‘Schooldays were carefree and happy, we had little money, but we enjoyed life to the full’ (10).
In ‘Down Memory Lane’, Cecil George Harwood fondly recalls his schooling. He dedicates the first chapter of his memoir to illustrating his experiences. Born in October 1894, Cecil first attended school in 1898. ‘I began my schooling when I was three years old and it cost twopence per week’ (1). The Elementary Education Act (1870), meant that it was compulsory for all able children between the ages of five and ten to receive an official education. In 1891, further legislation was implemented, raising the school leaving age to thirteen. However, as Cecil’s writing reflects, there was still a payable fee for his education.
Whilst Cecil does not explicitly name the school he attended, his writing suggests that he may have attended Ayot School, a facility connected to the Church at Ayot St. Peter’s in Welwyn, Hertfordshire. In his preface, Cecil mentions ‘the living at Ayot St. Peters belonged to the squire and the Rev. Jephson was Vicar… Mrs. Jephson was organist and the two daughters were Sunday school teachers’ (Preface). The ‘Miss Jephsons, the Rector’s daughters’ (1) recur in Cecil’s nostalgic recollection of a summer ‘treat’ (1) given in celebration of the end of term:
‘We had games, Blindman’s Buff and many others…. There were sandwiches and all kinds of cakes, but the one I liked was the sponge, but even I had had enough and had to refuse each time it came my way. The Miss Holdsworths kept pressing me to have another piece, but I had to say “No, thanks”. Well, she said, put it in your pocket, then I had to say “There is no room as my pockets are full already”’ (1).
Cecil’s writing forms a detailed image of the village school pupils of the late 19th, early 20th century. He vividly describes the different uniforms for boys and girls. ‘The boys at school wore knickerbockers and jackets with jersey underneath, or maybe a waistcoat, depended on what ones parents could afford. The girls wore dresses and pinafores well below the knees. For boots, most of us wore hobnails… They were heavy to wear but lovely in the Winter for sliding on frozen ponds or large puddles’ (2).
Although many working-class autobiographers, such as Jack William Jones (b. 1900), offer an overwhelmingly negative account their schooling, Cecil’s remembrance of school as a carefree time is not uncommon. In ‘Willingly to School’, Jonathan Rose assesses the working-class response to elementary education in Britain, from 1875 to 1918. He notes, ‘two-thirds of all working people who an expressed an opinion remembered school as a positive experience, a slightly higher proportion than their more affluent contemporaries, and only one out of seven had unhappy memories’ (Rose, 125).
At Ayot School, Cecil was ‘taught to read and write’ (1) and obtained a basic level of literacy. In the Harwood family home, Cecil was encouraged to further develop his literacy skills as reading was a communal form of entertainment. ‘Mother would read aloud to father. He had never been to school and therefore could neither read or write, but read him something out of a book and he was a happy man. Often the whole family would drop anything they were doing and enjoy listening to someone reading. I guarantee if a night’s reading had been missed, my father could tell you where one left off and also what it was all about’ (17).
Significantly, Cecil’s father was illiterate, and that it was his who mother led the family in their shared reading activities. Literacy was statistically measured by a person’s ability to sign the marriage register, and by 1914, England had achieved almost full literacy, with 99 percent of the population signing their name. Although Cecil’s memory of family reading takes place much later, circa 1909, his parent’s relationship reflects the literacy rates of the 1860’s, when women began to overtake men in the ability to read and write.
Cecil stresses that he was not by any means an outstanding pupil and even struggled with practical activities. ‘The knitting for boys was making part of strips of knitted wool about 1 foot long and 1 ½ inches wide. When these were completed they were sewn together to make a harness. The best set made was given to the brightest pupil. Needless to say I never had one’ (1).
Despite a lack of success in the classroom, in Summer 1906, Cecil ‘sat for an exam, called Labour exam, and if one passed with top marks it was possible to leave school at the end of the Autumn term and which [his] parents decided [he] should do’ (8). Cecil fulfilled the educational standard legally required by the 1870 Elementary Education Act for a child to leave school and seek employment. The following Autumn, Cecil began his labouring life, working as an ‘errand boy in a Chemist’s shop in Welwyn’ (8).
The brevity of Cecil’s formal education gives an insight into why his time at school is so fondly remembered. Cecil writes how he and his friends staged one ‘last prank before [he] began work’ (8), a memory that holds an emotional resonance. Considering this, Cecil’s induction into the working world marks not just the end of his schooling, but the end of fun and games, and the beginning of a ‘new life’ (10).
‘A window was broken in the cowshed backing on to the road which everyone used and the cowman swore it was one of the boys who had done it. We were not guilty, he couldn’t prove otherwise… We didn’t expect to get the laughter out of it that we did’ (6).
Click here for more on Cecil’s childhood, family, and working life.
309 HARWOOD, Cecil George, ‘Down Memory Lane’, TS, pp.104 (c.65,000 words). Brunel University Library.
Harwood, Cecil. ‘Down Memory Lane.’ Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. University of Brunel Library. Special Collections. 1:309. http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/10964
Kimberley. ‘Jack William Jones Born 1900: Education & Schooling.’ 3rd March 2017. Writing Lives. Web. Accessed. 27th March 2018.
Rose, Jonathan. ‘Willingly to School: The Working-Class Response to Elementary Education in Britain, 1875-1918.’ Journal of British Studies. 32.2. (April 1993): 114-138.
‘The 1870 Education Act.’ N.d. U.K. Parliament. Web. Accessed 25th March 2018. http://www.parliament.uk/
Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History. 5.2. (May 1980): 223-247.
Vincent, David. Literacy and Popular Culture: England 1750-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.