Dora R. Hannan (1909-2001): Education and Schooling

We were fortunate in living fairly near school, which was quite a big one divided into ‘Infants, Boys and Girls’. There was a large play ground of ashphalt (sic) with lavatories over the far side, no washbasins, but metal fountains to provide drinking water. These were manipulated by pressure on the central portion, whereupon the water would gush upwards into the mouth. Metal cups were attached to the fountains, but somehow I never fancied using them. The class rooms had one fireplace, and those children seated at the back didn’t derive much warmth from the fire.” [p. 6]

The school that Dora attended, Penhale Road Board School, now known as Penhale Infant School.

Dora and her siblings attended Penhale Road Board School (now known as Penhale Infant School) in Fratton, Portsmouth. The 1870s saw the introduction of a standard, legally enforced school day, with a higher school leaving age, as opposed to the flexible, working class schools, that children could leave to start earning a wage as early as ten years old (August, 2007).  Because of this, and more progressive changes towards compulsory education, Dora would have been provided free education until the age of 13.

Dora’s recollections of school are mainly focused around her time in the “Big girls section of the elementary school” [p. 27]. These memories are told surrounding her best friend Sylvia, and other school friends, Edith, Maddie, Ruth and Kathleen. “There was great competition between Sylvia and I when we had spelling bees, a regular feature in class at that time. We were both very good at spelling, and it was usually a ding dong battle in the elimination contests which took place, all very good natured fun, we were never jealous if the other won” [p. 27]. However, despite Dora’s success in English grammar, dictation and literature at school, other subjects did not come as easy to her. It was common in schools for the focus of the girls education to be less on academic learning, and more on domestic skills training (Gomersall, 1997). Although Dora recounts learning such academic subjects like spelling and dictation, we can see how she is taught domestic skills with her report of needlework lessons.

A photo of a gym class at a Portsmouth High School for girls built in the 1870s.

“I really loathed needlework, the ghastly chemises which seemed to form the basis of our lessons were a nightmare to me. Time and time again I had to unpick what I had done, and invariably I had to take my garment home to be washed because it was stained with specks of blood from pricked fingers and more colour of a floor cloth than an undergarment. I was hopeless.” [p. 28].

One possibility for working class children to gain more education than what was compulsory, was to gain admission to a grammar school. This would require taking entrance exams, and either achieving one of the few scholarship places, or paying a fee to attend (Burnett, 1982). Dora was lucky enough to have this opportunity, along with her school friends, and she took the exam a year early, as one of the youngest entrants. Dora recounts taking her exam in the main hall of the Girl’s Secondary School, and the small issue that she had in the dictation aspect of the exam: “My seat was about three quarters of the way back on one side of the hall, which position was quite satisfactory till we came to the dictation piece. For this the headmistress … read out an extract for us to take down … I managed to get everything down fairly well with the exception of one word, and for the life of me I couldn’t decide whether it was ‘rolled’ or ‘rode’ which she said … and being a born loser, I naturally guessed the wrong word” [p. 28].

The results of the exams were published in the local paper, including lists of whom had passed. Dora tells a story of when her friend bought the paper when the lists were out, where they mistakenly do not spot her name. “We continued on our homeward way and as we turned the bend into our road, I could see in the distance, my father standing out on the pavement. I knew, of course, that my parents would be once again disappointed in me if the other girls had passed the exam, and I hadn’t, but I didn’t expect to see my Dad waiting for me. “Oh, oh” I said, Dad had seen the results, now for it!” Imagine my surprise when he started walking towards us, his pace quickening the nearer he got, and the pleasure was there for all to see. “You’ve passed, Rosie, you’ve passed”, he called out excitedly even before he reached us, and there as he pointed out, but somehow overlooked by us, was my name.” [p. 29]

A photo of a Sunday school class.

The secondary school that Dora attended was the St. Mary’s Board School (now known as the Portsmouth Academy). We can see that Dora throws herself deeply into her school and education, as she was near one of the top achievers in art class, takes part in netball, learns to play the piano, and plays the character of Captain Hardy in a school play. It is no surprise that Dora enjoyed her school experience so much, as the newly changed school that she would have attended is known to be a more “Livelier, more original and imaginative institution” following the changes being made to education (Burnett, 1984, cited in Rose, 1993:116). We can also see a more colourful curriculum being taught at the time of Dora attending school, as she was taught subjects like art, French, botany and science. It was only once reading Baker’s (2018) post on Mary Laura Triggle’s education, that we see how lucky Dora was to gain the education she did, as it suggests that boys had a better chance in education compared to girls. Dora and her friend’s attendance to secondary school is therefore showing a progressive to the education for working class girls.

As well as secondary school, Dora also attends Sunday school with her family. The purpose of Sunday school was to: “Teach children to read and understand the Bible” (Burnett, 1982:141). Dora recounts putting on her best clothes and attending Sunday school at the Wesleyan Methodist church. she says that her motives for attending Sunday school were down to the rewards, “We were always pretty keen to keep up a regular attendance at Sunday School as we were then rewarded with an outing into the country in the summer” [p. 9]. It was at Sunday school that Dora met her first boyfriend Joe; however, it was not to be, “Alas, I soon became disillusioned! While sitting together in class one Sunday, I noticed that his ears were dirty, probably not his fault, but it had the effect of completely shattering any romantic feelings I may have had” [p. 9].

Unfortunately, Dora was taken out of school at the age of 14. This was due to her parents not having the funds to keep her there any longer, “Naturally, I was very disappointed as I saw my ambition to become a teacher shattered” [p. 37]. This was common for children alike to Dora, as: “Schooling often had to take second place to the needs of the family economy” (Burnett, 1982:136). Because of this, once Dora was taken out of school, she entered into a job in a large store, where she gave her wage of a few shillings a week to her mum to help with the family budget.

Works Cited

357 HANNAN, Dora R., ‘Those Happy Highways: An Autobiography’, TS, pp.36 (c.20,000 words). Brunel University Library.

Baker, J. (2018) Mary Laura Twiggle (1888-1985): Education and Schooling. Writing Lives. [blog] URL: Date Accessed: 25/04/18

Burnett, J. (1982) Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s. Penguin Books: London.

Gomersall, M. (1997) Working-Class Girls in Nineteenth-Century England: Life, Work and Schooling. Macmillan Press Ltd: Hampshire.

King, A. (2011) The Portsmouth Encyclopaedia. Portsmouth City Council. [online] URL: Date accessed: 05/03/18

Rose, J. (1993) Willingly to School: The Working Class Response to Elementary Education in Britain 1875-1918. Journal of British Studies. 32(2) p. 114-138


Penhale Infant School. (2018) School Tour. [image] URL: Date Accessed: 01/03/2018

Portsmouth High School. (2018) History. [image] URL: Date accessed: 05/03/18

Taylor, A. (2015) Old-School Sunday School. Diocese of London. [image] URL: Date accessed: 05/03/18




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *