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Significant Scots
Andrew Bell


BELL, ANDREW, D.D., author of the "Madras System of Education," was born at St Andrews, in 1753, and educated at the university of that place. The circumstances of his early life, and even the date of his entering into holy orders, are not known; but it is stated that he was remarkable in youth for the exemplary manner in which he fulfilled every public and private duty. After having spent some time in America, we find him, in 1786, officiating as one of the ministers of St Mary’s, at Madras, and one of the chaplains of Fort St George.

In that year, the Directors of the East India Company sent out orders to Madras, that a seminary should be established there, for the education and maintenance of the orphans and distressed male children of the European military. The proposed institution was at first limited to the support of a hundred orphans: half the expense was defrayed by the Company, and half by voluntary subscriptions; and the Madras Government appropriated Egmore Redoubt for the use of the establishment. The superintendence of this asylum was undertaken by Dr Bell, who, having no object in view but the gratification of his benevolence, refused the salary of 1200 pagodas (L.480) which was attached to it. "Here," he reasoned with himself, "is a field for a clergyman, to animate his exertion, and encourage his diligence. Here his Success is certain, and will be in proportion to the ability he shall discover, the labour he shall bestow, and the means he shall employ. It is by instilling principles of religion and morality into the minds of the young, that he can best accomplish the ends of his ministry: it is by forming them to habits of diligence, industry, veracity, and honesty, and by instructing them in useful knowledge, that he can best promote their individual interest, and serve the state to which they belong,—two purposes which cannot, in sound policy, or even in reality, exist apart."

With these feelings, and with this sense of duty, Dr Bell began his task. He had to work upon the most unpromising materials, but the difficulties he had to encounter led to that improvement in education with which his name is connected. Failing to retain the services of properly qualified ushers, he resorted to the expedient of conducting his school through the medium of the scholars themselves. It is in the mode of conducting a school by means of mutual instruction, that the discovery of Dr Bell consists; and its value, as an abbreviation of the mechanical part of teaching, and where large numbers were to be taught economically, could not be easily overestimated at the time, although later educationalists have improved upon the plan, and the Madras system is now less in use than formerly. The first new practice which Dr Bell introduced into his school, was that of teaching the letters, by making the pupils trace them in sand, as he bad seen children do in a Malabar school. The next improvement was the practice of syllabic reading. The child, after he had learned to read and spell monosyllables, was not allowed to pronounce two syllables till he acquired by long practice a perfect precision. From the commencement of his experiment, he made the scholars, as far as possible, do everything for themselves: they ruled their own paper, made their own pens, &c., with the direction only of their teacher. The maxim of the school was, that no boy could do anything right the first time, but he must learn when he first set about it, by means of his teacher, so as to be able to do it himself ever afterwards. Every boy kept a register of the amount of work which he performed, so that his diligence at different times might be compared. There was also a black book, in which all offences were recorded: this was examined once a-week; and Dr Bell’s custom, in almost every case of ill behaviour, was to make the boys themselves judges of the offender. He never had reason, he says, to think their decision impartial, biassed, or unjust, or to interfere with their award, otherwise than to mitigate or remit the punishment, when he thought the formality of the trial, and of the sentence, was sufficient to produce the effect required. But the business of the teachers was to preclude punishment, by preventing faults; and so well was this object attained that for months together, it was not found necessary to inflict a single punishment.

An annual saving of not less than 960, upon the education and support of two hundred boys, was produced in the institution at Madras, by Dr Bell’s regulations and improvements. This, however, he justly regarded as an incidental advantage; his grand aim was to redeem the children from the stigma under which they laboured, and the fatal effect which that stigma produced; and to render them good subjects, good men, and good Christians. After superintending the school for seven years, he found it necessary for his health, to return to Europe. The directors of the charity passed a resolution for providing him a passage in any ship which he might wish to sail in, declaring, at the same time, that, under "the wise and judicious regulations which he had established, the institution had been brought to a degree of perfection and promising utility, far exceeding what the most sanguine hopes could have suggested at the time of its establishment; and that he was entitled to their fullest approbation, for his zealous and disinterested conduct." The language in which Dr Bell spoke of the institution on leaving it, will not be read without emotion, by those who are capable of appreciating what is truly excellent in human nature. During seven years which he had devoted to this office, he had "seen the vices incident to the former situation of these orphans gradually vanishing, their morals and conduct approaching nearer and nearer every year to what he wished them to be, and the character of a race of children in a manner changed." "This numerous family," said he, "I have long regarded as my own. These children are, indeed, mine by a thousand ties! I have for them a parental affection, which has grown upon me every year. For them I have made such sacrifices as parents have not always occasion to make for their children; and the nearer the period approaches when I must separate myself from them, the more I feel the pang I shall suffer in tearing myself from this charge, and the anxious thoughts I shall throw back upon these children, when I shall cease to be their protector, their guide, and their instructor." Eleven years after he had left India, Dr Bell received a letter, signed by forty-four of these pupils, expressing, in the strongest terms, their gratitude for the instruction and care which he had bestowed upon them in childhood.

