Averil Edith Thomas: Education and Schooling

At the age of twelve my evenings were devoted to lessons, since if I was to fulfil my ambition to become a teacher, I had to get one of the few scholarships then given.’ (22)

High levels of education and schooling were normally restricted to the middle and upper classes during the early 20th century, with wealth and background undoubtedly paving a child’s future. As already discovered, this was not the case for Averil, who devoted a lot of her childhood to learning in order to become a professional teacher despite the limitations of her social status.

However, within her untitled memoir, Averil ceases to describe any aspect of her school’s curriculum. She refrains from commenting on what life was like inside the classroom, and does not even disclose the name or area of the schools that she attended. Instead, she fixates on the social aspect of the playground and the customs of child play. Averil states, ‘in the elementary school we sometimes did exercises in the playground’ (21) but ‘only when the teacher was in a good mood’ (21). ‘Singing games were played at break or in the season skipping ropes, whips and tops or battledore and shuttlecocks were seen’ (21). For someone who based their life around education, it is interesting to see how Averil draws focus on the memories that were spent with friends outside of the schoolroom rather than inside. These memories appear to be her fondest; displaying how she valued and cherished these moments of carefree bliss the most when reminiscing on her life at the age of 80. From this brief description her school life oozes feelings of contentment and relaxation.

skipping
A photograph of a girl playing skipping rope in the mid 20th century

Unfortunately, for many other working-class children growing up in England during this era, this was not always the case. Eleanor Hutchinson, born 1912, depicts a completely different school experience; one of brutality and misery. In her autobiography, The Bells of St Mary, she comments; ‘After much racing and ranting, she got hold of a garden pole and proceeded to strike the girl anywhere and everywhere. The pole broke, but she had another, and on she went like a raving lunatic’ (70). Only eight years old at the time, Eleanor recalls the beating of her fellow pupil by a nun. This type of treatment by educators was common, and almost a world away from the conduct exerted in our modern day society.

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Photograph of teachers’ stick/cane

It is possible that Averil either witnessed or experienced similar physical and mental abuse whilst at school, but ceases to comment on the issue as a way of upholding the cheerful, nostalgic tone of her memoir. It is also promising to believe that she never, as her small country town of Melton Mowbray has proved to be an easier place to grow up in as a poor child than Eleanor’s home in London, highlighted in my life and labour post.

Averil’s adult profession did not come easily to her. She devoted a lot of time and energy to studying, commenting; ‘At the age of twelve my evenings were devoted to lessons, since if I was to fulfil my ambition to become a teacher, I had to get one of the few scholarships then given’ (22). Despite a failed first attempt, she ‘did get an intending teacher scholarship’ (22) at the age of fourteen. In light of this success, she took over her favourite room in the house, the attic, when studying for her ‘future job … but that merits a page to itself’ (26).

The environment in which Averil studied in reflects her working-class background and the struggle she overcame. The only means of light in her house came from a small lamplight, which ‘stood on the table and which had a fan at the bottom’ (18). This was ‘set turning by a clockwork key to send a current of air to the gas jet’ (18).

Regina Gagnier, a writer specialising in working class autobiographies, believes;

‘In conditions of long work hours, crowded housing, and inadequate light, it was difficult enough for them [working-class people] to contemplate themselves, but they had also to justify themselves as writers worthy of attention of others’ (338).

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Lighting in the early Victorian home

Averil clearly justified herself as a writer and remained confident in her own abilities, despite the ‘inadequate light’ within her household. The clock attached to the lamp ticked very loudly, but instead of distracting Averil she ‘loved to hear the sound of the clockwork’ (19) as it was ‘companionable’ (19) when doing school homework. Instead of feeling bitter towards these surroundings, Averil appears to be very comfortable and appreciative of her childhood study environment. She seems to be thankful of what she had; showing no sign of feeling sorry for herself. This is a perfect example of how Averil did not allow her background or lack of facilities to hinder her chance of becoming a teacher. She seems proud of this, and rightly so.

Sources:

Averil Edith Thomas, Untiled, pp.26 (c. 6,500 words), Burnett Collection of Working Class Autobiography, Brunel University Library. No 1:892

Hutchinson, Eleanor, ‘The Bells of St Mary’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography. University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:429 p70

Gagnier, Regina. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender’. Victorian Studies, 30.3 (1987) p338

Images:

http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/galleries/photographers/fpg

http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01902/cane_1902992b.jpg

http://www.buildingconservation.com/articles/lighting/gaslight1.jpg

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