So shall I have to go to school again? (13).
Within Mary’s memoir, she talks very little of her school days. What she does mention near the beginning of her memoir however, is that her and her siblings ‘went to school at the age 3 and a half and left at 12 years’ (8). This was standard for education in the late 1800s as Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska notes: ‘Prior to the Education Act of 1944, school provision consisted of elementary education for nearly all children aged between five and twelve’ (Zweiniger-Bargielowska, 37). This was, however, very different from previous generations that had started work at a much earlier age, with some children not even attending school. Mary notes that her father, ‘had never been to school’ (4) and had been sent to work at the mere age of 4 years old (2). Here we can see a clear generational change in the attitudes to schooling. As Mary and her siblings all went to school, this suggests that it was important to Mary’s parents that their children had the opportunity to gain an education: ‘we had to pay 1d per week’ in school fees (8). Although she notes that these fees ‘stopped soon after I started school’ (8), the fact that Mary’s parents will have had to pay for her previous siblings to attend school highlights their opinion of the importance of education.
Mary was not uncommon in gaining an elementary level of education in her class position: ‘the education of most working-class girls was limited to the elementary sector’ (Zweiniger- Bargielowska, 2001, 37). Though she did not go into higher education she mentions that her brother William did: ‘My brother Bill after leaving the infants…went to Munday St boys school, it was from that school he got a scholarship to go to the Heanor TEC as it was then called (Grammar schools were unheard of then)’ (8). As Charles More explains, ‘only a tiny proportion of working-class children went on to grammar school education’ (More, 2007, 110) so for Mary’s brother to get into a grammar school was quite a rarity. As Mary describes, Bill got a scholarship to gain entry to the grammar school and did not have to pass a test, which was the normal requirement. Through this, this suggests that whilst Bill may have been a clever child, perhaps educational opportunities were becoming more available for members of the working class. R. D. Anderson notes, there was a ‘growth of local scholarships’ (Anderson, 1995, 50) during this time period which gave a ‘ladder’ (Anderson, 1995, 50) of opportunity to those (mainly males) of the working class. Through these opportunities, Mary details how Bill went on to become a ‘retired school master with a Cambridge MA’ (4-5).
As Mary’s brother was the only one of her siblings to go onto higher education, this reflects the gendered attitude towards education in the late 1800s and early 1900s and how girls were more limited in their opportunities of education and schooling: ‘Schooling was, however, highly variable and it prepared girls for adulthood in gender-and class specific ways…schools provided working class girls with an education to equip them for the gender specific work of motherhood and the care of home and family’ (Zweiniger-Bargielowska, 2001, 37). Here, we can see that girls were expected to become domestic and this dictated their schooling as well. Mary doesn’t mention anything about her own lessons in domesticity, but though ‘At the age of 12 we could go to work… mother felt we should have 1 year at home to learn how to cook & generally do house work’ (8-9). This suggests that Mary learnt from her mother how to become domesticated as opposed to learning this from lessons at school.
Whilst Mary’s mother herself did not gain a higher education, she notes how she attended an ‘old dame school’ (4) and a ‘night class’ (9) where she learnt dressmaking. Although these institutions may not have been as highly regarded, Mary shows how women were able to learn outside of school and the education system.
Mary describes her school as the ‘National Church School in High Street’ (8). Whilst it took me a while to track any record of this down, the local Heanor Society informed me that it was built in 1848 and was on the site where the job centre now stands. Mary details the long walk to school: ‘we lived in Park Street at that time (so when I think about it now I feel sorry we all at that early age had to walk all that way)’ (8). Whilst this could be seen as a negative reaction to her school days, Mary does seem positive about school as she says, ‘Mother and Father encouraged us to join in everything at school’ (11). This suggests that Mary had an active part in her school. One element of Mary’s education that she does mention throughout her adult life is her spelling. Mary apologises for her ‘bad writing and spelling mistakes’ (13). Whilst spelling errors may reflect a limited education, Mary instead shows her humour with these mistakes as she notices them and says, ‘I used to be good, but not anymore. So shall have to go to school again?’ (13).
Whilst Mary’s education and school days do not play a massive part within her memoir, memories of certain aspects of school life and the way in which it differed from her other family member’s shows how the education system has changed over the generations, reiterated as she mentions her own grandchildren at university and college (14). Mary’s memoir also reflects the way in which working class-girls were educated and how this education was gender specific to preparing them for the adult world of domesticity and family care.
Anderson, R.D. Universities and Elites in Britain Since 1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
More, Charles. Britain in the Twentieth Century. London: Routledge, 2007.
Zweiniger- Bargielowska, Ina. Women in Twentieth-Century Britain: Social, Cultural and Political Change. London: Routledge, 2001.
1: 719 TRIGGLE, Mary Laura, Series of autobiographical letters, MS, pp.25 (c.4,000 words). BruneI University Library.
Picture of Heanor Technical: https://www.derbytelegraph.co.uk/news/business/long-empty-heanor-grammar-school-552762
Picture of Mary’s School: www.heanorhistory.org.uk/
Picture of Old Dames School: https://artuk.org/