George Clifton Hughes (b.c 1911): Education and Schooling

Education and schooling is a vitally important section in George Clifton Hughes’ memoir.  He was born and raised in the mining town of Wrexham in the early twentieth Century.  The opening third of his memoirs look at his first experience of education through to his entrance into Ruabon Grammar School in 1922.  This shows how Hughes felt that his time in school was vitally important in shaping him as a person.  We may not build relationships as a child in the same way as we do as adults; however childhood is important to us as we learn how to interact with other people.  Each reader will remember their own experiences of spending time with other children for the first time, with both negative and positive memories.  Therefore the reader will be able to relate to the stories that Hughes tells and compare it to their own childhood.

Ruabon Grammar School Crest. The Latin motto, when translated to English means - ‘Without Work Nothing’ - http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/f/fc/Rgs_badge.png/100px-Rgs_badge.png
Ruabon Grammar School Crest. The Latin motto, when translated to English means – ‘Without Work Nothing’ – http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/f/fc/Rgs_badge.png/100px-Rgs_badge.png

Hughes’ memoirs begin by looking at his time as a child in Sunday school.  Sunday school was an important part of working-class family’s lives.  It was not only a way for children to learn about the Christian faith, but it also helped to raise the literacy level in Britain.  Sunday school was where working class children were first given a chance to learn to read and write.  If a family was to send their children to Sunday school, they would also gain certain social status within their working-class society.

Religion was also important in early twentieth century, working class Britain.  Hughes was raised during the First World War, meaning that the public were looking for rays of light in a predominantly dark world.  Religion offered hope to many that were suffering, and was in its own right an affective form of escapism.   However, Hughes of course was a child attending Sunday school and children often looked at religion in different ways to adults.  A child is always looking to learn about the world that surrounds them.  The most effective way to teach children lessons about morality and how to live their lives is by sharing stories with them.  The bible is the perfect tool for this as there are child friendly stories which cover most situations in modern day life.  Children do not particularly understand the importance of religion to a large number of people, they instead are happy to listen to the stories from the bible as they are a fairy tale story.  However, despite Sunday school’s true purpose not being of any particular interest to many children, it acted as an effective way of educating children both academically and morally.

The section titled, ‘The Sunday School’ contains the story of how Hughes directs an inappropriate word in the presence of his teacher.  ‘Still less do I admit to actually emitting an impolite word, not only in the presence of the Sunday School teacher in the hall where half the Sunday School had heard it, but directed at the teacher herself.’ (1) Following his bad behaviour, his family are informed and attempt to scare him with a fake letter from the police threatening to punish him for his actions.  This is interesting as Hughes’s parents invoke the police in order to show George the importance of respect towards himself and the people around him.  Bad behaviour was not a rarity in Sunday school; similarly school was a place where boys would be more interested in creating games for the class to play rather than their education.  However, this was an education in itself.  The politics of the playground arguably has an equally telling effect on children as the time spent in the classroom.

Hughes then moves on to look at his time in Ponciau Infant School, which is a brilliantly light-hearted section.  This section looks at the relationships with his teachers but most importantly, as previously mentioned, the issues surrounding the playground.   This again was equally important as the actual academic education, as these are the times where children are able to develop confidence in themselves and discover the idea of friendship and relationships.  Infant school is a difficult period of our lives to remember anything as we were so young.  However, we do seem to remember the people who gave us joy and we remember trauma.  ‘Of Infant School Days I can remember but four or five things and I suppose it would be true to say that in respect of things learnt at this stage most of us would find it hard to specify.’ (2)

‘It was the Spring of 1922 that I had sat the scholarship examination and by mid-Summer I must have forgotten about it, or maybe, since I hadn’t heard, assumed that I hadn’t passed, although come to think of it, if any of the other lads had passed, I would surely have heard about it.’(46)

The section entitled ‘Ruabon Grammar School’ and the sections that follow show Hughes’s transition from Junior to Grammar School.  His account of his time in Grammar School gives an interesting insight into an educational system which has since been replaced by the comprehensive system.  In order to gain entry to Grammar School, at the age of eleven, children would have to take an exam.  It was also costly, which meant that working class families could not always afford to send their children.  However, the comprehensive system tried to eradicate this class segregation by ruling that schooling would be free firstly until the age of fourteen, until it was extended to the age of sixteen in 1964.

Example of corporal punishment in schools - http://www.west-info.eu/uk-michael-gove-corporal-punishment/
Example of corporal punishment in schools – http://www.west-info.eu/uk-michael-gove-corporal-punishment/

In the early twentieth century, corporal punishment was used in schools and Hughes describes many times where the cane has been used as punishment.  Corporal punishment was banned by parliament in 1987,[1] and has divided opinions ever since as many feel that the increase in anti-social behaviour could be controlled by harder punishment.  This type of punishment is looked upon in contrasting ways by different generations.  One educationalist wrote in 1920 that corporal punishment is aimed at ‘helping the backslider to do willingly what he ought to do.’[2]   Judging by Hughes’s account, it definitely went some way to enforcing the law upon the children in the school.

