Joseph Lancaster

British Schools Museum

Billie the Bulb Billie the Bulb
I wanted to go to lightbulb university, but I wasn't bright enough. No one is too cool for school
Joseph Lancaster

As a young man, Joseph Lancaster overheard a young street girl lamenting “Oh that I could read!” He devoted the rest of his life to the cause of universal elementary education. Millions of children across the globe were to owe their access to education directly to Lancaster’s vision, energy and legacy.

Lancaster was well ahead of his time. He attempted to offer free education for all, 93 years before the government finally did so.

Unable to afford a second teacher at his first school, and with huge demand for his school, he devised the ‘Monitorial Method.’ The brightest child from each year group was given extra tuition and coached to deliver simple lesson plans to their peers. Up to 500 children could be taught in one room by one master.

This project has enabled us to better tell his story and achievements, through exciting new interactive tables permitting visitors to delve into his story and methods in as much detail as they wish. Character videos chart the impact his ideas had through the eyes of key contemporaries. A full Monitorial lesson has been filmed with a local school, enabling visitors to see the lessons in action. New benches offer a tactile aspect to our interpretation.

Important dates in history for Joseph Lancaster

birth of Joseph Lancaster in Southwark, London
first Monitorial School built in Borough, London
wrote Improvements in Education
established a Monitorial School in Hitchin, Hertfordshire
death of Joseph Lancaster in New York City

Did you know?

  • Lancaster’s ideas were implemented in 21 nations around the world?
  • Lancaster saw the importance of training teachers and established teacher training colleges. Even the South American revolutionary Simón Bolivar visited his Southwark training college in 1810.
  • Amazingly, the Monitorial system enabled 1 teacher to teach up to 500 children at once.
  • Lancaster was a Quaker, who have egalitarian beliefs, and recognised that girls’ education was as important as boys’.
  • Lancaster gained Royal patronage – for example from George III – and was adept at raising funds to establish schools. Unfortunately, he was great at spending too, and died penniless in New York after being run over by a horse carriage!


Find out more about Joseph Lancaster

The British Schools Museum offers a variety of hands-on educational sessions for schools, including immersive Victorian lessons and outreach see: