Fred Baxter (1908-1997): Education and Schooling

“Education is a fine thing. I left school at the age of 13 years. I could write, spells read and do arithmetic” (p.40).

During his childhood, Fred attended a number of schools. He recalls being taken “from Bury to Gazely” (p.1), when his mother married his stepfather, where he attended school for a “short time” (p.1). However, when the family moved back to Bury, he attended St Mary’s Infant School in Sparhawk Street, before moving to the Guildhall Feoffment on Bridewell Lane. The school originally opened as “Guildhall Feoffment Poor Boys School” in 1843, with approximately 30 pupils, before converting to a mixed-gender school in 1933.

Fred reminisces about his school days when he served in the choir at St Mary’s Church. He highlights one particular afternoon when the choirboys played truant and “instead of going back to school,” decided to “go to Hardwick Heath” and climb trees (p.2). The next day, the boys were disciplined for their poor behaviour. Fred recalls how the headmaster told them to let their “trousers down and bend over forms” so he could cane their bottoms, “which were very sore for quite a while” (p.2). Despite this punishment, the boys showed great respect for their headmaster and teacher even “touching” their caps when they “saw them out of school” (p.2). This form of discipline was administered regularly in the early 20th Century as “most late Victorian and Edwardian schools succeeded in maintaining discipline… via the cane.” (Rose, 2008, p.137).

On another occasion, Fred remembers a classmate falling asleep and being “quickly hit with a lump of Plasticine” (p.2) thrown by one of the teachers. Fred uses humour to describe these incidents, showing admiration and respect for his teachers and the lessons they taught him. However, on reflection, he remarks how children are “so much better off these days” (p.41). Fred has a particular memory of walking past a shoe shop window, which “displayed terrible weapons such as whips, chains, leathers etc.” (p.41). These implements were “used to punish children” (p.41), and were probably used to maintain order both at school and at home, as they were readily available for the public to buy.

At times in the memoir, the boundaries between Fred’s education and working life are blurred. Fred recalls how he worked for the headmaster on Saturdays for tenpence ‘’whilst still at school…cleaning his cycle, helping in the garden….and running errands for shopping” (p.2). He then proceeds to retell other life events, before returning to the work he carried out, whilst still at school. Fred often races ahead in his narrative before returning to the chronology of his life, possibly due to his elderly age when writing the memoir. He states, “Now back to my schooldays. I found a between school hours job working for a Mrs Wiseman who had a millinery shop in the Buttermarket” (p.5). Despite signposting his school days, Fred proceeds to talk about employment rather than education, suggesting that, for Fred, work was equally as important as his education. In the early 20th Century, men viewed their “first day of work” as “a rite of passage into manhood”, almost like “a graduation into the ranks of wage earners,” and a “liberation from school disciplines” (Rose, 2008, p.181).

The changes to compulsory elementary education in 1913, resulted in Fred leaving school aged 13. However, Fred’s education did not cease. Years later, whilst working in the agricultural office at Boby’s Engineers, Fred met Mrs. Blain who “taught shorthand at the County School evening classes, also the Baldwin House private school, Chequers Square” (p.7).  She allowed him to “attend both classes for the price of one” (p.7). This resulted in Fred learning shorthand, a skill he used to “take down sermons”, whilst in St. Mary’s choir. Fred did not need to attend formal education, yet he seized the opportunity to learn a new skill, showing the importance he placed on education.

Fred attempts to present the details of his life in chronological order, however, towards the end of the memoir, he reflects again upon his schooling. We learn how Fred was taught “only the basics” (p.40), leaving school at the age of 13 with the ability to “write, spell and do arithmetic” (p.40). This was standard practice for the time as children were taught the basics using “rote learning”, almost as though they were being “trained to become obedient cogs in an industrial machine” (Rose, 2008, p.146).

Pupils from Great Bradley Village School in the early 20th century. Great Bradley is situated 17 miles from Bury St. Edmunds.

Fred’s schooling seems to align with the typical experience of working-class children in this era. Rosa Bell, a fellow author in the Burnett collection was born in 1902, six years before Fred. They left school at a similar age, Fred in 1921 aged 13 and Rosa in 1914 aged 12, with both immediately entering into employment.  There are obvious parallels between Rosa and Fred’s school experience; however, as education can be a particularly gendered experience, although similar, their experiences were not identical. Rosa writes about her memories of reading aloud in the classroom, implying that she too was taught the basics of how to read and write. However, unlike Fred, Rosa had intended to attend a grammar school but unfortunately, her family did not have the finances to make this happen.

It is apparent that Fred valued his own education despite its limitations, and the corporal punishment he endured at the hands of his Headmaster. In the latter stages of his life he wrote, “Education is a fine thing” (p.40.) indicating the importance he placed on education throughout his life.


Work Cited:

Baxter, Fred, ‘Cemetery Side of 83 years; the life story of a Bury St. Edmunds man’, Booklet. 43pp. 1993, Burnett Collection of Working-Class Autobiography, Brunel University Library.

Rose, Jonathan. (1993) Willingly to School: The Working-Class Response to Elementary Education in Britain, 1875–1918. Journal of British Studies, 32 (2), pp.114-138.

Rose, Jonathan. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, Yale University Press, London. 2008.

Images Used:

Image 1- Guildhall Feoffment School on Bridewell Lane, 1865. Retrieved from:

Image 2- St. Mary’s Choir in 1906. Retrieved from:

Image 3- Illustration of the Buttermarket from the early 20th Century. Retrieved from:

Image 4- Pupils from Great Bradley Village School in the early 20th Century. Retrieved from:

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