Ref NoUC 2/11
TitleSunday Schools and Home Mission
Date1788 - 1939
LevelSub Collection
DescriptionFollowing a series of public meetings that led to the establishment of Nonconformist Sunday Schools, by 1786 Unitarian churches and other Dissenting congregations began to establish their own schools supported by their respective congregations and independent of this more general movement. On 18 July that year a Vestry Meeting of the New Meeting was held, where the minutes recorded a resolution to create similar schools 'for the instruction of the poor'. The subject appears to have been dropped until a Vestry Meeting was held on 23 January 1788, when it was resolved that a scheme be promoted by the New Meeting Society and that a meeting of the congregation be called to receive this proposal, and that these Schools established on the most liberal plans.

From a later printed report, dated 2 November 1817, it would appear that when the Sunday Schools first opened in March 1788 'it was also resolved that if children should attend the School whose parents or patrons were members of other congregations than that assembling in the New Meeting House, the children should be at liberty to attend any place of worship that the parent or recommender of the child might wish; attendance at some place of the kind, during that part of the day not devoted to instruction, being all that was desired'.

When the school opened it had one male and one female teacher, instructing 22 boys and 16 girls, with two ladies and two gentlemen appointed as Visitors. Teachers were generally paid 3s per Sunday. There was no formal school building for another 22 years after the Sunday Schools were opened, with rooms rented in Bull Street and Wood Street located in the immediate neighbourhood of the church.

In 1790 the Reverend Joseph Priestley demonstrated the liberal position of the schools, and the church more generally, when he invited the Reverend Joseph Berington, a Catholic priest at Oscot, to preach the annual School Sermon. At a later date, a similar invitation was sent to the Reverend Robert Hall, a distinguished Calvinist minister.

Priestley split the school into three classes; the first aged 5 - 12 years, the second aged 12 - 18, and third comprising students aged 18 - 30. Priestley's Sunday classes were generally very well attended. The books he taught to his class included his own 'Catechism, 'Watt's Historical Catechism', 'Watt's Hymns for Children' and scripture geography. He lectured the third class from his 'Institutes of Natural and Revealed Religion' and 'History of the Corruptions of Christianity'.

After the destruction of the New Meeting House during the rioting of 1791, it was resolved the following year that the Vestry would temporarily superintend the accounts and transactions of the Sunday Schools. During the proceeding decade the affairs of the congregation and Sunday Schools were managed by two chapel wardens and a committee comprising fifteen members, elected for two years at a time. Despite the financial and organisational problems visited on the church in the wake of the riots, the Sunday Schools continued to prosper, despite the fact that the teachers continued to instruct their pupils for much of the decade without payment.

In December 1796 the New Meeting Brotherly Society was instituted through the efforts of Mr James Luckcock, who had played an active role in the management of the Sunday Schools since 1788. The chief objectives of the Brotherly Society were to provide teachers for the two Sunday Schools and 'to aid the general promotion of knowledge and virtue'.

In 1798 the existing rooms were insufficient to accommodate the number of children applying for admission, and the visitors of the New Meeting Sunday Schools were desired to take a small house or room for the purpose. A house was taken in 1799 at the cost of £5 10s, and rooms were school purposes were engaged at various times in Dale End, New Meeting Street, Cannon Street, Brittle (or Brettall Street), Great Charles Street and Freeman Street, until new school buildings were opened in 1810.

In 1803 an evening school was established in the Freeman Street premises, and the use of the rooms was granted rent free for an experimental period of three months. In 1808 the houses and land immediately above the New Meeting House in New Meeting Street were purchased for £400, as a preliminary of building new school buildings. Plans were submitted from various architects, a Building Committee was appointed, and a builder's estimate was approved in November 1810. The cost of the schools was £1025 19s. The new building was four floors high, and was described as 'extensive and appropriate'.

