|The Dame School|
The Victoria & Albert Museum
Isaac Cruikshank, the famed caricaturist, always had a keen interest in social and political issues. This interest was instilled into his son, George Cruikshank who offered us some of the earliest drawings of Mr. Punch.
Cruikshank, here, shows the world of education prior to The Education Act of 1870 which was the first measure in Britain aimed at providing a universal state system of elementary schools. Prior to the Act of 1870, most children, especially those from lower class families, learned the fundamentals of literacy in “Dame Schools. These school were so-called because they were run by unmarried, often elderly, women.
In Cruickshank's sketch, the teacher listens to a child reading aloud. His point was to show that clearly her pupils were learning something. Critics often dismissed the Dame, equating them to nothing more than a child-care service for working parents.
In this scene, the schoolroom was the old woman's kitchen—as was often the case. Though the scene looks to be awash in warm domesticity, there is one sinister detail—the inclusion of a bundle of birch twigs on the table which would have been used by the teacher to beat a slow or naughty child.