Although education and schooling are not prominent themes through Leslie John Robinson’s memoir, the absence certainly explains a lot about the working- class family struggle of this time. Dedicating a chapter of his writing to his experience of being a schoolboy, Leslie recalls ‘soon after my fifth birthday I started my formal education at the Woodlands School’ (p.31). He appears proud of his brief encounter with learning, however it soon is revealed to be more of a hindrance than a propeller to a brighter future. As Leslie explains, ‘I say formal education because schooldays are, of course, only a part of education’ as ‘the world is a great university for those who want to learn’ (p.31). Here the author limits school learning to the classroom, establishing that in those days, what was learned behind the desk was not necessarily going to be useful in the working- class adult world.
Instead, Leslie John Robinson uses his school experience to bring an element of comedy to the memoir as he remembers amusing events rather than learning a great deal of useful skills. He recalls ‘on the 18th July 1934 King George and Queen Mary, on their way South from launching R.M.S. Queen Mary at Glasgow, stopped at Liverpool to open the Mersey Tunnel.’ This brings a lot of excitement to Leslie as he ‘was one of the thousands of school children there that day’ (p.32). He writes with pride. However, it seems that attending school was the key to witnessing this spectacular event rather than a matter of importance in terms of learning.
Moving ‘to a council house in St Pauls Close, Rock Ferry’ meant a ‘change of school’ for Leslie as he joined ‘Well Lane Board School’ (p.32). He mocks ‘after the nice Miss Robinson at the Woodlands it came as a great shock to find myself standing in front of a female Attilla the Hun. I don’t remember her name, but I’ll never forget that moustache!’ (p.32). The comedic element to this part of the memoir could perhaps hide a deeper awareness of the alienation felt by working class children as they often missed out on a satisfactory education. As there is no mention of schooling past primary level in the memoir, it appears that Leslie John Robinson falls into this category. Due to the lack of quality learning for working- class children, self- education was one of the only ways to become knowledgeable. This suggests that Leslie writes about British political issues, wartime events and Egyptian cultural expertise from his time in the military in order to testify his elevation from an ill- advised school boy to an expedient man capable of penning an autobiography.
In his work The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (2008), Jonathan Rose discusses the role of ‘mutual improvement societies’ (p.62). These were extra- curricular groups for adults abandoned by the weak educational system as children, enabling them to improve each other’s knowledge. Ran mainly by other working- class individuals, the groups encouraged men to ‘read books, instead of wasting their time in public houses. It taught them to respect themselves, and to desire to educate their children’. Most importantly, ‘it elevated them in society’ (p.62). There is no evidence in Leslie’s memoir that he attended one of these groups. However, the need for these sessions around this time demonstrates a flaw in the education system and the oversight of working- class children like Leslie who clearly also expedited his own learning experience.
By contrast, Leslie emphasises that due to the neglect of working- class children by the education system, the importance of learning failed to be passed on from generation to generation and so the lack of formal schooling escalated. He highlights that ‘parents whose education was even more sparse than their children’s failed to understand the need to keep them at school a moment longer than necessary, and in some cases the need to send them to school at all’ (p.4). It appears that because of the shortage of money for working- class people to sustain a comfortable lifestyle, the majority of parents proposed a ‘no work, no money’ (p.4) mind-set. Leslie explains that his grandfather ‘could ill afford his children enjoying the luxury of sitting on a wooden bench in a classroom when they could be out earning a few shillings to help the family budget’ (p.4). I can therefore be assumed that this is the reason why his education did not extend further than primary school. Having gained this experience of the working- class schooling dissolution, Leslie John Robinson clearly wanted more than this for his children, shaping the way in which he viewed the importance of their education and breaking the generational chain.
- ‘Leslie John Robinson’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 2:671.
- Robinson, Leslie John. ‘One Step at a Time’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection. 2:671.
- Rose, Jonathan. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. Yale University Press: 2008. Web. Accessed 18.04.2019.