William Barnes’s manuals of instruction

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William Barnes’s manuals of instruction
Bernard Jones

Like many teachers, William Barnes dabbled in the compilation of books that might be used in school. These ranged from pamphlets of a few pages to more substantial manuals of instruction. Whether or not these were strictly what is understood by school textbooks today is a matter of opinion. Most would have been unlikely to be found in many nineteenth-century classrooms, even when the title says they are intended for school use. They were often designed for the private scholar as well and were perhaps used by such. If they are not textbooks, it is difficult to see to what category they might be assigned. They are so miscellaneous in character as to defy classification and more than anything else are indicative of the very wide-ranging syllabus that Barnes developed for his own school.1

The notes that follow give some idea of Barnes’s output over the years 1829 to 1849. As the only one of his books under consideration that reached a second edition was an Anglo-Saxon primer, there will be a few remarks on the abortive nineteenth-century attempt to introduce Old English into the school curriculum and for the sake of context, two other Old English primers will be described briefly. The non-survival of some of Barnes’s books is a fact that has to be accepted, but recourse to his notes and long descriptive titles and subtitles goes some way to making good the deficiencies. Although Barnes’s title pages – given here – are long-winded, and even tiresome, they do indicate something of the contents of the books. They also, taken together, shed some light on the teaching methods of earlier generations. There is a general reliance on the practice of: learn the facts; then, from having learnt them, answer the questions – correct answers are given in the ‘questions and answers’ sections of the books. The assumption is that the ‘answers’ are the ones pupils should have learnt by heart. Barnes is acknowledged to have been an enlightened teacher and he had pupils who later became distinguished. However, even if he did get away to some extent from the old rote-learning in his own school, the informative titles with ‘questions and answers’ in the book, show that he still worked pretty much in the tradition of the nineteenth-century classroom teaching.

William Barnes was destined to take a place in the front rank of English poets of the nineteenth century and to win continuing fame as a pioneer of British philological endeavour. This last reputation stems partly from his whole-hearted faith in the scientific studies of Franz Bopp (1791-1867), and to that admiration, perhaps, he owes his place in German encyclopaedias. Barnes was born on 22 February 1801, on a smallholding in the parish of Sturminster Newton, Dorset, and educated at a neighbouring dame school, followed by some years at a private academy in Sturminster. At the age of thirteen or fourteen, he went as an engrossing clerk to John Dashwood, a solicitor in Sturminster Newton. Following the death of his mother in 1816 and the death of Dashwood shortly after, Barnes left Sturminster in 1818 for Dorchester, where he took up a similar position with another solicitor. There he soon discovered that he had a gift for languages. In 1823, armed with Johnson’s Dictionary and Locke’s On Education, Barnes took on a run-down school at Mere in Wiltshire. For nearly forty years, he earned his living by teaching boys, and occasionally girls, first in Mere, and from 1835 to 1862 in Dorchester. In 1862, he was presented to the Donative of Winterborne Came with Whitcombe, south of Dorchester, where he ministered until his death on 7 October 1886.

The first of Barnes’s books for teaching was The Etymological Glossary of 1829. It is obviously a reference book, indeed a dictionary, rather than a class book. As no copy is known to have survived, all one can do is surmise its contents from the whole title and subtitle: The Etymological Glossary, or Easy Expositor, for the use of Schools and Non-Latinists; wherein the greater part of the English words of Foreign derivation, are so arranged, that the learner is enabled to acquire the meaning of many at once. A sample etymology is: ‘Contra dict – to say against’. The book’s being intended for school use and also for private scholars (‘Non-Latinists’) is indicated in the title but, as with all of these books, there is no record of any school or person who used it. However, etymology became almost an obsession in English teaching later in the century and grammar books, such as that of Allen and Cornwell, devoted many pages to lists of words and derivations (see Austin, this volume).

