In the classroom – textbooks 1900 – 1950s



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In the classroom – textbooks 1900 – 1950s

Even in the early 1900s the educational press was full of advertisements and reviews for textbooks and historical ‘readers’; clearly it was perceived that there was a substantial market for them, and a number of well known academic historians entered the field: for example, Sir Charles WC Oman, now remembered as a military historian, produced a number of textbooks around the turn of the twentieth century ranging from A History of Greece to England and the Hundred Years’ War. Oman was particularly praised for this by the teacher’s magazine Journal of Education. “No one knows better than Mr Oman how a book of this sort ought to be written”1, whereas Professor Tout, who also wrote several including An Advanced History of Great Britain, was criticised for, “some signs of haste…and the book would be the better for careful revision”.2

There has been considerable analysis of textbooks by academics over the past twenty five years, particularly those from the Edwardian period; many were simplistic or jingoistic or both.3 To take a particularly quoted example: in 1911 CRL Fletcher and Rudyard Kipling published a popular school history of England which is still found so often in charity shops that it must have sold in enormous numbers at the time. It is full of generalising racial or national stereotypes that would make many contemporary readers wince: Ireland was never invaded by the Romans, “so Ireland never went to school, and has been a spoilt child ever since”. Of the Crimean War; “All other powers dreaded Russia, a half-barbarous state of vast size, and full of very brave, if very stupid soldiers. Some people think that the cunning Frenchmen led England by the nose into this war, and that it was no business of ours”.4 However the book has plenty of information told in a fairly entertaining way and the generalisations probably fixed the characters in some of their readers’ minds: George II, “was a short, ridiculous red-faced person, with great goggle-eyes. He cared as little for England, and as much for Hanover as his father; but…He at least knew how to swear in English, and he was rather too fond of swearing”.5) In fact this book was not immune from criticism even at the time . Valerie Chancellor quoted the Educational Times condemning its “inconsistency and crudeness of political thought”, and the “imperialist judgments” were “uncontrollable and irresponsible…The book needs to be revised in a serious spirit”.6

There was also considerable discussion about the tedious nature of many routine textbooks. In its review of An Illustrated History of England in 1907 the Journal of Education first quoted Professor Pollard’s condemnation of, “text-books of English history, which may be necessary, but are certainly evil, which prefer knowledge to understanding, and seem expressly designed to nip the bud of historical interest and to clip the wings of historical imagination”.7 It then even more damningly said; “…as a whole, the work is nothing but a crushing load of facts – sufficient to dull the keenest intelligence and calculated to make us thankful that English schoolboys and girls possess such infinite powers of forgetting”.8 The Journal of Education, a conventional magazine mainly for teachers in secondary schools and the upper years of elementary schools, even published a lengthy article in 1909 criticising the lack of visibility of women in English history – and gave detailed examples of their major role in many events which, it said, had been completely omitted from history textbooks:

In nearly every text-book and nearly every lesson, privileges are supposed to be conferred on men, and civic duties to be performed by them alone. The ignorance concerning women’s share in English history is almost as widespread among the teachers as it is among the pupils – a fact which is mainly the fault, usually unconscious, of the writers of text-books.9

On the whole the use of textbooks, at least in the earlier years of the twentieth century, appears to have been confined to secondary schools and sometimes the upper years of elementary schools or higher elementary schools. The elementary schools used ‘readers’ whose main function was to improve pupils’ reading skills. Some of these were quite general reading books containing snippets of information about a range of topics – geography, literature, myths and legends and history10 – or they might be ‘historical readers’ which would have stories from history like King Alfred and the Cakes or Robert Bruce and the Spider. The Journal of Education said they should, “deal with simple matters such as can be apprehended by and interest youthful minds; each chapter should contain a single historical incident told in easy language and in an interesting manner”.11 It recommended Nelson’s Highways of History as carrying out the Board of Education’s suggestions to teachers “that in the early stages history is best taught by the selection of striking scenes illustrated by vivid pictures…Book I is written in the simplest language and might be enjoyed by an intelligent child of six”.12

