In her autobiography, A Backward Glance on Merseyside, Agnes writes little of her own schooling. She said:
Of my school days I have neither happy nor even pleasant memories.
Agnes attended a church school in her neighbourhood of Toxteth Park whilst her brothers were sent to a Higher Grade School. Agnes remembers in her memoir her classrooms being small and dismal particularly as some were beneath street level. Gas lamps were used to light the classrooms and it was not uncommon for children to faint during the lesson, especially if it was a lesson in which they were required to stand throughout.
Agnes was never affected by the gas lamps, instead her misery in school arose from her difficulties in understand arithmetic. Like most Victorian schools, there was a focus on the Three ‘R’s’: Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic. Agnes recalls that she later understood the reason being why she could not grasp this subject was because only one member of staff was a trained teacher and frequently the older girls gave the lessons, so they were often not taught properly. Agnes recalled:
Those children possessed of a natural bent for figures were able to grasp their significance. Those not having this bent, and who should have received more tuition, were left to flounder helplessly with a subject which to them was a hopeless puzzle.
If a student failed an examination the headmistress would punish students with a ‘pointer’ by slapping it across the shoulders. Agnes feared this and so found it difficult to concentrated during the lessons preparing for examinations due to her nerves. It is important to note that arithmetic was deemed far more important than English as many of the girls would go on to become dressmakers or milliners.
For Agnes, her school life appears to be a time of little happiness to her. Yet she recalls that the year 1886 was a memorable one as it was the year of the Liverpool Exhibition. The Exhibition was opened by Queen Victoria and it was the ‘most discussed topic of the time both at home and at school’. To mark the event, all the school children received a medal and those aged ten and over were taken to see the Queen pass along Edge Lane. In preparation for the event, the school children would practice singing the national anthem daily. School children from all over Liverpool lined the road in heavy rain and sang ‘with both heart and voice’ as the Queen passed.
At the age of fourteen Agnes left school with the permission of her mother. Agnes remembers in her autobiography that at the age of fourteen she would have liked to do what many girls of that age seemed to do and that was to go into business by means of an apprenticeship. However, when Agnes asked her mother and father if this would be possible she was told that her place was in the home where she would help her mother with the children and the household duties. Agnes wrote:
I therefore settled to the ‘daily round and common task’ and was contented and happy in the companionship of my dear mother, seven tantalising, tiresome but loveable brothers, and a sweet baby sister.
Both of Agnes’s parents were from families with generations of strict adherents to the Anglican Church. Agnes’s father, Matthew, was a strict Sabbatarian. Even on board his ship he would only allow essential work to be undertaken on a Sunday whilst at home Sundays were for church service. The Cowper family attended a little chapel on the corner of Geraint Street and it was here that Agnes became a Sunday-school scholar. For Agnes, during her youth all her interests centered on the work and the friends that she made in the little Chapel on the corner of Geraint Street. Two yearly events that Agnes and her family would participate in were the Sunday-school anniversary and the midsummer Sunday-school excursion. The excursions were often a day spent at a nearby rural retreat such as Bidston Hill or New Ferry, Mills Gardens. In the month of January, for the Sunday-school anniversary there would be tea parties and concerts.
Upon the death of Agnes’s father, Matthew Cowper, in 1895, The Committee of the Liverpool Seamen’s Orphanage offered to take one of Agnes’s younger siblings. Her brother Harry, aged ten, was the right age for admittance and so their mother greatly accepted the offer. By living at the orphanage, Harry would be educated, clothed, fed and given a good start in life. The Cowper family would often attend Sunday service at the chapel of the orphanage and would watch as the children, boys and girls, slowly marched the aisle to their seats wearing their uniforms. Agnes recalls that she and her family would receive a smile of recognition from Harry, though his lips would quiver he held his head high.
Resources and Links
- Goldman, Lawrence. ‘Intellectuals and the English working class 1870-1945: the case of adult education.’ History of Education: Journal of the History of Education Society. 29.4. Oxford: St. Peter’s College, 2000.