Emily Gertrude Lea (1906-1972) Education & Schooling

Up until changes in the education act in 1870, schooling was viewed as a privilege rather than a right, with schools being dominated by upper classes due to the lack of free schools available. However, with education becoming compulsory for children in all classes aged 5-13, and the growth of Sunday schools, working class children in the 20th century were provided with an opportunity beyond on the reach of previous working class generations.

Beginning Sunday school at age 3, two years before the compulsory age, Lea’s eagerness for education is apparent from the beginning; “I was very keen to start Sunday school with Albert who was three years my senior. I even cried to go” however, like many children this quickly evaporates as she continues to say “… later on I cried to stay away” (1).

Provided by the church, Sunday schools taught children and wanting adults very basic literacy to enable them to read the bible but not “to do writing or arithmetic or any of the ‘more dangerous subjects’ which were ‘less necessary or even harmful”(Gillard 2011).

As a way to encourage attendance, many Sunday Schools offered incentives. Florence Cole, another working class blogger recalls how “all the Sunday Schools that I knew gave children a stamp for each attendance and a brown paper book to stick them into. These stamps were like postage stamps but larger with a biblical picture and text on them. When we had a full book, we had a small prize. We also had some very nice larger texts given to us, suitable for hanging on the wall”.

Sunday School outing
Sunday School outing

Annual trips or events were also introduced to create a sense of community. Lea fondly reminisces on her schools yearly “Tea drinking” party which took place early in July. A special occasion, Lea muses over how “the night before was spent in bathing and hair curling or plaiting. My own was done in plaits and when released gave me a crimped appearance” (3) creating the impression that Sunday Schools were more a social activity than a foundation for education.

Reminiscing on her early school days, Lea believes the teachers “seemed to spend their time in devising various ways to torture of my small mind” (4) crediting her good behaviour to the “punishment for those little savages who bit and scratched, pretending to pull out teeth or cut off fingers. Another dreaded punishment was to be shut in a dark cupboard, I was never put there, but the prospect so terrified me I think I should have died of fright if I’d found myself inside.”(4)

Leaving infant school aged 5 to begin compulsory education, Lea went on to ‘the big girls school’ as boys and girls aged 6-7 were separated as they continued their education. After the education act made it compulsory for all children to attend school, a new form of resentment became apparent amongst the working classes, as some viewed it as another form of control over the lower classes, educating them on discipline and behaviour above anything else. With threats of the cane lingering from older girls of the school who remarked “You’ll get the stick here”(5) we see a glimmer of this through Lea’s memoir as it seems physical punishment was used to exercise control. However, Lea recalls that although the headmistress at the time did posses a small cane, it was seldom used, “and nothing compared with the two I saw in the infant’s school” (5).

Sunday school records
Sunday school records

Whilst Lea doesn’t talk about her school in detail, she does inform us that it was one of the first built after the 1870 education act, however by the time Lea attended in 1906, it is casted as old fashioned with there not being many private classrooms, the rest all opening out onto each other making teaching difficult and inconvenient highlighting the difference in educating working class people received.

However, a keen reader, Lea’s fondness for education soon returned as she made her way into the top class and states;  “I was beginning to realise that I liked school and hated staying away in case I missed anything”(6). Unfortunately, like many other working class children, this was not to last, as at age 13, surpassing the compulsory schooling age, Lea was withdrawn from her education as her parents decided it was time for Lea to earn her keep and was thus sent to work to help the family financially.

  •  Lea, Emily Gertrude. ‘Reflections In the setting sun…I Remember after fifty years’ Burnett Archive of Working Class autobiography, University of Brunel Library, 2-469


1) Sunday School Outing: http://www.1900s.org.uk/1900s-sunday-schools.htm

2) School Record: http://www.1900s.org.uk/1900s-schools.htm

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