How books were used in schools was crucial. Stephen Heathorn suggests that, “the elementary school system as a whole, and the classroom in particular were arenas of contestation between the national framers of educational policy, local school officials, teachers, parents and students”.13 This could apply to secondary schools as well; there was not necessarily ‘contestation’ between these groups but they often had different views, aims and agendas which would influence the way in which the children ultimately experienced the textbooks and readers. How teachers approached textbooks would also alter according to a variety of factors. The Board of Education itself said of history in secondary schools in 1908 that:

the use of the book will…constantly vary. At the beginning of a new and difficult subject there will have to be full explanation by the teacher before the text-book is studied; when the narrative of the book is full and well written, it may be best for the pupils to read it first and for any necessary comment and explanation to come afterwards; sometimes the chief work will have to be condensation and analysis of the book, sometimes a long digression on some matter not sufficiently dealt with in it.14

As for elementary schools; the London County Council published an influential report on history teaching in its schools in 1911 (reprinted and widely circulated in 1923). It was described as the report of a ‘conference’ but was in fact the conclusions of a group of educationalists including headteachers, teachers, teacher trainers, school inspectors, education academics who met over 18 months. It was chaired by Professor Pollard of London University and the Historical Association. It was a wide ranging report which looked at practice in many countries around the world. Its recommendations on the kind of textbook/reader to be used were clearly thought out: in standards I to III (7-10 year olds), “the history Reader should simply consist of graphically told and picturesquely illustrated biographies and stories drawn from the history of England and of the world”.15 For the older children, “the question of the Reader and text-book is more complex”. Inevitably relatively little time was given to teaching history, and in few of the schools was it possible to set “organised and systematic homework”. Ideally the history Reader which all schools used would also serve as a text-book. For this ,it must:

contain summaries and marginal notes, and accurate, plenteous, and appropriate illustrations, not included because they are simply pretty pictures, but because they assist in giving events their right temporal and causal sequence. The value of the book would be greatly enhanced if it included some copies of old documents and some indication of the sources from which the facts taught have been obtained.

With regard to the plan of the book, it should not consist merely of the lives of kings (an arrangement unfortunately too common), but should be a living story dealing with men and movements in continuous progression, each man, whether king or commoner, being placed in accurate perspective with regard to the whole. It should be borne in mind that the value of history teaching lies not in preserving the recollection of a great mass of minor incidents or of the personal details of the lives of great men, but in acquiring an intelligent view of the main lines of historical development.16

Above all, the book should complement the teacher’s oral lessons – not take precedence over them. This was fortunate (and necessary) because the conference members had examined a very large number of history Readers and found only one that conformed with their suggestions, “and even that was lacking in many respects”, (they did not name it). The Report’s conclusion was that, “the teacher must be independent of his text-book; his oral lesson must be the staple of historical instruction; and for the purpose of supplementing his lessons, reliance should be placed less and less upon the text-book … and more and more upon …other aids” 17 (to which the Report then turned its attention).

A few years later Sir Robert Blair, the LCC Education Officer, wrote that the quality of textbooks and readers was improving; the main problem was now “financial” – the temptation for schools to hold on to out of date books when their finances were tight. Many books had been gradually discarded but, “as long as [the old book] was in the school book-store, it will be difficult to dispense with its use”.18 Gordon Batho cited Wiltshire Education Committee agreeing to replace books, “only as existing books wore out”.19