On his arrival in Europe, Dr Bell published, in 1797, a pamphlet, entitled "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." The first place in England where the system was adopted, was the charity school of St Botolph’s, Aldgate. Dr Briggs, then of Kendal, the second who profited by Dr Bell’s discovery, introduced it into the Kendal schools of industry. These occurrences took place in 1798. In 1801, the system was fully and successfully acted upon in the schools of the Society for bettering the condition of the poor.

In 1808, Mr Joseph Lancaster first appeared before the public. He published a pamphlet with the following title—"Improvements in Education, as it respects the Industrious Classes of the Community; containing a short Account of its Present State, Hints towards its Improvement, and a detail of some Practical Experiments conducive to that End." "The institution," he says, "which a benevolent Providence has been pleased to make me the happy instrument of bringing into usefulness, was begun in the year l798. The intention was to afford the children of mechanics, &c., instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic, at about half the usual price. The peculiarity of his plan seems to have consisted, chiefly, in introducing prizes and badges of merit, together with a mode of teaching spelling, which was said to economize time and trouble: he also called in the assistance of boys, as monitors. In his pamphlet of 1803, he freely accords to Bell the priority of the mutual system, acknowledging also that the published account of it had furnished him with several useful hints. Eventually, Mr Lancaster put forward a claim, obviously unfounded, to be considered the sole inventor of the system. One of his advertisements in the newspapers was thus introduced:—"Joseph Lancaster, of the Free School, Borough Road, London, having invented, under the blessing of Divine Providence, a new and mechanical system of education for the use of schools, feels anxious to disseminate the knowledge of its advantages through the united kingdom. By this system, paradoxical as it may appear, above 1000 children may be taught and governed by one master only." And on another occasion he writes:—"I stand forward before the public, at the bar of mankind, to the present, and for the future ages, avowing myself the inventor of the British or Royal Lancasterian System." (Morning Post, 4th September.) Again: "I submit the plan, original as it is, to the country. The same cannot be found in any other work, unless copied or pirated." (Preface to edition of 1808.)

But however unfounded Lancaster’s claim to originality may be, there can be no doubt that, through his exertions chiefly, the system was extensively reduced to practice in England. Belonging to the sect of Quakers, a body whose exertions in the cause of philanthropy are universally known, he did not apply to them in vain for pecuniary support and personal exertion. Lancasterian schools were rapidly established in all parts of the kingdom.

Dr Bell lived long enough to witness the introduction of his system into 12,973 national schools, educating 900,000 of the children of his English countrymen, and to know that it was employed extensively in almost every other civilized country. He acquired in later life the dignity of a prebendary of Westminster, and was master of Sherborn hospital, Durham. He was also a member of the Asiatic Society, and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He employed himself during his latter years in writing several works on education, among which the most valuable were, "The Elements of Tuition," "The English School," and a "Brief Manual of Mutual Instruction and Discipline." The evening of his pious and useful life was spent at Cheltenham, in the practice of every social and domestic virtue. Previously to his death he bestowed 120,000, three per cent, stock, for the purpose of founding an academy on an extensive and liberal scale in his native city. He also bequeathed a considerable sum for purposes of education in Edinburgh; which, however, to the everlasting disgrace of the individuals intrusted with the public affairs of that city at the time, was compromised among the general funds of that corporation, a few months before its bankruptcy.

Dr Bell died on the 27th of January, 1832, in the eightieth year of his age, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of London acting as chief mourners.


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