Educational History: Andrew Bell 1753 to 1832

Andrew Bell (1753 to 1832) was a Scottish Anglican priest and educationalist Founder of the Madras system of education (also known as “the monitorial system”) in schools and was the founder of Madras College, a secondary school in St. Andrews. Born 27 March 1753, he was the second son of a barber in St Andrews where a college in the university is still named after him to this day  Madras College.


Andrew Bell

His father was well educated and of great mechanical ingenuity, and known for being a good chess player.  His mother was the descendant of a Dutchman who came over with William III.  His mother came to an unfortunate end and died by her own hand.  Bell is said to have inherited a quick temper and a good deal of eccentricity.


His schooling began when he was four years old, and no doubt a great part of the energy with which he was to take up the subject of education was due to a recollection of the cruel discipline to which he had been subjected.  In 1769 he entered St Andrews University, holding a family bursary, and partly supported himself by private teaching.  He distinguished himself in mathematics and natural philosophy, subjects to which he was influenced by one of his professors, Dr Wilkie, the author of The Eigoniad.


Little is known of his college days.  In 1774 he travelled to Virginia, where he lived as a tutor in a planter’s family, and doing a little business in tobacco for his own interests.  He returned home in 1781, bringing his two pupils with him where he continued to tutor them for several years at St Andrews.


He then took orders in the church of England, and for a short time officiated in the Episcopal Chapel of Leith.  In 1787 he sailed for India, after receiving from his university the complimentary degree of DD (D.D. or DD, Divinitatis Doctor in Latin).  Within two years he succeeded through persistence and perseverance (the motto of Leith), in getting appointed to eight army chaplainships, all of which he held simultaneously.  The salaries were considerable, but the duties were so light as to leave him practically free for other work.


His intention was to settle in Calcutta, and as a first step he delivered some scientific lectures, which attracted a good deal of attention; but he was soon diverted from everything else to the subject which filled his mind for the rest of his life.  In 1789 he accepted the post of superintendent of the Madras Male Orphan Asylum, an institution founded in that year by the East India Company for the education of the illegitimate and orphaned sons of military men.  In February 1787 he went out to India and went ashore at Madras, where he stayed for 10 years.


A marked feature in Bell’s character was his love of money; but for once he declined to take any salary out of the limited funds of the charity.  The work presented peculiar difficulties; for the teachers were ill paid and inefficient, and the mixed race children little amenable to such cultural assimilation.  With such problems, the school made slow progress for some time.


He claimed to see some Malabar children teaching others the alphabet by drawing in sand and decided to develop a similar method, putting more advanced children in charge of those who were less advanced. He was opposed to corporal punishment and used a system of rewards.


Andrew Bell

It occurred to him that the teaching of the alphabet might be done by the pupils themselves, and by choosing a clever boy of eight, placed him in charge of the lowest class to each by writing on sand.  The experiment succeeded, and its success opened out to Dr. Bell the value of the system of mutual instruction, a theory and practice which was to influence the whole world and define many efficiency practices in educational institutions.  A schoolmaster would teach a small group of brighter or older pupils basic lessons, and each of them would then relate the lesson to another group of children.


From the alphabet he extended it to other subjects.  Soon almost every boy was alternately a master and a scholar; and so far as possible even the arrangements of the school were carried out by the boys.  This is reminiscent of the educational theory and discovery of Maria Montessori.


Increased rapidity of acquisition and a healthier moral tone convinced him that he had discovered a new method of education.I think, he said, ˜I have made a great progress in a very difficult attempt, and almost wrought a complete change in the morals and character of a generation of boys. (For details of his labours in the Madras school see, besides his own account, vol i, of his Life by Southey; see also Miss Edgeworth’s Lame Jervas.)


His health suffering, Bell gave up his work for a time, and sailed for England in 1796. Though he had gone out nine years before with only 128 pounds, 10 shillings, he had prospered so greatly and invested so well that on his return he had accrued more than 25,000 pounds. Soon after arriving in England he abandoned his intention of returning to India, and received from the East India Company a pension of 200 pounds a year.  Before leaving India he had drawn up a final report for the directors of the school, in which he summed up its history and gave an account of his methods of education.


In order, as he said, to fix the authenticity of his system and to establish its originality, he published this report in 1797, together with some other documents relating to the school, under the title, An Experiment in Education made at the Male Asylum of Madras; suggesting a system by which a school or family may teach itself under the superintendence of the master or parent.


In 1798 the new system was introduced into the protestant charity school of St. Botolphs, Aldgate, and next year into the industrial schools at Kendal.  Bell himself pushed it in several places; but it had made comparatively little way before a young quaker, Joseph Lancaster, published in 1803 a pamphlet describing a plan of education which he had followed in his own school in the Borough Road, London, in which the employment of monitors formed a principal part.


He had read Bell’s report, and in his pamphlet acknowledges that he had derived man useful hints from it, though he had already thought out, independently, a scheme of mutual instruction.  And Bell, in 1804, admitted that his rival had displayed much originality in applying and amending the system.


