Harry Dorrell (B.1903): Education and Schooling

‘Being sent to school was a threat for a naughty child.’ (4)

Harry disliked school and he makes no secret of that in his memoir. Most of what he says about school is how he could not wait to leave. When he first went to school he was a ‘bewildered, apprehensive, frightened child’ (4) and although over the next year or so he ‘became a reformed character’ (5) he was still ‘in fear most of the time’ (5). When Harry’s brother caught scarlet fever he says he was ‘jealous of his ride in the ambulance’ (7), and then when Harry himself is taken to isolation because of suspected symptoms, he is relieved to have ‘escaped five months of school’ (7). Looking back, however, he notices ‘the sadness, of which I was not aware of at the time’ (7).

Something that comes up in Harry’s memoir is how no one noticed he was short-sighted for most of his childhood. He says that children were regularly checked for nits but ‘None came looking for defective vison, teeth, hearing or undernourishment’ (8). Harry’s family moved around quite a lot in his childhood and because of this he went to a few different schools, although it is a little hard to keep track of in the memoir. Because of the nature of working class lives a lot of families would have had to move where there was work, as Harry’s family did, and it is likely this had an effect on children’s education.

Harry does not talk much about the actual education at school but rather about the teachers. He remembers one school ‘so well because of the two teachers’ (10) Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Reed, who Harry describes as opposites. Mr. Reed was not Harry’s teacher but he used to hear the ‘cries so often of boys being caned’ (10) from his class, he says that new canes were supplied every year but ‘Mr. Reed had worn out his cane well before the new one would be issued’ (10). He then goes on to say ‘Mr. McCarthy never caned a boy’ (10). It was also with Mr. McCarthy that Harry’s self-education took off. He lent him books for his ‘weekend reading’ (10). Although Harry worked his way through his small collection quickly out of kindness he ‘continued week in, week out, to ask for books’ (10).

Harry also mentions Sunday school in his memoir, something that was an important factor in many working class children’s education. Between 1851 and 1906 attendance grew significantly from 1,800,000 to 6,179,000, the latter being just a few years before Harry would have been in school. ‘From the frequency with which they are mentioned’ (Burnett, 136) in working class memoirs you could say that ‘they occupied a highly important and generally, highly honoured place’ (Burnett, 136) in working class lives, and were an important contributor to education. However, Harry’s motivation for attending Sunday school had little to do with education and it is likely other children had similar motivations. At Harry’s Sunday school there was a Christmas party, but only children with enough punches in an attendance card were allowed to go. This motivated Harry to attend until he and his friends discovered they could make the hole themselves and ‘simply pushed a hole through the card in the weekly square with a pencil point’ (21).

Dorrell, Harry, ‘Falling Cadence: An autobiography of failure’, TS, pp.161 (c.97,000 words). Fragment published in the POEU Journal, Aug 1983. BruneI University Library. AWC- 2:0231

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