The central importance of Eva Shilton’s education cannot be understated; it is one of two topics explicitly referred to in the title of her autobiography, and provides a personal and at times comical representation of her formative years at school.
Eva begins her autobiography by noting that she started school at six years of age, and could only think ‘that the authorities had forgotten all about [her]’ (Shilton, p.1). She, like many others at the time, attended a local church school for her first years of education (1913-1916), before attending a so-called ‘private school’ (1916-1917), and ended her formal education at South Street elementary school in 1921, aged 14. Though schooling was a legal requirement at the time, on her first day she walked home in disgust at the state of the ‘dirtiest, smelliest, most disgusting row of lavatories’ (Shilton, p.2), and to her knowledge ‘was never missed’ (p.2). This indicates that, though school was compulsory, there was little discipline or enforcement regarding attendance, possibly due to already crowded classrooms.
At St. Peter’s Church school, the class Eva was first assigned to had no desks or tables, ‘just rows and rows of little chairs’ (Shilton, p.1). Upon discovering Eva could read, however, her teacher told her to follow her to another classroom, stating: ‘I have sixty in this class that can’t [read] and they are enough for me’ (Shilton, p.1). Eva had been taught to read at home by her father ‘from the age of three’ (Shilton, p.2), so had had a considerable advantage compared to many others who were still illiterate. This advantage was soon lost, though, as in her second year of education Eva fell ill with diphtheria and was unable to attend for four months.
Eva never returned to St. Peter’s church school. Her mother had become ‘very taken’ by the distinctive blue bonnet of another girl who regularly walked past their house: she attended ‘a private school for young ladies’ (Shilton, p.4), situated in an attic above both a fishmonger’s and bootmender’s shops. Upon completing the interview and receiving her headwear, Eva’s mother was ‘elated’ (Shilton, p.4). Her mother’s perception of the school, though, could not have been more wrong. Eva recalls that the classroom smelled of ‘chalk, ink, sweat and dirty knickers’ (Shilton, p.4), and that there were about twenty girls in the classroom, ‘their ages from about three to fourteen years of age’ (Shilton, p.4). The disparity in age alone could have been a warning sign as to the true nature of the school, but ‘the reason [Eva] never said anything [was because of her] mother’s joy in her hat’ (Shilton, p.4). It soon transpired that this ‘private’ school was in fact a school for ‘maladjusted children whose parents did not know what to do with them’ (Shilton, p.5). ‘The children did not take one bit of notice of the teacher’, and when things got heated in the classroom ‘she would go out of the room, lock the door, and say ‘get on with it” (Shilton, p.4).
Eva, nevertheless, resolved to educate herself regardless. She said that the time she spent there did ‘toughen [her] up’ (Shilton, p.4), and for the most part she engrossed herself in novels. She recalls reading The Wide Wide World by Susan Warner, A Peep Behind the Scenes by O.F. Walton, and John Halifax, Gentleman by Dinah Craik, all behind ‘a very smelly dusty plush curtain’ (Shilton, p.4). These books are relatively sophisticated, especially for a home-taught girl of only nine years of age, and were perhaps an early influence on her later fondness of reading and writing.
For the most part, Eva’s nostalgic recollection of her education revolves around her time at ‘dear old’ (Shilton, p.12) South Street elementary school. She was very nearly denied admittance, however: ‘father had to go to the school offices, see the Educational Officer, and explain why his daughter had been attending this private school for maladjusted children.’ (Shilton, p.5). Once she became a pupil of South St. school in 1917, her ‘reading ego’ took a knocking’ (Shilton, p.6) once she found that most other girls could read. Her insatiable appetite for education though, especially reading and writing, is especially clear in these pages. Eva says that ‘I worked, I listened, I tried, and I hated to be associated in any way with any girl that was not in the top group’ (Shilton, p.6). She recalls being moved into the top groups twice in her first year, though showed little aptitude for sewing and knitting classes.
Her talent for the three R’s in school were enough to earn her a letter of recommendation to a new secondary school: ‘Education would be free, but books and uniform would have to be provided.’ (Shilton, p.12). John Burnett notes that this was not uncommon: ‘many autobiographers record having to reject the offer because of the cost of books, uniform, sports equipment and other ‘extras’.’ (Burnett, 1994, p.161).
Eva was to stay at South St. school, though was now old enough to attend classes in domestic work at Wheatley St. school half a mile away: ‘This course was meant for girls who […] were likely to go into service’ (Shilton, p.15). Though Eva did not go into domestic service, she greatly enjoyed these classes involving cooking, washing, and ironing. These lessons were not enough to draw her away from her love of reading and writing though, and Eva later became a typist before marrying her husband aged 20.
Shilton, Eva. ‘School and Family Life in Coventry, 1913-1921’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:706
Burnett, John., Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s. Routledge: London, 1994