Education in 1895

Greghamstown SchoolWhen we say that our ancestor only went to 3rd Year of high school (or whatever), what do we mean? It’s important to understand what was being taught in schools in those days before we pass judgement on the education our ancestors were given.

I was driven to think about this topic by a post I saw in Psychology Today entitled Can You Pass This Final 8th-Grade Exam from 1895? Admittedly, a lot of the terminology has changed since those days. We don’t measure wheat in bushels or coal in pounds or distance in rods or area in acres. We also don’t study grammar and orthography as they did then.

Here’s the exam in full:

This is the eighth-grade final exam from 1895 in Salina , Kansas , USA. These questions were taken from the original examination on file at the Smokey Valley Genealogical Society and Library in Salina , Kansas.

Take the test and see if you would have graduated with the eighth grade class in 1895.

GRAMMAR (Time, one hour)
1. Give nine rules for the use of capital letters.
2. Name the parts of speech and define those that have no modifications
3. Define verse, stanza and paragraph.
4. What are the principal parts of a verb? Give principal parts of ‘lie,’ ‘play,’ and ‘run’
5. Define case; illustrate each case.
6 What is punctuation? Give rules for principal marks of punctuation..
7 – 10. Write a composition of about 150 words and show therein that you understand the practical use of the rules of grammar.

ARITHMETIC (Time,1 hour 15 minutes)
1. Name and define the Fundamental Rules of Arithmetic.
2. A wagon box is 2 ft. Deep, 10 feet Long, and 3 ft. Wide. How many bushels of wheat will it hold?
3. If a load of wheat weighs 3,942 lbs, what is it worth at 50cts/bushel, deducting 1,050 lbs for tare?
4. District No 33 has a valuation of $35,000. What is the necessary levy to carry on a school seven months at $50 per month, and have $104 for incidentals?
5. Find the cost of 6,720 lbs. coal at $6.00 per ton.
6. Find the interest of $512.60 for 8 months and 18 days at 7 percent per annum.
7. What is the cost of 40 boards 12 inches wide and 16 ft long at $20 per metre?
8… Find bank discount on $300 for 90 days (no grace) at 10 percent.
9. What is the cost of a square farm at $15 per acre, the distance of which is 640 rods?
10. Write a Bank Check, a Promissory Note, and a Receipt.

U.S. HISTORY (Time, 45 minutes)
1. Give the epochs into which U.S. History is divided
2. Give an account of the discovery of America by Columbus .
3.. Relate the causes and results of the Revolutionary War.
4. Show the territorial growth of the United States …
5. Tell what you can of the history of Kansas
6. Describe three of the most prominent battles of the Rebellion.
7. Who were the following: Morse, Whitney, Fulton, Bell, Lincoln, Penn, and Howe?
8. Name events connected with the following dates: 1607, 1620, 1800, 1849, 1865.

ORTHOGRAPHY (Time, one hour) * Do you even know what this is?

1. What is meant by the following: alphabet, phonetic, orthography, etymology, syllabication?
2. What are elementary sounds? How classified?
3. What are the following, and give examples of each: trigraph, subvocals, diphthong, cognate letters, linguals?
4. Give four substitutes for caret ‘u’.
5. Give two rules for spelling words with final ‘e.’ Name two exceptions under each rule.
6. Give two uses of silent letters in spelling. Illustrate each.
7 Define the following prefixes and use in connection with a word: bi, dis, pre, semi, post, non, inter, mono, sup.
8. Mark diacritically and divide into syllables the following, and name the sign that indicates the sound: card, ball, mercy, sir, odd, cell, rise, blood, fare, last.
9. Use the following correctly in sentences: cite, site, sight, fane, fain, feign, vane, vain, vein, raze, raise, rays.
10. Write 10 words frequently mispronounced and indicate pronunciation by use of diacritical marks and by syllabication.

GEOGRAPHY (Time, one hour)
1 What is climate? Upon what does climate depend?
2. How do you account for the extremes of climate in Kansas ?
3. Of what use are rivers? Of what use is the ocean?
4. Describe the mountains of North America .
5. Name and describe the following: Monrovia , Odessa , Denver , Manitoba , Hecla , Yukon , St.. Helena, Juan Fernandez, Aspinwall and Orinoco .
6. Name and locate the principal trade centers of the U.S. Name all the republics of Europe and give the capital of each..
8. Why is the Atlantic Coast colder than the Pacific in the same latitude?
9. Describe the process by which the water of the ocean returns to the sources of rivers.
10. Describe the movements of the earth. Give the inclination of the earth.

We can see the emphasis on the rules of grammar and orthography. We can also see the emphasis on the knowledge that an adult in Kansas was likely to need.

I’d love to be able to find an equivalent exam for New South Wales. If I find one I’ll be sure to post it here.

What do you think? Would you pass this exam?

Photo of Greghamstown School, taken by the author in 2008.


Researching Schools in NSW

Greghamstown School

Greghamstown School

Where did your ancestors go to school? Did they go to school at all? How long did they go to school, and what was being taught at the time?

To understand your ancestor it’s important to know what sort of education was available at that time and in that area, if any.

Historical context

First we need to know something of the educational system in New South Wales. Here is a brief timeline of some milestones in the history of education in New South Wales.

1788 – no provision for education of the children of convicts or soldiers.

early 1800s – only schools were private “academies” and “public” schools subsidies or fully-funded by government but run by the Anglican Church.

1801 – Female Orphan School founded to prepare destitute girls for domestic service.

1819 – Male Orphan School founded for destitute boys.

1826-1833 – Clergy and Schools Corporation, run by Anglican Church and funded by grant of one seventh of all land in the Colony. Unpopular with other denominations and private landholders. Repealed in 1833.

