Beginning her educational journey at age two at Marston School, in her autobiographical letters to Burnett Mrs N. Jones writes extensively about her school experience during her childhood, detailing the vocational skills that she acquired throughout her schooling and gladly listing the playground activities that she would engage in for amusement such as, “skipping, marbles, tops + [and] whips” (6).
The emphasis Mrs Jones has placed on school experience within her life writing allows critics to explore education in the twentieth century from the perception of a working-class woman, a viewpoint previously neglected as, “the history of education, like literary history, has been written mainly from the perspective of the suppliers rather than the consumers” (Rose, 2001, p.256). It is possible that Mrs Jones focuses on her education within her life writing due to a personal familial connection to schooling, as her mother “was a teacher at Wincham schools [,] In those days if one was a good scholar, there was no exams to pass, so she taught till she married my father at 21 years of age” (6). Having a parent as an educator, though only for a brief period, may explain Mrs Jones’ fixation with schooling in her autobiographical writing, and may even rationalise her ability to write at all as typically, “schooling was not thought of very much of among the poorer people.” (Griffin, 2013, p.166). Demonstrated through Mrs Jones’ retrospective observation of her school experience, the swiftness at which children in education were prepared for working life during the era of industrialisation and were expected to provide earnings for their family as a result, unveils the ways that “formal education competed with the familial economy” (Gagnier, 1987, p.344), thus exposing the classist oppression that permits the reproduction of the working-class workforce.
While documenting her school experiences, Mrs Jones provides evidence for the notion that “industrialisation tended to thrust children into the workplace at ever younger ages” (Griffin, 2013, p.166), as she discusses the vocational subjects made available to her during her education, which established the foundation for the occupation she would pursue. At twelve years of age, Mrs Jones was “sent to a council school in Northwich to learn
abto about cookery + [and] laundry, in preparation for a job in private service. Also [,] we were taught ‘Housewifery’ for several weeks [.]” (5). While learning the skills of a private servant, Mrs Jones and her cohort of working-class girls were taken to a house owned by her school and were split into groups to familiarise themselves with their probable roles, “two girls were bedroom maids + [and] then to [two] parlour maids then cooks + [and] kitchen maids +[and] scullery maids, the cooks had to do the shopping also” (5). Working as a paid domestic servant in her younger years and a housewife during her married life, it is visible that the education provided for Mrs Jones’, alongside a familial demand for wages, restricted potential for class mobility, as the skills learned during her schooling determined her employability in her adulthood. Jarringly, this notion of predetermined poverty is expressed by Mrs Jones as she writes, “This was in preparation to service, there seemed nothing else + [and] we never heard of a high school Education” (5).
Despite its inadequacies in producing academic prospects within the working classes, it is evident through the length that Mrs Jones discusses her education that her overall experience with the school institution was positive. Endearingly reminiscing about the antiquity of her school supplies, Mrs Jones reports, “In school we had slates + [and] these were marked in squares + [and] slate pencils, for writing sums + [and] we always carried a slate rag for cleaning these when the teacher came round with a bottle of water with a sprinkler top + [and] put a pot on each slate so that we could clean them. We used to sew quite early + [and] knit; Handkerchiefs were supplied for hemming round + [and] these we could buy for 1 penny each” (7). While detailing these quaint school experiences, Mrs Jones explores memories untarnished by concerns of debt and exhaustion, fondly desiring the opportunity to “go back to school” (10).
Jones, N. ‘Two Autobiographical Letters’. The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography, 1790-1945 (3 volumes). John Burnett, David Vincent, David Mayall (eds.). Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989. 2:0444. Available at: http://www.writinglives.org/uncategorized/mrs-n-jones-b-1900-biographical-entry
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender’. Victorian Studies 30:3 (Spring 1987), 335-363.
Griffin, Emma. Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution. London: Yale University Press, 2013.
Rose, Jonathan. The Intellectual Life of British Working Classes. London: Yale University Press, 2001.
Figure 1. Marston CofE School, 1900. Available at: http://www.marston300.co.uk/old-school-photos/
Figure 2. Guide to domestic servants hierarchy. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19544309
Figure 3. Photograph named ‘Just let loose from school’, Lancashire, 1884. Available at: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/victorian-lives/just-let-loose-school/