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David Manson (1726 - 1792):

David Manson (Courtsey RBAI)

David Manson was born in 1726 at Cairncastle, Co. Antrim, son of John Manson and Agnes Jamison. At the age of eight he contracted rheumatic fever which affected him for the rest of his life. Because of this he received no formal schooling, learning from his mother "by amusement" and later by Rev Robert White, who remarked that Manson was very bright and promising for a servant boy from Larne. At White's school in Larne he improved himself in writing, arithmetic and the rudiments of the Latin language.

He spent a short spell teaching at Ballycastle on the North Antrim coast - where he also met his future wife, a Miss Linn - and taught navigation in England for a short time, before moving to Belfast in 1752 where in 1755 he started an evening school at his house in Clugston's Entry, accepting only those who had no previous schooling. He advertised in the Belfast News Letter stating that he “teacheth by way of amusement English Grammar, Reading and Spelling at moderate expense”. He also started a night school, offering free tuition to any schoolmaster who would attend. He was so successful that in 1760 he moved to larger premises in High Street and eight years later to still larger ones in Donegall Street, where a blue plaque commemorates him. His pupils included the children of such prominent Belfast families as the Joys (Ellen, Henry Joy’s daughter), and the McCrackens (Mary Ann, the noted social reformer and sister of Henry Joy McCracken, one of the most prominent figures in the United Irishmen).

Another pupil was Katherine Hamilton, sister not just of Charles Hamilton, the noted Orientalist and translator, but also of Elizabeth Hamilton, one of the most noted female writers of her day. Manson is mentioned and his views enthusiastically endorsed, in Hamilton’s best-known work, The Cottagers of Glenburnie (1808): though nominally a work of fiction, the author has one of her characters extol teaching ideas which would later come to be associated with real-life Joseph Lancaster (1778–1838) and Andrew Bell (1753-1832). When a character in the novel objects that one teacher on their own cannot give undivided attention to all pupils in a class simultaneously, the response is as follows:

“True,” replied Mr Gourlay, “but while he hears one, may not the others be at work the while? I will shew you a book written by one Mr David Manson, a schoolmaster in the north of Ireland, which contains an account of what he calls his play-school; the regulations of which are so excellent, that every scholar must have been made insensibly to teach himself, while he all the time considered himself as assisting the master in teaching others. All were, thus at the same time actively engaged, but so regulated, as to produce not the least confusion or disturbance.”

In a footnote to this passage, Hamilton informs the reader:

The author is far from intending to detract from the praise so justly due to Mr Lancaster, by observing how far he had, in some of his most important improvements, been anticipated by the schoolmaster of Belfast.

She adds:

David Manson’s extraordinary talents were exerted in too limited a sphere to attract attention. He consequently escaped the attacks of bigotry and envy; but the obscurity which ensured his peace, prevented his plans from obtaining the notice to which they were entitled; nor did their acknowledged success obtain for him any higher character, than that of an amiable visionary, who, in toys given to his scholars, foolishly squandered the profits of his profession. A small volume, containing an account of the school, rules of English grammar, and a spelling dictionary, is, as far as the writer of this knows, the only memorial left of a man, whose unwearied and disinterested zeal in the cause of education, would, in other circumstances, have raised him to distinction.

Manson was indeed extremely innovative in the way in which he viewed education. His educational methods were based on encouraging success rather than punishing failure. There was a hierarchy of success, with Rules for the Morning School and Rules for the Day School. These rewarded success by the award of tickets and medals for good work while those who refused to work were banished to the Trifling Club. The school was a centre of learning that represented a critical approach to traditional forms of education. Choice instead of coercion; encouragement rather than ridicule; achievement and recognition for all learners were the hallmarks of his method. Enjoyment in teaching and in learning was not just an aspiration but a fundamental of his method. Play specifically was not seen as mere diversion or leisure but as purposeful, enjoyable work imbued with creativity and success.

Manson was the author of a number of publications including a spelling book, a book on grammar and a dictionary, all designed with the teaching of English in mind. He was acknowledged publicly by being granted the freedom of the Borough of Belfast on 27 November 1779.

When he died on 2 March 1792 Manson was accorded the honour of a torchlit funeral attended by a large crowd, reckoned to have numbered in the hundreds, no mean number for what was still a small town, drawn from all classes of society. His generosity in offering free instruction to his fellow teachers ensured the diffusion of his methods, traces of which could be found in the hedge schools at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Manson had no children.


Born: 1726
Died: 2 March 1792
Richard Froggatt
Dictionary of Irish Biography; www.ulsterhistory.co.uk; Quoted texts: Elizabeth Hamilton: The Cottagers of Glenburnie and Other Educational Writing (edited with an introduction and notes by Pam Perkins; Glasgow, Association for Scottish Literary Studies 2010); Paul J Kane: "The life and works of David Manson, a Belfast school-teacher 1726-1792" (MA thesis, Quen's University, Belfast, 1984)