Joseph Terry (1816-1889): Autobiography, Class and Schooling

The school of adversity is the best school for educating (Terry 12)

Whilst the 19th-century upper-classes would be flexing their imaginations and attaining high aspirations in life, the ambitions of the working class were not quite on the same scale. Instead of craving the world, many would happily settle for a stable working position that provided constancy and, in order to achieve this, schools would attempt to shape them into compliant, practical beings. Corporal punishment was commonplace in the 1800s with the rampant use of canes and Burnett describes this as a tool they used to get the ‘roughness smoothed away’ (Burnett 149). ‘Roughness’ alludes to the brash nature that’s associated with the working-class but, was corporal punishment really necessary in order to teach children? Today’s society would most definitely disagree and it’s indicated that our author Joseph Terry does not think so either.

Teacher using corporal punishment on a poor boy in a 19th-century school.

Despite not explicitly illustrating this perspective, we can interpret it through the dismissal of his own school experiences. He chooses to write little about them and one of the few details he does permit concerns his teacher, ‘Old Dame Blackburn’ who was ‘old fashioned’ and had a ‘wand and a dungeon’ (Terry 8)! (Poor Joseph!).

I think we can safely assume that his teacher did not actually possess these fantastical items but, this creative embellishment evokes a fairytale-esque image in our minds. Joseph could be reminiscing back to his younger days with these imaginative allegories that reveal a boy who did not enjoy school. (Especially one with a witch-like figure that used a wand and had a daunting dungeon). These images could reflect the corporal aspect of school and metaphorically convey the fearsome tactics many used to establish order and discipline. By not dwelling on his time there, Joseph manages to relay an animosity towards them; he does not eulogise any aspect and would prefer to write of things that attained a ‘greater importance’ (Terry 8).

Due to Joseph’s unpredictable life, his time in school was sparse and he joined the working masses at the young, and yet common, age of eight. In spite of this, Joseph was still able to gain an education due to an inherent drive and tenacity that enabled him to teach himself what he may have missed. More often than not, pupils from working-class families would be forced to drop out at a young age and unfortunately, not everyone attained the same assiduity as Joseph and was able to teach themselves. In fact, it was such a common occurrence that between 1839-1854 two-thirds of marriages included one person who was illiterate and could not sign their own name on the marriage register! Yet because illiteracy was so widespread in the 19th century, it did not have the stigma it has today. Unlike with higher classes, education was not at the forefront of working-class goals; earning money to provide and sustain a living was the priority.

They never answered another of her letters, nor did she see or hear anything of them…

As well as the 3Rs – Reading, Writing and Arithmetic – pupils would also learn their societal positions whilst at school and develop an involuntary class conscious. These learned positions create a tangible divide amongst children that can often continue into adulthood and influence their perceptions on others. Joseph’s family experienced the brunt of this segregation as his grandmother endured much backlash when choosing to marry someone who did not adhere to her family’s particular expectations. According to her family, she was ‘marrying much below her position’ and her Uncle even referred to the union as a ‘crime’ and consequently cut ties with his niece. ‘They never answered another of her letters’ (Terry 15).

Like many working-class children, Joseph had a much more positive view of Sunday Schools; they ‘strengthened (his) connection that the school of adversity is the best school for educating’ (Terry 12). It appears that Joseph was not alone with these thoughts as Frank Smith states

A Sunday School class in late 19th Century England
A Sunday School class in late 19th Century England

‘they were the chief instrument in humanising the poor’ (Smith 63) and John Foster describes them as being ‘all-embracing and free’ (Foster 216).  Sunday schools became so popular that the numbers grew vastly and at a great speed too! In 1818, there were 425,000 children attending and by 1851 this number more than quadrupled to about 2,600,000 (Laqueur).

A teacher whose heart was in his work gave instruction under healthier conditions and with greater efficiency (HMI school inspector, quoted by Burnett, pp. 145-6)

Joseph’s gratitude towards his Sunday School is revealed as he chose to teach in one himself and this authoritative position of a teacher meant attaining a great influence over young, mouldable minds. When Joseph’s mother was schooled, her education entailed a ‘deeply moral and religious tone’ (Terry 15), thus prompting her into becoming the God fearing woman she was. But, for his own classes, Joseph only performed the ‘occasional sermon’ (Terry 81) as he endeavoured to promote education and have his pupils regard it as highly as he did himself.

From scrupulously reading Joseph’s memoir and observing his combination of morals, determination, and buoyancy to persist, it is patently obvious that he embodies the traits of a successful teacher and it seems that those he taught also agreed. An ex-pupil once told him ‘that they would never have learnt to write had it not been for (his) school’ (Terry 81).

Burnett said the makings of a great teacher involved putting their heart into their work and Joseph’s pure heart and relentless spirit undoubtedly places him in that category of being ‘great’.



Burnett, John. Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education and Family From the 1820s to the 1920s. Routledge, 2013.

Frank, Smith. A History of English Elementary Education, 1760-1902. London. 1931.

Foster, John. Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution: Early Industrial Capitalism in Three English Towns. London. 1979.

Laqueur, Thomas Walter. Religion and Respectability: Sunday Schools and English Working Class Culture, 1780-1850. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976.

Terry, Joseph. ‘Recollections of My Life’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection

Image reference: Teacher using corporal punishment on a poor boy in a 19th-century school. (Accessed 18/01/2016)

Image reference: A Sunday School class in late 19th Century England. (Accessed18/01/2016)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.