The longish walk to and from school four times a day was in no way considered a hardship; indeed I recall with pleasure the freedom and adventure it provided and on the few days when it became irksome it was a simple matter to turn boredom into adventure by ‘mitching’ from school, as no questions were asked providing one was not ‘copped’ by the school attendance officer. (P.14)
School of the late nineteenth century was a far cry from what we would consider it today. Humphries walked to school four times a day, a task that the children of today would surely shun. However, this provided Humphries with a certain amount of freedom that he could then convert into an adventure. For this young lad the walk to school was a challenge to see how much he could achieve on the way to school. This is also an account of when school was skipped, no questions were asked and it was assumed that you were with your parents doing another equally important activity. Humphries skipped school occasionally to add adventure to his day and this is what he means by the term ‘mitching’. This, for him, often turned a boring walk to school into a number of activities, he explains that the two mile walk could be ‘varied to pass many places’ (P.15). He also hints that he did not wish to be late for school through him explaining that ‘variation from the shortest route was, however, reserved for the final homeward journey each afternoon.’ (P15)
Humphries writes of how in his classroom there were many informational posters fixed on the walls. The one he most remembers was the one detailing the production process of Sunlight Soap. He explains that:
This chart was the subject of at least one lesson. The one sentence I remember is that Sunlight Soap , as made then, was scented with lavender. I still have a high opinion of Sunlight Soap and whether my memory about its scent is correct or not, it is true to say that I still get a whiff of lavender whenever I use it to wash my garden stained hands. (P.15)
This memory shows us how Humphries’ mind is triggered even in retirement to think back to his days of school. The smell of lavender acts as a catalyst to transport his mind back to his school days to a think of the poster that hung on that late nineteenth century classroom wall. Humphries’ entire memoir is nostalgic in that it seems to invite his mind back to his childhood so that he may again take pleasure in his triumphs and failings.
The curriculum of the day as explained by Humphries focused not on any fancy studies such as ‘botany, nature studies, or intelligence tests'(P.14). Instead, however, it focused on ‘the three R’s’ (P.14) which stood for reading, writing and arithmetic. Humphries believed this to be the correct way to learn as he states that before he left school at the age of eleven he had already ‘worked at Algebra for two years and reached the third proposition of Euclid.’ (P.14) This shows us that Humphries believed the schooling of the day to be beneficial to its pupils, and he does not think very much of the schooling of today. Another interesting observation is that Humphries’ class contained 67 boys, all taught by one teacher. By today’s standards that is incredible, however this was considered as normality by Humphries.
Humphries illustrates his masculine demeanour when he begins to write about ‘playtime’. The boys at school would play rugby with a ”cap and hanky’ ball, twenty or thirty a side with much spirit and venom.’ The use of the word venom here illustrates an understanding that Humphries knew how to play well and channelled his aggression through the game. This also shows how he felt about the game of rugby as he took much enjoyment from the sport at ‘playtime’. Humphries does not discuss any other elements of ‘playtime’ in his memoir. This suggests rugby took the entire time each and every day.
Humphries’ school career was short lived when he was forced to leave school by his father who wanted him to begin work and bring in additional income for the family. This happened at the age of eleven when his father now insisted that he was fourteen. This enabled him to work full time rather than continuing through education for a further three years. This was not an uncommon practice as many families needed the additional income to get by.
361 HUMPHRIES Edward S., ‘Childhood. An Autobiography of a Boy from 1889-1906’, TS, pp.63 (c.35,000 words). Extract in J. Burnett (ed.), Useful Toil. Autobiographies of working people from the 1820s to the 1920s (AlIen Lane, London, 1974), pp.209-14. Brunel University Library.
Vincent, David. Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Autobiography, (London: Methuen, 1981)
Sunlight Soap – https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/67413325652708720/