‘- I got more schooling than I wished for – ’ (p3)
To say Alexander doesn’t give a great wealth of detail upon the subject of his schooling would be an immense understatement.
After a brief overview of his early childhood where he remembered ‘nothing of his first few years’ he recollects that the ‘Great Dearth [famine] in the country either towards the close of the last century or the beginning of the present century.’ (p.3) was amid the first of his remembrances. Upon researching this memory it is likely that his recollection was that of the widespread European famine of 1799-1800, when Alexander was 5 or 6 years of age.
It is within this train of thought that he directs us to his opinion upon his school days, stating ‘I may particularly mention that I got more schooling than I wished for –‘(p.3) it seems to be of only slight importance to him that his school career ended when it did. Indeed he seems rather content that it did so.
It is clear Alexander does not set much store by education and leaving at the tender age of around 7/8 years old. (An estimation based on later stories) A few years later before he left for the ships he commented that ‘The workmen at the time and in that place [where he worked] were very illiterate and such a thing as a newspaper or any other publication among the whole lot of workmen was unknown’ (p.6)
That the powers that be thought too much schooling, ‘- would simply make the working poor discontented with their lot’ (Chitty), and so it wouldn’t be until the Industrial Revolution, ‘which gathered pace in the last quarter of the 18th century’ because as technology and machinery evolved they needed more educated workers to build and maintain them.
It is also clear from his autobiography he is not an unintelligent man, he writes coherently. It is entirely possible of course he has more unofficial schooling as he had considered ‘the school my enemy as I foolishly thought’ (p.5) suggesting he may regret this disregard for lack of education. He appears to have a good memory especially with figures, he remembers clearly the price of Indian corn meal ‘the chief support of the poor’ was at the high price of (at least) £5 12s. for ‘the load – not of the finest quality’ (p.3) Of course this ‘memory’ could have been a fact later learned.
Chitty, Clyde. Education Policy in Britain. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Clarkson, Leslie, Crawford , Margaret. Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920. Oxford: UP, 2001.
Howison. Alexander. (n.d) Autobiography of Alexander Howison ‘Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library. 1:354