The Glossary was followed in 1833 by A Catechism of Government in General and that of England in Particular. As the title suggests, the format is that of questions and answers, a favourite method in nineteenth-century textbooks. Later Barnes was against ‘catechistical teaching’. The nineteen pages constitute little more than a pamphlet, yet the precise formulations of State, Law, Army and Navy are both concise and useful. The book is short enough to be learned by heart. Can it be that it was intended as a ‘crammer’? In context, one should note that it appeared between the riots in Bristol and elsewhere in 1830 and the non-violent episode of the Tolpuddle martyrs in 1834. Indeed, according to one of Barnes’s former pupils, he was in or near Bristol during one of the times of disorder, and must have had grim memories of those tragic events. For probably good personal reasons, Barnes never commented on the Tolpuddle episode. Mere, where he still lived at the time, was in the front line of the rick-burning and machine-wrecking disturbances, and it seems unlikely that he could have been unaware of what went on.

Like The Etymological Glossary, no copy of The Mnemonical Manual of 1833 is known to have survived. An elaborate title gives only a vague idea of the contents and the intended readers: Founded on a new and simple system of mnemonics. Recommended to the notice of teachers and readers of history, etc. The book seems to have been aimed at everyone – or as many readers as it could find, including, first and foremost, the teaching profession. The title does not say that the book was intended for use as a class text. Once again there is not a scrap of evidence that the book was used at all. The long title indicates that Barnes’s ‘essential knowledge’ took in his own personal interests. The book seems to be in the ‘short-cuts to knowledge’ category. As no copy is known, there may be some doubt about actual publication.

A Few Words on the Advantages of a More Common Adoption of the Mathematics as a Branch of Education, or Subject of Study of 1834 is an essay in the region of education in general rather than a school textbook. It bears a perhaps surprising dedication to General Shrapnel, who lived in the idyllic-sounding Pear Tree Cottage in Salisbury Cathedral Close.

In 1835, Barnes brought out another short pamphlet on a curious topic of applied mathematics: A Mathematical Investigation of the Principle of Hanging Doors, Gates, Swing Bridges, and other Heavy Bodies Swinging on Vertical Axes. The six and a half pages of text explain the theory of the subject of the title in strictly mathematical formulae. It hardly seems to have much use as a school textbook. On the other hand, Barnes taught the sons of farmers and the subject may have had more practical use for them than might at first sight seem the case. Barnes was a pioneer of ‘the modern side’ in schools and built up an impressive, if unusual, syllabus, and he would have been pleased to use a practical operation as a means of instilling something of mathematics into his pupils. At the end of this short treatise are printed advertisements for Barnes’s school and notices of forthcoming publications: An Investigation into some of the most Important Laws of Language; The Duty of Obedience to Moral Power Explained and The Euclid of Drawing. None of these are known to have appeared under these exact titles but the amazing juxtaposition of subjects demonstrates the eclectic nature of Barnes’s mind.

1839 saw the publication of an obvious school book, though it is hardly a text book. A Corrective Concordance; or, Imposition Book lists the sins of boys, and then, for each offence prescribes for the sinners a scriptural text, presumably to be learned by the offender. There follows an example of how moral matters might be discussed by a class. Was this the realisation of The Duty of Obedience advertised in 1835?

In 1840 there were two publications with extremely lengthy titles. The first was: An Arithmetical & Commercial Dictionary, containing a simple explanation of commercial and mathematical terms and arithmetical operations; with a short account of imported articles of commerce, and a set of tables; to which are added 100 Practical Questions; for the use of Schools and Private Students. The Commercial Dictionary is aimed at boys likely to go into trade and also perhaps designed to enable boys who were to work on the land to make a better job of casting accounts. The Preface seeks a wide readership though, as often with these books, it seems to be linked to the kind of school that Barnes ran rather than to the general run of private schools. However, it could be used in most schools. The ‘100 Practical Questions’ indicate the state of what could be regarded as useful knowledge at the time.

