Our Group Archivist tells the story of William Medcraft, a diligent young chimney sweep who was the first ever candidate to enter for a public exam.
The local examination boards were not the first to offer public examinations to candidates; the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) pre-empted the Oxford and Cambridge boards in 1854 by deciding to offer examinations and grant certificates to students attending classes at their union institutes.
William Medcraft was a chimney sweep by day and a student by night who attended one of these institutes, often called Mechanics Institutes. Like others from a working class background, he would have been lucky to have been able to access any formal education and, like a growing number of older children and tradesmen, he attended his local Mechanics Institute who provided evening classes for a small fee.
The RSA made the announcement in November 1854 that their first public examinations would be set for March 1855, giving candidates just four months to prepare for the exams and take the journey to the RSA headquarters in London. (The ‘Locals’, later introduced by Cambridge and Oxford, were ‘local’ because the candidates travelled to ‘local’ centres rather than to the headquarters of the examination board).
Medcraft decided to apply, but, due to the short time scale, he was the only candidate. Faced with a single applicant the RSA cancelled the exams but offered the opportunity again in 1856, giving candidates more time to prepare for a pass in at least two subjects in addition to a preliminary exam and a qualifying examination in handwriting and spelling. Undeterred, William Medcraft, applied again, this time with forty one other applicants, and gained a pass in arithmetic, algebra and geometry.
In 1859 the RSA passed their external examining activities to a governing body but by this time the theme of public examining had been taken up by the Oxford and Cambridge Locals.
Group Archivist, Cambridge Assessment
Andrew Watts: The Whirligig of Time
D Hudson & K Luckhurst: The Royal Society of Arts 1754 - 1954