For all of John Edmonds’ experiences at school, it is strange that he ultimately reflects upon his time there so fondly. The root of most unpleasantness throughout John’s educational life is a schoolmaster referred to only as “Mr. P.”. Not afforded a last full name, Mr. P. forms a menacing, intimidating figure in John’s autobiography. John bluntly introduces him as ‘Mr. P. who enjoyed caning me’ (70). Elaborating, he paints him as an unfathomably cruel character. He ‘would cane [John] for the least offence’ (70). John notes that subsequent masters would cane him, but never with as much selective savagery as Mr. P. For this, he ‘did not gain either my fear or respect, but as a result of his treatment I have a thorough appreciation of what constitutes victimisation and injustice’ (71). This is one of the defining episodes of John’s life and it taught him a sense of discipline he took into later life. John was a fair man, and accepts most punishments divulged in the memoir, no matter the severity. Yet, the unfairness experienced at the hands of Mr. P. did nothing but to affect an ‘increase in my wall of reserve and a complete contempt for him’ (70). Later, when ‘contemplating the pattern of leaves against the blue sky’ (75) during a school cricket match, John is sternly told to bat. John recounts with classic repose that his retort ‘was an equally peremptory but unprintable remark’ (75). Offered the chance by the headmaster to either bat or be “dealt with”, he chose the latter. His defiance earned him ‘three cuts with the cane on each hand, and expulsion from the class’ (76). John feels that whilst his punishment was harsh, it was ‘justified’ (76).
John has little to say about his fellow students. Despite the abusive treatment meted out by Mr. P., John’s positive reflection upon school is based on the fairness of his other teachers. Jonathan Rose notes of teachers that ‘seven out of ten working people rated them positively’ (1993, 125). He adds that two-thirds of working-class children regarded school as a positive experience overall: a higher proportion than those from more affluent backgrounds (Rose, 1993). He offers that this could be a statistical anomaly due to sample size of autobiographers, but also that ‘for shopkeepers’ sons, education was often irrelevant’ (Rose, 1993, 125) due to their careers being pre-set. John’s father, however, ‘did not keep a job during the period of which I write’ (32), and John himself seems to possess a genuine desire to learn and to better himself. He holds a vastly impressive knowledge of flora and the railway system. His writing and vocabulary is generally good, with infrequent lapses in inconsistency of grammar and spelling.
John Burnett claims that the accounts in The Autobiography of the Working Class (1984-1989) demonstrate how some teachers would go beyond their expectations to expand curricula with literature, music, and foreign languages (1984). He notes:
‘the later elementary school was often a livelier, more original and imaginative institution than has sometimes been supposed and that not a few children emerged from it with a genuine love of learning and a considerable ability to write’ (Burnett, 1984, 159)
This is reflected in John’s memoir, as he displays his affection towards Mr. Craven for advancing the curriculum beyond the standard subjects of arithmetic and science. Jim Tait (b. 1899) recounts that his schooling experience was based on forcibly moulding students into people ready to simply join the labour force: ‘Reading, writing and arithmetic were essential, and children were clobbered until they mastered them’ (Quoted in Burnett, 1984, 149). In contrast, Mr. Craven expanded his subjects to ‘history, literature, geography’ (77), which bred genuine interest in students. John reflects that this taught the pupils ‘a degree of adult responsibility toward their studies and conduct’ (78). This exemplifies the success of broadening the school curricula and fair interaction with students in a relatively-new age of compulsory education.
The only other teacher given a gracious review is Mr. Evans. ‘He was a man of fiery but kindly disposition and we came to understand each other’ (74). Indeed, this mutual respect drove John’s liking of Mr. Evans, who viewed him as human. John came under Mr. Evans’ tutelage straight after Mr. P., and infers that being spoken to on a similar level felt a grand gesture to a working-class child who may have perceived the world of authority to be against him after his previous master. With attention and respect, John is proud to have come top of Mr. Evans’ class. He implies that he is an example of what can be achieved when working-class students are treat as equals. ‘On the whole, I liked my school life, and was sorry when the time came for me to leave’ (78) is John’s ultimate summary of his schooling life. His setbacks taught him valuable life lessons, and the care of certain teachers to treat him as an individual and not just another working-class statistic ignited the spark to learn, causing John to become successful and enjoy his education.
Keep an eye out for Part Two, where I will discuss in more detail the relationship between class and education, and what this means for John. In addition, I will look at the effects of John’s family upon his schooling, and focus on some of his educational sources from beyond the realm of the classroom!
2.237 EDMONDS, John, ‘The Lean Years’, MS, pp.89 + 3pp. list of illustrations (c.18,000 words). BruneI University Library. http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/9517
Burnett, John, ed. Destiny Obscure. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1984.
Burnett John, David Vincent, and David Mayall, eds. The Autobiography of the Working Class, 3 vols. New York: New York UP, 1984-1989.
Rose, Jonathan. ‘Willingly to School: The Working-Class Response to Elementary Education in Britain, 1875-1918.’ Journal of British Studies 32.2 (April 1993): 114-138.
Children dancing at Flint Street School, Southwark, 1908 – http://www.aim25.ac.uk
Southwark Park School – https://www.pinterest.co.uk
St Mary’s Primary School, Lower Road, Bermondsey – http://www.pinterest.co.uk