Educators and Education in
Our Mutual Friend

Kate Carnell Watt

University of California, Riverside

"You reproach me with my origin," said Bradley Headstone; "you cast insinuations at my bringing-up. But I tell you, sir, I have worked my way onward, out of both and in spite of both, and have a right to be considered a better man than you, with better reasons for being proud." (OMF 2.6)

"There are you, Charley, working your way, in secret from father, at the school; and you get prizes; and you go on better and better; and you come to be a -- what was it you called it when you told me about that?"

"Ha, ha! Fortune-telling not know the name!" cried the boy..."Pupil-teacher."

"You come to be a pupil-teacher, and you still go on better and better, and you rise to be a master full of learning and respect." (OMF 1.3)

In making Bradley Headstone and his protege Charley Hexam products of the National schools and the training colleges established in mid-Victorian England, and in setting those characters, morally and dramatically, against another, Eugene Wrayburn, whom he tells us was at public school, Charles Dickens is not simply establishing the kinds of class differences so fruitful of dramatic tension in his other novels. Neither is he simply delineating, in Headstone and Hexam, unsympathetic social climbers whose pretensions to education and respectability deserve to be punctured. Rather, he is making specific reference to social developments contemporaneous with the writing of Our Mutual Friend, developments which included ongoing efforts of government to reduce the wages paid to teachers and apprentices, to undermine the relationship between teacher and pupil-teacher, and generally to diminish the quality of education in state-funded schools for the poor.

The school at which young Charley Hexam had first learned from a book -- the streets being, for pupils of his degree, the great Preparatory Establishment in which very much that is never unlearned is learned without and before book -- was a miserable loft in an unsavoury yard. (OMF 2.1)

As many scholars have noted, Dickens was keenly interested in the education of the poor, inspecting and supporting various kinds of schools as well as writing, in several novels, of Victorian England's educational institutions and their multiple, various, and glaring flaws. By tracing Charley Hexam's progress from ragged school-child to National student to student-teacher and, finally, to a teacher who can aspire to "succeed the master in [his] present school," Dickens represents most of the educational options available to children born into the kind of poverty Charley knew (4.7). Dickens's survey of these options, which focuses on Hexam's career after he comes under the tutelage of Bradley Headstone, makes short work of the kinds of schools where Charley Hexam gets his start, and where many poor children would have gotten their only exposure to formal education; he describes Charley's first school as "a miserable loft in an unsavoury yard, crowded, noisy, and confusing [in which] the teachers had no idea of execution, and a lamentable jumble was the upshot of their kind endeavors" (2.1). While scholars generally agree that this was a "ragged" school, Dickens in fact does not say whether this was a ragged school or one of its near equivalents, the dame school and the common day school.

Ragged schools, which took their name from the fact that they accepted the ill-kempt children of the "perishing and dangerous classes," charged little or nothing and taught in return an extremely limited curriculum, while the dame and common day schools were slightly more discriminating in their admissions and slightly more advanced in their curricular offerings. Dame schools, which in general taught only reading and such subjects as sewing and knitting, and their slightly more advanced competition, the common day schools, which also offered writing, mathematics, history, geography, and needlework, were both unsubsidized and unlicensed by the government, the former generally charging its students about fourpence a week, and the latter between seven and nine pence per week. (Note: when parents had a choice between dame or common schools and the virtually free National schools, they often preferred to send their children to the more expensive, but less formal -- and less culturally alienating -- alternatives. For Hexam, however, alienation from his culture would be one of the National school's most attractive features.)

Charley's first school, whether ragged, dame, or common, sets him on the path to becoming an educator: as Dickens tells us, even in such a poorly run

temple of good intentions, an exceptionally sharp boy exceptionally determined to learn, could learn something, and, having learned it, could impart it much better than the teachers. In this way it had come about that Charley Hexam had risen in the jumble, taught in the jumble, and been received from the jumble into a better school. (2.1)

Importantly, it is because Hexam catches Bradley Headstone's attention that he can leave the "jumble": Headstone sees in Hexam "an undeniable boy for a pupil-teacher; an undeniable boy to do credit to the master who should bring him on." With this in mind, he "work[s] the boy into his own school" and makes him a pupil-teacher (2.I). Dickens offers us the possibility that Headstone was motivated by the memory of himself as a "pauper lad" in his desire to help young Charley, son of a river-scrounger: it must be remembered, however, that Headstone would also have received some financial remuneration for accepting and training a pupil-teacher like Charley, and it is here that the historical context of the novel becomes so relevant, and Dickens's choice of a teacher and pupil-teacher as characters in the mid-1860's becomes so illuminating.