As far as particular books are concerned, the LCC did various surveys of their use in its schools: in the pre First World War period and during the War the most popular reader in the central and elementary schools was Nelson’s Highroads of History series which came in ten volumes (which was mentioned earlier as recommended by the Journal of Education). It was a series which ranged from basic story collections for the youngest pupils to more detailed accounts for older readers and some general histories of ‘Empire History’ and ‘European History’.20 The “most modern” readers, rapidly growing in popularity were the Piers Plowman Histories ,a series published by Philips. This series was enormously successful throughout the interwar years, and by 1946 had gone through ten editions and 36 reprints.21 The initial volumes, published before the First World War were simplistic: the review of them in History said they were, “bright and interestingly told…without any sacrifice of accuracy and scholarship”, but criticised the lack of context or historical sequence to the historical stories; all would be dependent on the teacher’s ability to put them into “their proper setting”. The later books in the series were a social history of England. This was praised by History as, “an illuminating survey, which deserves not to be restricted to the elementary scholars for whom it is written, but to be read by any one who wants a clear and accurate idea as to how our ancestors lived, and as to what kind of a country England really used to be”.22

Turning to textbooks, the most popular in London secondary and central schools, at least up until the end of the First World War, was Miss C Linklater Thomson’s series A First History of England. In its review of her first volume in 1902, the Journal of Education was extremely positive: “an admirable piece of work. It is based, as far as possible, on the original authorities…Schools which can afford to give a good deal of time to history could do no better than adopt this as a first-form book. Miss Thomson’s own style is clear and simple, and she has the enthusiasm which should carry the pupils along with her”.23 Sixteen years later Sir Robert Blair was far less enthusiastic: “It follows the familiar plan of division by reigns. The story within each reign deals with a considerable number of events so that anyone seeking the continuous story would have to produce his own mosaic by selections from different chapters. Further, the story seems to me too much concerned with the ins and outs of the various ministries of the period.”24

During the interwar years the most popular books used in elementary schools and the lower forms of secondary schools continued to be the Piers Plowman series. Others that sold well included the Mayflower Histories in the 1930s which claimed that; “Social and economic history receive their full share of attention, but the necessity for building up a political framework has been kept in view throughout”, Dr CB Firth’s History series started in the early 1930s and was reprinted into the 1960s.25 Eileen and Rhoda Power published Boys & Girls of History in 1929 and Rhoda Power went on to write further readers, partly in conjunction with her work on schools history radio.

In secondary schools the most popular series, at least in the nineteen twenties, was the three volumes of The Groundwork of British History by GT Warner and CHK Marten. In a review twenty years earlier, after it was first published in 1911, History called the series, “a joint contribution by Harrow and Eton”, as the two authors taught at these schools. It praised the series for its treatment of events, “in logical sequence”, rather than obsessive chronological listings, and despite “occasional slips” (hopefully amended by the 1920s), it deemed it an “excellent work”.26 Indeed it was revised in 1943 as The New Groundwork of British History and reprinted twenty one times up to 1961. The other popular secondary school history was RB Mowat’s A New History of Great Britain which was first published in the 1920s. Both series were traditional textbooks in that they, “are dominated by the conception that history is mainly concerned with the actions of politicians and with the details of wars”.27

The senior history master at Barrow in Furness secondary school for boys, Mr FH Johnson, wrote an article in History about his use of textbooks and included his reactions to many of the best-selling series of books. He used Miss CL Thomson’s for Forms II and III, particularly liking her volumes on the Tudors and Stuarts; he had “not yet come across anything more satisfying than the ‘Piers Plowman’ Junior history…though you need four volumes to do the bulk of English history on both social and political sides”. Mr Johnson’s “greatest problem” was finding “a really good text-book for Matriculation forms”. Warner and Marten worked, “quite successfully” for the forms doing the Cambridge syllabus with its shorter periods but it would not work for the long periods of the Northern Matriculation. He had tried Mowat, “but I don’t like the balance of the book in spite of one or two good chapters…and the boys in Forms IV and V seem to find the chapters too long and rambling for one homework period, and are apt to over-emphasise unimportant biographical detail at the expense of historical causation”. What he would have really liked would have been, “a plain narrative…for the children to read and learn at home”, and then he would supply the “historic ideas and movements” in the lesson.28

In 1928 the Board of Education’s Consultative Committee looked at books in elementary schools and concluded that the history ones had improved. In the past:

they were too much confined to political history:…the generalisations which they included, however just, presumed a background of knowledge and experience the children did not possess:…the arrangements of the subject matter under reigns destroyed the sense of historical continuity which is essential in the study of history:..illustrations were crude and inaccurate and when used, were as likely to falsify as to illuminate the subject illustrated; the vocabulary and diction were often too difficult for children.

