Humane Education and Children in Britain

By Dr. Hilda Kean

In Britain animal charities, religious groups and writers promoted a benign approach towards non-human animals in different ways through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Certificate of Merit presented by the RSPCA in 1908. Collection of the National Museum of Animals & Society.

The RSPCA, “the oldest animal protection society in the world,” was the first animal charity founded in Britain in 1824 to ensure that the ‘Martin’s Act’ of 1822 against cruelty to particular animals, mainly ‘farm’ or ‘working’ animals, was enforced. Established to implement and extend legislation as a way of protecting non-human animals and of ensuring ‘civilised’ behaviour amongst all ranks of society including those working with animals. It was closely linked with the establishment, including the Church of England, and benefitted from the support of Queen Victoria from 1840. (The current Queen is a patron and Rowan Williams the archbishop of Canterbury is a vice patron).

Benign treatment towards animals was encouraged since, the organisation argued, god created creatures to be humans’ servants. In turn it was the duty of humans, also being created by god and of a higher status, to treat animals well.

Children were a focus of attention. The RPSCA established Bands of Mercy run by female supporters on a similar format to religious Sunday schools for children where they would be taught moral stories and encouraged to behave in kindly ways. Its publication The Animal World. A Monthly Advocate of Humanity included material aimed at children or, more accurately, those running groups for children. The quote from Coleridge on the masthead is indicative of its approach:

“He prayeth well, who loveth well

Both man, and bird, and beast;

He prayeth best, who loveth best

All things , both great and small;

For the dear God, who loveth us,

He made and loveth all.”

The Band of Mercy movement would encourage appropriate behaviour through lantern slides and, in due course, short films. There would also be a touring caravan with information and a mobile cinema. By 1907 it numbered some 500 groups.

The RSPCA also awarded annual prizes for the best essays written by boys and girls (and men and women) and the best were read out at the RSPCA annual general meeting. At the prize giving in 1873 the secretary John Colam urged the audience: “ When thinking of animals he would ask them to remember that the human race was only part of the creation and the creatures which were beneath them were their fellow-creatures, whether they had souls or not was a moot point, though he thought the opinion of those great divines Bishops Butler and John Wesley, was entitled to some respect”.

This emphasis on children was not unique to the RSPCA. Thomas Jackson, an Anglican preacher and principal of the teacher training college at Battersea run by the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor was a leading writer for young people. In 1844 he both preached sermons advocating kind treatment towards animals and wrote stories including parables and stories aimed at children saying that : “The treatment of dumb animals is a test and touchstone of character” (Thomas Jackson “The Righteous Man regarding the life of his beast”; sermon preached 6 May 1860 St. Mary, Stoke Newington) p.8) These popular works included Our Dumb Companions (1863) and Our Feathered Companions (1870). Our Dumb Companions included stories showing the value of animals, particularly dogs: “The dog is the only animal that has followed man all over the earth”. (p. 6) The role of animals in providing services to humans was stressed. This included Bob the fireman’s dog rescuing a child from a burning building. Also noted was the role of animals in drawing drunken men away from alcohol by their own prudent behaviour. Jack the horse who drew stones to build Waterloo Bridge would push his head through the public house door to draw out his driver who was too fond of a glass of ale.

Those writing outside a religious framework also encouraged children to act humanely. One of her first books aimed at children Domestic Pets: Their Habits and Management by gardener and writer Jane Loudon in 1851 recommended that young people bestow “unwearied kindness on pets” . They should never forget that animals “which they keep in confinement for their pleasure, are deprived by that confinement, of all power of helping themselves, and that they are entirely dependent upon those who keep them, not only for their comfort, but for their very existence.” (p.159) Feminist Mary Wollstonecraft had written in her Original Stories of some decades before on the appropriate conduct of servants and children. She argued that people were superior to animals and should prove this by being tender-hearted: “Let your superior endowments ward off the evils they cannot foresee” (second edition 1820, p.114).

The introduction of the Education Act of 1870 and subsequent free education ensured that humane education also became incorporated within the state schooling system. Nature study was used to create wonder for the natural world – and to promote kindliness. Much attention was paid to preventing birds’ eggs being destroyed through boys’ raiding their nests.

During the twentieth century new animal campaigning and welfare organizations also worked with children. This included the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, established in working class east London in 1917 to provide free veterinary treatment for the sick and injured animals of the poor. The PDSA would establish Busy Bee clubs for children to encourage humane animal treatment and fund-raising activities.

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  1. […] Be Kind: A Visual History of Humane Education, 1880-1945 is presented by the National Museum of Animals & Society. It was curated by Dr. Keri Cronin, Chair of the Department of Visual Arts at Brock University. Dr. Hilda Kean contributed text on the early Humane Education movement in Britain. […]

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