However, Hughes’s memoirs give a harrowing picture of the brutality of the cane:-

‘Mrs. Charles was, even to us in those days rather a diminutive body, but boy, could she wield a stick?’ (20)

Hughes also recalls a particular story regarding a pupil called Joe Wright. Joe received an incredibly painful punishment after he had drawn added a rather interesting embellishment to a drawing in his book.  This sparked anger from the master, J.T Jones, which led to a horribly painful session of beating via the cane for Joe.

‘Mr Jones had replied, “Give him two more”. Joe told us his reaction to this.  “If he had said, ‘Give him another twenty,’ it wouldn’t have mattered much for by this time I had no feeling there at all.  It was the indignity of it, me lying there on my own.  By this time I was all numbed up.  It was the thought of it that hurt a lot.”’ (51B)

Joe Wright’s account of how corporal punishment affected him shows how it was not even the physical pain which hurt him.  Clearly the idea of the cane was a way of undermining children and embarrassing them.  Judging by Joe’s response, it did not seem to trigger a dramatic change in his behaviour.  Hughes’s memoirs show why it was the right thing to ban corporal punishment in Britain from 1987 onwards.

The style of Hughes’s writing is informative yet light-hearted, and it is clear that he had a good sense of humour.  There are many examples of his and his friend’s sense of humour as youngsters, usually channelled through misbehaviour.  However, humour was not just present in Hughes’s friendship group.  According to Hughes, there were a number of teachers who the children got along with and enjoyed their company.  Such as Mr. Charles in Ponciau school, ‘..Mr. Charles had more humour in his little finger than all the others would ever have.’(41)

‘…’light-heartedness’ demonstrates either that workers are generally satisfied with their fragmented tasks in the labour process or that they are able to ’let off steam’ and so dissipate their frustration with deskilled and routinized jobs.’[3]

Humour was incredibly important in lifting people’s spirits during a particularly frustrating period in history.  This quote from David Collison’s paper ‘Engineering Humour’ sums up why humour was so important in a working class society.  Humour was and still is a way for people to distance themselves from the repetitive nature of working-class life.  Teaching was a job which was not particularly well paid, meaning that those who took that occupational path needed to lift themselves and those around them.  It is clear that Hughes respected the teachers that made an effort to build relationships with their pupils.  There are examples of teachers from Ruabon Grammar School such as J.T Jones and Dicky Pearce who clearly have had an influence on Hughes’s life.

‘Dicky Pearce was a great chap.  Anybody who failed to do Mathematics with Dicky Pearce, well, he just hadn’t got it in him. ‘ (49)

Another important part of Hughes’ education was the introduction of the ancient language of Latin.  The motto of Ruabon School is in Latin and reads, ‘Absque Labore Nihil’ which translates as ‘Without work nothing.’  This suggests that his Grammar School was committed of using Latin to educate their children.  Latin was a key subject for developing children’s understanding of language and literature, as well as helping to improve older children’s ability to analyse and debate while referencing ancient philosophies.  There was a decline in the teaching of Latin during the twentieth century, culminating in the language being taught hardly anywhere in Britain following the Education Act of 1988 which reformed the curriculum.  Currently, in 2013, only 5% of the Secondary Schools in Britain offer Latin as a subject, which is a huge decline from Hughes’s era.[4]

In the final pages of his memoirs, Hughes looks at his study of Latin and the influence of his Latin teacher, J.T Jones.  It was clearly important to Jones, however Hughes described studying Latin vocabulary as a ‘tedious job’ (137), which was probably the feeling that many children had for the language.  To the adults who taught the subject, it was important for them to master the language, but perhaps Hughes’s negativity was an example of the decline in Latin education which followed Hughes’s time in education.  However, despite Hughes’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for the subject, the influence of a great teacher helps him yet again.  ‘J.T’s results for this Central Welsh Board were over 90 per cent through, a rate unheard of before.’ (140) Jones was clearly an inspiration and contributed greatly to Hughes’s development.

‘J.T Jones, a great man, and it was our great good fortune to be inspired by him.  Later he became Headmaster of Ruabon Grammar School.’ (140)


[1] Taken from the World Corporal Punishment Research website – http://www.corpun.com/counuks.htm

[2] Nunn, T.P. Education: Its Data and First Principles. London: Edward Arnold, 1920: 200.

[3] Collison, David L.  1988. Organization Studies: ‘Engineering Humour’: Masculinity, joking and conflict in shop-floor relation.  Manchester (P.181-199).

[4] Taken from an article on reviving Latin in classrooms – http://www.teachingexpertise.com/articles/reviving-latin-classroom-213

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