Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithematic…

Ahead of the Victorian themed half-term activities at Fort Nelson, exploring 19th century childhoods, Curator of Artillery Philip Magrath explains Fort Nelson’s role in the 1870s.

At the time Fort Nelson was completed in 1871, the Cardwell Reforms of the British Army were well under way. These were aimed at cost reduction, modernisation and increased recruitment. The War Department had a duty to school soldiers’ children who were regarded as potential recruits, inducing heavy investment in their education.

Fort Nelson © Royal Armouries

Fort Nelson © Royal Armouries

Garrison schools were divided into those for ‘infants’ and those for ‘grown children’. A schoolmaster took older boys and girls in the morning whilst in the afternoon the girls joined the infants who were taught by a schoolmistress.

Reading, spelling and singing were taught to the infants and reading, writing, dictation, grammar, arithmetic, algebra, English history, geography and singing to the older children. The afternoon focus was on ‘industrial instruction’, which meant domestic duties such as needlework for the girls and tailoring, shoe making and carpentry for the boys.

Discipline was very strict and based on the regimental code of conduct. Children’s mothers were forbidden to complain to the teachers. Any discontent had to be reported by the child’s father to the commanding officer.

Fort Nelson ran a small school in the School Room, currently used by Collections staff. In 1871, this served 24 children. In all five Portsdown Hill forts, 105 children required schooling that year! It is presumed that teachers were engaged from the local population although no newspaper advertisements have been discovered to this effect. Teaching may otherwise have fallen on the shoulders of the Officers and their wives.

Fort Nelson School Room © Royal Armouries

Fort Nelson School Room © Royal Armouries

The enlistment of boys after schooling was not compulsory but the War Department hoped that their experience was designed to indoctrinate them into joining up.

This February half term, visitors are invited to tread in the footsteps of the Fort’s 19th century schoolchildren by heading back to the classroom – as well as sampling Victorian games and crafts.

Victorian Life at Fort Nelson runs from 17 – 21 February, for further information visit the website.

Blogger: Philip Magrath, Curator of Artillery