1844 – Select Committee found only half of all children going to school.

1848 – Board of National Education introduced government education system. Local communities had to contribute one third of building costs, pay school fees and provide committee to run the school. New National Schools were built mostly in country areas where no schools currently existed provided a minimum of 30 pupils were enrolled, and fees paid.

1866Public Schools Act – restrictions on denominational schools, inspection of schools. National Schools became Public Schools, with minimum of 25 pupils. Provisional Schools, where the number was reduced even further, and Half-Time Schools, where a single teacher had to cover two schools, also introduced. The number of schools increased dramatically in the country, where they were most needed.

1870s – school available to almost all children but many attended irregularly or for brief periods. Most denominational schools except Catholic had closed or become government schools.

1880Public Instruction Act made attendance at school compulsory for 6-14 year olds. Secondary education introduced to prepare for university, with high fees. Funding was withdrawn from denominational schools resulting in the closure or absorption of many of them. New types of schools were introduced. Superior Public Schools combined primary and secondary education. High Schools were purely secondary schools, with high fees and low enrolments, intended to prepare students for university. Evening Public Schools were intended to cater for young people who had missed out on an education before it became compulsory, and ran at night. replaced the Council of Education with the Department of Public Instruction.

1890s – economic depression reduced spending on school buildings and many teachers retrenched, resulting in large class sizes in poor classrooms.

1904New Syllabus introduced – learning by doing.

1911 – High School fees abolished. Intermediate Certificate after two years of High School, and Leaving Certificate after a further two years.

1920s – more pre-vocational and academic courses introduced in High Schools

1914-1945 – World Wars and Great Depression reduce funding for schools and teachers

1961 - Wyndham Scheme introduced – Four years of High School for School Certificate, further two years for Higher School Certificate.

Local schools

Now we need to find out what schools were available for our ancestors to attend in the area in which they lived.

The NSW Department of Education and Training has an online index to Government schools of New South Wales from 1848. A search of the database will give a list of schools containing the search-term, ie a place name, and the type of school, years of operation, alternative names, and the county in which it is situated.

Here is an example:

Government Schools since 1848 Search for Blayney

We can see that the dates for the different schools in Blayney are consecutive, so they all likely refer to the same school, with name changes reflecting the different stages of the public education system in NSW.

Keep in mind how far the children may have had to travel to get to school, and that they may have walked, or rode, many miles to attend school each day, especially in country areas.

Clicking on the type of school takes you to the Glossary of Schools. The Glossary of Schools explains the different types of schools, and makes interesting reading in its own right.

School history

Once you have found likely schools for the area you can trace their history. If you are lucky there will be a published account of the school, often published to coincide with the centenary or other anniversary of the school’s foundation.

State Records New South Wales holds the files that relate to the establishment, maintenance, and staffing of most schools. The files may contain plans of the site and drawings of buildings, so that you can see what the school may have looked like even if it no longer exists. They are available for inspection at the Western Sydney Reading Room at Kingswood.

To find out what records are available for your school search the Schools index. Here are the search results for Blayney:

SRNSW School search Blayney

You can see that the files are all administrative files, and that there are none before 1876.

To take another example, the school in the photograph is in Greghamstown, near Blayney. The Government Schools of New South Wales from 1848 search shows me that there was a Provisional School from August 1871. It closed in December 1872. A Public School opened in May 1875 and closed in Dec 1947. There are no further entries, accounting for the emptiness of the building in the photo.

A search of State Records NSW Schools Index has hit the jackpot!

SRNSW schools search Greghamstown

There is usually very little in these files relating to individual pupils, although there may occasionally be lists of parents requesting establishment of a school, or who haven’t paid their fees. For this school, however, there is an admissions register  for 1914 to 1926. If your ancestor lived in this area and was of school age within this period you could be lucky!

More information about the school records held by State Records NSW can be found here, and about records of pupils here.

School has a lasting influence on all of us as we develop into adults and make our way in the world. Discovering the school your ancestors attended and the type of school that it was can tell you a lot about your ancestor.


Burnswood, J. and Fletcher, J. Sydney and the Bush, A pictorial history of education in New South Wales. [Sydney]: New South Wales Department of Education, 1980.

NSW Department of Education and Training. Government schools of New South Wales from 1848.

State Records NSW. State Records Archives Investigator: Activity Detail, School Education\Activity\25.

State Records NSW, Index to Schools and Related Records, 1876-1979. Website at

The dying art of reading handwriting

Spending time in the reading room of State Records NSW at Kingswood and the State Library NSW can be an educational experience.

I sometimes come across university history students looking for convict indent records as part of an assignment, and I help them when I can with the finding and the printing. The surprising thing to me was that they can’t read the records!

It’s not beautiful writing, but that isn’t the problem. The style of writing I was taught at school in the late 1960s was called Modified Cursive. Or running writing. Joined-up writing. The pen doesn’t leave the paper until the end of each word.

Kids don’t seem to learn to write like this at school any more. I have no idea why, but they learn to write in a way that we used to call “printing”. Where each letter is separated from the next. Block letters.

Perhaps it’s easier for kids to learn. Or for teachers to read. They learn to type and use computers and calculators, and never have to write a lot, or write quickly. I don’t know why it changed, or what most of the consequences are.

So what’s going to happen in the future?

We often hear about the Death of Microfilm and how all these records that have been preserved on microfilm will be unreadable in 50 years unless we transfer them to another media because we won’t have microfilm readers, or the spare parts for them.

Never mind the media, it seems to me that even if they are all digitised in the next 5 years we will still have a problem.

Who’s going to be able to read them?

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