"You can't get blood out of a stone, Riderhood.

"I can get money out of a schoolmaster though."

"You cant get out of me what is not in me. Mine is but a poor calling. You have had two guineas from me, already. Do you know how long it has taken me (allowing for a long and arduous training) to earn such a sum?

"I don't know, nor I don't care. Yours is a 'spectable calling." (OMF 4.15)

In 1864-5, when Our Mutual Friend was being written, Rogue Riderhood would not have been the only person taking money from the pockets of Bradley Headstone: the government itself, which had established both the schools in which he had trained and the school where he taught, was reducing teachers' wages in a variety of ways. The Revised Code, passed in 1861 and implemented (after much protest) in 1862, was intended to cut costs in the National schools for poor children, in part by increasing the fees those children paid to supplement government expenditures. More relevant to the situation of teachers like Headstone and Hexam, the Revised Code also reduced salaries for certificated teachers and pupil-teachers while effecting other changes damaging to teachers' morale, status, and ability to teach effectively.

Prior to the Revised Code, Bradley Headstone, as a certificated teacher, would have earned approximately 95 pounds annually, plus housing and a pension. He would also have received an additional income (approximately 20 pounds annually) for supervising Hexam's training. However, when the Revised Code took effect such supplements were eliminated and, to add insult to injury, teachers like Headstone would have been expected to pay their pupil-teachers' stipends out of their own pockets. Hexam's income for being Headstone's pupil-teacher, then, which would have been approximately fifteen pounds annually prior to 1862, might have dropped to something like 10 pounds (and some teacher-pupils received as little as five pounds annually under this system). At the same time, the training a pupil-teacher like Hexam actually received at the hands of his master-teacher would have been reduced from seven and one half hours to five hours weekly (Smelser, 304). By 1865 male certificated teachers salaries had dropped from 95 pounds, on average, to 85 pounds annually, while women's salaries had dropped from an average of 62 pounds in 1861 to 55 pounds annually in 1865. By way of comparison, at that time a boy Charley's age working in a mill could earn 18 to 22 pounds per year and a man of Headstone's intelligence, working as a skilled mechanic, could earn more than 100 pounds annually, while governesses in private homes, though notoriously underpaid, earned more than female teachers in National schools (Smelser, 307, 316, 317, 325). At the same time, the middle-class inspectors of such schools earned between 250 and 600 pounds annually for visiting each site once every other year (Smelser, 335).

In addition to reducing wages while increasing class size, the Revised Code in effect limited the very quality of the education such teachers were trying to convey to their students. After 1862, teachers were to be paid not based on the number of students they taught, but according to those students accomplishments on standardized tests: this inevitably led to cramming and to an often exclusive focus on the remunerative basic subjects, which excluded science, history, geography, and religious instruction, as well as to the neglect of students too young to be subjected to these tests. This impairment of the education available to poor children, and to their potential teachers, was not an undesired by-product of the Revised Code, which was informed by the feeling on the part of many members of the middle class that such students, and their educators, were both receiving more education than their "place" required. The authors of the Revised Code, Ralph Lingen and Robert Lowe, were both antagonistic toward the managers and schoolmasters connected with the National schools, regarding such teachers as "craftsmen, whose education and duties should be limited to the teaching of the basics necessary for the working class," and commenting that "a lower kind of teacher must be employed" (Smelser, 323, 327).

"Mr. Wrayburn, at least I know very well that it would be idle to set myself against you in insolent words or overbearing manners. That lad who has just gone out could put you to shame in half-a-dozen branches of knowledge in half an hour, but you can throw him aside like an inferior. You can do as much by me, I have no doubt, beforehand.

