This time of year marks graduation for many—from high school, from trade school, from college or graduate school. Some will wear gowns in their school colors; others will wear somber black. In the nineteenth century, students attending school at Christ’s Hospital wore blue.
The Bluecoat School, as it was called, opened for both boys and girls in 1552. It was designed to educate and house London’s poor children, but students came from all England and Wales, and a few came from Ireland and Scotland. An average of 1,500 students were enrolled each year. It must have been a frugal operation: in 1815, it cost about 22 pounds per year per child to house, feed, clothe, and educate the students.
So let’s say you’re a child of a poor family, and your mother would like to see you have a chance to do something better in life by attending the Bluecoat School. First, she had to petition a member of the board of governors (who were generally officials with the City of London) or some wealthy person with influence at the school (a benefactor) for help. She had to gather birth and baptismal records, a sworn statement from your parish minister, and statements from witnesses that proved you were the right age and in a “destitute condition.” The board member or benefactor brought the proof to the board, who reviewed and approved these presentation papers, at which point your family was notified.
On a set day, Mother brought you down to the school and turned you over to the registrar. I imagine there must have been some teary-eyed farewells at that point. Much as if you were entering prison, the registrar recorded your name in a book and gave you a new set of clothes that consisted of a long blue coat close to the body, a yellow underskirt, yellow stockings, and a flat, round worsted cap. That’s what you wore the remainder of your time in the school, up to age sixteen.
At first, boys and girls were educated in the same school, but just before the beginning of the nineteenth century, the girls were moved out of London to Hertfordshire, and some of the youngest boys (under age 10) joined them shortly afterward. It appears the girls were taught to go into service or trade, but the boys in London were educated in the classics, including learning Latin. The school also housed the Royal Mathematical School to train mathematicians and teach naval officers navigation. Sir Isaac Newton, John Flamsteed the first Astronomer Royal, and Edmund Halley (who first computed the orbit of Halley’s comet) helped build the study materials.
The Bluecoat School was much patronized by the aristocracy and nobility. It operated under Royal Charter, and noted architects Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor (I so want to steal his name for a hero!), designed the buildings after many of the originals were destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The wealthy even left money to the school in their wills. Famous students include critic and writer James Leigh Hunt, essayist Charles Lamb, and the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
So, if you are graduating or have graduated, congratulations! Aren’t you glad you didn’t have to do it in a blue coat and yellow stockings?
P.S. Can't wait to discuss Cotillion next week!