The Irish Charter Schools and the Long History of Residential Schooling in the British Empire

Peter William Walker

Earlier this year, activists in Canada toppled statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II amid nationwide protests at the Canadian residential school system. In Canada, much of the conversation surrounding the residential schools has focused on the responsibility of the churches (which ran them) and the Canadian government (which funded them). Yet, as those activists recognized, residential schooling also has deep roots in British history.[1]

Long before the establishment of the Canadian residential school system in the nineteenth century, the English (and later British) experimented with residential schooling as a means of colonizing Ireland. These efforts drew on an Enlightenment belief in the malleability of the child, as well as debates among Protestant missionaries about the relationship between religious conversion, language, and “civilization.” The result was an elaborate project to assimilate the Irish population by systematically separating children from their relatives. Historians have not connected the 18th century Irish “charter schools” to the Canadian residential school system. Doing so suggests that the use of residential schooling as a tool of cultural genocide has a longer history than is usually recognized.

Ireland in many ways was a laboratory where the English developed techniques of colonization which they would later implement further afield. The generative problem here was an Irish population which stubbornly refused to assimilate to the English religion, culture, and language. Different solutions to this problem were proposed at different times. In the seventeenth century, proposals were made to expel Catholics from Ireland entirely, or perhaps to west of the Shannon. Other schemes sought to turn Ireland Protestant by settling Protestants in Catholic areas, with political economists calculating the precise proportion of each population necessary to achieve the desired transmutation. By the end of the seventeenth century, these ambitious schemes of demographic transformation were abandoned and replaced with a fearsome arsenal of anti-Catholic penal laws, which aimed to secure the Protestant ascendancy from a Catholic population whose ongoing existence was now reluctantly accepted.

Nevertheless, English and Irish Protestants clung on to hope that demographic transformation could still be achieved through religious conversion. Assuming that Catholicism, the Gaelic language, economic backwardness, and political disloyalty were inextricably linked, they concluded that religious proselytism would remedy all these evils simultaneously. Some hoped that the penal laws alone would be a sufficient inducement to conversion. Others, such as Rev. John Richardson (1664-1747), believed that the Church of Ireland should actively proselytize those he called “the Popish Natives.” Writing in 1711, Richardson argued that the Church of Ireland should provide Irish-speaking ministers and translate religious texts into Irish. These proposals were backed by powerful figures in the Church of Ireland, yet never became a widespread reality. Adoption was hindered by a conceptual problem: how could the Irish language be used as a tool to “improve” Ireland when it was also a symptom of its “backwardness”?[2]

Education offered a strategy which appeared to sidestep the language barrier and its attendant conceptual difficulties: children could be instructed in the English language and Protestant faith simultaneously. Yet, in reality, education never seemed to live up to its promise as a missionizing tool. Laws from the reign of Henry VIII stipulated that every parish in Ireland must have a school for teaching English, but these laws were roundly ignored.[3]  By the late seventeenth century, the “Glorious Revolution” and Williamite Wars energized reformers who hoped that charity schools could be used to convert Irish Catholics. Yet in practice, the charity schools confined their attentions to poor Protestants.[4]

Seal of the Incorporated Society for Establishing English Protestant Schools in Ireland, from Robert Clayton, The Religion of Labour: A Sermon Preach’d in Christ-Church, Dublin, Before the Incorporated Society for Promoting English Protestant Schools In Ireland (Dublin, 1740), title page.


By the 1730s, Protestant reformers were concluding that a new approach was needed to realize the demographically transformative potential of education. Their efforts took shape in a new organization, “The Incorporated Society for Promoting English Protestant Schools in Ireland,” usually known as the “charter schools.” According to the charter it received from King George II in 1733, the Society’s mission was to introduce “the generality of the Popish Natives” to a “sense or knowledge of religion,” and thus out of their “great disaffection to our person and government.” This was a huge undertaking. The Incorporated Society had 30 schools and 900 pupils by 1748, and was supported by a crown grant, Parliamentary funds, and voluntary subscriptions from the Irish and English public.[5] Residential schools are expensive, but funding was readily available from both the state and from English civil society because the English saw Ireland as a perpetually dangerous source of potential rebellion or invasion.

The charter schools sought to turn children into both good Anglicans and industrious citizens. The Society’s motto was “Religione et Labore,” and its seal showed a Bible, plow, and spinning wheel. Children at the schools were made to labour, serving both to educate them in the value of hard work and, more cynically, to ease the financial burden to the Society. The charter schools also made determined efforts to convert children to Protestantism. In addition to morning prayer and weekly church services, rules prevented the hiring of Catholic employees, the purchase of goods from Catholics, or the apprenticing of children to Catholics. The number of Protestant pupils was limited so as to concentrate on proselytization. The Society paid a £5 bounty to graduating children who married a Protestant.[6]

