquy. If public schools were going to reform “habitual ungentleness” and erase “offensive ruffianism,” then they were going to have to bridge this divide.

A picture of a Spiral shell. Text at the top reads: “Here is a representation of the exterior of one of the numerous species, of which this genus is composed.” Text at the bottom reads: “These shells are found of all sizes, from that of a few lines to nearly four feet in diameter; and above three hundred different species are said to have been observed. The diagram here given represents the two sides of a species of crustaceous marine animal, which has.”
An excerpt from a natural history lesson in the Irish National Reader, Fifth Book, 1849, p 73. This is part of the Prisoner’s Barracks collection at Libraries Tasmania.

The solution in Tasmania was one that had been adopted in many other British colonies –to use Irish National Readers. The Irish National Curriculum, put together in 1831, was supposed to help solve the bitter sectarianism in Ireland under British rule. The majority of the Irish population was Catholic, but power, land, and wealth were concentrated in the hands of a Protestant Anglo-Irish elite. Most Irish Catholics worked as tenant farmers and were forced to pay rent, often to absentee Protestant landlords. The idea of the Irish National Curriculum was that if Catholic and Protestant children learned together, they might learn to live together. The cheaply printed Irish National Readers were very careful to favour neither Catholics nor Protestants – they were designed to be bland, uniform, and so basic that nobody could object to them.

A sketch of a group of people standing next to a house. some are loading up a horse and cart. A priest is giving a blessing to a man on one knee. Text at the bottom of the image reads: "Irish immigrants leaving home - the priests blessing".
Irish Emigrants Leaving Home: The Priest’s Blessing. In “The Depopulation of Ireland” The Illustrated London News , 10 May 1851. You can see a transcription of the article, together with plenty of other contemporary accounts, here at Views of the Famine

Sadly, the curriculum alone couldn’t solve what came to be known as the  “Irish Question,” as poverty, starvation, mass emigration, political dissent, rebellion and sectarian violence defined nineteenth-century Irish history. Millions left Ireland aboard emigrant and convict ships in the Irish Diaspora (especially during the Great Hunger of 1845 – 1849 which killed a million people) and thousands of convicts came to Tasmania, transported for everything from raising revolution to stealing food. But fascinatingly, almost everywhere within the British Empire that the Irish landed, the textbooks followed, and they formed the basis of the curriculum in Australia and in Canada – because they were cheap, they were available, and they were non-sectarian.

So what did children actually learn?

An excerpt from an old education department document outlining the Education standards for students regarding their reading, writing and arithmetic.
The Standard of Instruction of 1865, showing the six classes into which Tasmanian children were divided, showing how each should be graded using the Irish National Readers. Reproduced in Derek Phillips and Michael Sprod, Making More Adequate Provision: State Education in Tasmania 1839-1985, p 41

The curriculum from 1869 to 1885 was strictly the three “Rs” – reading, writing, and arithmetic. Spelling, grammar, geography, history, singing and sewing (for girls) were eventually added. Children were separated into classes from I to VI based on their accomplishments, and teaching was strictly “to the test.” There were annual exams, usually around Christmas, and they were reported on in the newspapers. These reports made the schools sound positively idyllic, such as this account of the examinations for New Town Public School in 1870:

After cheers for the providers of prizes, visitors, teachers and successful competitors, the children retired to their respective play-grounds, and having amused themselves by indulging in cricket &c, till evening, a pleasant day’s proceedings were brought to a close by a tea party in the school-room, which was tastefully decorated, and the children were dismissed for the holidays.

“CHRISTMAS EXAMINATIONS.” The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954) 29 December 1870: 2.

The reality was probably much less fun. Much of the instruction was done by pupil-teachers – teenagers between the ages of 13 and 18 who were put in charge of up to 60 students (and our next blog, by librarian Anthony Black, will examine this in greater detail). According to Derek Phillips and Michael Sprod’s landmark history of Tasmanian education, this system “regimented the lives of children and made the task of the teacher one of unremitting misery.”

A black and white photo of men standing next to a house
PH30/1/1971: A group of farm labourers, c. 1880. Note the children on the left hand side of the picture. Tasmanian Archives.

To make matters even worse, the children were probably exhausted all or part of the time. They went to school six days a week (Monday to Saturday) from 9 am to 4 pm, with a 2 hour break at lunch. In Hobart and Launceston, children had half holidays on Wednesday and Saturday. Outside of school, they were often expected to work  – on family farms, in the home, minding children, helping neighbours, or working for wages (e.g. fruit and apple picking in season with their mothers, or harvesting with their fathers and uncles).

In any event, the readers themselves were basically unreadable – most students never passed out of Grade IV. You can have a look for yourself – Deakin University has digitized a number of the Irish National Readers, and there are several in our collection in the State Library (all of which came from the Prisoner’s Barracks in Hobart).

