John Edmonds (1911-1984): Education and Schooling (Part Two)

Hampden Gurney School’s original building of 1863, photographed c. 1982

In Part One, I discussed how the teacher Mr Evans’ interactions with John on a human level transformed the dangerous perception of futility felt after the cruelty of Mr. P. John felt vulnerable, and as though there were few chances in the world for someone like him. The kindness and respect shown to him by subsequent masters and friends was at the very least good human nature. Yet, these instances become monumental in John’s life and helped to shape his attitudes, based on the kindliness of the working class. It is clear that there is a connection between class and education, and John is aware of it. It forms the politics of his schooling life.

John makes links between class and education elsewhere in his memoir. He claims that Old Topp possessed a ‘faultless public school accent’ (39), which of course does not technically exist. Yet, from a working-class perspective, there is an intermingling between public schools and a genteel disposition that becomes thoroughly congruent. This is rendered in John’s remark that Old Topp’s voice was reflective of what school he attended. Elsewhere, he comments: ‘she was well educated, having received her schooling at Hampton [Hampden] Gurney private day school’ (35). For John, there is an indistinguishable link between perceptions of private schooling and what this means for a person’s subsequent class and character. That John only casually mentions that he was enrolled at ‘at the local London County Council School’ (69), without even bothering to name it, suggests that he sees himself as one of the many. These were the working-class children who went to school the same as the other working-class children. They went to anonymous schools that weren’t distinguished by the fancy names of schools that would give you an elegant speaking voice.

Clarion Van No:2 at Erith Sunday School, South East London, c. 1900.

John’s mother’s ‘belief in the Christian faith was unshakable’ (60), and although she was not forceful with her views, she insisted upon her children’s attendance at Sunday school and church. John found the things learned there to be confusing, and although he grew tired of his father’s leftish political tirades, he found them more tolerable than ‘the religious mysteries and sermons which were dispensed in the name of Christinanity [sic]’ (60). John’s contempt for religion may be one of the things passed down to him by his father. His father ‘didn’t like those he contemptuously called the “pillars of the church” by whom he meant the regular attendees of St Katharines [sic] our local Church of England edifice’ (31). This seems to be a facet of his ‘lifetime in rebellion against authority’ (31) which formed an attitude that John was susceptible to inheriting in some form. John ‘found attendance at Sunday school and church irksome and frequently “chopped the way” to visit the docks and river front instead’ (61-62). For John, the format of Sunday school was tiresome, and his clear respect for firm but fair authority figures is present here too. He defers to Mr. Evans for a more interesting way of digesting religion. He claims that Mr. Evans’ ‘simple paraphrasing of [the Bible’s] antique prose taught more of Christian principles in the weekly hour devoted to the subject than did three spent on Sundays in contact with those whom one would have thought better qualified to explain’ (60-61).

An illustrated front cover of The Cloister and the Hearth by Charles Reade (1861). John and Angeline read this text together, and it was crucial in informing him about sex, childbirth, and the family.

An intelligent boy with a liking for the finer things in life, John felt somewhat out of place with his “rougher” school friends. He found stimulating conversation hard to come by, and quickly ‘learned the uselessness of remarking upon the beauties of plant and animal form, of sunset and cloud formation, the mysteries of religion, animal reproduction, and the examples of art, music, and literature’ (81). The expression of these topics finally saw fruition when John ‘discovered the mind of Angeline’ (81). In his friend Angeline, John saw qualities of his repressed self. She was bullied viciously by her brother, felt cruelty at home akin to that administered by Mr. P. to John, and she even had the same nickname, “Old Four Eyes”. In Angeline, John had ‘had found someone to talk to about anything which interested me without reserve’ (82). Her ‘superior education’ (82) at a grammar school gave John a great respect for his new companion, though class and education would once again mix bitterly as ‘by reason of the income barrier [the friendship] was viewed with disapproval by our respective parents’ (82). Together, they read great works of literature and discussed them to no end. In reading Charles Reade’s The Cloister and Hearth (1861), John was perplexed that ‘Margaret was to have a child despite the fact that she and Gerard had never cohabited’ (83).  John had always associated the birth of a child with ‘two people getting married in a church and setting up a home together’ (83) as per his religious mother and his conservative father. Thus, a crucial role in John’s education fell upon Angeline, who ‘proceeded to lecture me upon the function of the sexes’ (83).

Sexual education from John’s father was not forthcoming. He had even thrown away John’s jar of beetles, proclaiming ‘I’ll not have you watching those things breed!’ (84). In addition, he had insisted on John returning a book on classical sculpture to the school library, wary of the images. Years later, John’s father ‘expressed a mixture of horror and indignation’ (84) upon learning that the school curriculum included lectures with slides of illustrations pertaining to human anatomy and physiology. It seems that John’s best teachers were the ones without these prudish reservations. The teachers that taught freely, with a desire for students to follow their passions, were the ones that resonated best with John. For all of his father’s demure sternness, it was the little girl he did not approve of, who worked it through with John as a peer, who found most joy. A ‘companion in misfortune’ (82), Angeline taught John some of life’s great lessons – lessons that others thought him unworthy to learn.


2.237 EDMONDS, John, ‘The Lean Years’, MS, pp.89 + 3pp. list of illustrations (c.18,000 words). BruneI University Library.



Clarion Van No:2 meeting at Erith Sunday School –

Hampden Gurney School’s original building of 1863, photographed c. 1982 –

The Cloister and the Hearth front cover –


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