How Yorkshire MP ‘Buckshot’ Forster brought mass education to the nation

William Edward Forster playing a leading role in bringing in universal education to England and wales. Picture courtesy of Bradford Council.
William Edward Forster playing a leading role in bringing in universal education to England and wales. Picture courtesy of Bradford Council.
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A major new exhibition opening this month is to examine how a Bradford MP played a leading role in bringing education to the masses 150 years ago. Chris Burn reports.

William Edward Forster was one of the most significant and controversial politicians of his age, earning the nickname ‘Buckshot Forster’ after claiming police using it to fire upon protesters in Ireland was “humane”.

The Bradford MP’s contentious time as Chief Secretary of Ireland from 1880 to 1882 saw the Liberal statesman approve of extensive land tenure reform but when faced with demands to go further and rent strikes by tenant farmers, he was involved with the introduction of a Coercion Act which saw almost 1,000 people detained without trial for being suspected of involvement in what became known as the ‘Land War’.

His life was in constant danger and four days after he resigned as Chief Secretary in protest at the release of a group of Irish Nationalist leaders from prison, his successor Lord Frederick Cavendish was murdered in Dublin - with Forster offering to return to the post but being declined. Forster died in 1886 as an avid opponent of Home Rule for Ireland.

But while the latter part of his career tends to dominate his mentions in the history books, a new exhibition will examine a very different part of his political legacy - his role in introducing new national standards for education that were the foundation for the primary school system we have today.

Forster was born in Devon but became involved in woollen manufacture in Burley-in-Wharfedale and became known as a ‘practical philanthropist’ after witnessing the Irish famine at first-hand following a visit there with his father to distribute aid.

After being elected as an MP in 1861, he began in 1866 to demand universal education as an essential complement of parliamentary reform and two years later was tasked with preparing what became known as the Elementary Education Act. It passed in 1870 and became commonly known as Forster’s Education Act. It aimed to combat the horrific child labour conditions of the era and to educate a new workforce for the emerging manufacturing economy.

The act was not universally welcomed, with some concerned that mass education could increase the chances of the labouring classes revolting while many factory owners feared losing children as a source of cheap labour.

But within a decade of the act being passed, thousands of new schools had been created around the country and education to the age of 10 became compulsory everywhere in England and Wales.

However, the provisions of the act were a matter of contention in Wales where children were taught in English despite many of them not knowing the language.

The history of Forster’s work - and how it was followed up down the years in the city where he was an MP - is now the subject of a new exhibition called Educating Bradford that will run at Bradford Industrial Museum from February 15 until November 8.

The family friendly displays celebrate 150 years of innovation in education in Bradford, from 1870 to the present day.

The exhibits will show how modern teaching methods are still influenced by 19th and 20th century educational and child healthcare reforms.

The exhibition is inspired by the landmark book Education in Bradford 1870-1970 which provided a detailed description and celebration of learning in the city and this year marks the 50th anniversary of its publication.

Councillor Sarah Ferriby, Bradford Council’s Executive Member for Healthy People and Places, says: “This is a fascinating exhibition charting Bradford’s role in education from the Forster’s 1870 Act to more recent developments. We seem to take the free education of our children for granted and this exhibition helps us to realise how far we have come over the last 150 years.”