Science teaching pioneered by a Hampshire school

AT a time when most teaching aimed at proficiency in dead languages, and yet the country was being driven by the Industrial Revolution, Hampshire was demonstrating the growing value of science.

It was happening in the second half of the nineteenth century in the depths of the country at East Tytherley at a go-ahead private school, Queenwood College, which occupied a fabulous building that had been designed by architect Joseph Hansom (he of the London cab).

Textile manufacturer, social reformer and philanthropist Robert Owen had commissioned it at a cost of £40,000 in the late 1830s in an attempt to set up a utopian self-sufficient community called Harmony Hall. After a few years, perhaps predictably, the scheme collapsed with enormous losses. To the rescue came the Society of Friends and the Quaker George Edmondson.

At the time he was running a private school in a former Cistercian priory, Tulketh Hall, near Preston (demolished in 1960). He had got to know Hansom when the architect worked on making the old priory fit for purpose. It followed an earlier school Edmondson had set up in Blackburn.

He was obviously delighted with the new location and boasted in an advertisement of a “competent Farm Superintendent…a talented resident Chemist, with a well-appointed Laboratory… [and] many advantages to those willing to study the science and practice of Agriculture”.

Pupils were offered cutting-edge courses on the subjects of the day, making them capable of “comprehending railway surveying and levelling, setting out railway curves and laying down gradients…construction of roads, canals, bridges etc”.

All this was underpinned by a course in “Natural and Experimental Philosophy…[with] a valuable collection of electrical, pneumatic, galvanic, magnetic and mechanical apparatus …for the use of the lecturers and their pupils.” There were also “competent professors of Painting and the modern languages”.

Hampshire Chronicle: Sir Isaac Goldsmid (1778-1859)

Only six years after starting out at Tulketh Hall – which was so successful he had to turn away pupils – Edmondson was therefore shifting the entire school to Hampshire. To ensure that pupils arrived without undue trouble, they were provided with copies of Bradshaw’s Railway Timetables, so they could make their way to the nearest station at Dunbridge.

He was about to start the ‘silicon valley’ adventure of its day. An article in the Annals of Science in 1955 called it “one of the most significant nineteenth century experiments in English education”.

Edmondson came from an interesting family. His brother, Thomas, had invented the ubiquitous cardboard rail ticket – which superseded a handwritten bill– and even invented the date-stamping machine used with it. He took out patents and “recouped his expenses by charging railway companies a fee based on their length of track, a railway 30 miles long paying £15 a year for a licence to print its tickets”.

Hampshire Chronicle: Sir Edward Franklin FRS. Image: Wellcome Collection

George too had an interesting background. Originally trained as a bookbinder, he had later gone to Russia as a tutor of the children of an agricultural specialist, He spent seven years in the country and was involved in a scheme reclaiming bogland around St Petersburg. The Tsar was so pleased with his work he wanted him to stay, but he came back to England with the intention of introducing new methods of education based on science and its practical application.

Queenwood College was his third school run along these lines and had all the signs of being the most advanced. Its science teaching was in the hands of four men who were all destined to gain that recognition of excellence in science, namely, election to the Royal Society.

So, who were the scientists who spent time at East Tytherley and what did they do? First, there was John Tyndall an Irishman who got into science via work as a railway engineer in the north of England. In 1847 Edmondson invited him to come to start science teaching at Queenwood College, together with mathematician, Thomas Arthur Hirst.

At the same time Edward Frankland (later knighted) came to teach chemistry. They made an enormous impact on setting up science in the school. However, after a year they moved on to the University of Marburg in Germany to further their careers. One of its lecturers was the legendary Robert Bunsen, inventor of the burner known to anyone who has stepped into a lab.

Tyndall went on to become one of the foremost physicists of his day. He showed how sunlight is absorbed by atmospheric gases – the so-called greenhouse effect– why the sky is blue, how glaciers move and helped to support Pasteur’s germ theory. Interestingly, what we call pasteurization was named tyndallisation by the French! Specialists in the scattering of light also talk of the Tyndall Effect.

Later in his career he became a friend of Faraday and was elected Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institution – still celebrated for its Christmas lectures. He is regarded as the “father of physics” and his methods of teaching endured until the 1960s.

Frankland, too, had a distinguished scientific career as a chemist. In fact, it is a little-known fact that a branch of the subject called organometallic chemistry (compounds with a metal linked to carbon) was first discovered at Queenwood College. Amongst the experiments he carried out was one involving zinc and ethyl iodide, which he later realized had reacted together.

The experiment was carried out in a purpose-built laboratory that had been built at some distance from the main school. This was fortunate as an earlier experiment with metallic potassium had led to an explosion. The slight hollow in which the lab stood can still be seen.

As well as lecturing at the school, Frankland also collaborated with Richard Dawes, a pioneering schoolteacher in nearby Kings Somborne. Here he instructed “older boys and their parents on the soil and feeding of animals”, as told by Norman Denison in a booklet published by the Somborne and District Society.

Frankland was particularly interest in applied chemistry and went on to a glittering career, starting as the first professor of chemistry at Owen’s College Manchester. He is reckoned to be the founder of synthetic chemistry, that is, the creation of complex compounds from simpler ones.

Another chemist who taught at Queenwood College was Dr Heinrich Debus, who had met Tyndall, Frankland and Hirst at Marburg and came to teach at the school in 1851. Here he made another little-known discovery, when he mixed alcohol and nitric acid to make a new compound (a dialdehyde) called glyoxal. It is now an important industrial product, with 60,000 tons a year made in Germany alone.

Queenwood College thrived until about 1855, when Edmondson’s health suffered. Even so, in 1861 it still had 74 pupils. After his death in 1863 Charles Willmore, another Quaker, came to head the school and led it until closure in 1896.

In retirement he lived with several senior pupils in Harmony Hall, but in June 1902 there was a catastrophic fire: everyone got out except Willmore. Two years later Hansom’s fabulous building was demolished.

The real hero of the story is the Quaker Edmondson, who has been compared to Pestalozzi and, like him, “had the power of influencing those about him through his own enthusiasm, and did much to introduce a new system of education’, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Interestingly, Harmony Hall would never have been built at East Tytherley if Sir Isaac Goldsmid, a Jewish bullion broker, had not in 1822 foreseen the emancipation of the Jews. In anticipation of changes to the law, he provided money to an Anglican to buy the Manor of Tytherley and Lockerley on his behalf and later leased some of it to Owen.

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