Bessie Wallis (b. 1904): Education and Schooling

Bessie lived in an area that valued strength over intellect. You didn’t need to pass the curriculum to work in the mines, which was the profession that supported most local families. Despite this, the idea of schooling and education was still prevalent and “No miner who risked his life in those hazardous mining days before Nationalism wanted his son to follow him.” and “education was fiercely encouraged.” among young boys.

Although many families were poor, Bessie admits that there was some sort of support available for those who wanted to pursue it, for example, The Ellis Trust ensured that “Money was always available for the purchase of slates and pencils.” and for those who wished to broaden their horizons past mining “evening classes were considered vitally important.”


Headmaster of the Brampton Bierlow School cuts the “first sod” of the new school which the Ellis Trustees were building to provide more accommodation.

However, once she was back home, Bessie’s experience of schooling with differed greatly from the modern child, “There was no such thing as homework.” Even without this added material of studying at home, Bessie found she was a smart child and “had been with half a dozen bright children in the standard for two years.” Since her and the pupils in this group had passed the curriculum early, the school went so far as to allow them to spend their time “looking after a class for an absent teacher.”

Education in Bessie’s life wasn’t all about grammar and sums. For one, she writes how she learned about the nature of sex through school, “I had wondered about the whispering and sighs but as soon as I started school I was enlightened.” This suggests that school was also a place for social and physical learning, topics discussed by her school peers of all ages rather than by her teacher. It was a place for her to learn more about the world outside of her own house and wasn’t limited by just the classroom.

Additionally when she wasn’t required on school grounds she and her siblings would attend Sunday school. “Outings as well as sports and book prizes for the scholars who gave a good attendance” were funded by Church teas, which people paid sixpence to enter. Attendance was also encouraged by the children being given a “star”. Other than the usual activities, the children would be expected perform hymns and solos for the Sunday School Anniversary and they had to “practice and practice at those hymns which must be sung to absolute perfection on the day.” Bessie’s brother Danny disliked Sunday school as his independent spirit believed it to be too “childish”. It appeared by Bessie’s recounts that Sunday School was a very important part of a child’s life in that area, allowing them be part of a community and rewarding attendance with delightful gifts and experiences that shaped their childhood in positive ways despite their poverty.

West Melton Sunday School 1967, the crowning of the new “Sunday School Queen” with flower girl and crown bearer

According to Laquer in his book ‘Religion and Respectability’ Sunday schools for the working class “helped bring order into the daily lives of their students, to provide social services not readily available elsewhere and to offer recreational and cultural activities where few were available.” and when reading Bessie’s memoir, I get the impression that this statement is true for her, she does not reflect negatively on her time at Sunday school as opposed to her life at home, for example.  

Both Sunday school and her educational school had to end for Bessie though at the age of 13. She was dreading it as she was very aware of her limited options after school. To drive this despair even further she had won a County scholarship that she ultimately could not make use of as “Money was so short there was none for books, uniforms or fares.” This potential amazing opportunity was rendered useless due to her family’s lack of money.

When Bessie had almost given up hope, a way out of this seemingly fixed destiny showed itself to her through the form of a pupil-teaching opportunity. The headmaster of the school she studied at asked her parents if she could stay on to teach pupils and there was even potential for earning money.
This idea was turned down flat by her parents, Bessie recalling them saying she had to take her chances in service, “just like any other girl.”

This attitude is reviewed in Natalie Thompson’s study about the education and work life of women who grew up in mining communities. From a multitude of interviews with these women, Thompson discovers that young girls in this environment were “rarely encouraged towards academic success by their teachers or schools, and were not entered for the exams that might have opened alternative pathways.” This is curious in contrast to Bessie’s memoir as it shows that her teachers and school were potentially abnormally encouraging of her academic progression.

It’s shocking to read that two promising prospects to change Bessie’s life for the better after her mandatory study period were defeated so easily by her status in society and the views of her parents. It seemed that being a smart girl who had a passion for education and schooling was not enough in Bessie’s case, and it wasn’t the school that failed her but the forces around her that she as a young girl could not control which urged her down the path many girls had done before her.

Bibliography

Laqueur, Thomas. Religion and Respectability: Sunday Schools and Working Class Culture, 1780-1850 (Yale University Press, 1976)

Secondary Education and Social Change in the United Kingdom since 1945, Education, class, gender, and social mobility in post-war Britain’s coalfield communities. Or, why working-class girls mostly got working-class jobs (but not always), 8th March 2019, Natalie Thompson, WordPress.

J. Burnett (ed.), Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of childhood, education and family from the 1820s to the 1920s (Allen Lane, London, 1982)

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