Mary Norreen Hart (b.1928): Education, Schooling & Reading

‘We were brought up with family values of good manners, respect for authority and a thirst for knowledge through reading’

Education

Education is something Mary discusses with pride in her memoir. In her first mention of education, she says; ‘I think that my early start to formal education was a positive experience and engendered my independent spirit’ (11). Her educational experience is described, through the most part, as positive. She notes on her ‘independent spirit’ (11) and suggests that this was due to her well-educated childhood. 

She doesn’t describe her whole education as positive however. Mary mentions her childhood teacher Miss Davis, who she states ‘was not averse to giving us a good slap or a push to punish us. She taught us simple sewing as well as the three ‘Rs’’ (12). Education was stricter during Mary’s childhood than it is now, as corporal punishment was particularly common. But the word ‘push’ explains that Miss Davis was perhaps more harsh than most teachers.  

The three R’s

It’s interesting to see the type of education that Mary describes. The assertion of gender roles are clear even in childhood as the only-girls school taught the children to sew. Therefore there was a pressure on girls to be domestic as well as academic. However, the ‘three R’s’ Mary writes (reading, writing and arithmetic), shows that girls were also taught practical academic qualities also. 

Quakers Yard Grammar School

Quakers Yard Grammar School in the 1950s

The mention of strict discipline in school continues in Mary’s description of the secondary school Quakers Yard Grammar School. After misbehaving, Mary was made to take her exams ‘wearing a belt full of bent pins and [she] passed with flying colours’ (35). This description is very brutal in comparison to her primary school. This also shows the extent of brutality endured during this period. But it also shows that despite the torture, Mary managed to pass her exams which shows her obvious intelligence.  

At one point, Mary visits her brother Brian in Harlington, Middlesex. As she was there for a considerable amount of time, she was made to go to school there. This was an issue for Mary. She says; ‘I did not understand a word said by the London children and they had not a clue what I was saying’ (34). It’s clear that the Welsh accent hindered her time in English education.  

Pantglas Girls’ Primary school

Pantglas Girls’ Primary School, Aberfan.

Mary first attends Pantglas Girls’ Primary school (12) in Aberfan, which is a school quite well known during the 20th century. As mentioned in the memoir, ‘this was the school in which so many lives were lost in the Aberfan disaster in 1966’ (12). This event happened due to a collapse of a colliery oil spill, which engulfed the school, killing many children as a result. Although this event happened after Mary’s move to Birmingham, it is clear that it has shaped the lives of those who still live in the small community.  

Same angle of the school after the disaster

Reading & Writing 

On the discussion of her parents’ intelligence, the author says that ‘although poor, they were both literate and had enquiring minds’ (15). This takes us back to the opening quote which shows how education, reading and writing were important to the family as a whole. Mary describes her parents as intelligent and shows that they influenced her own positive education and thirst for knowledge. She suggests that poverty would have been an obstacle for many adults in terms of education. But her parents seem to defy these challenges. 

South Wales Miners’ Library

Jonathan Rose gives an explanation as to why members from working class families, had the ability to read and write. He says ‘by the early twentieth century South Wales was served by a network of Miners’ Institutes-worker-run adult education centres offering libraries, evening classes, lectures, and theatrical productions’ (Rose, 1992, 55). Not only did mining serve as a huge source of employment for most small communities in Wales (see Life & Labour blog), it also brought many other positive things with it. This shows the villages profited from this, whilst receiving bigger resources for education.

The Bible

Example of the Welsh bible– ‘yr hen destament, ar newydd’ (the old testament and the new).

Rose also notes that ‘even the perpetual Bible reading, in English and Welsh, stimulated an appetite for secular literature’ (Rose, 2001, 240). I go further into religious influence in another blog. Though for religious families, as most were in the 20th century, the Bible gave a space for individuals to practice reading and therefore helped in illiteracy. The translation of the bible to Welsh gave Welsh speakers the chance to practice their linguistic skills also, and may perhaps have helped those who learnt the language later in life.

It’s clear that the Welsh communities felt literacy to be particularly important, which is shown in Mary’s education, her family morals and also with the help of the Miner’s institutes! 

Bibliography

HART, Mary Norreen, ‘A Welsh Childhood: Memories of Aberfan 1928-1945 through the eyes of Mary Norreen Hart (nee Jones).’ (privately printed, 2011), pp.63. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel University Library. Special Collections, Vol.4. 

Rose, Jonathan, ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 1 (1992): 47-70

Rose, Jonathan. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2001)

Images Cited

‘Aberfan: The Mistake that Cost a Village its Children’. BBC. N.d. Web. Accessed 4 April 2019.’The Bible in Welsh (London: Christopher Barker, 1588)’. University of Cambridge. N.d. Web. Accessed 4 April 2019.

‘Swansea’s Industrial Heritage: South Wales Miners’ Library’. National Museum Wales. N.d. Web. Accessed 4 April 2019.

‘The Bible in Welsh (London: Christopher Barker, 1588)’. University of Cambridge. N.d. Web. Accessed 4 April 2019.

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