An extract from ‘Some memoirs of the life of Mr. Tho. Tryon, late of London, Merchant’ (London, 1705) from the Historical Database, reference number: N023690, accessed 07/12/16

Featured image: John Cranch, ‘Kitchen interior’, 1793 (source: Bristol Museums and Galleries)

Historian James Sharpe, argued in his book Early Modern England: A Social History 1550-1760, that early modern England was becoming a “more complex and more commercial”[1] society with “rising levels of literacy and an increase in the provision of educational facilities”[2], and the period between 1576 and 1640 saw an average of around 200 titles being published each year (thanks to the invention of the printing press in 1440). But the question is, to what extent was education available?

Thomas Tryon (September 6, 1634 – August 21, 1703), was an English merchant who wrote self-help books, and will be the focus of this post. Tyron came from a poor family in Gloucestershire and worked as a shepherd until he was eighteen years old. In his book Some Memoirs of the Life of Mr. Tho. Tryon, late of London, Merchant, he tells the audience that he received no formal means of education and taught himself how to read and write (with the help of “a lame young man”[3]) in his spare time.

The grammar schools that existed in this period had long been considered as one of the “glories of the English education system”[4]. Seeing as England’s population during this time was noticeably larger, a number of schools existed outside the towns and offered its students a basic instruction in reading and writing. As we already know, after Tryon turned five years old he didn’t receive any means of a formal education, providing the audience with a reason as to why he was illiterate for part of his childhood: “I scarcely learnt to distinguish my Letters, before I was taken away, to Work for my Living”[5]. This indicates that perhaps his parents saw education as a waste of time and he would be far better off being thrown straight into the world of work.

Many of the children in the early modern period in fact did not receive a proper education; it was instead a well-known custom to send your child into service or apprenticeship as soon as they were considered old enough. There was a general mind-set that boys needed to be coached in maturity and discipline so they could later succeed as independent tradesmen or heads of households, and this therefore could be another reason as to why little Thomas Tryon was pulled out of education at such a young age.

Due to the common agreement that a childhood was far better spent being taught either the family trade or the trade of another, we can see very clearly that education was available to all children, it was just that most were not allowed to seize the opportunity.

[1] Sharpe, J.A. Early Modern England: A Social History 1550-1760, (Arnold, second edition, 1997), pp. 263

[2] Sharpe, Early Modern England, pp. 263

[3] Tryon, T. Some memoirs of the life of Mr Tho. Tryon, late of London, Merchant, (London, 1705), pp.15

[4] Sharpe, Early Modern England, pp. 272

[5] Tryon ,T. Some memoirs of the life of Mr Tho. Tryon, pp.12


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