Joseph Lancaster, the son of a shopkeeper, was born in Southwark, London, in 1778. As a boy Lancaster began to have religious visions that convinced him that he should become a missionary in the West Indies. At fourteen he left home and made his way to Bristol where he intended to catch a boat to Jamaica where he hoped "to teach the poor blacks the word of God." Unable to afford the fare, Lancaster found work in the city and soon afterwards joined the Society of Friends.
Lancaster returned to London and at the age of twenty opened small school in Southwark. Outside Lancaster put up a notice that read "All who will may send their children and have them educated freely, and those who do not wish to have education for nothing may pay for it if they please." The school was extremely popular but as most of the children were unable to contribute money towards their schooling, Lancaster found it difficult to employ people to teach them. After reading a pamphlet written by Andrew Bell about his attempts to form a school in Madras, Lancaster decided to introduce the monitorial system. Under this system one master taught a select group of older pupils, the monitors, and these in turn taught the rest.
Lancaster devised a very elaborate system of punishments that encouraged children to feel a sense of shame. As a Quaker Lancaster was unwilling to inflict physical pain on his pupils. In 1803 he published his first pamphlet, Improvements in Education, which explained the teaching methods that he used at the school.
The school grew rapidly and within a couple of years he had over a 1,000 pupils. Members of the aristocracy became aware of Lancaster's school and he was visited by the Duke of Bedford, Lord Somerville and the Duke of Sussex. In 1805 George III asked Lancaster to visit him in Weymouth. At the meeting the king promised to help fund Lancaster's monitorial school.
Despite some generous donations, Lancaster was always in debt and in 1808 two Quakers, Joseph Fox and William Allen, and the radical politician, Samuel Whitbread, took over the running of the school. They then formed the Royal Lancasterian Society that gave support to the formation of schools that were not controlled by the Church of England. Lancaster always argued that education should be Christian but not sectarian. A report published in 1811 revealled that of the 7,000 children that Lancaster had educated, not one had become a Quaker.
Joseph Lancaster now spent most of his time touring the country advocating his views on schooling. Between 1798 and 1810 he travelled 3,775 miles, delivered 67 lectures in the presence of 23,480 people, and helped form fifty new schools for 14,200 scholars.
John Edward Taylor, who was later to establish the Manchester Guardian, became secretary of the Manchester Lancasterian School Committee. Other reformers in Manchester such as Absalom Watkin, Archibald Prentice, John Shuttleworth, Joseph Brotherton, William Cowdray, Thomas Potter and Richard Potter were also supporters of the Joseph Lancaster School that opened in Manchester in 1813.
In 1816 Lancaster argued with the trustees of the Royal Lancasterian Society. Lancaster left the organisation and attempted to form his own school at Tooting. This failed and he ended up bankrupt. After a period where he was imprisoned for debt, Lancaster emigrated to America. He formed a school in Baltimore but it failed to make money. Lancaster also established schools in Venezuela and Canada. These schools were also unsuccessful and he was forced to return to New York. In October, 1838, Joseph Lancaster had an accident in New York and soon afterwards died of his injuries.