I was looking for a good excerpt to share with you – just to show how dense and difficult the textbooks were for children to read – and I stumbled across this passage in a geography lesson in the Fourth Reader. It describes Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales as ,

“neither a pleasant nor a safe country to live in, for the greatest part of the settlers are men who were wicked in their own country, and become still more so here…. The children of such parents are not likely to be brought up to any good … It is better to live among the fiercest wild beasts than amongst wicked and hard-hearted men.”

One can’t help wondering what effect that passage would have had on a twelve-year old Tasmanian child – to find your home described as unsafe, your family as wicked, and yourself as ‘born bad.’

“Make them delight to exercise their power of reading” – Royal Readers, 1885-1904

A black and white photo of a group of adults and children standing in front of a house
PH30/1/7124: School children at Snug, c. 1890, Tasmanian Archives

Tasmanians were all too aware that the public education system needed improvement. In fact, the systems and curricula adopted elsewhere were regularly reported on in the local newspapers, because public education was a hugely important question around the world, as new systems were trialled from Great Britain to France to Russia. While all these systems were different, they shared a single goal – to use public education to make individuals into citizens of the nation, with an emotional attachment to their country that would trump class, religious, regional, and ethnic identities.

The cover of a book. Text reads: "Royal School Series. First series. The royal readers No. 1"

When the Tasmanian Board of Education replaced the Irish National Readers with the new Royal Readers in 1885, they also adopted this agenda. The Royal Readers were more accessible, with more illustrations, and excerpts from literary and historical texts. The biggest difference was that they deliberately tried to get children excited about reading, pointing out to teachers that their goal was to get “children to take a real interest in what they read, and to make them delight to exercise their power of reading.” Natural History and the “incidents and common things of daily life, by which children are most likely to be attracted” formed key parts of the curriculum. Books for young children had songs to be memorised, samples of handwriting, guides to pronunciation of new words, all of which were wrapped up in moral lessons (such as “I will Not Hurt My Little Dog.”)

Pages from inside a book. Left page has a picture of a boy and a dog, Text reads: " Frisk and Ned. Ned has been at play till he is quiet worn out. He sists down on the step at the door and soon goes to sleep. His dog frisk comes and sits by him. The good dog is as brisk as a bee. Look at him as he sits there with his ears up. He seems to say, ‘I’ll sit and keep watch while Ned sleeps. No one will dare to touch him as long as I’m here’. Ned sleeps for half an hour; and when he wakes, he rubs his eyes, and has a good laugh as he see Frisk at his side. Now he goes into the house and brings out a bit of bread for Frisk. Then On his two hind legs, Frisk sits up and begs, While Ned on his knee, counts one two three. Then Frisk from his noes the bit of bread throws, And has a laugh as up it goes. I will not hurt my little dog, But stroke and pat his head; I like to see him wag his tail, I like to see him fed. Poor little thing, how very good, And very useful too; For don’t you know that he will mind what he is bid to do? Then I will never hurt my dog, nor ever give him paid; But treat him kindly every day, and he’ll love me again."

The readers had another agenda: they also taught children to believe that the British Empire was normal, natural, and inevitable, to take delight in its triumphs and to learn moral lessons from defeat. History was presented as a series of adventure stories that took Britons around Europe and the world – as this online exhibit from Deakin University points out, “The Royal Readers were unabashed in their celebration of war and the expansion of the British Empire.” As Australian content was added, it fit into this agenda. By the end of the century, the readers included a whole final section on Australian exploration, using explorers as examples of intrepid heroes of a new nation, from Matthew Flinders to Burke and Wills (and in which Aboriginal people were caricatured, marginalised, or erased).

Part of a book, Text reads: “The expedition of Burke and Wills. They gave him food and while he was eating he saw a great quantity of fish on the fire: when they were cooked, the plentiful repast was placed before him; the natives clapped their hands with delight when they saw him eat heartily. He stayed with them for four days, and then set out to bring his friends to enjoy the native hospitality. It took him some days to reach the place where he had left them; but when they heard his good news, no time was lost in seeking their native benefactors. “
Burke and Wills Expedition in Royal Reader No IV, 1896, p334. Digitized copy available from Deakin University, “19th century readers – The Royal Readers”

Despite the shift to the Royal Readers, between 1885 and 1895 little else seemed to change in Tasmanian public schools, though the curriculum did expand to include history, elementary science and drill. The Inspectors’ reports made it very clear – Tasmanian public schools had a long way to go. Grammar was taught in schools, but poorly, and the emphasis was still on rote learning. Most singing was taught by ear, and very few students learned how to read music. Most schools didn’t attempt drill or physical education of any sort (though they were compulsory parts of the curriculum after 1887), and there was almost no instruction in elementary science, though history, geography and physical geography were improving.