The Laws of Case aims much higher. It is obviously a contribution to philology rather than a school text book. Again, it could be Barnes’s version of the book on language advertised in 1835. Its full title is An Investigation of the Laws of Case in Language, exhibited in a system of natural cases; with some observations on Prepositions, Tense, and Voice, being, as it is conceived, the first step towards a system of universal grammar. It is an impressive publication, and indicative, as part of the subtitle shows, of Barnes’s intention of putting forward a ‘system of universal grammar’. This was to follow as A Philological Grammar of 1854.

A further two publications came out in 1842: The Elements of Linear Perspective and the Projection of Shadows, adapted to the use of mathematical and Drawing Classes and Private Students (almost certainly the book on Euclid and drawing promised in 1835) and The Elements of English Grammar, with a set of questions and exercises. As Barnes declares in the first of the two that it is a ‘class’ book, his intention is clear. It could be used as a school text or for reference but it treats of a subject that would have appealed to Barnes more than it would have appealed to the interests of most people. It could certainly have been used by ‘Private Students’, but there is no evidence that it was. Useful as it might have been, the subject is one of such specialised interest that it cannot have had many readers. The Elements of English Grammar is altogether more substantial. It was in fact a further step marking Barnes’s ambition to devise a ‘system of universal grammar’, as indicated in the title of Laws of Case. In spite of the Questions and Answers mentioned on the title page, the book would be far beyond the abilities of most of today’s undergraduates. It is so advanced for its time that one cannot imagine that it was used much beyond Barnes’s own classroom in the 1840s. It is certainly not a text book for the ordinary boys’ school.

In 1844 came out Exercises in Practical Science, containing the Main Principles of Dynamics, Statics, Hydrostatics, and Hydrodynamics; with more than 200 Questions for Practice. The Questions again suggest school use. The book is tied very much to Barnes’s type of teaching and might best be described as a textbook designed explicitly for use in his school.

Outlines of Geography and Ethnography for Youth appeared three years later in 1847. This little known book is pocket-size. It is a compendium of facts, and as such is very useful and certainly interesting. It is a book that could be used by a schoolboy of the time, but it also has a historic value. It tells, for instance how many German states there were in 1847 and how many universities and higher education institutions there were in those states before they were finally unified. It is enlightening on facts that present the state of affairs on the eve of 1848, the year of revolution in Europe. These Outlines would have been useful in and out of the classroom for reference. Although far removed from geography textbooks of today, it is of a pattern with others produced later in the century, such as that of James Cornwell of 1845, which enjoyed great popularity (see Austin, this volume).

A more recognisable book for classroom use probably arose from the circumstances of mid-nineteenth-century Britain, and England in particular. Stirrings for the Alfred Millennium in 1848 and 1849 were felt long before the event in such ways as the inscriptions placed on memorial stones in the 1830s and 1840s. There is one such in Romsey Abbey. In print, early contributions included L. Langley’s Principia Saxonica or An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Reading of 1839, which opens with an eighteen-page essay on the language. The publication of this work marks the beginning of a movement to make the study of Anglo-Saxon, or Old English as it is now generally called, a part of the curriculum alongside Greek and Latin. The main part of the book consists of Aelfric’s ‘Homily on the Birthday of St Gregory’, with selections from Alfred and Bede and excerpts from the Saxon Chronicle with a glossary. There was no translation apart from the thirty-eight pages of glossary. Behind it lies the general feeling expressed by Horne Tooke, a quotation from whose work stands as epigraph on the title page: ‘Anglo-Saxon and Gothic ought long ago to have made a part of the education of our youth’. In 1846, Langley’s book was followed by A Guide to the Anglo-Saxon Tongue: A Grammar after Erasmus Rask; Extracts in Prose and Verse, with Notes, etc. for the Use of Learners by E. J. Vernon (?1814-1848). Vernon was a teacher on the Isle of Wight and was known to Barnes. The glossary to the second edition of Barnes’s Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect (1847/8} acknowledges the help of ‘E. J. VERNON, Esq., Newchurch, Isle of Wight, author of A Guide to the Anglo-Saxon Tongue’. Vernon’s book is, even more clearly than Langley’s, part of an attempt to introduce the study of Old English into the school curriculum. It takes the form of the conventional Latin primer in setting out Old English grammar. Practically half of the book is taken up with extracts of prose and verse, including parts of the Bible, Boethius, Caedmon and Beowulf. There are three word lists and a few additional notes on both the grammar and the texts but no glossary as such.

