Education is in many ways the love of Harry West’s life, and he dedicates many pages of his autobiography to describing the education he both received, and later gave to the pupils in his Sunday school class. But although West writes passionately about his education, he mostly ignores his schooling and prefers to talk about the education he received from his father and from his experiences of the world.
West accounts for much of his early education by talking about the gifts of literary texts that his father would give him. In particular, a copy of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress given to him on his 10th birthday made a resounding impact – West writes that it taught him “Lack of academical knowledge is not the danger. The danger is a sophisticated person with no practical knowledge of life.” (14)
This preference for life lessons over academic lessons continues, as at the age of 11 West’s schooling was cut short by illness:
The term “Eleven Plus” has a great vogue in academical matters today. It is the age at which a child (…) is examined to determine the type of secondary school to which he should be sent. In my own case it was a critical age, but for a different reason – my life was at stake. (16)
Harry West was sick with tuberculosis, and on the doctor’s orders – “don’t worry about his education, his life is at stake” (16) – he was sent to back to his hometown of Stanton Drew to live with his Grandparents.
The doctor may not have been concerned about West’s education, but the family was. Luckily their concerns proved to be unfounded. West says of his time at Stanton Drew:
Thus commenced twelve months of the most real education of my life, when I never darkened the doors of a school. It set for good and all “The key signature” and theme of my subsequent life. It was not a case of memorising subjects and facts, but a kind of fixing the rootage, and determining my general attitude to life. (16)
After his recovery, West was able to attend a local Sunday School. He also took other steps to advance his education, including joining the library and attending evening classes at the Castle Green School. He was able to take a range of classes that would advance both his career prospects and his intellectual life; as well as studying shorthand and accountancy he took classes in English and French literature and freehand drawing.
Map of Castle Green School, 1937
At the age of 18, West began to make the transition from student to teacher. The superintendent of his Sunday School asked him to take a junior boys class and he was delighted to accept the offer, saying he “took the offices seriously and served them loyally.” (28) He went on to become the superintendent of the school himself, asked to “reorganise the school along modern lines.” (35) West speaks proudly of his work at the school, and although the church was short on money for his ambitious plans, “new enthusiasm engendered saw us through. (…) The school flourished and increased in numbers and efficiency.” (36)
In the 1920s, after many years of successful teaching, West gave up his work at the Sunday School and reverted back to the role of learner. He enlisted in the Horfield Adult School and was pleased to find that “my knowledge was extended and, I hope, my wisdom.” (39) Harry West’s love of learning seemed to be insatiable, and as his autobiography follows him into retirement it shows him continuing to take all opportunities to learn new skills or give lectures on topics as varied as literature and woodworking.
Overwhelmingly, it is West’s drive to educate himself at any and every opportunity that comes across as one of the most prominent themes in his writing. It is very satisfying to see how this drive was rewarded, as his work is that of a talented writer who is comfortable discussing a broad range of intellectual topics, from psychoanalysis to science and religion. West’s positive experiences of education as a child and a young man appear to have shaped his entire outlook on the world, as he experiences his life as something to be analysed, understood and finally appreciated.
West, Harry Alfred, ‘Autobiography of Alfred West. Facts and Comments’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:745