W.L. Neale and the ‘Wonderful Possibilities of the Human Soul’

In 1904, a man named William L. Neale (an inspector of schools in South Australia) wrote a scathing report which claimed, as one newspaper summarized, , ‘our teachers can’t teach, our inspectors can’t inspect, our Director can’t direct, our copybook contractor cheats us, and our Public Works can’t build schools.’ Neale was appointed by the Premier W.B. Propsting as Director of Education in 1905, which marked a turning point in Tasmanian educational history – and a radical new idea that education should unlock children’s potential and excite their curiosity.

Neale started many reforms to Tasmanian education, including teacher training, early childhood education, public health and physical education – all of which we’ll talk about in later blogs. But he was also committed to improving the curriculum as a whole. Neale was a “New Educationist,” inspired by the work of European educators like Josef Froebel and Maria Montessori, and by the new science of psychology. His goal wasn’t to contain wild children or to erase convict stains, but to make children into independent, critical and creative thinkers – a truly radical idea. As Neale put it, a “real education” system,

‘must develop every side of a child’s nature…  it prepares him for all his ethical, moral, social and civic relationships. It gives him the power to think rightly on all questions and to act rightly in all relationships…..’

Quoted in Phillips, Making More Adequate Provision, p 86-87

On 29 October, 1906,Neale wrote a long article in the Mercury on the “Insufficiency of School Books.”  both to clear up a number of myths about his various proposed reforms, and also to make it clear that he was pursuing funding for new textbooks, and also to make them free to poor children. This prompted some parents to write to Neale with suggestions. Mrs Ida McAuley wrote in October of 1906 that she’d ordered some books from England for her own children (“Home and Abroad,” “Gateway to History,” and “Steps to Literature,”) and she told Neale, “I am delighted with them…. All the books are lavishly and beautifully illustrated…. I think they should be more widely known.” (ED9/1/213, Ida McAuley to W.L. Neale, 29 October, 1906).

A page from a book, the left text reads: Round the clock “ 9. One! Two! Three! How hot it is! The cows have gone down to the stream to drink, and the sheep under the shady hedges. I am sure that the children must be sleepy at school. 10. One! Two! Three! Four! School is over. See, the children are running home. The master goes into his house and comes out again with a fishing-rod. He is going down to the stream to catch some fish for tea. 11. One! Two! Three! Fours! Five! Some of the boys are chopping wood and feeding their poets. The big girls are helping mother to get tea, and the little ones are playing in front of the cottage doors. 12. One! Two! Three! Fours! Five! Six! There! My short hand has been right around the clock. Work is over for the day, and the tired people are going home to tea. You want your tea, too, so we will say good bye.” The right text reads: “May and the peacock peacock lovely command proud beautiful dreadful judge array. 1. O Jack and grandpa come and see a lovely lovely view! The peacocks spread his tail for me all gold and green and blue. 2. Jack rushed outside and grandpa rose at mistress mays command; he had his glasses on his nose, his paper in his hand. 3. How proud the peacock is! Said may; He holds his head so high.”
“May and the Peacock” in the Tasmanian Reader, First Book, c, 1900.

The books were ordered from the UK and printed with special Tasmanian endpapers and covers. These included the Tasmanian Readers, which were basically Royal Readers with different covers. We have a couple in our collection – and you can see how this one, (owned by Richard Cook and D. Sutherland), was used by at least a few children in its long life! This particular book is fascinating, because you can see the evidence of this little boy’s lessons literally written into the book – the ticks against new words that he learned, the marks to separate words into syllables, or perhaps to mark where he was to stop reading out loud.

The curriculum also included the British Empire Readers – which, the publisher Longman’s & Co told Neale, needed to be ordered through their local agent in Hobart “as it is our policy to support local booksellers wherever possible.” These were brightly illustrated, sturdy copies with attractive covers – with the clear message that the British Empire was a force for good in the world, which Tasmanian children should admire and protect. So the British Empire Reader – which was locally printed and beautifully produced – were packed with stories of imperial battles and intrigues in South Africa, Afghanistan, and India, written by Arthur Conan Doyle, H. Rider Haggard, Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson. If Neale’s goal was to create free-thinking young people, it’s not likely that a solid diet of Boy’s Own Adventures did the trick. As for Australian content, it was surprisingly limited, though this particular volume did include a rather exciting account of a bushfire. 

