Florence’s education is not a prominent theme in her memoir ‘Seventh Child’ and we are barely given an insight into her own education besides telling us:
“My days were spent going across the road to Bonner Hill School” (15).
In 1876 compulsory elementary education was attendance up until 10 years of age and in 1913 attendance rose till the age of 13. Born in 1912 Florence fitted into this later compulsory education and attended school until she was 14 years old.
However, for many girls including Florence, school education tended to be interrupted by family life and they were often withdrawn from the classroom in order to take care of other siblings or domestic chores. “I had the job of looking after them, I was 14yrs old now left school owing to moving from Kingston to Hampton. For 6 weeks I was taking Mother’s place and looking after my little sister and baby brother…” (22). Although nowadays we would not expect moving house to stop children from gaining an education.
Because Florence had reached the compulsory age of attendance perhaps her family felt it not necessary that she must carry on with her education and instead she began to work. “When I was 14 ½ I started as a nursemaid to a dear little baby girl named Pamela Jane…by the time I was 15 ½ I did everything for her and stayed 8yrs” (25) Instead of using the education she obtained in her short time at school to look for work, Florence instead takes the knowledge and care she learnt in helping her mother with her younger siblings, and applies this to work. However, the pressure for a 14-15 year old child to obtain the responsibility of looking after another child took its toll on Florence and she suffered a mental breakdown: “Owing to my work bringing up the children I had a break-down and was in bed for weeks” (26).
Later in the memoir Florence reflects back upon her school days and recalls
“At the time in my life at school I always wanted to be a vet or doctor was always told by my teacher I would make a good all rounder. At the time she said this I did not know what she meant. I know now I have been involved in so much and always putting my heart into everything I did” (47).
Florence continues “I always remember my teacher used to bring all her husband’s shirts for me to wash and iron. I said to my mother I don’t know Mrs Williams lets me wash and iron her husband’s shirts mother saying she knows you will do them as good as she can” (47). Although the teacher probably thought she was complimenting Florence in her actions, I think it shows the lack of seriousness showed to education and instead of encouraging Florence academically, she is encouraged to concentrate on domestic work within the home typically associated with women. This is also shown later on in the memoir as Florence remembers a how:
“when I was a school girl I won a certificate for the top girl for cooking” (46)
In 1906, Sunday Schools grew in popularity with 6,179,000 in attendance. Florence recalls attending with a family friend’s grandchildren however mentions little about her feelings towards attending. But John Burnett has argued that ‘From the frequency with which they are mentioned in autobiographical writings it is clear they occupied a highly important and generally, highly honoured place in the lives of the working classes. Only rarely is there a critical note’ (Burnett, 136-7)
Florence’s lack of further education is reflected in her memoir as she talks with pride about her sons Richard and Jonathan and their academic achievements. “When Richard was 16yrs old he got 13 O levels then on to Ewell Tech taking 3 A levels physics, chemistry and Zoology then on to Queen Mary College L.U for his BS degree in Zoology going on doing a PHD studying the cockroaches eyes for 3yrs, now working at overseas centre for pest research Kensington we are very proud of him” (44). She goes on further to tell us that “Jonathan taking at 16yrs 7 O Levels, 3 A Levels chemistry zoology geology getting his B.Sc degree in Geology working now in Department of natural History, Glasgow Museum and Art Gallery, Kelvingrove ” (44).
Florence tells us that both herself and her husband John were both interested in Natural History which obviously influenced the children and their education as she describes the moment Richard brought home his Thesis to show them and they read:
‘This Thesis would never have been written if it had not been for my parents getting me interested in Natural history when I was a small boy and have helped and encouraged me all the way through” (44).
Throughout her memoir, Florence does not show any resentment towards her time at school or lack of further education and instead expresses her delight and gives us as readers a sense of fulfilment that she has raised two successful and intelligent children.
181 COOTER, Florence Anne, ‘Seventh Child’, MS, pp.71 (c.71,000 words). Brunel University Library found in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989)
Burnett, John ed. Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education, and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s London: Alan Lane, 1982.