Barnes’s Se Gefylsta (78 pages) came out at the height of the Alfred commemoration in 1849. It is more of a teaching book than Langley’s (also 78 pages.) and less copious than Vernon’s (196 pages). Both Barnes’s and Vernon’s Old English primers were brought out by that prince of antiquarian publishers, John Russell Smith. Barnes indicates the type of book on the title page: Se Gefylsta. (The Helper): An Anglo Saxon Delectus. Serving as a first class-book of the language. At the end of his Preface Barnes lists a galaxy of works by the outstanding British Saxonists of the time, including Thorpe’s version of Rask, as, indeed, Vernon had done. The grammar is crammed into twenty-nine pages, simply set out, followed by five pages of ‘Questions, Philological and Historical.’ The bits of Old English prose and poetry are well-chosen. It really looks from this that Barnes must have had some idea of what a school text book should be and Se Gefylsta went into a second edition in 1866, four years after Barnes had closed his own school. Compared with this, Barnes’s other books that have been documented here seem to be the outcome of some kind of whim or of mere reponse to subjects as they occurred to him.

Of course, Barnes was a nineteenth-century philologer with a vision and sought to restore the English language of his time to some kind of modern equivalent of its earlier form. He also had another aim, however, being most explicit on the matter of Old English as a subject for schools, as his Preface makes clear:

The learning of Anglo-Saxon would be found . . . a wit-sharpening exercise of the mind, as the same kind as that of learning any other dead language, and . . . worthy of a place in the youthful mind, – it is to be hoped that Anglo-Saxon may yet take a place, . . . in the English school-room, if not on the desk of the grammar school.
In private, as well as diocesan English schools, the compiler believes that Anglo-Saxon may be introduced with good effects (Se Gefylsta, pp.iii-iv). An epigraph on the title page comes from the Old English Life of St Guthlac, which translates roughly as: ‘I have set this down as [well as] I might with the wisdom of my forebears and ancestors.’

What National (Church of England) Schools or other elementary schools made of his suggestion to include the study of Anglo-Saxon is not known but may be guessed at in the light of their curricula at that time. However, the appearance of a second edition seventeen years after the first suggests that Se Gefylsta had a sale into the 1870s and some people, so far not identified, must have been buying it for use. The likelihood is that it was used in private academies much like Barnes’s own had been. The 1870s run on to the 1880s and the appearance of An Anglo-Saxon Primer (1882) by Henry Sweet, which long held sway. Barnes’s Se Gefylsta is a not unworthy predecessor. However, the attempt to bring Old English into the school curriculum never took off and Barnes’s vision was doomed to disappointment. Now, a hundred and fifty years later, it has all but disappeared from the English syllabus in universities.

There is a context in which Se Gefylsta and the Outlines of Geography, coming as they do a year before and a year after the year ’48, may reflect an awareness of circumstances, perhaps subconscious, on which Barnes did not dwell either in poetry or in prose. An investigation into this possibility would be a matter of sociology and even politics, and as such falls outside the scope of this paper.

This has necessarily been only a brief survey of Barnes’s textbooks or, as perhaps they might more properly be classified, manuals of instruction. With the exception of Se Gefylsta – and possibly of Outlines of Geography and Ethnology – the books and booklets Barnes published over the years 1829–1849 were aimed rather at the teacher than at the pupils. They interest readers of later times because they are the works of a front rank lyric poet who happened to earn his living by teaching. They indicate more about the breadth of Barnes’s syllabus for his school than they do about the curricula of schools in general.


1. Most of the books by Barnes referred to in this paper are accessible in facsimile in William Barnes: Collected Prose Works (6 vols), introduced by Richard Bradbury (Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1996). For the rest, one must resort to the original publications and mss.

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