In the last ten to fifteen years:

increased attention began to be paid to the production of books on history suitable for quite young people. In this connection the most striking changes have been – the greater prominence given to the social and economic aspects of history, the introduction of material derived from local history, a more adequate recognition of English history as a part of European and World history, the production of illustrations which were both at first-hand and of first-rate historical value, and in general, an emphasis on the cultural rather than the political aspects of history.29

The committee applauded these changes but expressed concern that the detailed concentration on particular topics in a number of these books introduced a possible “danger that historical time-sequence may be somewhat blurred, and outstanding personalities neglected”. The first could be averted by frequent insertion of dates and the use of time-charts, the second would probably not persist because the appeal of dramatic biographical detail was so strong that writers were unlikely to neglect it for long.

The majority of secondary school textbooks during the interwar years still offered outline and chronological accounts of English or British history; the satirical take on them in 1066 and All That (“History is not what you thought. It is what you can remember30) would have been instantly obvious to anyone who had been to a secondary school. Many of the books also shared common political assumptions – again satirised neatly in 1066 and All That : “…the Great British People without whose self-sacrificing determination to become top Nation there would have been no (memorable) history."31 However there were also books for secondary school pupils about contemporary history, European history and world history, and a number offered detailed collections of source material.32 Those of these textbooks which were successful were reprinted into the 1950s and some of them for many years after that. And an enormous new number of textbooks and history books for younger pupils were also published in the 1950s as publishing houses geared up again after the scarcities of the Second World War: History ran a series of seventeen articles between 1957 and 1965 called ‘History Books for Schools’ which were written by practising teachers and teacher trainers giving their detailed opinions of a vast and wide-ranging selection of these books.

Finally, what did the pupils think of readers and textbooks? For his 1998 PhD, Patrick Brindle surveyed and interviewed a number of elementary school teachers and pupils at school in the first part of the twentieth century. He wrote of them that:

Most elementary teachers complained that, before the Second World War, their schools were chronically underfunded and short of materials. A large proportion of teachers and pupils, as expressed both in oral testimony and in written correspondence, stated that in History they had no textbooks from which to teach; no pictures with which to illustrate their lessons; and little access to reference libraries to add colour and depth to their teaching. Certainly a majority did have textbooks for History, but there were seldom enough to go round and these could often be outdated and in poor repair”.33

When there were textbooks or readers Brindle reported that they were usually volumes of Piers Plowman which he thought, “was probably the most popular, influential and oft-remembered textbook series of this time” and, “reflected some of the tensions and discontinuities between the new history project of inclusiveness and pedagogic radicalism and older traditions of didacticism and citizenship education”.34

Turning to the correspondents and interviewees who took part in the History in Education Project, the pattern is similar: those attending primary school in the 1920s and 30s mention Piers Plowman or remember no books in their primary classroom at all. Several mention the following paperback books remembered by this lady born in 1920:

I found some books sold by Woolworths when everything cost 3d or 6d. They were a little smaller than the ordinary notebooks & had about 20 pages. Each one took on a period – Norman, Roman, Medieval, Tudor etc. and simply had line drawings of the clothes, houses, tools, armoury, household goods etc. of each period. These I saved my pocket money to buy & they filled many gaps in my history.35

These were a set of seven books compiled by CW Airne which told the story of Britain in very detailed black and white line drawings of buildings and artefacts and costumes, illustrating as far as possible, the everyday life of the British people. They could be coloured in and pasted into exercise books or kept as a reference. They were still on sale at Woolworths in the early 1960s.

