Ada Marion Jefferis (1884-1981): Education and Schooling

Schooling and Education is a key theme in ‘The Memories of Ada Marion Jefferis’, which you can read in full here, transcribed by myself. 

“I have little memory of my very early life but distinctly remember going to school for the first time.” (1)

Ada Marion Jefferis speaks a fair amount on her education and schooling experience in accordance with the ratio of her memoir. As “schooling was made compulsory in 1880, and as the majority of the female autobiographers were born after that date, recollections of the writer’s schooldays were a common feature of their narratives” (Griffin, 2020, 27). Ada dedicates pages 1-4 of her writing to talk about both the schools she has been to and to share her different experiences. I estimate from the details provided in her memoir that Ada left school in 1899 at 12 years old, as this is the last mention of her schooling days before entering the workplace. It wasn’t until 1918 that The Education Act raised the compulsory school leaving age to 14 for both boys and girls.

A visit from the school board inspector in Victorian London, 1890.

In 1862, payment-by-results was introduced in the management of British Schools. This national funding depended on the outcomes of examinations of the pupils conducted by school inspectors. Ada describes the visit from the inspector as a “terrifying experience” (2). Before “a very solemn man dressed in all black would arrive on the appointed day” (2), a great spring cleaning of the school took place. They were given their examination questions and Ada “can still remember how scared I was to pick up my pen in case a big blot fell off the end” (2). When playtime came “it was always a great relief” (2), where they could “escape the tensions of the classroom” (2).

Many different games were played at playtime including “skipping, hopscotch, rings, tops, etc” (2) and “each game had its season” (2). These playground games are still enjoyed by the children in the 21st century as they provide little equipment. As gender roles were very strict in the 1880s, most nineteenth-century people believed that girls and boys shouldn’t do the same activities: “girls were expected to be graceful, soft-spoken, and elegant” (King Manor). They were prepared to grow up and get married, run the household and be a mother. On the other hand, “boys were expected to be strong, hardworking, and successful” (King Manor). One of the boys’ “favourite pastimes seemed to be playing soldiers” which would be very rough so the “girls would keep well out of the way when this was taking place” (2). Typical toys for boys included soldier sets which “promoted strength, courage and leadership” (Seiber), to prepare them for their future roles. Whilst children 100 years ago would often play war games, today’s children “draw on video games such as World of Warfare or Call of Duty” which “draws on a rather different set of referents” (Marsh, 2016).  

School girls skipping in the 19th century

During and after the payment-by-results regime, “teachers often went beyond the prescribed codes” (Rose, 1993,116), by introducing different lessons to the curriculum. This resulted in a much more “livelier, more original and imaginative institution” (116), where children found a “genuine love of learning and a considerable ability to write” (116). However, Ada emphasises the parties they used to have. The Christmas party consisted of an “Xmas tree and all the children would have a small gift to take home” (3). The other party took place in Summer where the “local gentry would all subscribe, and we would be taken on an outing” (3). Four schools in all took part and they all met in the marketplace in Wokingham and proceeded to All Saints Church for a short service; “What excitement as we clambered on to the wagons” (3). After the service, they went to one of the large houses in the district where “swings, see-saws, and roundabouts had been set up for our amusement” (4), and they also ran races and played games. Eventually, “it would be time to go and we would arrive home tired and happy” (4). 

The School Yard at Eton College Berkshire, 19th century

Ada is one of the “two thirds of all working people who remembered school as a positive experience” (Rose, 1993, 125). In her first school, Emmbrook, she was “very happy” (2). She describes the mistress as a “Miss Maidment” (2), who was a “very kind and understanding teacher” (2). However, after 2 years she was sent to Forest Road School which “was a very different story” (2). Discipline was very strict here and all the small children were very frightened of the head mistress who was a “tyrant” (2). She was very useful with the cane and Ada remembers “seeing some of the older boys snatch it out of her hand and break it in two” (2). They were seized by their hair and locked up in an outhouse. This illustrates how hardly any boys “completely escaped corporal punishment in school and 42 percent of girls experienced little or no such punishment” (Rose, 1993, 130). The last few months of Ada’s school life was spent in the infant room “helping the infant teacher with the small children” which she enjoyed very much.

Education for Ada was suggested as a privileged experience as she states: “We had to pay for this privilege – 2pence a week” (1). She also took up learning through Sunday School which she attended regularly. As Ada’s memoir is a dictation, written by her daughter, it is unknown how well Ada’s ability is to write so grammar and spelling is solely dependent on her daughter’s own educational experience. Although sometimes Ada’s sentences are quite long and she jumps from one point to another, she uses adjectives such as “beautiful” (3) and “lardy” (3) to give us some kind of detail.

Primary Sources:

  • 1:379 JEFFERIS, Ada Marion, ‘The Memoirs of a.M. Jefferis. Written by her Daughter’, TS, pp. 1-19 (c.7,000 words). Brunel University Library.
  • Jefferis, Ada Marion. ‘The Memoirs of A.M. Jefferis. Written by her Daughter.’ Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies. University of Brunel Library. Special Collections. 1:379.

Secondary Sources:

  • Griffin, E. (2020). Bread Winner: An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
  • King Manor Museum. n.d. 19th Century Playtime — King Manor Museum. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 28 April 2021].
  • Marsh, J. (2016). Pretend play. [online] The British Library. Available at: <> [Accessed 28 April 2021].
  • Rose, J. (1993). Willingly to School: The Working-Class Response to Elementary Education in Britain, 1875-1918. Journal of British Studies, 32:2, pp. 114-138.
  • Seiber, V., n.d. Playtime in the Past: Visit The Hershey Story Museum. [online] Visit The Hershey Story Museum. Available at: <> [Accessed 28 April 2021].


  • Featured Image – A Victorian Child Quiz. Retrieved from: [Accessed 29 April 2021].
  • Image 1 – A visit from the school board inspector in Victorian London. Retrieved from: [Accessed 29 April 2021].
  • Image 2 – School girls skipping. Retrieved from: [Accessed 29 April 2021].
  • Image 3 – The school yard at Eton College Berkshire. Retrieved from: [Accessed 29 April 2021].

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