The tone of both soon changed.  Influenced by Mrs. Trimmer, who pointed out that the church of England would suffer by the success of Lancaster, who, she said, had been building on Bell’s foundation, he began to speak ungenerously of Lancaster’s work.  Lancaster retaliated by proclaiming himself the inventor of the system.  Their friends took up this quarrel of Bel and the Dragon and it was called in a caricature of the time, the church party taking Bell’s side, and Lancaster receiving the support of those who wished to make education religious but not sectarian.


In form the question at issue was which of the two had been the originator of the common system, but in substance, it was whether the church should henceforth control the education of the people; and consequently no settlement was possible.  To show the manner in which the controversy was carried on, it will suffice to quote what Southey thought of Lancaster:


The good which he has done, he says,  is very great, but it is pretty much in the way that the devil has been the cause of Redemption (Letter, ii. 255. See article in favour of Lancaster, Edin. Rev. November 1810; and article by Southey in favour of Bell, Quar. Rev. October 1811, afterwards published under the title, Origin, Nature, and Object of the New System of Education).


At the first cry of the church in danger, Bell had taken up in earnest the work of education.  He was rector of Swanage, in Dorset, a living which he had obtained in 1801; but he left his parish pretty much to itself, while he gave his assistance in organising schools on the new system.  His work lay chiefly among the elementary schools; but in some cases, as in Christ’s Hospital, the mutual method was adopted with apparently satisfactory results in teaching the rudiments of the classical languages a new field which henceforth engrossed much of his attention (see his Ludus Literarius).


The establishment of technical schools was also within his plan, and he was not deterred by the favourite objection that the training of tailors and shoemakers would injure trade (Life by Southey, ii, 202).


Not satisfied with mere isolated efforts, he advocated a scheme of national education (Sketch of a National Institution, 1808), which, as he conceived it, could be carried out most speedily and economically be means of the existing organisation of the church, the schools to be under the direction of the parochial clergy.  But people were not ready for such a step.


In 1807, indeed, Mr Whitbread’s Education Bill had passed the House of commons, but evidently on the faith that the lords would throw it out (Life of Romilly, ii 67).  On the one hand the dissenters were too powerful to suffer education to pass into the hands of the church, and on the other the opinion was still widespread 0 was held even by Bell himself “ that the poor should not be educated overmuch (see the passage, together with his later explanation of it, in Elements of Tuition, pt, ii 416).


Despairing of state help, the church party in 1811 formed the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church throughout England and Wales, which in 1817 was incorporated by royal charter, and which is still a flourishing institution.  Bell was appointed superintendent, with the fullest powers to carry out the Madras system, and having already in 1809 exchanged his living at Swanage for the mastership of Sherburn Hospital, in Durham, which did not require residence, he was able to devote his whole time to the work.


Henceforth his life was identified with the history of the society.  Its progress was rapid, and within Bell’s lifetime the number of its schools exceeded 12,000.  The bulk of the work of organisation fell on Bell’s shoulders, and he laboured indefatigably, finding teachers, training them at the central school in London, constantly moving through England and Wales, visiting Ireland, and trying though with little success, to plant the system in Scotland.


In 1816 he made a journey abroad to spread his ideas, and met Pestalozzi, whom he describes as a man of genius, benevolence, and enthusiasm; but the British and Foreign School Society (which had developed out of the Royal Lancasterian Institution) had been beforehand, and though his methods were adopted in several places he never exercised much direct influence on the continent.


When Horace Man made his educational tour in 1843, he found a few monitorial schools in France, and some mere vestiges of the plan in the poor schools of Prussia. But nothing of it remains, he says, in Holland, or in many of the German states.  It has been abolished in these countries by a universal public opinion (H. Mann’s Tour, ed. Hodgson, P.44).


Though he never made any serious change in the Madras system, Bell was ever on the outlook for ways of improving it in detail, laying special stress on the necessity of doing away with corporal punishment, and on the importance of teaching reading and writing simultaneously, on a plan which was known as ILTO.  The name, made up of the simplest letters of the alphabet, was intended to convey the further idea that all instruction should proceed form the easy to the difficult.  (for a summary of the general plan adopted in the National Society’s schools see Bartleys Schools for the People, P. 50).


Towards the schoolmasters under him he played the part of a despot, sternly repressing every attempt to deviate from his own methods, and enforcing obedience by threats of diminishing their salaries; and his perpetual interference, together with his harsh and overbearing manner, made him, says his secretary, almost universally dreaded and disliked.  His ideal, in short, was to turn elementary schools into insturing machines, whose automatic action the teacher should not disturb.  He inspired others with his enthusiasm.  Wordsworth and Coleridge encouraged him; Southey had the most extravagant belief in him; and every year saw the number of his schools increasing.


