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Jane Speller writes:

A new cataloguing project funded by the John Rylands Research Institute aims to illuminate the life of the celebrated Victorian educationalist Sir James Phillips Kay-Shuttleworth (1804-77). The resulting on-line catalogue will open up this important collection to researchers around the world.

Kay-Shuttleworth’s career spanned many years and encompassed both the medical and political worlds, giving us a fascinating insight into life in Manchester and Salford during some of the key events of the Victorian era, including the cholera epidemic of 1832 and the Cotton Famine of 1861-65. His efforts to establish the first ever system of national education are also well documented.

The beautiful Gawthorpe Hall, Padiham, Lancashire, home of Sir James Phillips  Kay-Shuttleworth from 1842. Photo credit: Lee Pilkington. http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/gawthorpe-hall/visitor-information

The beautiful Gawthorpe Hall, Padiham, Lancashire, home of Sir James Phillips Kay-Shuttleworth from 1842, and now owned by the National Trust. Photo credit: Lee Pilkington.

James Phillips Kay was born in Rochdale to a textile manufacturing family. He was baptized at Bamford chapel, where he later taught at the boys’ Sunday school. In the tradition of dissenting families he was educated at Leaf Square Grammar School in Pendleton, Salford. As a young man he worked in his uncle’s bank in Rochdale, before studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh.

He graduated in 1827 and returned to Lancashire to practise as a doctor in Manchester, lodging initially on King Street. In 1828 he was one of the founders of the Ardwick and Ancoats Dispensary at 181 Great Ancoats Street, a charitable organisation which treated the poor. It was here that Kay witnessed first-hand the grim living conditions of the urban poor, many of whom were cotton operatives.

Engraving of a Manchester tenement, c.1800. © University of Manchester Library.

Engraving of a Manchester cellar, c.1800, from George Catt, Pictorial History of Manchester (1844). © University of Manchester Library.

This experience prompted Kay to embark on a lifelong crusade for public health and education reform. In 1832 he published a pamphlet entitled The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes Employed in the Cotton Manufacture in Manchester. This seminal document predates the famous Frederich Engels book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, written during his stay in Manchester in 1842.

The Training of Pauper Children by James Phillips Kay, M.D., 1839 © University of Manchester Library.
The Training of Pauper Children, by James Phillips Kay, M.D., 1839.
© University of Manchester Library.

In 1835 Kay was appointed as Assistant Poor Law Commissioner, administering the counties of Suffolk and Norfolk, a role which involved him in implementing the new Poor Law and in managing schemes such as government-controlled labour migration. Under this scheme the rural unemployed were encouraged to relocate to work in the industrialized centres of the North. Kay’s interest in education and his fervent belief that education held the key to society’s regeneration continued to develop. In 1839 he published a report entitled The Training of Pauper Children.



Initials carved over the Gawthorpe kitchen hearth. Photo credit: Jane Speller.
Initials carved over the Gawthorpe kitchen hearth.
Photo credit: Jane Speller.

In 1842 Kay married Janet Shuttleworth, the heiress of Gawthorpe Hall in Lancashire. They had become acquainted when Janet wrote to Kay asking for advice about the local infant school at Habergham. On marriage he assumed her family name and became Kay-Shuttleworth. During the renovations of Gawthorpe Hall by fashionable architect of the day Charles Barry, the initials K and S were worked into many decorative features including ceilings.

Through his appointment as Assistant Secretary to the Whig government’s Committee of the Privy Council on Education in 1839, a post he held for nine years, Kay was able to lay the foundations of the British public school elementary system. In 1840 he established Battersea College in London, the first teacher training college in the country.

You will be able to follow the progress of the project through future blog posts. These will include information on the later life of Kay-Shuttleworth, his literary endeavours and his relationship with Charlotte Brontë.