James Shaw II

James Shaw and Educational Slöjd

Training in the slöjd method at Nääs, Sweden


portrait of young man wearing suit
James Shaw, photographed in Göteborg, (Gotenburg), Sweden?
photographer's studio address
On the rear of the cardboard mount with my grandfather's photograph was the address of the photographer's studio, (but not necessarily where it was taken), first evidence of him being in Sweden

My father told me that knew that his father, my grandfather, had trained in Sweden before he had got married. There was some evidence of this in that we had a picture of him as a young man on a Gotenburg photographer's cardboard mount. That was the total extent of my father's knowledge about that time.

One other item that we have of my grandfather's is a notebook which he labelled 'Notes On Timber'. The first seventy pages describe twenty tree varieties, their timber and uses. I too had something similar when I did woodwork at school, aged twelve. However in my grandfather's book he went on to make notes about two men, Uno Cygnaeus and Otto Salomon. The book concludes with general notes on timber, joinery for buildings, the cultivation and felling of trees, seasoning of timber and related topics.

Of Uno Cygnaeus he wrote:

Born at Tavastehus in 12 October 1810 his progress at school not brilliant but determined and persevering. Father died when he was 9 years old, and left the family in poor circumstances. Entered the University in 1827. Studied medicine but had to forgo this study for want of means. Studied theology and became chaplain to a colony of fellow countrymen in North America. Returned to St. Petersburg via Siberia where he taught in a school for 12 years. Wrote a tractate called Stray Thoughts on Intended Primary Schools in Finland. This attracted the attention of the emperor when he visited Finland in 1856. He thereafter travelled 3 years through Europe and in 1861 published his fuller proposals and report. In 1866 he incorporated manual training as a part of the school curriculum (compulsory in country, optional in cities). He died in 1888.

He went on to write of Otto Salomon:

Born in Gotenburg 1st Nov. 1849. He was educated in the preparatory school and gymnasium. In 1868 he passed the entrance exam of the Stockholm Technical Institute and became a student there. Left that Institute the following year to assist his uncle, August Abrahamson in the management of his estate at Nääs 20 miles from Gotenburg, at the same time he acted for 4 hours per day as assistant to the parish schoolmaster. He began an evening school for the farm servants on the estate. The sloyd movement had begun in the late 60s and early 70s. It was at first more economical than educational. A movement to develop home industry, the idea being that if it began in school-life it was more likely to attain its fuller object. The movement caught on and in nearly every province sloyd schools were started. Abrahamson founded in 1872 one for boys and in 1874 one for girls and Salomon was appointed director. After this Salomon was appointed an inspector of schools, a post which he still holds. In 1877 he visited Cygnaus. In 1874 opened as an adjunct a training school for teachers which lasted for a year. 1882 short courses were instituted and all forms of manual training were abolished but woodwork. These are still held at Nääs. The courses are free, and this is due to the generosity of Herr Abrahamson who founded the seminary and at his death endowed it with a great portion of his wealth. Otto Salomon is still the Director.

Here was a clear reference to Sweden and the school at Nääs. Could this be where my grandfather trained? A quick bit of research showed that the centre still existed and, given that Otto Salomon had been described as 'still the director' but had died in 1907, if he had then it was in 1907 at the latest.

group of three passport photographs
Confirmation from Nääs - A young J. Shaw

An email to Nääs Castle was forwarded to their archivist Gunilla Hallset who quickly responded but at first couldn't find any information to confirm that my grandfather had been there. Then she turned up a group photographic montage on which there was a 'J. Shaw'. It was as if each course member had submitted a passport photograph of themselves. The one of 'J. Shaw' was identical to one that I already had, possibly taken at a cousin's wedding. Gunilla Hallset then found the official record which stated that he was a teacher 'of manual instruction' from Dundee.

Now I knew that my grandfather had studied in Sweden, not woodwork as such but something called Slöjd. What was that and why had he studied it?

Educational Slöjd

portrait of man with beard
Uno Cygnaeus (1810-1888)
portrait of man with beard
Otto Salomon (1849-1907)

Educational Slöjd is a system of manual instruction that enjoyed international popularity at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. The Swedish word Slöjd has the meaning of 'craft', especially handicraft. In the English-speaking world 'Sloyd', the anglicised version of Slöjd, is usually used as shorthand for Educational Slöjd.

Sloyd, at the time it was first developed by Otto Salomon, a Swede, from the ideas of Uno Cygnaeus, a Finn, was considered to be a progressive system, focused on the broader educational needs of the child, not on training the child in a trade. Its aim was to use craftwork to educate the child, rather than educating the child to work at a craft.

