Joe Ayre’s The Socialist is a well written, insightful, mature piece of literature. A well written autobiography however, is not always the product of a well-educated author. Joe’s relationship with education was often found wanting. Lacking in opportunity, drive, and quality, Joe honed his expertise in physical labour, rather than conventional schooling. Joe only sparingly mentions education throughout his autobiography, perhaps out of embarrassment. In the fleeting moments he does, however, one begins to understand why in later life Joe felt ‘all the time handicapped by very little formal education’ (3).
Attending school early in the twentieth century, Joe’s experience in education is almost unrecognisable to a modern reader. Rather than a variety of subjects taught in a controlled environment, Joe was taught the scriptures under harsh conditions as ‘corporal punishment was used in them days’ (8). The strict state of affairs was accompanied by poor conditions. A lack of appropriate resources resulted in a difficult learning environment for the working class children of Merseyside. Despite this Joe prevailed and proudly reminisces on how he was ‘always at the top of the scripture class, I could almost recite backwards the Apostles Creed’ (8). This rare moment in which Joe looks back over his childhood through rose tinted glasses is disturbed somewhat when he recalls his ascension to the top of the class was a result of being ‘punished many times for not paying proper attention’ (8).
Religion was a common theme of Joe’s education. Like many working class children Joe attended Sunday school. The historian John Burnett explains how ‘the writings of autobiographers who attended such schools indicate a wide variety of experience, with the majority more favourable than critical’ (1982, 140). Joe certainly had a varied experience with Sunday school. He attended the ‘Band of Hope’ (8) which in his own words was ‘a sort of mission where poor kids went and there would be a huge sheet hanging on one wall with hymns on it and we would spend almost two hours singing hymns’ (8). Whilst organisations such as the Band of Hope offered free education to working class children, Joe developed an obvious disdain for religion. As a result he often looks back over his religious teachings negatively. Rather than highlighting the positives he derived from the Band of Hope, Joe references how those who did not regularly attend were barred from the summer celebratory picnic.
Joe would lose his way when it came to religion, becoming disillusioned with the effects it had on people. This was one of the many difficulties Joe encountered when it came to finding the motivation for education. Other factors such as his difficult journey to school which he undertook with ‘bare feet as nearly all working class kids did’ (8) would be enough to put off any young child. The biggest obstacle Joe encountered when it came to childhood however, spanned from his home life. David Vincent argued that many children’s education was ‘dependent on whether working-class parents were prepared to send their children to school’ (1981, 54). Although education was compulsory by the time Joe started school, with deepening financial pressures, his parents often kept him out of school in order to work. Joe had a troubled home life, something I have touched upon in a previous blog, and how happy he was with the withdrawal of his education is not clear, regardless of his reaction though the decision had been made. On the occasions Joe was able to make it into school he was met with a frosty reaction as he was ‘always in trouble with the School Board because we were not attending school’ (16).
Joe could have been forgiven for thinking that whist at Miss Birt’s Sheltering Home for the Fatherless and Destitute Children his educational fortunes may have improved. Sadly, he would have been wrong. Whilst there he regularly attended classes, but the resources available to him were poor. The situation grew worse as his ‘education was sadly being neglected, we had no teachers and I still used just the same books as when I was first admitted to the home’ (26). What little education Joe received was centred on his impending move to Canada, rather than any skills we would now consider fundamental.
The move to Canada did briefly bring Joe a sustained period of education. This experience was seemingly over before it had gotten started, however, as Joe reached the age in which he was to attend high school. After a discussion with the farmer Joe found himself working for, he realised ‘it was obvious that I would not be able to go, the nearest High School was at Stirling and that was twelve miles from Springbrook’ (41). With that, Joe’s formal education was over.
For a man who considered himself ‘handicapped by very little formal education’ (3), Joe Ayre was able to live a very respectable life. He eventually overcame his strife and was able to support his happy family. Joe certainly learned many lessons over the years, these were life lessons however, rather than any in a classroom. Joe was an intelligent man who found his way in a difficult world, but in terms of formal education, he was always found wanting.
2:29 AYRE, Joe, ‘The Socialist’, MS, pp.178 (c.43,250 words). Brunel University Library.
Vincent, David. Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Autobiography. London: Methuen, 1981.
Burnett, John ed. Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education, and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s London: Alan Lane, 1982.
Apostles’ Creed – http://www.allanbevere.com/2016/06/the-trinitarian-character-of-apostles.html
Miss Birt’s Home for Fatherless and Destitute Children – http://canadianbritishhomechildren.weebly.com/louisa-birt—6000-emigrated.html