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Technical skills in the United Kingdom had been on the decline since the end of the first Industrial Revolution in around 1850. Although not considered by many at the time, and only decided upon decades later, the shortfall in technical education in UK schools and colleges appears to have been a major contributing factor. As Richard (A Short History of Technical Education, 2009, c.9) identifies, countries such as Germany and the USA had significantly overtaken the UK in areas of engineering, science and maths. In 1880 the UK accounted for 41.1% of the world’s manufactured products but by 1913 this had dropped to 29.9%. Similarly, the UK had just 9000 university students in 1913 compared with 60,000 in Germany.

During this period of decline, there were some who identified the problem and made strides for change. In 1868, the Select Committee on Scientific Instruction, led by Sir Bernhard Samuelson, concluded that science should be taught to all students who were not leaving school at 14 years of age. It was also noted that education fees alone could not properly fund science education in colleges and schools. Committees such as these helped pave the way for those passionate about technical education.

In 1889, the Technical Instruction Act was published highlighting the need for national technical education to “halt industrial and manufacturing decline” (A Short History of Technical Education, 2009, c.8). The Act gave more power to local authorities to “supply or aid the supply of technical instruction” and allowed local authorities to borrow money to assist in the funding of technical education. However, the Act defined technical education as “instruction in the principles of science and art applicable to industries” and ignored “teaching the practice of any trade or industry or employment” (Technical Instruction Act, 1889). The ignoring of teaching trade and industry-related skills, combined with the funding limitations imposed upon local authorities (not allowed to spend more than 1 penny to the pound), meant the Technical Instruction Act was far off what was required to reverse or even slow the manufacturing decline. However, the publishing of the 1889 Act meant progress was being made, albeit slowly.

In 1890, the Local Taxation Act passed legislation to decrease the number of public houses and introduced an increased tax on alcohol to reduce consumption. The money raised was to go towards compensating the publicans that were forced to close their doors. However, some Members of Parliament objected, and the Government suddenly found itself in the unusual position of having a yearly tax stream with nothing to spend it on Richard (A Short History of Technical Education, 2009, c.8).

The tax became known as ‘whiskey money’ and in July 1890, Chancellor of the Exchequer, G.J. Goschen, announced that the money would go towards funding for technical education. It is an interesting quirk of fate that two completely opposite streams of money, alcohol taxation and technical education funding requirements, happened to be identified just a year apart and were able to be used to progress education, funding and reform that helped shape technical education today.

P.R. Sharp (1971, p.31) makes note that although the ‘whiskey money’ was a varying tax stream dependent on the number of drinks sold each year, it was no minor income. In the financial year ending 1891, £740,376 was paid to English and Welsh authorities and at no time during the same decade did the money drop below that level. Indeed, in the year 1900, English and Welsh authorities had £1,028,001 paid to them. Money from the tax was not only spent on technical education, but also on museums and geological surveys. Sharp also indicates that without this money “most of the work of the Technical Instruction Committees would have been impossible”.


First published: 02/03/2021

Updated incorrect reference: 06/03/2021

Reference list:

R. Sharp., (1971). ‘Whiskey Money’ and the development of Technical and Secondary Education in the 1890s. Journal of Educational Administration and History, 4:1, 31-36, Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/0022062710040104

Richard., (2009). A Short History of Technical Education. [Online]. Technical Education Matters. [Accessed 21 February 2021]. Available at: https://technicaleducationmatters.org/series/a-short-history-of-technical-education/

Technical Instruction Act 1889. (384-388, Victoria.1, c.76). [Online]. London: HMSO. [Access 21 February 2021]. Available at: http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/acts/1889-technical-instruction-act.html

Researched and written by Thomas Barden

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