In theory any manual craft, using any materials to hand, can be used for Sloyd, e.g. paper, cardboard, fabrics, wood or metal. The softer materials tend to be used for younger children but wood is the primary medium for all ages.

Otto Salomon said that the aim of Sloyd was, “To utilise... the educative force which lies in rightly directed bodily labour, as a means to developing in the pupils physical and mental powers which will be sure and evident gain to them in life.”

Most rural households in Sweden had a tradition of making items for personal use and the goal was to take this into the schoolroom, freeing the pupil and teacher from the rigid structured teaching of the day. Sloyd was to be a system that guided the creativity of the individual child while retaining group instruction.

Otto Soloman sought to give the child:

  • Pleasure in bodily labour, and respect for it;
  • Habits of independence, order, accuracy, attention and industry;
  • Increase of physical strength;
  • Development of the power of observation in the eye, and of execution in the hand.

He said, "The teacher's art in educational slöjd consists essentially in being as passive and unobtrusive as possible, while the pupil is exercising both head and hand" and "Let the teacher content himself with pointing the way, and watching that the pupil walks in it".

Exercises and Models

Otto Soloman had studied craft work and identified ‘more or less often recurring typical manners of working the material. A particular way of working the material with a certain aim in view is what in handicrafts is called an exercise'. These 'exercises' were arranged in a sequence requiring progressively greater skill. The 'exercises' were embodied in a series of articles that the child would make themselves, called models. At one point there were fifty models made using techniques selected from the set of eighty-eight exercises. In 1894 the models were reduced to forty and in 1902 the exercises were reduced to sixty-eight. to A child would be expected to make all of the models over a three-year period. To make the final model twenty-four different exercises were recapitulated and three new ones learned.

engineering drawing of square ruler
A drawing produced by my grandfather. Might this have been a model of his own creation, using an imperial rather than a metric scale which would have been alien to Dundee schoolchildren?

Some teachers misunderstood the system, they thought making the series of models was the whole purpose. Soloman began his courses by saying that the could teach the system and not use a single Nääs model, indeed he was keen, particulary for non-Swedish teachers to develop their own models that would be of value to their own pupils in their own lives.

Sloyd in Scotland

Sir John Struthers of the Scottish Education Department had visited Sweden in 1890 and by 1894 was reporting favourably of the wide adoption of Sloyd in Scotland from kindergarten upwards. For instance more than half of the Edinburgh board schools were using Sloyd in some form and the feed-back from head-teachers suggested there would be rapid expansion. It is not impossible then that my grandfather, James Shaw, born in 1887, might have experienced Sloyd during his schooling at Gartsherrie, Coatbridge.

Sir John was quite clear that the benefits of using Sloyd would only be obtained if it was taught by teachers skilled in that art, he said:

"It goes without saying that, if manual instruction is to be successfully given, the teachers of the subject must possess the requisite technical skill. ... I believe that a very adequate preparation might be secured in the case of the majority of future teachers if provision were made in the schools of the large towns, where manual training has been to some extent developed, for some systematic instruction of the pupil-teachers both in the theory and practice of the subject. But, however the necessary skill may be acquired, it is of the last importance that teachers who undertake work of this kind should have a clear and abiding idea of what the object of it is."

"Hence it is desirable that some theoretical instruction and discussion should accompany the practical course. In the case of those who are teachers by profession there should be no great necessity for insisting on the educational aspect of the work. It is the requisite technical skill in which they are more likely to be lacking. Especially is this the case with woodwork (or ironwork) where the acquirement of the necessary skill in one previously destitute of it is a matter of months rather than of days or weeks. Yet it is simply indispensable that a teacher should himself be able to do reasonably well what he attempts to teach others. "

"At first sight, the obvious thing to do would seem to be to employ a skilled artisan. But this in ordinary circumstances is an expedient of at least doubtful policy. Certainly there are artisans who are by nature teachers, or who quickly apprehend and adapt themselves to the educational aims of woodwork instruction in schools. To take a parallel case, I know of teachers of cookery, not trained teachers, whose grasp of educational objects and methods is as firm as that of those who are teachers by training and profession. But to employ any one to conduct a course of manual training simply on the ground of his skill as an artisan is a most hazardous proceeding."