By 1817 the number of subscribers to the Sunday Schools had become so numerous that the Vestry Committee considered it 'highly proper and desirable that the choice of a new Committee should rest with the subscribers generally'. The printed report circulated in conjunction with this decision noted the rapid growth of the schools since 1788. There were now three Girls Classes, numbering 160 to 190 pupils, with three teachers assisted by numerous lady Visitors, and ten Boys Classes, numbering 400 to 470 pupils, directed by one stipendiary teacher and numerous assistants.

In 1818 a Boys' Teachers Society was founded, its purpose being to hold monthly meetings of the teachers for the better conduct of the affairs of the schools, but was dissolved in 1834 when a new society was appointed (see UC 2/11/3/1). Its duties were to receive and admit scholars, subdivide the classes, regulate the attendance of teachers and pupils, inquire into the various causes of absence, and make all necessary regulations relating to the school as required.

In 1819 a Unitarian Tract Society was established by the teachers of both the Old and New Meeting Sunday Schools, who printed an annual report for many years and published hundreds of tracts for distribution. There are five volumes of minutes for this society at Birmingham Archives and Heritage, referenced 417082 - 417086 [IIR 24]. By 1822 the number of pupils at the New Meeting Sunday Schools stood at 716, but fell off slightly by the mid-1830s. At this stage the Sunday Schools Committee and the Teachers' Society came into conflict over the perceived dictation and interference of the committee in the affairs of the teachers, leading to the resignations of several teachers, who founded a 'New Unitarian Sunday School' in Cambridge Street.

There continued to be shortages of teaching staff, forcing the school to impose restrictions on access to the school. This problem was addressed In February 1837 with the appointment of a class 'for preparing youths to act as teachers in the New Meeting Sunday Schools'. At an Annual Meeting of the Schools held on 17 September that year it was also resolved to establish an Evening School based in rooms in the school buildings. The Reverend J.G. Brooks was the school's first 'agent', the rooms used mainly as a reading room and for occasional lectures and meetings. Brooks was also involved in the church's Mission work in the city (see UC 2/4/2).

The Reverend James Martineau's Hymn Book was introduced into the schools in 1852, 100 copies of the smaller edition being ordered for their use. In 1852 secular education in the Boys' School was confined to Sunday afternoons, the primary aim now being direct religious teaching and the moral and religious culture of the children. Adult educational programmes were also instituted, which took a more secular, practical character. In 1856 a course of nineteen lectures were delivered in the Upper Vestry to increase the education given to adult scholars, and included subjects connected with science, history and general literature.

The new Church of the Messiah school buildings on Broad Street opened on 5 January 1862. There was accommodation for 200 girls and 250 boys, although the number of children on the books was just over half of that. The falling off in pupil numbers was attributed to the distance of the new schools from the locality the New Meeting schools were based, where many scholars previously lived. Some teachers also left, such as Mr George R. Twinn and some members of his Adult Class, who founded a new church and schools on Lower Fazeley Street. Their work was carried out under the title of the Free Christian Society, which was dissolved in 1888 and their property was transferred to the Lawrence Street Mission (see UC 2/4/2).

At the end of 1867 Day Schools were opened which continued until 1871. A new society was founded in 1868 called the Church of the Messiah Young Men's Mutual Improvement Society, which originally started life as an elocution class run by Mr. Edmund Richard Chellingworth, a young man popular with the Sunday Schools' teachers. A plethora of associated social clubs, choral societies and other organisations, affiliated to the schools, were formed in the 1870s which proved popular (see UC 2/11/2/10/ 3 - 4, 'Sketch of the History of the Schools', October 1888, p. 25).

By 1888 Sunday School numbers had improved from the figures of the early 1860s, with 437 students on the books, 130 of whom constituted Mr Tranter's Adult Class, although the school had the capacity for many more. The Sunday Schools remained relatively prosperous into the early twentieth century, with minutes of the Sunday School Committee surviving up to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 (see UC 2/11/2/1/8).
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