"Possibly," remarked Eugene." (OMF 2.6).

Schoolmasters like Bradley Headstone were by no means well off financially, but their education and responsibility made them feel that they were in an honorable profession and that they deserved to be treated with respect by members of the middle class. Headstone thus bitterly resents Eugene Wrayburn's contemptuous treatment of him as if he were "of no more value than the dirt under [his] feet," and points out that even his apprentice Charley could put Wrayburn "to shame in half-a-dozen branches of knowledge." Dickens's fictional character, then, is mirroring the feelings of actual teachers at the time, who were asserting in the face of various attacks on their economic and social status that they were "men who in education, tastes and habits have all the qualifications of gentlemen [and who] should regard themselves as worthy of something much higher than the treatment of a servant and the wages of a mechanic" (qtd. in Smelser, 320).

Such respect was rarely afforded these teachers, however, by the government or the inspectors who represented it. For example, schools inspectors, who almost invariably referred to schoolmasters as "persons" rather than "gentlemen" in their reports, complained that they suffered from "a rather morbid desire to be a gentleman too soon," that they were "apt to forget that they owe the culture they have to the public provision made for them," and that they had lost "sight of the fact that they have risen from a very humble social position" (Smelser, 321, 323, 335). And Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth commented (with some regret) that it was almost unheard of for a clergyman, however rural, to receive teachers at table or to be seen "shaking hands with, or even talking familiarly with, the parochial schoolmaster" (339). Thus, Headstone's defensive assertion to Wrayburn that he has "a right to be considered a better man with better reasons for being proud," and his repeated references to his "origin," his "bringing-up," and "the meanness of [his] birth," seem less random or paranoiac: they are contextualized by, and reflective of, the kinds of criticisms and jibes then being levelled at school-teachers of poor origins in Victorian England (2.6).

The character flaws that result in Bradley Headstone's death are not flaws in his teaching or in his commitment to that profession, nor in that profession itself. In fact, when Headstone proposes to Lizzie Hexam, telling her confidently that his "reputation stands quite high," and that he is "able to do [his work] well and [is] respected in it," the narrative offers no contradiction: Headstone may be a violent man of less than brilliant intellect, but his profession is, in the eyes of the text, an honorable one (2.15). And when Charley Hexam ungratefully tells Headstone that he has "done with [his] sister as well as with [Headstone]," and suggests that Headstone should "think how respectable [he] might have been [himself], and contemplate [his] blighted existence," the text sympathetically speculates that the lonely teacher has "found his drudgery lightened" by his pupils company, the loss of which makes him hang "his devoted head when the boy was gone in unutterable misery" (4.7).

When Charles Dickens chose to make use of a National school's teacher and pupil-teacher as central characters in his penultimate novel, a novel written during the brief period between the Revised Code's implementation and the mitigating amendments which followed in the late 1860's, he effectively commented on the plight of such teachers as workers and as men (and women) struggling desperately to rise out of the lower class while at the same time doing their best to serve the children of that class. At the same time that Bradley Headstone struggles to convince himself and others that he is respectable, government inspectors and changing laws were making Headstone's non-fictional contemporaries feel that their efforts in the classroom were unvalued and disrespected. By denying funds to those ragged schools which refused to be inspected, and by reducing funding to National schools, teachers, and pupil-teachers, government inspectors effectively limited the educational options open to the poor, both as students and as teachers. This short-lived situation, which occurred during the very months that Dickens wrote and published Our Mutual Friend, forms an important backdrop to the action and a significant subtext to the motivations controlling Bradley Headstone and Charley Hexam.


Collins, Philip. Dickens and Education. London: Macmillan & Co, 1964.

Dickens, Charles. Our Mutual Friend. London: Penguin, 1988 (1864-5).

Gardner, Phil. The Lost Elementary Schools of Victorian England: The People's Education. London: Croom Helm, 1984.

Reeder, David A, ed. Educating Our Masters. Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1980.

Simon, Brian. The Two Nations and the Educational Structure 1780-1870. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1974.

Smelser, Neil J. Social Paralysis and Social Change: British Working-Class Education in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.