Secondary (grammar) school pupils mention a range of books although some do not remember authors’ names : the Mowat books appear, some textbooks by Happold, and then a number of single history books mainly used in the sixth form. Pupils at school in the 1950s mention the enormously widespread RJ Unstead books. His first series, the four volume Looking at History ,published from 1953, sold over eight million copies. Unstead was a primary school headmaster whose reviews for the Times Educational Supplement inspired:

protests from publishers as he scorned the turgid, matter-of-fact approach of many contemporary textbooks, declaring most history books to be written in a way calculated to put children off the subject for the rest of their lives. The publishers A. and C. Black took up his challenge and his Looking at History…constituted a new approach to the teaching of history in primary schools. As he remarked in the foreword to the Middle Ages volume, ‘You will not find very much about kings, queens and battles in this book … this is a book about everyday people and things’.36

What is interesting is how little an impression textbooks appear to have made on most respondents; indeed a sizeable minority, particularly those who did not go to grammar schools, have no memory of using a textbook at any point in their history education. Marian Clarke, who was born in 1928, attended a non-selective senior school. She did not even take the examination for grammar school as her parents could not afford the uniform and she had to leave school the week after she turned fourteen (which she regrets to this day). She loved history and her history teacher but:

Do you know, I cannot remember us having any books. Any history books at all. I can’t remember many books at all in our school… We had copy books galore, you know so you could make yourself understood. But you were there to listen. You had your jotter which you made your notes on because the exams would come up … And you had your books that you did your writing on her instruction you did your, you know you wrote about history. But I don’t remember any textbooks….

….there was no taking textbooks home, there was no homework. You know, there was nothing like that. Because they hadn’t got the facilities, we didn’t even need a satchel. We didn’t need a satchel because there was nothing to take or to bring back. It’s like a different world altogether.37

Jenny Keating

History in Education Project

Institute of Historical Research

University of London



December 2010

1 The Journal of Education, July 1900, p437.

2 The Journal of Education, May 1907, p329.

3 For example, Valerie Chancellor, History for their Masters: Opinion in the History Textbook, 1800-1914, (Adams & Dart, Bath 1970); John M MacKenzie, Propaganda and Empire: The Manipulation of British Public Opinion 1880-1960, (Manchester University Press, Manchester 1986); John Ahier, Industry, Children and the Nation: An Analysis of National Identity in School Textbooks, (The Falmer Press, Lewes 1988); JA Mangan(ed), ‘Benefits Bestowed’? Education and British Imperialism, (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1988); JA Mangan, The Imperial Curriculum: Racial images and education in the British colonial experience, (Routledge, London 1993); Stephen Heathorn, ‘‘Let us remember that we, too, are English’: Constructions of citizenship and national identity in English Elementary School Reading Books, 1880-1914’, Victorian Studies, Voluntary 38, No 3, Spring, 1995; Kathryn Castle, Britannia’s Children: Reading Colonialism through Children’s Books and Magazines, (Manchester University Press, Manchester 1996); Stephen Heathorn, For Home, Country, and Race: Constructing Gender Class and Englishness in the Elementary School, 1880-1914 (University of Toronto Press, 2000); Michael Lieven, ‘Bias in school history textbooks: representations of the British invasion of Zululand’, Paradigm, Vol 2, Jan 2000; William E Marsden, ‘”Poisoned History”: a comparative study of nationalism, propaganda and the treatment of war and peace in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century school curriculum’, History of Education, Voluntary 29, No1`, 2000; William E Marsden, The School Textbook: Geography, History and Social Studies, (Woburn Press, London 2001); Richard Aldrich, Lessons from History of Education – the Selected Works of Richard Aldrich, (Routledge, Abingdon 2006), Chapter 11; Keith Crawford, ‘When the English began to hate: The manufacture of German demonisation in British school history textbooks 1900-1930’, History of Education Review, Voluntary 38, No 1, 2009.