Pages of an open book, the right page is a picture of a man on a horse in the woods with wallabies in the foreground. Text on the left reads: “26. A bush fire. Part 2. I had seen many bush fires, but never such a one as this. The wind was blowing a hurricane and when I had ridden about two miles into high scrub, I began to get frightened. Still i persevered against hope; the last grew more fearful every moment but I reflected that I had often ridden up close to a bush fire, turned when I began to see the flame through the smoke and cantered away from it easily. Then it struck me that I had never yet seen a bushfire in such a hurricane as this. Then I remembered stories of men riding for their lives, and others of burnt horses and men found in the bush. And, now, I saw a sight which made me turn in good earnest. I was in loft timber, and, as I paused, I head the mighty crackling of fire coming through the wood. At the same instant the blinding smoke burst into a million tongues of flickering flame, and I saw the fire-not where I had ever seen it but up aloft, a hundred and fifty feet overhead. It had caught the dry tops of the higher boughs, and was flying along from tree-top to tree-top like lightning. Below, the wind was comparatively moderate, but, up there, it was travelling twenty miles per house. I saw one tree ignite like gun.”
“A Bush Fire” in Longman’s British Empire Reader, Book VI. This edition from the Libraries Tasmania collection is from 1926.

Neale’s educational reforms were not welcomed with open arms in Tasmania – his own personality was his worst enemy. He was determined to modernize Tasmanian education, but he was also often rude and disrespectful. Between 1907 and 1909, he was the subject of three royal commissions, prompted by complaints from teachers whom Neale had censured. While Neale convinced two of the three commissions that the complaints were unjustified and vindictive, ultimately, he was forced to resign in 1909. The historian Betty Jones argued that, “his resignation was a tragic blow to Tasmania where education was forgotten as personality and prejudice were allowed to preside.” (School Days, School Days…. p 92), while Derek Phillips suggested that Neale saw himself, and should be seen, as a zealous missionary whose views on education ‘betray[ed] the missionary’s intolerance of those who cannot keep up and who fall by the wayside and … the self-assurance of the spiritually blessed.’ (Making More Adequate Provision, 109) .

Within the first fifty years of compulsory education in Tasmania, there had been a huge change in the books children read – from the Irish National Readers designed to bore the exhausted students into a kind of bland social uniformity, to specially produced and attractive volumes that tried to excite children’s natural curiosity and foster a love of reading, of learning, and of the British Empire. Each shift in the curriculum reflected its own historical moment, its preoccupations, its goals, its blind spots.

Stay tuned for more blogs on the history of 150 Years of Public Education – on Teachers & Teaching, Public Health in Schools, Kindergarten, and more! If you’re interested to learn more about anything you’ve read here, check out these suggestions!

Further Reading

Explore 150 years of public education in Tasmania

What’s Online?  Nineteenth Century Children’s Education and Children’s Literature

For a terrific overview of the history of education, check out this fabulous article in the Encyclopedia Britannica on Western Education in the nineteenth century, which covers the developments in state education in Germany, France, Britain, Russia, the US, and the British Dominions (including Australia and Canada).

The State Library of Victoria has an amazing Guide to Children’s literature, and a wonderful Children’s Literature Research Collection. You can also watch a video about their collection with the Research Librarian Dr Juliet O’Conor here.

The State Library of Victoria also has a dedicated guide to Readers and Textbooks: School and Education History in Victoria:

Deakin University has a collection of digitized nineteenth century school readers, which you can find here as a part of the Australian Schools Textbook Collection. There are also great short articles and timelines. The content is focused on Victoria, but there are a few Tasmanian examples as well:

Education in Tasmania

Betty Jones, School Days, School Days… Land of Youth and Dream. Tasmanian Government Schooling from its Beginnings in the Nineteenth Century – Part I. (Rosny Park: Tasmanian Family History Society Inc, 2017).

Derek Philips and Michael Sprod, Making More Adequate Provision: State Education in Tasmania, 1839-1985. Education Department of Tasmania, 1985.

E.G. Nichol, Teacher Training in Tasmania, 1868-1967, Thesis for fellowship in College of Preceptors, London, 1967”

Clifford Reeves, A History of Tasmanian Education. Volume 1. State Primary Education. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1935

Michael Sprod, ‘Education’ in Alison Alexander (ed), Companion to Tasmanian History. Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies (2005), University of Tasmania (2017)

ED31: Inspectors’ Reports on Staff, Teaching and Organisation of Schools, 1890-1970

ED9/1/213, General Correspondence (3), Education Department, “887/1906. New readers.”, 1906-1914

The Irish in Australia and Tasmania

If you’re keen to learn more about the Irish Diaspora in the nineteenth century and the many ways in which it shaped Tasmania (and the world) you can start with some of these great books – and also check out the link at the bottom for all the Irish History resources we have at Libraries Tasmania.

R.F. Foster, Modern Ireland, 1600-1972 New York: Penguin Books, 1989

Thomas Keneally, The great shame : a story of the Irish in the old world and the new. Milsons Point, N.S.W. : Vintage, 2001

Dianne Snowden, White rag burning : Irish women committing arson to be transported. Hobart, Tasmania : Forty South Publishing, [2018].

Plus these resources on Irish History across Libraries Tasmania


  • Annaliese Claydon is an Archivist in the State Library and Archive Service in Libraries Tasmania.

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