Aside from the scale of the undertaking, the crucial innovation made by the Incorporated Society was the systematic “transplanting” of children in order to improve on the failures of earlier educational schemes. Following Enlightenment thinking about the power of education, the Society assumed that if children were only separated from the influence of their families, they would be blank slates upon which Protestantism, English, and industriousness could be inscribed. “Transplanting” was intended from the outset. Within two years of incorporation, Bishop Maule of Dromore told would-be donors, “When a sufficient number of schools are erected, the Society will transplant the children from one county to another, that they may not be under the influence of their popish parents or priests to pervert them.” As the Society’s minutes reveal, this policy was not implemented initially, “for fear it might discourage parents from giving up their children to be disposed.” The Society eventually made transplantation a matter of policy in 1740. They were emboldened by an ongoing famine, which was improving enrolments as desperate relatives turned to the charter schools to provide for their children.[7]

Map of Ireland showing the location of the charter schools and nurseries, from Milne, Irish Charter Schools, p. 172.


Separation was to be permanent. The Society subjected relatives to a £5 penalty if they reclaimed children. By 1772, in response to a growing number of applications from relatives, the Society added the condition that children would only be returned if the relative reimbursed the entire cost of maintaining the child during their time in the schools. This new barrier effectively put a stop to formal applications, but instances of relatives rescuing children or children simply running away were far harder to prevent. A law of 1739 subjected anyone “enticing children to elope” from the charter schools to six months’ hard labour. The Society also offered rewards and took out newspaper advertisement to combat elopement. One advertisement, noting that elopement had become “of late very frequent and alarming, occasioned… by the encouragement of their parents,” announced that anyone harbouring an eloped child would be prosecuted “with the utmost rigour of the law.” Only by ruthlessly enforcing transplantation and separation, the Society believed, could Ireland by converted, “improved,” and – ultimately – secured.[8]

More research is needed before we fully understand the complex, tangled roots of the Canadian residential school system. The founders of the first residential schools in Canada in the early nineteenth century looked to various precedents: the activities of the Catholic missionary orders in seventeenth-century New France;[9] the widely publicized residential school established in Connecticut in 1754 by Eleazar Wheelock (of Dartmouth College fame);[10] and experiments with manual labour schooling in continental Europe, such as Philipp Emanuel von Fellenberg’s school near Bern, Switzerland. This brief essay has sketched out another context from which modern residential schooling emerged – eighteenth-century Protestant schemes for the demographic transformation of Ireland – and in doing so has highlighted the historic connections between residential schooling, British imperialism, and the Enlightenment.

This is not to equate the Irish and the Indigenous experience of colonization. In the early nineteenth century, evangelical reformers began criticizing the Irish charter schools for their inhumane methods, finding the transplanting of Irish children morally intolerable. In response to the ensuing public outcry, the state ceased funding the Incorporated Society in 1820.[11] The construction of the vastly larger Canadian residential school system was already underway on the other side of the Atlantic. Evangelicals criticized that system, too, as Florence Nightingale did in 1863 when she published a statistical report comparing English and Indigenous mortality rates. Yet there was no comparable public outcry, and the last federally funded residential school – Kivalliq Hall in Nunavat – remained open until 1995.


Peter William Walker is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Wyoming. He studies religion in the British Empire in the Age of Revolutions, and is currently working on a book titled The Church Militant: Loyalism, the Church of England, and the American Revolution. He welcomes critical feedback on this essay. He can be reached by email at, or on Twitter at @schism_shop.


[1] I would like to thank Keith Grant and Tom Peace for helpful comments on this essay.

[2] S. J. Connolly, Religion, Law and Power: The Making of Protestant Ireland, 1660-1760 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 263-313.

[3] Karen Sonnelitter, Charity Movements in Eighteenth-Century Ireland: Philanthropy and Improvement (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2016), p. 49

[4] David Hayton, “Did Protestantism Fail in Early Eighteenth Century Ireland?  Charity Schools and the Enterprise of Religious and Social Reformation, c.1690-1830,” in As By Law Established: The Church of Ireland since the Reformation, eds. Alan Ford, James McGuire, and Kenneth Milne (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1995), pp. 166-86.

[5] Sonnelitter, Charity Movements, pp. 47-75, quotation p. 52; Kenneth Milne, The Irish Charter Schools, 1730-1830 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1997).

[6] Sonnelitter, Charity Movements, pp. 53-63; Milne, Irish Charter Schools, pp. 55-66, 135-39.

[7] Sonnelitter, Charity Schools, pp. 64-68; Milne, Irish Charter Schools, pp. 140-49, quotations p. 140.

[8] Sonnelitter, Charity Schools, pp. 64-68, quotation pp. 67-68; Milne, Irish Charter Schools, pp. 140-49, quotation p. 142.

[9] J. R. Miller, Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), pp. 29-88.

[10] Colin G. Calloway, The Indian History of an American Institution: Native Americans and Dartmouth (Lebanon, NH: Dartmouth University Press, 2010), pp. 1-14; Margaret Connell Szasz, Scottish Highlanders and Native Americans: Indigenous Education in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007).

[11] Sonnelitter, Charity Movements, pp. 74-75.


Featured image: Royal Charter School, Clontarf, Dublin, Ireland. Wellcome Collection,

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