4 CRL Fletcher and Rudyard Kipling, A School History of England, (Clarendon Press, Oxford 1911), p21, pP245.

5 Fletcher & Kipling, op cit, p189.

6 Educational Times (1912), p136, quoted in Chancellor, op cit, p114.

7 Professor AF Pollard, quoted in The Journal of Education, Nov 1907, p752.

8 The Journal of Education, Nov 1907, p752.

9 The Journal of Education, Sep 1909, p643.

10 Harriet Finlay-Johnson, the elementary headmistress who used drama so effectively at Sompting School in Sussex, described such readers thus; “containing a little bit about cotton, a little bit about coal, a scrappy extract from a ‘good’ writer, with a poem about an impossible little girl, who sewed ‘as long as her eyes could see’ (so bad for her eyes, too!); the whole interlarded with moral maxims, conveying practically nothing to a child, and seasoned with a pinch of ‘tables’ and another of ‘difficult’ words in columns!”. Harriet Finlay-Johnson, The Dramatic Method of Teaching, (James Nisbet & Co Ltd, London 1911), p34.

11 The Journal of Education, June 1900, p372.

12 The Journal of Education, June 1907, p432.

13 Heathorn, op cit, p19.


14 Board of Education, ‘Teaching of History in Secondary Schools’, (Circular 599), (HMSO, London 1908), p7.

15 London County Council, Education Committee, ‘Report of a Conference on the Teaching of History in London Elementary Schools’, (PS King & Son Ltd for the LCC, London 1911, reprinted 1923), p39.

16 LCC, ‘Report’, pp39-40.

17 LCC, ‘Report’, p40.

18 R Blair, ‘Report on the Teaching of History in London’, LCC/EO/PS/02/007, London County Council, Education Committee, 12th July, 1917, p6.

19 Gordon Batho, ‘History Text-books, 1870-1914: A note on the Historical Association Collection at Durham, History of Education Society Bulletin, No 33, Spring 1984, p16.

20 Unpublished papers on ‘Histories, LCC/EO/PS/02/008, London County Council, Education Committee, 5th May 1915; 31st Oct, 1917.

21 Patrick Brindle, ‘Past Histories: History and the Elementary School Classroom in early twentieth century England’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Cambridge, 1998, p41.

22 ‘The Piers Plowman Histories’, History, Vols1-2, 1912-1913, pp223, 224.


23 The Journal of Education, Aug 1902, p527.

24 Memorandum by Sir Robert Blair on the Teaching of History in the highest classes in elementary schools’, LCC/EO/PS/02/007, London County Council, Education Committee, Feb 1918.

25 Thomas Kelly, The Mayflower Histories, Junior Book IV, W&R Chambers Ltd, London 1937), p4.

26 History, Vols 1-2, 1912-1913, pp86-87.

27 FC Moore, ‘England’ in Report on Nationalism in History Textbooks, prepared and compiled by the Working Committee of a Special Commission on Education, Stockholm (M Bergvalls, Stockholm 1928), p95.

28 FH Johnson, ‘History Courses and Text-books’, History, Vol xiii, Oct 1928, pp243-246

29 Board of Education, ‘Report of the Consultative Committee on Books in Public Elementary Schools’, (HMSO, London 1928), p34.

30 WC Sellars & RJ Yeatman, 1066 and All That, (1st published Methuen & Co, London 1930), p5.

31 Sellars & Yeatman, op cit, p5.

32 See BJ Elliott, ‘The Development of History Teaching in England for Pupils aged 11 to 18 years, 1918-1939’, (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Sheffield 1975), pp182-209, for detailed accounts of history textbooks for secondary school pupils in the pre Second World War era: and D Dymond, A Handbook for History Teachers, (Methuen & Co, London 1929), for an annotated list of history textbooks for pupils under 15 , pp29-39.


33 Brindle, op cit, p106.

34 Brindle, op cit, p41.

35 History in Education Project survey, RM/P20/HiE4.

36 ‘Robert John Unstead’, Oxford DNB: http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/63762 accessed 30/3/2011.

37 History in Education Project, interview with Mrs Marian Clarke, 12th May 2010.





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