Just as the child was to be educated by using manual skills, not trained in manual skills, the Sloyd practioner had to be foremost a skilled teacher, not a skilled artisan. It followed that such a teacher needed to be taught the art of Sloyd rather than the art of carpentry

Teacher Training

merit certificate
Merit Cerificate for James Shaw from Gartsherrie Academy, 1901

My grandfather received a Certificate of Merit in 1901. This was something that had been introduced nine years earlier, in 1892.

The education code stated that a 'certificate of merit' would be granted to any scholar over thirteen years of age who satisfied the inspector that he had attained a standard of thorough proficiency in the three elementary subjects, as well as in two class subjects, and who, in-addition, had passed an examination embracing all the stages of one specific subject.

The primary intention was to institute a test in elementary subjects, and thus to ensure, as the best introduction to the ordinary business of life, or to higher education, athorough grounding in elementary work. At the same time the hope was expressed that pupils, in their desire to gain a merit certificate, would be induced to remain at school longer than required by the law. The reception of this scheme is best attested by the number of certificates issued; no fewer than 2,346 merit certificates were granted in the first year.

I don't know exactly when my grandfather left Gartsherrie school but we do know that by 1906, aged 18, he was resident in Dundee and either established as a teacher or still in training to become one. (There is some circumstantial evidence that he was taught by Robert J. Plenderleith at Gartsherrie, who had taken up a position at Dundee's Harris Academy, and that he had been an influence/mentor in my grandfather's choice of career. Two of R.J. Plenderleith's sons went on to become Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh).

How and why my grandfather went to Sweden to study sloyd is unknown. Perhaps it was part of the teacher training that he undertook in Scotland? Perhaps it was something that he has wanted to do by himself? The most likely way that he would have got to Sweden would have been by ship from Hull sailing directly to Gotenburg and then the 20 miles (32 km) by road, eastward, to Nääs.

Life At Nääs

hundreds of men and women standing in front of large wooden building
Students and staff outside the “Lekhuset” (“The Playing house”) - Otto Saloman is sitting in the centre of the group

What was life like at Nääs? There would have been many students from different countries, both men and women. They would have lived in communal dormitories, course work would have taken up only part of their day, there were other activities to join in with.

J.S. Thorntom, wrote in the Manchester Guardian on 28 September 1888:

Student life at Nääs is both busy and joyous. It is certainly busy, for eight hour's work is cheerfully done every day except on Saturday, when work stops at twelve. From seven to eight is passed in the slojdsaal, also from 8:30 to 11, half an hour being allowed for breakfast. Lunch is at twelve, and there is an hour's lecture before and another hour's lecture after it. From 2:30 to 4 is again past in the sloyd-saal. Dinner is at 4:30. The rest of the day is at the student's own disposal.

The work in the Sloyd-room consists of an exact reproduction of the series of fifty models, or of as many of them as a student get through in a single course. The average student requires 2 courses in order to complete the series.

In one part of the lectures principles regulating the choice of the models and the order in which they come are carefully expounded and discussed. The work in each model has been carefully analysed; Every exercise and manipulation necessary to execute it has received its name and number, and so nice is the graduation that it is possible by a glance at a table to see what new exercise, a new tool, or new manipulation each model requires in addition to that have gone before. But there is no finality about these models. Changes are constantly made at this point or that as improvements are suggested.

James Shaw at Nääs

montage of many passport photographs
Sloyd Course No. 108 - 12 June - 23 July 1906 (J. Shaw 8th top left)

We can see from the photomontage for 1906 that the Sloyd Course No. 108 ran from 12 June to 23 July 1906 and that there were 12 teachers, 2 women and 10 men and 127 students, 39 women and 88 men. Nineteen of the students were foreigners, at least seven from Scotland and three or four from Dundee. Others came from Denmark, Finland, Germany, Russia and the USA. Since 1900 all of the foreign students had to pay for their course, they had always had to pay for their bed and board. In 1906 that was 60 kr, about £3 6s 8d (£3.33), equivalent to about £401 now. (A ticket for the ship would have cost about £1 each way). At any one time there were around 250 students on the various courses, not all were accomodated at Nääs, some of the male foreign students stayed in a small cottage called 'Babel'.

The other courses shown on the montage are the “Playing course”, “School kitchen course” and “Garden course”.

During the course undoubtably many of the current series of models would have been made. There seems to have been a tradition of leaving one model at the school, which must surely create a storage problem, but what of the others?

small wall-hanging plain wooden box
Our shoe brush box
engineering drawing of a wooden box
Drawing of N:r 24 Skoborstställ (Shoe brush box) from from Nääs Modellserie För Pedagogisk Snickerislöjd (Nääs Model series for Pedagogical Carpentry Crafts)

This shoe brush box has been in the family as long as I can remember. It used to house my father's brushes from his RAF service and tins of 'Kiwi' brand polish, which never quite fitted. Could it have been made at Nääs?

I can't help but feel that if had been made to serve as a shoe brush box, rather than a sloyd model it would have been dimensioned to accept the tins of polish that the household actually used, indeed that sould have been the starting point of the design.

Gunilla Hallset confirmed that our shoe brush box had been part of the 1902 model series. The drawing also explained another mystery, our box had been damaged, probably before I was born, something I hadn't realised until I came to clean it up in recent years. The lower front edge had sheared off at a weak point, a dovetail joint cut near the edge. I had pinned and glued on a replacement edge, cutting it flush to the frame. Looking at the drawing the bottom piece would have formed a lip, extending the lower shelf. Should the box have fallen and struck the ground with this lip the leverage against the frame would easily split the wood at the high stress area and break it off. Whatever the skills imparted from a sloyd education good engineering design wasn't one of them!

Teaching in Dundee

Following his course at Nääs my grandfather would have gone back to teach 'manual instruction' in Dundee. How much that followed the sloyd method I don't know. One can only assume that the local School's Board would have funded his training in sloyd and would have expected that method to be employed in the schools under their control. Certainly the drawing (above) of the square rule suggests that my grandfather was actively creating his own, Dundee appropriate, models and that the sloyd method was going to be followed.

sketch of two boy scouts
Boy Scouts with their essential staffs

A few years later, in 1907-1908, Baden-Powell's articles Scouting for Boys were becoming popular. They must have seemed very exciting at the time, based on the activities of a military scout in Africa, living off the land, tracking animals and men undetected. Boys wanted to copy these activities and formed their own little gangs or patrols, much as I played 'cowboys and indians' or 'smugglers and customs officers' when at the seaside! Essential equipment for a scout was his wood staff or pole. This gave support during a hike, allowed one to vault a ditch or, in company with his fellows, construct shelters or stretchers. Boys in one of my grandfather's classes asked for help in making staffs for themselves. That piqued his interest and the result was the formation of the 1st Dundee Troop Boy Scouts with him as Scoutmaster.

In 1916 he enlisted with the Royal Garrison Artillery, serving in German East Africa and finally London. Returning after the war he resumed teaching in Dundee, got married, had a son then took up a new job in Edinburgh.

Teaching in Edinburgh

For the next quarter century my grandfather worked as a perpipatetic handicrafts teacher for the Midlothian School Board, travelling between schools in towns south of Edinburgh, such as Gorebridge and Penicuik.

boys standing outside wooden building
Boys from one of James Shaw's carpentry classes (Possibly at Penicuik)

Perhaps by then the 'fashion' of sloyd was dying out? As a teaching method it was very 'child centered', each child being guided onto an individual path along which they progressed at their own speed. That had always been recognised as a problem with sloyd, how to cope with a range of abilities within the class? Sloyd in many ways is a tool of discipline, to train the mind and body to work together, the 'craft' is just an aid. Arguably there are other ways to achieve that, perhaps with organised games? There must also be pressures to learn the craft, i.e. carpentry in its own right, to be able to make things. English is taught so that a child can communicate well, mathematics so that they can carry out essential calculations, they aren't taught as abstract exercises which to some extent slojd is. While sloyd has virtually disappeared in the education systems of the United Kingdom it is still used and taught in parts of Scandinavia. There is also almost a cult following in some quarters, which puts a value on the manual methods used to make a sloyd item and the form of the item itself, similar to the way some value Shaker-style furniture, divorced from the philosophy behind it.

The various articles that my grandfather produced for himself and his family, cabinets, stools, tables etc. weren't of a slojd 'character', suggesting that in later years was more likely that his boys were being taught general carpentry. The depression years saw a lot of unemployment among the local mining communities to the south of Edinburgh and so my grandfather ran evening classes for these men, in part so that they would retain a sense of pride in their physical abilities. To that extent sloyd lived on, though for these men, who already had strong manual skills, learning the craft of carpentry was probably of more importance.

My grandfather was still working as a much-loved teacher when he unexpectedly died in October 1949, aged 62.

I would like to acknowledge the help of Gunilla Hallset, archivist at August Abrahamsons stiftelse, Nääs Slott for her help in providing information and images from Nääs. Without that I would have been stuck with a Swedish mystery.