Knowledge First-Hand: Education Trips In Mid-19th Century Sheffield

Tom Welsh | 4 July 2022

Digital History / Education / History Of Science / History Of Sheffield

1890s postcard of Peak Cavern in Castleton
Peak Cavern, Castleton, Derbyshire, England, circa 1890s. Photograph from the Photochrom Print Collection, courtesy of Library of Congress

This blog stems from an ongoing project that explores the potential of digital newspaper archives. Whereas newspaper research used to be a hard slog scanning through microfilm, newspapers can now be searched online. One useful application of these new tools is to investigate more widely the aspects of the history of education that were given publicity in contemporary newspapers. One of these aspects is the detailed reporting of lectures and field excursions, which are only occasionally reproduced in academic journals.

In August 1848 a party of gentlemen from Sheffield went to Castleton to learn about geology. They were members of the Sheffield Literary and Philosophical Society, and they had decided to undertake regular field trips. In 1847 they had gone to Roche Abbey near Rotherham. Castleton was their second excursion where, after exploring Peak Cavern, they gathered for an impromptu lecture by William Lee (an engineer), who explained the geology of the Peak District. 

Such expeditions were an important contribution to learning in the 19th century, providing opportunities for a wider dissemination of scientific understanding. This was achieved by publishing lectures and field trips in the newspapers. For instance, the Roche Abbey excursion was described, as became usual practice, in the Sheffield Independent, 28 August 1847, mentioning the highlight of finding mineral specimens in a quarry. 

The Castleton trip had a substantial write-up in the paper on 19 August 1848. The men (this seems to have been an all-male bastion) had reached Castleton at noon. The company was mostly made up of medical men, but it also included several scientists and the mathematician Rev Samuel Earnshaw (1805-1888), one of the founders of Firth College, a precursor of the University of Sheffield, and later commemorated by lending his name to a Sheffield University Hall of Residence (1965-2006). 

When it started to rain, the group retreated to Peak Cavern, and spent two hours exploring: a week earlier, after heavy rain, the interior had been flooded, and one party devoted their time to examining dead insects, left when the waters subsided. Another party discussed the formation of stalactites. They then gathered near the mouth of the cavern to hear William Lee explain current thinking about faulting and volcanic activity as an explanation for the juxtaposition of limestone, shale and millstone-grit.

In part the impetus for educational trips such as these had been the development of the railway network, and the provision of cheaper group-booked tickets. Educational societies and institutions used the excursion trains to explore further afield. For example, some Mechanics Institutes such as the one in Leeds, organised excursions for their students. The newspapers provided guides to places to visit, such as those appearing in the paper in five instalments from 22 July to 23 September 1848.

But another inspiration for the excursions had been the innovation of trips for young people five years earlier. The People’s College in Sheffield was founded in 1842 to provide educational opportunities for working class teenagers and young adults (male and female). The College’s principal, Rev Robert Bayley, had a plan for the students to visit all places of botanical or scientific interest that could be reached inexpensively in a day, and he organised about three trips a year. The first expedition of the People’s College was to Roche Abbey in 1842, followed by Wentworth Castle, and Beauchief Abbey. 

In 1843 a party of 200 took the train to Swinton, north of Rotherham, and walked more than three miles to Conisbrough Castle (the women travelled there by canal boat). Upon arrival they split into parties to look at flowers and insects, and then attended a lecture at the castle by Rev Bayley (Sheffield Independent, 9 September).

In August 1844 a People’s College party of 400 went by excursion train to York, a journey of two-and-a-half hours, arriving at noon and departing at 7pm. The trip was described in the paper on 31 August. The students walked around the city in procession, and they visited the castle and the cathedral and walked around the medieval walls. They had hoped to look around the museum as well, but they were prevented from doing so because of their large numbers. The curator did offer to allow small parties of older students, but this arrangement was declined by the group.

The Sheffield People’s College, through the publicity for its meetings and excursions, became an inspiration to others. For example, a Nottingham people’s college was set up in 1846 along similar lines. Unfortunately, when Rev Bayley left in 1848, the Sheffield-based college went into decline for several decades. However, by then, there were many educational ventures around the country, and through the newspapers the learning experience of participants reached a wider audience.

Nineteenth-century newspapers provide a unique record of both lectures and excursions by the emerging educational societies and colleges, boosted by public interest in these detailed accounts. It is only by researching this material that we can gain a complete picture of the growth of public education.

Tom Welsh hosts the website, which provides a showcase for investigating applications of newspaper and other sources. He has also published two books via Amazon Kindle: Fake Heritage: solving mysteries; and Hilltop bonfires: marking royal events.