During most of the Lancasterian School's existence (1816-1869) at East Marshall and 15th streets, older students taught the younger under the supervision of a few teachers.
The instructional system, named after British Quaker educator John Lancaster, was supposed to encourage initiative and self-reliance while teaching the basics. The school itself, Richmond's first enduring public- education institution, was designed to benefit the city's poor and was accepted because of its inexpensive operation.
The school's primary organizer was Thomas Ritchie, the powerful and unabashedly partisan editor of the thrice-weekly Richmond Enquirer newspaper.
Ritchie was part of the "Richmond Junto," a small group of men who from about 1800 to 1823 controlled the Virginia Democratic-Republican party (now known as the Republican Party) founded by Thomas Jefferson.
Frustrated because Virginia consistently failed to adopt statewide public education (of whites), Jefferson complained in an 1817 letter that "the popularity of ignorance in Virginia is of all shackles the most grievous."
Author Margaret Meagher points out in History of Education in Richmond that it wasn't the acceptance of ignorance that impeded education but "laissez-faire," the tendency in Virginia to leave control of society up to individual initiative and private enterprise.
In the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, historian Barbara J. Griffin explains, "The assumption most typical of this period was that those who could afford it would provide education for their own children by means of tutors or sending them to private academies. In addition, through various forms of private charity, these same people would make
available to the orphaned or poor the rudiments of education."
The intent of educating the poor, Griffin underscores, was not to raise them above their class but to "civilize a potentially disruptive element of the population and to fit them for a self-sustaining trade or vocation."
Accordingly, Ritchie pitched the Lancasterian school on the merits of efficiency and economy. He argued that by "no other method can so many children be taught … for so small a sum of money. For three thousand dollars, we may…educate three hundred children" who had been "roving our streets in idleness and ignorance."
The Oct. 21, 1815, meeting to organize the school took place at Bell Tavern, at the corner of 15th and Main streets. During the session, four people from each city ward were chosen to solicit subscriptions to establish the school. Physician William Foushee, a prominent citizen and previously Richmond's first mayor, chaired the subscription committee. Richmonders collectively gave $3,500 (about $41,000 today), and the city agreed to $600 (around $7,046) a year.
Until the completion of the school, classes convened in the brick Old Market House on 17th Street. Its cornerstone finally laid on June 29, 1816, the school encountered difficulties from the start. A new jail was built across the street, and nearby streams served both it and the school with water.
Students witnessed prisoners in chains, as well as punishment at the whipping-post. And almost every year, the school's trustees pleaded with the city to improve the school's fresh-water supply and the muddy roads around it. As late as 1847, City Council was told that the "little female pupils in rainy weather find it almost impassable."
Paper was scarce, and until the 1820s, slates were unavailable. Instead, the youngest students sat on benches in front of a sand-filled trough, using sharp sticks to trace the shapes of letters. This practice went on until at least the 1850s, since teachers possessed the only books.
Employing the monitoring method, in which older students taught their juniors, boys learned rudimentary grammar, and girls were instructed in needlepoint. But the method was undermined by chronic truancy. Families often kept their boys home for chores and to work in support of the household. In 1844, pupils numbered 200 boys and 150 girls, though there were periodic marches to City Hall to register more students.
After the Lancasterian method was abolished in 1851, the school grew to include 600 pupils, 200 girls among them. An assistant teacher joined the school to allow its sole teacher, also the principal, to give lessons in geography and other subjects. In 1854, it was designated as a high school for meritorious students, and other free schools were established in city wards.
Author Meagher says the presence of the Lancaster school "during its career of three score years" spurred an interest in public education, while providing Richmond's poorest children with at least some educational building blocks.