‘The scratch of slate pencil on slate is something you never forget.’(Gomm, 38)
Born in 1899, Amy Frances Gomm makes it quite clear in her discussions about education and schooling that she did not find it of much worth to her own self-improvement. From the sub-heading she uses—‘Off to School’ , she criticises the education system that was in place when she and her sister Laurie attended. Amy tells us how the phrase ‘Off to School’ was from a poem contained in a children’s book that they had. She speaks ironically of how the poem depicted school as an enjoyable place for the students, and how her opinions of the place didn’t exactly match up. It is apparent that Amy’s education was much more intermittent.
‘Some time during 1904 and 1905, I did go to school, perhaps half a dozen times. I’d go for a day, pick up something (it certainly wasn’t education!) that laid me low for days or weeks.’ (Gomm, 31) She discusses how it was a long and unpleasant walk to school with that bad weather often making it dangerous. ‘They considered it safer, generally, to keep me at home. When I was coming up to seven, I made an ‘official’ start.’ (Gomm, 31) In 1880 the Elementary Education Act was implemented, making school attendance compulsory between the ages of five and ten. David Vincent shows how, despite this Act, ‘by the early 1890’s attendance within this age group was falling short at 82 per cent.’ (Vincent, 33)
A lot of the knowledge and skills the children gained came from the family home and not the government schools. ‘The foundation for the eventual victory [full literacy] was laid not in the schoolroom but in the working-class family.’ (Vincent). Amy discusses this matter humorously, explaining that ‘the chances are that it was only Laurie and Syd who were going. And its Amy writing. You see the difficulty?’ (Gomm, 31) Amy is clearly hinting that she did not need to go to school to become the successful working class writer that she was; ‘I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read (to my own satisfaction) and write. I certainly didn’t learn at school, although school must have ‘improved’ me.’(Gomm, 31). She is clearly quite sceptical of the idea of school, note the use of quotations around the word improved.
Author and professor, Carol Dyhouse has also shown that ‘as late as 1920 most girls in England received a significant part of their education in the home.’ Amy explains that it was her mother that taught her to read and that it was usually always the case that it would be her mother teaching her things as ‘dad wouldn’t have time.’(Gomm, 31) It is apparent throughout Amy’s memoir that women and girls were expected to put domestic work before education, with Amy leaving school at the young age of fourteen to help run the family business. Boys as well as girls learned gender roles and expectations in the family homes and Susan Williams argues that a ‘female knowledge’ was ‘imparted down the generations of women in the home which included both the ideology of domesticity and lessons in the practicalities of domestic work’ (Jane McDermid, 14)
Like many working-class autobiographers, including William Lovett and his own memoir ‘Struggle for Bread, Knowledge and freedom’, Amy focuses on the importance of self-education. ‘Whilst parents and children were subject to an ever more complex range of pressures, for the most part they retained freedom of choice.’ (David Vincent, 54) This sense of liberation is definitely apparent within Amy’s family, with her personality throughout the memoir resembling one of a calm, free spirit. Her motivation to learn came from her own inquisitiveness for life rather than learning for the sake of academia. She sees school as more of a day trip rather than a ritual process, talking more about the journey to and from school and the time she’d spend with the other children rather than the education itself.
When Amy discusses her school life, her sentences always appear to end in a negative way. ’Come rain in torrents or snow in blizzards as we trudged along, we just got wet; stayed in our damp clothes until we got home that night. There were no drying arrangements at school.’ (Gomm, 32) She also tells a story about how Laurie and some of the other children would steal walnuts from the walnut trees on the way home. ‘For the whole of the walnut season, their fingers would be stained dark brown. Teachers would regularly make an example of them- a bad example. In disgrace, they’d have to stand in front of the class, holding up for all to see their disgustingly stained hands.’ (Gomm, 37) Amy, of course does not find it a disgrace and is again reiterating the cruelties that occurred in school during her generation.
Amy’s critical reflections on her schooling life are markedly different from her fond recollections of home life. Her negative feelings towards school is apparent in her statement, ‘The scratch of slate pencil on slate is something you never forget.’(Gomm, 38)
Burnett, John ed. Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education, and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s London: Alan Lane, 1982.
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324 GOMM, Amy Frances, ‘Water Under the Bridge’, TS, pp.163 (c.55,000 words). Brunel University Library.
Hurt, J. (1991). Vincent David. Literacy and Popular Culture: England 1750–1914. (Cambridge Studies in Oral and Literate Culture.) New York: Cambridge University Press. 1989. Pp. xi, 362. . Albion, 23(02), pp.329-330.
UK Parliament. (2017). The 1870 Education Act. [online] Available at: http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/livinglearning/school/overview/1870educationact/ [Accessed 10 Apr. 2017].
Vincent, David. Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Autobiography, (London: Methuen, 1981)
Watts, R. (2013). Jane McDermid, The schooling of girls in Britain and Ireland, 1800-1900 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012. ISBN 9780415181969 Hbk. £80). The Economic History Review, 66(4), pp.1195-1196.