Edith Annie Williams (b. Nov. 1899): Education and Schooling (Part 2.)

‘I recall an early occasion of telling my father of our being given the choice of learning a foreign language & that I chose French. He wasn’t pleased that I had rejected learning Welsh properly’ (7)

Edith remembers her time spent at Cyfarthfa Castle Secondary school with fond memories. Now a museum and art gallery, her memoir reflects changes in the educational system which she was very much affected by during her time as a student. ‘There was the challenge too, of providing a school to meet the needs of advanced education for girls as well as boys’ (6).

She embraced the challenge of an education that went beyond what she would have been exposed to prior to her opportunity to study at the Grammar school. ‘…the teachers looked scholarly & awe-inspiring, they warned us that our studies would have to cover a wide range of subjects hitherto unknown to us, i.e. maths, chemistry, physics…I revelled in the novelty of it all’ (6-7).

Unfortunately her time at the Grammar School was cut short when her family were no longer able to afford her books. ‘From then on all books were chargeable to rates. For me it was the end of a young dream’ (7) She is deeply saddened when her time at the school ends, see my Introductory blog post, her memoir serves as a demonstration of the hardships of working class education. John Burnett cites Edith’s memoir in his book Destiny Obscure discussing her withdrawal by the education authority due to their financial struggles.

The Bodleian Library at Oxford University where Edith spent much of her time. Found at www.Bodleian.ox.ac.uk

The shortcomings of her education seemed to have a profound effect on her as she enters the world of work. She turns down the job as governess for a young boy of a wealthy family. ‘My immediate reaction was that my education was not good enough’ (10). She expressed great sadness on her rejection of the role, ‘…refusal to accept the post troubled me then, & on many occasions afterwards. Why did I reject this offer of an opening into a world more in keeping with my ambitions?’ (11). She yearned for an education that she felt had just slipped out of her grasp.

Documentation of Edith’s enrolment on her course of study. Courtesy of The Bodleian Libraries at The University of Oxford. Shelfmark SC 1/42/1

Her life changes when she marries Charles Williams in 1923. ‘I became more & more impressed with his depth of knowledge, & the effect those extra years at school had made upon his adult attitude towards life’ (13). I feel that because of his influence, Edith starts to become interested in education again. After her marriage she enrols in an adult education class on psychology ‘leading on subsequently to metaphysics’ (14) in the autumn of 1925. ‘…it seemed a good start to join our young friends, in making a serious study of an interesting subject’ (14).

She demonstrates a great deal of determination to learn, perhaps spurred on by her premature end to education as a young girl. She describes the journey to and from the lecture hall, ‘We had to walk the four miles…as there were no buses & the trains were not convenient either. The walk home after the lecture gave us an opportunity of continuing the discussion’ (14).

She is introduced to a higher level of learning which she notes plays a significant role for her in the future. ‘It was many years later, the importance of these first hesitant steps towards the light of knowledge, was fully understood by me’ (15). The quality of writing that is evident in her memoir, I think, is a result of this as she recalls this course allowed her to, ‘grapple for the first time with language that, to the lecturer, seemed to express so easily the ideas he meant to convey’ (15).

She recalls her attendance at various summer schools, ‘where we combined the serious study of economic issues with the pleasure of meeting interesting people’ (20), in the late 1920’s.

In October 1942, she is officially admitted to the University of Oxford to study the post-graduate course, ‘Public Administration’ (24). She describes the challenge of the experience, ‘competing with the chosen elite to meet the standards set by this august university’ (24). Interestingly she chooses to take the difficult entry exam in order to enrol at the University, but her husband does not, ‘much to his regret later’ (24).

Thesis titles written by Edith during her time of study. Courtesy of The Bodleian Libraries at The University of Oxford. Shelfmark SC 1/42/1

I feel that Edith is inspired by her lecturers which propels her desire to learn as she describes, ‘During the hard & intensive study I never lost the first fascination of just listening attentively to what the lecturer was saying, but to his way of saying it. The mastery of the subject, expressed with eloquence, & a facility of linguistic perfection’ (24).

She describes an opportunity for research in Social Survey’s that was part of her course. This entailed social observation in a community on the outskirts of Oxford, in which she was advised to ‘mix freely’ within the community to investigate whether or not community spirit can exist on a Council Housing Estate. She talks humorously about the results, ‘Everybody enjoyed the joke, & we succeeded in breaking down some of the social barriers that normally separate people…When we submitted the answer to the question set for us, we said ”We believe a community spirit can exist on a Council Housing Estate”’ (26).

Her time at Oxford ends with a ‘written thesis’ (26) that she opts for which was on ‘”The Problem of Juvenile recruitment to the coal-mining industry”’ which she states was, ‘a very familiar subject for me. To my great relief the examiners were favourably impressed, & I was offered a post in the new Ministry of Fuel & Power’ (26).

‘In leaving Oxford I took away with me the Certificate in Public & Social Administration, & an appreciation of the unique privilege afforded me of the study under the wise Directorship of Miss C.V. Butler of Barnett House’ (26).


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.

Museum link – https://artuk.org/visit/venues/cyfarthfa-castle-museum-art-gallery-6371 

Burnett, John ed. Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education, and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s. London: Alan Lane, 1982.


  • Image of the Bodleian Library at Oxford University c. 1940 taken from – https://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/whatson/whats-on/online/remembering-radcliffe/books
  • Image of Name, Address, and Tutors – Shelfmark: SC 1/42/1: Edith Williams: Name, address and Tutors. Courtesy of The Bodleian Libraries at The University of Oxford.
  • Image of Titles of Thesis – Shelfmark: SC 1/42/1: Edith Williams: Titles of Thesis. Courtesy of The Bodleian Libraries at The University of Oxford.

I wish to thank The Bodleian Libraries at The University of Oxford for allowing me to use the selected images from their archives for my research purposes. This has been tremendously beneficial to the project.

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