Robert Raikes (1735-1811) is traditionally credited as pioneering Sunday Schools in the 1780s. While teaching Bible reading and basic skills on a Sunday was an established activity in some eighteenth century Puritan and evangelical congregations, such as the circulating schools in Wales, Robert Raikes did made a notable contribution to the development of Sunday schooling.
Raikes started his first school for the children of chimney sweeps in Sooty Alley, Gloucester, in 1780. Raikes was able to use his position as proprietor and editor of the Gloucester Journal to publicize his work. After his first editorial in 1783, the idea of the Sunday School caught the imagination of a number of people involved in evangelical churches and groupings, and Sunday Schools spread quickly. By 1785 an undenominational national organization, the Sunday School Society, was set up to support and develop the concept. By 1784 there were as many as 1800 pupils in Manchester and Salford, and the same number again in Leeds. Sunday schools in the north of England and in Wales were attended by adults as well as children.
While the activities of middle class philanthropists were significant in the development of Sunday Schools. By the mid-1800s Sunday Schools had come to represent a significant strand of organized working-class activity. Many were coordinated by working people, although the membership of chapels was still rather more from the skilled than the un-skilled working class. By 1851 it was claimed that three quarters of working class children were attending Sunday Schools.
In Religion and Respectability T.W. Laquer suggests that the key element in the success of Sunday Schools was that they provided education and expressed the values that working-class parents wanted for their children, particularly regarding 'respectability', self-discipline, industry, thrift, improvement, egalitarianism and communalism. However, the view that Sunday Schools were the actual creation of a working class culture of respectability and self-reliance is questionable.
Smith, Mark K., 'Robert Raikes and Sunday Schools'. Infed website http://www.infed.org/walking/wa-raikes.htm.