Eric G. Tenbus, English Catholics and the Education of the Poor, 1847-1902, Pickering Chatto: London, 2010.

Eric G. Tenbus, English Catholics and the Education of the Poor, 1847-1902, Pickering Chatto: London, 2010. £60, ISBN 9781848930384 (hardback), pp.vii+209.

Reviewed by: Dr. Jennifer Redmond, CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow, Bryn Mawr College, October 2011 (

Eric Tenbus’ English Catholics and the Education of the Poor elucidates the history of the Catholic Church in Britain in providing education to the poor after the entry of Catholics into the state grant system in the latter half of the nineteenth century. As such it includes primary source material from a number of religious orders and diocesan archives which is one of its greatest strengths as so often the history of education provided by religious focuses on just one order or diocese. Tenbus sketches the internal struggles, the bias and prejudice experienced by those in the movement to obtain Catholic education and the key figures involved in the campaigns. It is a detailed study and provides much of interest to those interested in the history of Roman Catholic education and the Roman Catholic community in nineteenth-century Britain. The style is engaging and a clear exposition of the content is given at the beginning of each chapter with concluding remarks provided at the end, a strategy which maintains the excellent pace of the book.

As Tenbus observes, the Roman Catholic communities were disparate and isolated from each other for much of this period, although the issue of education was unifying to some degree, although at times the different interest groups fought amongst themselves and therefore delayed progress. Coupled with the lack of financial resources that characterized the campaign for Catholic education, the early years covered by this book saw many obstacles for those wishing to establish a separate sphere for the Catholic children. This book describes the progression of Catholic education in Britain and details the struggle the Roman Catholic community in Britain had to reject the provision of state education that was controlled by Protestants. As Tenbus describes it, the Catholic Church moved from a tentative articulation of their educational needs to an aggressive assertion of their demands for separate schools for Catholic children where they could be fully educated within the faith. The turning point, as highlighted by Tenbus, was the reestablishment of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850, after which a clear and dedicated message about the Catholic philosophy of education could be consistently articulated and advocated for. This included the central tenets that education must begin at home; it has a character moulding purpose; it must be routed in a religious context; religious devotional practices must form a central part of education; and finally, that it was a defence against the rising secularity of life in nineteenth-century Britain.  The triumvirate of threats to Catholics that were secularism, proselytism and apostasy were agreed upon throughout the disparate elements of Roman Catholic society as Tenbus argues, and indeed were articulated well into the twentieth century in Catholic newspapers, sermons and public debates. This consensus helped to unify the Catholic community, particularly in its emphasis on the importance of primary education for Catholic children. The fear, particularly acute it seems in the latter half of the nineteenth century, that Catholic children would lose or be corrupted from their faith in state funded schools was an issue raised many times and one of the central forces driving the resistance of state provision of elementary education.

For this reviewer the content on the Irish immigrants who have been variously discussed as reviving or diminishing Catholicism in Britain was a fascinating and balanced discussion of the issue and an important element to consider in the history of Roman Catholicism. For readers unfamiliar with the history of the two islands, however, it might have been helpful to highlight the fact that Ireland was joined to Britain under the union throughout the period under discussion. The connection made from chapter five onward between Catholic education and Irish political emancipation movement after 1870 would have thus been contextualized for readers unfamiliar with this history as the problems of the post-Famine period and the Poor Law competed for attention with educational issues. The period leading up to the 1870 Education Act is particularly well written and will be of interest to readers from a variety of fields as Tenbus convincingly argues for its status as a key point in this history.

Readers looking for scholarly information will find numerous facts and figures to support Tenbus’ arguments and quotations from primary sources, thus the book has appeal for different groups although this is primarily an academic work rather than a book with wide public readership appeal. Tenbus’ discussion of gender issues in chapter three will appeal to readers in this forum as the scope includes the problem of low numbers of qualified male masters, the pay inequalities between male and female teachers and the differing critical evaluations of teaching in boys’ and girls’ schools, the latter often receiving exemplary reports while the former were severely criticised. Mention is also made throughout of the various religious orders involved in providing Catholic education although this work does not focus in detail on any particular order. Of particular interest is the discussion of the political debates following the proposed inspection of convents in the 1850s and 1860s which was viewed as an offence against standards of decorum and a serious attack on Catholicism in Britain by members of the hierarchy. It was also an issue that motivated the Catholic populace to unite to defend women religious through vigorous petitioning of the British parliament.

Tenbus offers a reappraisal of some of the key figures in the English Catholic hierarchy, arguing for the importance of considering the contributions made by Ullathorne and Vaughan as well as Manning. His arguments are persuasive and will be interesting for those concerned with the legacy of the nineteenth-century education movement for what Tenbus describes as the ‘educational warfare’ (page 155) of the twentieth century. Readers will find much to engage them in this thorough study of the interest groups, key issues and points of high drama in the narrative of Catholic education history in Victorian Britain.