The Abecedarian Society: Dublin 1789.

As part of my research for a Ph.D. on the French language book trade, and readership of French books in Ireland in the eighteenth century, I tabulated the schools and teachers known to have taught French. When following the career of one of these teachers, Charles Praval, whose wife, Catherine, ran a French boarding school at Platanus, Donnybrook Road, I came across the Abecedarian Society. The society proved to be of great interest because I noticed that several prominent Dublin teachers were members, including Mrs Praval, and later, Charles Praval’s daughter, Eliza. Following its progress through various name changes in Watson’s Gentleman’s and citizen’s almanack and later in Thom’s Dublin directories, it became clear that the society was very long-lived. I contacted the Register of Friendly Societies, who informed me that the Literary Teachers Society was still in existence, and had its address at Sandford Park School, Dublin. The ledgers connected with the early years of the society are held at the school. Ledger 2 is the earliest extant, so the first has probably been lost over the years. Ledger 2, however, deals with the setting up of the society and gives a long list of its first members. The value of these records from the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is immense for historians, educationalists, genealogists, and other interested persons.

History of the Society.

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On 26 March 1789 a group of teachers, clergy, booksellers and other interested persons instituted a new society. It was the first of its kind ‘for raising a Fund for the Relief of distressed School Masters, School Mistresses and their families’ called originally the Abecedarian Society, but later renamed the Society for the Relief of Reduced Literary Teachers. Its originator was John McCrea, principal of the Academy in Fade Street, Dublin, ‘who was the steady furtherer of the society’, remaining its ‘unalterable Friend and Parental Guardian’.[1] He became the society’s first secretary. The society issued a printed notice with a pamphlet setting out its resolutions, signed by its first president, Samuel Whyte.[2] Each year, on 26 March, a general meeting of subscribers was held, at which the officers and committee were elected for the coming year. An anniversary dinner was held for the membership ‘at their own private expense; not out of the fund of the society’.[3]

The society held its regular meetings at the Royal Exchange on alternate Saturday and Thursday evenings from 7 to 10 pm, to accommodate country as well as city members.[4] In 1799 it was incorporated by an Act of Parliament and received its definitive name: the Literary Teachers Society, which it has retained to the present day. The establishment of the society pointed to a concern for the profession in general which sought to take care of its more needy members, a society which has lasted for over 200 years. The plight of reduced school masters and mistresses in the eighteenth century is known because of their literate status and their consequent appeals for help in the newspapers. The society was initiated at a time when the death or illness of a breadwinner meant destitution for a family. Teachers were in a vulnerable position in this regard, especially those in subordinate situations. The entry for the society in Watson’s Almanack of 1791 is quite specific on this point and informs us that it ‘not only includes distressed Schoolmasters who have been in a reputable situation, their Widows and Children, private Teachers and Ushers as objects of relief, but also extends to Mistresses of Boarding schools, Tutoresses and Governesses in private Families’.[5] These women teachers in lowly situations were among the most vulnerable in the educational system of the time.

Any person applying for admission to the society had to be recommended by two members and their application voted on, an applicant was required to have at three years experience as an established teacher.[6] Membership of the society included such celebrated teachers as Samuel Whyte, its president, principal of the Grammar School in Grafton Street; Sisson P. Darling, who ran an academy at Mabbot Street and later at the North Strand; Mrs Catherine Praval, who ran a French boarding school at Platanus, Donnybrook Road; David Bates, who ran the Nautical Academy in Chequer Lane; John Coyne, Principal of St Wolstan’s Academy in Glasnevin; Elias M. Draffin, who ran the Académie Françoise; Rev. John Moore, who had a boarding school in Donnybrook; Rev. Thomas Willis who had a famous school at Portarlington and Francis Amyot, King’s Professor and teacher of modern languages at Trinity College, Dublin.

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Several well-known figures of late eighteenth-century Dublin were honorary, non-professional members: Rev. James Whitelaw (1789), one of the three authors of the two volume History of Dublin, published in 1818, and author of a treatise on the population of Dublin (1805); Arthur Guinness Jun. Esq. (1789); Joseph Cooper Walker Esq. (1790), the antiquarian scholar; Luke White Esq. (1790), a bookseller with a profitable international trade and later owner of Luttrellstown House; Alexander Jaffray Esq. (1792), a prominent merchant in Dublin; Peter La Touche Esq. (1794), of Bellevue, Co. Wicklow, of the famous banking family, and Rev. John Thomas Troy D.D. (1794), Catholic archbishop of Dublin.

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The original membership fees were 11s.4½d. or a half-guinea, paid twice a year on the first Monday of March, June, September, or December, as the subscription fell due, or 10 guineas for life membership. Professional and honorary members paid at the same rate. When the society’s funds were sufficient, relief not exceeding one guinea per week could be paid to a member or his/her family who were in distress. When a member died, a sum not exceeding £10 could be given towards the funeral expenses. While no member could benefit from the fund unless they had subscribed for at least three years, discretion could be applied: ‘unforeseen accidents and infirmity excepted.’[7] The society received no aid from government nor grant from parliament, and was supported entirely from membership fees.[8] In 1818, when Warburton, Whitelaw and Walsh’s History of Dublin was published, they noted that the society’s fund amounted to £2,780 vested in government stock, from which three pensioners were in receipt of 16s.3d.; 10s.; and 7s.6d. per week.

From an examination of the membership of the society it would seem that only the more prominent teachers were members. Perhaps the payment of one guinea a year was more than some could afford, even to guard against penury in sickness and old age. The Dublin society was the first such society to be established; the Literary Teachers Society in London was established several years later. It was an innovative and imaginative enterprise, based on a solid financial model. No payments were made until a sufficient sum was accumulated, and funds were invested in secure government stock. The fund was never used for the entertainment of officers or society members. Women were admitted from the beginning and their status within the society was equal to that of their male colleagues.

All images courtesy of Dublin City Library & Archive (www.dublincitypubliclibraries.ie )

[1] Sandford Park School, Dublin: Abecedarian Society Ledger 2.

[2] Dublin City Library and Archive: Abecedarian Society, instituted Thursday, March 26th, 1789 (Dublin, 1789). Abecedarian Society: Society Room, Royal Exchange, Saturday, November 14, 1789 (Dublin, 1789), ESTC T228595.

[3] Abecedarian Society, resolution 3, p. 2.

[4] Abecedarian Society, resolution 15, p. 5. Dublin Chronicle, 10 May 1791.

[5] Watson’s Gentleman’s and citizen’s almanack 1791-1800, sub Abecedarian Society, Society for the Relief of Reduced Literary Teachers, or Literary Teachers Society. Abecedarian Society, resolution 12, p. 4.

[6] Abecedarian Society, resolutions 7 and 8, p. 3.

[7] Abecedarian Society, resolution 10, p. 4.

[8] J. Warburton, J. Whitelaw, and Robert Walsh, History of the city of Dublin from the earliest accounts to the present time, 2 volumes (London, 1818), pp 884-5.

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