This article originally appeared in the Summer 2001 issue of Pioneer Magazine
by Dr. H. Alan Luke
John Henry Perkins, a genuine pioneer, was born in London, England, on the last day of 1773. Some might question whether he qualified as a pioneer. He never explored a wilderness, crossed a desert, or encountered an uncivilized population. He sailed no ocean and, in fact, never left his beloved homeland. What John Henry did do was become known as a great innovator in the field of education, a pioneer of the kind we need more of.
John Henry became famous not only throughout his own country but in much of Western Europe, He received credit for many important innovations in teaching methods. Leaders in his profession honored him for his accomplishments.
The early 1800s saw the real beginning of the industrial revolution in Europe, which brought large populations into the vicinity of factories in cities, such as Manchester, where the Perkins family had moved from London. Most of the growth consisted of low-paid, unskilled laborers.
“The working population were very badly housed near the centre of the town and suffered a heavy mortality rate due to dangerous sanitary conditions,” reports Harry Perkins, a descendant of John Henry, in his book, The Family Tree. The vast majority of people in the poverty-stricken areas were uneducated and, thus, illiterate.
This was not true of the Perkins family, however.
“The fact that . . . John Henry Perkins was a man of good education, suggests that his father was a man of some affluence, since education at that time was very expensive,” The Family Tree reports. “The only education available to the poor was offered by charity schools.”
Community leaders decided to set up a full-time school. Advertisements were published for a schoolmaster, and John Henry Perkins was chosen. The school opened on October 25, 1809, but “proved to be totally inadequate for the 793 children who presented themselves for education.” A larger building was constructed, success mushroomed, and the school soon attracted the attention of even the leading townspeople.
The school’s budget was small, but Schoolmaster Perkins’s techniques were remarkable. Paper supplies were meager, so Perkins used sand, which was spread in a thin layer over the wooden tables. The students learned to write by using their fingers to mark letters in the sand. Many other economic measures were also contrived, and the results were prompt and astonishing.
“The school was only for children whose parents could not afford to pay, but in view of Perkins’s success, many of the wealthier people asked him to provide private education for their sons,” notes Harry Perkins. Eventually John Henry established a private school in addition to the public facility. His methods brought a flood of attention, first from all over England, and then other countries in Europe began taking note. Scholars visited from France, Germany, and Poland.
John Henry’s family members became involved as assistants; my great-great-grandmother Emma (one of John Henry’s daughters) wrote about the schools in letters to her husband, who had joined the LDS Church and moved to America. Harry was not a member of the LDS Church, but his concluding remarks in the book are ones that all sup members identify with.
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“I have lived a long life,” he said in effect. “But the time is now at hand for me to meet my maker. There is much to be thankful for, and I have but one regret—Had I known then what I know now about my noble ancestry, it would have changed my life and how I felt about myself. I would have understood far better who I am and given more meaning to all I did.”