Would you pass this Victorian scholars’ test?

When you were young and taking exams, didn’t you hate it when old people patronisingly told you that everything was much more difficult in their day?

Yes, so did I. Now it’s my turn.

As today’s teenagers struggle through their GCSEs and A-levels, I thought I’d inspire them (as if) with a brief history of examinations at my alma mater, Rochester Mathematical School. The information comes from an essay written by D Gutteridge for The Williamsonian magazine back in those heady days of 1970.

In 1831 the school governors appointed a new headmaster — the Rev John Graham, then vicar of St Nicholas Church next to Rochester Cathedral.  Under Graham the school examination changed in form from a “viva voce” or interview, type of exam, to a written paper.

This would take one or two days to carry out, and the examiner would be paid “no more than £4” for his efforts. The original format for exams was set out in legal papers of 1708, when an action was brought to the Court of Chancery for settling the will of Sir Joseph Williamson, the school’s founder who had died seven years earlier.

They specified: “The ordinary governors do at least once on every year visit the school, and cause the boys to be examined upon every Tuesday next after the feast of St John the Baptist, commonly called Midsummer Day. And, for that purpose, that the governors shall yearly appoint some proper person to be examiner of the school, and in default of such particular choice and appointment either of the mathematic masters of Christ’s Hospital to be examiner of the said school.”

Written papers started in 1840, when the Rev William Conway asked Math scholars to write on the biblical characters of David or Joseph. In later years Conway set essays on Elizabeth I, Euclid’s works and the Nativity. In 1855 the Rev Mr Brookfield — Graham’s curate — took things up a notch. He reported to the governors: “In composition I tested them by setting them to write on subjects well known to them such as flax, silk, a clock, a beehive, a dockyard, sugar, a steamboat etc.”

These were modern times indeed.

The examiner recommended that a school library was set up and prizes awarded for examination success. And what a range of subjects: A later examiner, the Rev Mr Evans insisted that scholars should be able to eulogise eloquently and sagely on such subjects as: The scriptures, the 39 articles of the Anglican Church, a book called Paley’s Natural Theology, the history of Greece, Rome, England and America, the Geography of the world, the branches of mathematics, astronomy and four of the books of Virgil.

Not a mention of media studies there. But, as Mr Gutteridge (Gutters, we called him) wrote in 1970: “The object of education was to provide boys with enough knowledge to keep them within their social class.”

And so it did. Examiner Charles Claydon reported later: “In short I was thoroughly satisfied with the whole examinations; and cannot but think that the instruction communicated is most admirably adapted to prepare pupils to acquit themselves in the best manner in those situations in life they may later occupy.”

When Graham died the parishioners of Rochester raised a memorial. In 1970, wrote Master Gutteridge, it was in the storerooms of SPCK bookshop (which St Nicholas Church became). I wonder if it’s still there?

School magazines are a fund of history — social as well as educational; they are also a good source of embarrassment and occasionally pride. Do you have any Medway school mags that you would like to share with readers? Please email me here.

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