‘I was no genius, but I seemed to have more than average intelligence.’ (5)
Edith dedicates large portions of her memoir to discussing her time spent as a student at four different educational institutions that she attends throughout her life. What is especially interesting is the opportunities that were afforded to her given her humble background as a miner’s daughter. Her memoir also highlights significant issues that surrounded class based struggles in terms of education, such as being able to afford the cost of books.
Edith describes the neglected conditions of the first school that she attended, ‘I started school at the age of four…The school was old, cold, & cramped, & though it may have served the educational needs of previous generations…it was of little use to the vast numbers of newcomers.’ (1-2). This was not the most promising start to education, but she does recognise the importance of school from a very young age.
Much of her time spent at this first school was spent playing rather than learning: ‘play with cowries, or sing pretty melodies to the accompaniment of the old piano.’ (2) Much like other working class children during the time, there was not much emphasis placed on rigorous academic study. During playtime where the children would, ‘push & jostle each other in anything but a friendly manner’ (2), Edith was much more interested in what was happening at the nearby colliery.
The point at which her attention is drawn away from the colliery, and she begins to express excitement and enjoyment towards school, comes when she first steps foot in the newly built Pantglas School. The language she uses to describe play changes from that of jostling to a much more enjoyable description. ‘Oh how we frolicked like young lambs delighting in our new found freedom.’ (3) Simon, Dent, and Horn also noted this positive attitude towards early life at school as reflected in Jonathan Rose’s article. ‘Two-thirds of all working people who expressed an opinion remembered school as a positive experience’ (`125).
Edith’s time at school plays a large part in the shaping of her identity. She cites her attendance at the Pantglas School as an influence for writing her memoir. See my Purpose & Audience blog post. She describes a pool of water that gathered behind the school where she and her friends would paddle that later became filled with colliery waste. ‘When in 1966 news came with all its horror of the movement of the tip…We searched our consciences, wondering whether a strong protest at the time at the loss of our make-believe seaside would have spared these lives of a future generation of schoolchildren. Who could tell?’ (3). Sadly then, there is a tinge of guilt when Edith remembers play.
Edith’s memoir points out the difficulty faced by many working class families, which was being able to afford the cost of post-compulsory education: ‘the time came for me to sit the exam for the Higher Education school that my parents felt they could not afford to let me go. I felt deprived & unfairly treated, as I desperately wanted to stay in school to be a teacher as my friends were doing.’ (5). The cost of higher education was an issue for Edith’s family in 1912, as it was for so many others. This was probably Edith’s first feeling of class-consciousness as she is segregated from her peer group. Charles Shaw has a similar experience noted in John Burnett’s Destiny Obscure, ‘I felt a sudden, strange sense of wretchedness. There was a blighting consciousness that my lot was harsher than his and that of others…’. (130)
Where Edith’s experiences differ from the majority of the working class experience in school is in the fact that she had a large amount of support from the headmistress of Cyfarthfa Castle Municipal Secondary School.
Edith is studying at a time of great reforms in the education system that she is aware of. ‘I was allowed to leave school at the age of twelve because there was no more for me to learn from the current text books…educational standards…were still in the pioneering stages, as we were only ten years away from the Act of 1902 granting free elementary education.’ (5).
‘My chance came a few months later when the head-mistress of the grammar school took matters into her own hands & coached me herself for the entrance exam…The result was the delightful time (tragically short though it was) I spent at Cyfarthfa Castle Municipal Secondary School, which became important for its pioneering standards of higher education throughout Wales.’ (Skeleton outline)
Index entry in Burnett et al The Autobiography pf the British Working Class: 832 WILLIAMS, Edith. A, ‘Untitled.’ TS, pp. 39 + 3pp. chapter summary (c. 11,700 words). Brunel University Library.
H.C. Dent, 1870-1970: Century of Growth in English Education (London: Longman, 1970), pp 18-19, 69-70.
Pamela Horn, The Victorian and Edwardian Schoolchild (Gloucester: Alan Sutton, 1989), pp 184-193.
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
Burnett, John ed. Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education, and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s London: Alan Lane, 1982. P130.
Spartacus Educational – http://spartacus-educational.com/Leducation1902.htm
All images from – http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/cyfarthfa_castle_school.htm