Early lifeHe was born in Southwark, south London, on 25 November 1778, into a large family, the son of Richard Lancaster who had been a soldier and made cane sieves, and his wife Sarah Faulkes who was a shopkeeper. He was interested as a teenager in missionary work in Jamaica. He is said to have run away from home, and to have been returned through naval connections of the minister Thomas Urwick. Lancaster joined the Society of Friends, with the intention of becoming a teacher.
SchoolmasterIn 1798, Lancaster founded a free elementary school, with support from his father. He went on in 1801 to start in Borough Road, Southwark a free school using a variant of the monitorial system. Lancaster's ideas were developed simultaneously with those of Andrew Bell (educationalist), Andrew Bell in Madras whose system was referred to as the "Monitorial system, Madras system of education". The method of instruction and delivery is recursive. As one student learns the material he or she is rewarded for successfully passing on that information to the next pupil. This method is now commonly known as peer tutoring. The use of monitors was prompted partly by a need to avoid the cost of assistant teachers.Pen Vogler: "The Poor Child's Friend", ''History Today'', February 2015, pp. 4–5. Lancaster wrote ''Improvements in Education as it Respects the Industrious Classes of the Community'' in 1803. It brought him positive publicity, and the Borough Road school numerous visitors.
SupportThe Borough Road school called itself the Royal Free School, and Lancaster was granted an audience with George III in 1805, at Weymouth, Dorset, Weymouth. This apogee of recognition built on the support of John Russell, 6th Duke of Bedford, and involved two royal dukes, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn, Kent and Strathearn and Prince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex, Sussex. Lancaster's supporters have been defined as "influential Nonconformists, utilitarian liberals and radicals." They included Edward Wakefield (statistician), Edward Wakefield and James Mill. In his education book ''Chrestomathia'' (1816), Jeremy Bentham supported a version of the monitorial system, for which he gave both Bell and Lancaster credit, but moved from Lancaster's non-sectarian religious stance to a secularism hostile to Anglicanism. The year 1808 saw the creation of "The Society for Promoting the Lancasterian System for the Education of the Poor". A major figure in it was William Allen (Quaker), William Allen, another Quaker, who acted as treasurer. It went by the name Royal Lancasterian Society. According to Henry Dunn (educationalist), Henry Dunn, writing in 1848, the others on the initial committee were William Corston, Joseph Foster (of Bromley), Joseph Fox (dental surgeon), Joseph Fox, Sir John Jackson, 1st Baronet, John Jackson and Thomas Sturge the elder, Thomas Sturge. This group, without Sturge, raised £5600 for Lancaster's school.
OppositionThe context in England for the Lancasterian school was the array of elementary dame schools (typically fee-paying), charity schools, Sunday schools (such as those set up by Robert Raikes around Gloucester) and the Mendip Hills schools run by the evangelical Hannah More. Sarah Trimmer, involved in the London area in both Sunday school and charity school work, and concerned for the evangelical Anglican parent, attacked Lancaster's use of pupil monitors in ''A Comparative View of the New Plan of Education Promulgated by Mr. Joseph Lancaster'' (1805). "A Churchman", writing to the ''British Critic'' in October 1805, commented that
Granting [...] that a dissenter may ''teach'' only what he calls "the leading and uncontroverted principles of Christianity," is it not to be feared that the disregard shown to all religious systems and creeds, may so confound the distinctions between right and wrong, that it may eventually occasion the rejection of Christianity altogether?"After initial successes, the Lancasterian schools were criticized for poor standards and harsh discipline. Lancaster had rejected corporal punishment, but misbehaving children might find themselves tied up in sacks, or hoisted above the classroom in cages. Robert Southey was an opponent of corporal punishment, also: but he wrote in 1812, after giving examples of shame#social aspects, shaming punishments listed in Lancaster's writings:
However objectionable the rod may be [...] it becomes a wise and humane engine of punishment when compared to the yokes and shackles, the cords, and fetters, and cages of Mr. Lancaster.After Lancaster's initial royal recognition, the monarchy turned away in the 1810s, and the Church of England sustained its hostility.
Controversy and ousterLancaster fell out with the Society over a number of issues. There was poor financial management, and he was imprisoned in a sponging house for debt. According to Francis Place, a committee member from 1812, they had information that Lancaster had been privately beating a number of the boys. Critics accused him of deism and homosexuality. He was ousted from the Society in 1814. A group of young teachers had come up through the Lancasterian System: Thomas Harrod, James George Penney, John Pickton, John Veevers, John Thomas Crossley. It was Pickton who replaced Lancaster at Borough Road. The Society renamed itself the British and Foreign School Society (BFSS), a contrast with the Anglican national school (England and Wales), National School System. Lancaster, by then a bankrupt, resented the new name. He still travelled the United Kingdom, lecturing and creating local organisations.
In the AmericasIn 1818, backed by the mill owner David Holt and other friends, Lancaster and his family sailed to the United States. He had significant American supporters: Roberts Vaux and Robert Ralston in Philadelphia, and DeWitt Clinton in New York. Clinton had founded a Lancasterian school in 1806, prompted by Thomas Eddy, who knew of Lancaster's work via Patrick Colquhoun in London. Eddy had recently recruited a BFSS master, Charles Pickton trained by Lancaster, for the New York school, leaving no place for Lancaster himself. Lancaster helped to start the first model school in Philadelphia to train teachers to implement his system. He also started a school in Baltimore, Maryland, Baltimore, but it was not financially viable. A Lancasterian school was set up in New Haven in 1822, with the help of Timothy Dwight IV, and was run successfully by John Lowell, an American disciple. Simón Bolívar had visited the Borough Road School in 1810. Two young men were then sent from South America to study the system. In 1823, Lancaster encountered in Baltimore Brooke Young, a soldier with Bolívar's British Legions, Irish Legion, and Young took a letter for him to Bolívar in Gran Colombia. Lancaster and family arrived at La Guayra in May 1824. His daughter Betsy and her husband moved on to Mexico in February 1825, and did not return. Lancaster stayed from 1825 to 1827 in Caracas and married there for the second time, with Bolívar presiding over the wedding. Affairs at Caracas went badly for Lancaster, however, with his lack of Spanish impeding the educational work. He clashed with Robert Ker Porter, the British consul from the end of 1825, who regarded him as an imposter. Lancaster involved himself with the Topo Valley settlers, Scots brought to the locality in 1825 by John Diston Powles and associates. Bolívar and Lancaster fell out over non-payment of the promised sum to support the educational work. Lancaster left Caracas covertly in April 1827, sailing first to Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, Saint Thomas and Saint Croix, and arriving in New Haven in June. He left his wife Mary and her children to make their own way back to Philadelphia. There was at least one school in Venezuela that retained Lancaster's name in the longer term. The Rev. Thaddeus Osgood had set up schools using Lancaster's system in Lower Canada, one in Quebec in 1814, another in Kingston, Ontario. Lancaster was there in 1829, and opened a school in Montreal, but his attempts to obtain funding floundered and he moved back to the United States.
Death and legacyLancaster died on 23 October 1838 in New York City from injuries sustained in a street accident. At the time of his death, between 1,200 and 1,500 schools were said to use his principles. The BFSS was widely successful in the early part of the 19th century, but the waning popularity of monitorial methods during the 1820s and 1830s meant that it became a more conventional school society. There is just one remaining Lancasterian schoolroom, built to the specifications of Lancaster himself. It is at the British Schools Museum (Hitchin), British Schools Museum, in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, England.
FamilyLancaster married: #In 1804, Elizabeth Bonner (died 1820), daughter of Henry Bonner of Southwark; they had a daughter, Elizabeth (known as Betsy). Elizabeth suffered from mental illness, and died in Baltimore. #In 1827, Mary Robinson, in Caracas. She was the widow of John Robinson, a British miniature painter who had moved to Philadelphia in 1817, and had three children from her first marriage. Robinson had been Betsy's drawing master in 1819, and died in 1825. On 20 April 1824, Betsy married Richard Madox Jones in Philadelphia: he had crossed the Atlantic with the Lancasters, and formed part of the household. This wedding took place shortly before the family moved to Caracas. Jones was trained in the System at Borough Road in 1812, and had then taught at Godalming, followed by a period in Cornwall. He became a Lancasterian organiser in Mexico, dying in 1855. Joseph Lancaster's descendants still live in Mexico: see Ricardo Lancaster-Jones y Verea.