Kathleen Betterton (b.1913) : Education and Schooling


                         ‘School itself, especially in the brilliance of summer, held my heart. I had hated it at times, yet I had also loved it and owed much to it’ (142).


Education and schooling is a predominant theme within Kathleen Betterton’s autobiography. Her memoir is a very personal reflection upon her education journey. From a young age Kathleen caught the eyes of her teachers, she was a child with academic abilities. Kathleen’s education led her down a different life path to those of her modest working-class neighbours. Her education gave her a life and a lifestyle that gave her more opportunities than those of her class. But it was this ‘better off’ lifestyle that provoked emotional insecurities. She was more educated than her own class setting her apart from them, but her social class made her feel inadequate to those of a more privileged upbringing.


Just before the age of five Betterton started at Queensmill Road Primary, a mixed council school in the district of Fulham, London. She reminisces on her infant school picture, her uniform of a white pinnie and black apron and the local children. The picture taken in 1917 is a favourite of hers since it reminded her of happy days at infant school. A keen learner from a young age, Betterton thrived and wanted to do well. This gave her the ‘nick name’ of ‘the teacher’s pet’ (28) by her peers. Her passion for education carried on during her leisure time, when not at school Kathleen ‘played school’ (8) with her dolls. She and Edith would spend their time ‘play- acting’, Kathleen ‘enjoyed school’ (p17).


At the age of eleven her ‘daydream had turned into reality’ (66) she was sent away September, 1924, to Christ’s Hospital boarding-school. She desperately wanted to go to boarding school, praying of a night that she would gain a scholarship. It was not long after she attended Christ’s hospital that she began to think it was not all she had anticipated. Her readings of the Angela Brazil novels had led her to imagine boarding school as being ‘muddled visions of midnight picnics, sweet girl perfects, hockey, house-matches’ (65).  The reality was that of feeling ‘lost’ (82). Although homesick she maintained her ‘model’ student status but ‘was thoroughly and completely miserable’ (83). She kept her focus upon her work and ‘school remained the dominant factor in my life’ (130). She left Christ’s Hospital to start her time at Oxford University at the age of eighteen.


Her working-class parents encouraged education for both Kathleen and her older brother Stan: ‘I know I learnt to read early, probably with help from my mother and father and brother whose zeal for my education was strong’ (17). Her mother was country-bred and had attended a dame school. She was offered a position to stay on as a ‘pupil teacher’. Like many other working-class children of that time, children had to help support their families- leaving education to gain employment and her mother left school at 11, taking a job as ‘mothers help’.  Kathleen describes her mother as ‘obviously been quick and intelligent’ (13). However, it was not rare for working-class parents too embolden their children to read. A survey conducted in 1932-33 of mainly working-class areas found that ‘only 6 percent of households possessed fewer than 6 books, while 23 percent had more than a hundred’ (Rose, 2001, p230).

Christ's Hospital


Christ's hospital


Christ’s Hospital boarding school




Starting Oxford gave Kathleen a new found independence: ‘the freedom of college was bewildering’ (145). She developed as a person and as a woman. She began to take an interest in fashion, make-up, the opposite sex and a deeper curiosity for politics. Shy at first because of lack of experience in the adult world and because of her social class she found it difficult to voice her opinion: ‘my different background fettered my tongue. I was afraid to open my mouth lest I should make some startling exposure of ignorance’ (147). Kathleen graduated from Oxford with a Second. She says how she was sad to be saying goodbye to leaving her institution of learning.


Betterton praises her education and schooling. Although from a personal perspective she was battling her self-identity, she enjoyed her education. She shows a lot of admiration for her teachers. She writes with the upmost respect for the woman who educated her. When reminiscing on the relationship the children and the teachers had at Queensmill Road she refers to it as ‘intimate’ (21). The children would bring in flowers from the back garden, babble on about family affairs; school was a very pleasant experience. Remembering one of her lecturers at Oxford, Miss Smith who taught Classics, Kathleen says how she was one of the ‘nicest people in the world’ (122), and that being taught by her ‘became a privilege, a cult, a passion’ (122).


Betterton. K. (1975)’ White Pinnies, Black Aprons….. ‘Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library: Special Collection. 2:71


Burnett, John ed. Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education, and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s London:  Alan Lane, 1982. Pp.207-300.


Rose, Jonathan. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001


Image: google.co.uk


‘Kathleen Betterton’, in John Burnett, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography Brighton: Harvester. 2:0071

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