His services in the cause of education were certainly great; but the actual results achieved were less valuable than he or his friends supposed.  After Bell’s death the schools of the society were examined by government inspectors.  The teachers, it was found, were inefficient and ignorant; the use of monitors required that the instruction should be almost entirely by rote, and on its moral side the system led to evil, encouraging favouritism and petty forms of corruption; and the schools were generally in a deplorable state in every part of England (See Report of the Education Commission, 1861, p 98, and Essays by the Central Society of Education, vol. I)


Bell exaggerated both the novelty and the value of this system, mutuality can be seen as an integral part of all education.  For cases in which it had been applied before his time, and particularly for the work of the Chavalier Paulet,  see American Journal of Education, June 1861, and La Bordes Plan Education, chap. I).


It greatly diminished the cost of teaching, and led up to the later pupil-teacher system, which dates from 1846; it was capable of being usefully applied to certain parts of school-work; and it fostered the habit of self-help and the feeling of responsibility.  But as a complete system of education it failed.


Bell ignored the powerful influence which the full grown mind can exert on children; and, following out a good idea in a pedantic manner, he may be said to have as much retarded education in one way as he forwarded it in others.  The monitorial system is discussed in most books on teaching: e.g. in Curries Common School Education, p. 157; see also Donaldsons Lectures, p. 60, Stows Training System of Education, p313, Essays on Education by the Central Society, i. 339, Dr Potter’s The School and the Schoolmaster, p 222, Horace Mann’s Tour, Hodgson’s ed. P. 44. Dr. Hodgson mentions, as containing a fair comparative estimate of the system, Beneke’s Erzihungs-und Unterrichtslehre).


In 1800 Bell married a Miss Agnes Barclay, daughter of a Scotch doctor; but the marriage proved unhappy, and ended in a separation.  De Quincey, in his Essay on Coleridge, gives an account of the persecution to which Bell was subjected by his wife; but one can well believe that the husband, a vain, imperious man, with a tendency to miserliness, was more than half to blame.

Andew Bell Westminster

In recognition of his public services he was elected a member of several learned societies, including the Asiatic Society and the Royal Society of Edinburgh; he received the degree of LL.D. (LL.D. Doctor of Laws in English) from his own university; in 1818 he was rewarded with a stall in Hereford Cathedral; and in the following year he was made a prebendary of Westminister.  During his last years he was much troubled about the disposal of his money.  He resolved to devote it to the support of institutions which should carry out his educational theories; but he seemed to have great difficulty in fixing upon the objects of his bounty.


In 1831, deciding finally in favour of his own country, he transferred 120,000 pounds to trustees, halaf of it to go to St. Andrews, the other half to be divided equally between Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leith, Aberdeen, Inverness, and Royal Naval School in London.  In 1831 was established under his direction, in Edinburgh, the Bell Lecture on education, out of which have since grown the chairs of education, founded by the Bell trustees and aided by a government grant, in Edinburgh and St Andrews universities. He left substantial sums of money for educational purposes but with what many considered unreasonable conditions attached.


His writings were to him an object of as much care as was his money.  His desire was that they should be collected and edited by Southey and Wordsworth; but this was never done.  An abridged edition was published by Bishop Russell of Glasgow.  Bell died at Cheltenham, where he had resided for some years, on 27 January 1832, and was buried with great ceremony in Westminster Abbey.


His writings include:

  • An Experiment in Education,&c. 1797; 2nd ed., with an exposition of his system, 1805; 3rd ed., An Analysis of the Experiment in Education, &c. 1807; 4th ed., with an account of the application of the system to English schools, 1808
  • A sermon on the Education of the Poor, 1807
  • A Sketch of a National Institution for Training up the Children of the Poor in the Principles of our Holy Religion and in Habits of Useful Industry, 1808
  • National Education, 1812
  • Elements of Tuition, in three parts. Part I. A reprint of the Experiment, 1813; part II., ˜The English School; or the History, Analysis, and Application of the Madras System of Education to English Schools, from the fourth edition of the Experiment, 1814; part III., Ludus Literarius; the Classical and Grammar School; or an Exposition of an Experiment in Education made at Madras in the years 1789-96, with a view to its Introduction into Schools for the Higher Orders of Children, and with particular suggestions for its application to a Grammar School, 1815
  • Instructions for Conducting Schools through the Agency of the Scholars themselves,… compiled chiefly from Elements of Tuition; described as sixth edition, enlarged (i.e. of the Experiment), 1817
  • The Vindication of Children, 1819
  • Letters to the Right Hon. Sir John Sinclair, Bart., on the Infant School Society at Edinburgh, the Scholastic Institutions of Scotland, &c., 1829. In the advertisement of this pamphlet are mentioned also a Manual of Public and Private Education, 1823, abbreviated 1827, and an account of his continental tour.

Southey’s Life of Bell, 3 vols.  Only the first volume was written by Southey; the work was finished by his son, Cuthbert Southey.  About a third of each volume is made up of correspondence.  It is the most rigorous of biographies filled with vast details.  A short life, containing everything of importance has been written by Prof. Meiklejohn under the title An Old Educational Reformer.