Patrick McGeown’s Heat the Furnace Seven Times More is a well written, insightful, autobiography that radiates personality and humour. Patrick delves fondly into his schoolboy days with astonishing detail. Nestled between childhood memories of friends, first crushes and life as an ‘Irish… suckling’ (30), Patrick details the highs and lows of education in the early 1900’s.
Raised by a mother who ‘had sufficient schooling to read her prayer book’ (37) and a father who ‘could make a fair effort to read a newspaper‘(37), Patrick was a product of a working-class upbringing like many in his town. With education often regarded as a pastime until the workforce called, Patrick was an anomaly in his town. Rather than leaving education at the first chance presented, he strived to stay in education as long as he could to avoid the inevitability of work. However, a well written autobiography, is not always the product of an author who effortlessly flourished in the education system.
In 1902 at ‘five years old’ Patrick ‘entered St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Elementary School’. Like most 5 year olds he ‘had little desire that first day to start [his] scholastic career’ (27) and so the age old image of children hanging on to their mother’s pant legs reluctant to leave the familiarity of family is embedded into our mind. Much of Patrick’s memories of his school days focus less on the practicalities of education and more on the faces that moulded his childhood. Patrick fondly recalls the friends and teachers that centred his world as a small boy. Julie-Marie Strange argues that ‘the complex dynamics of laughing at or with others is integral to telling stories of who we are, what matters to us and how we relate to others’ (2015, 176) and Patrick’s autobiography, and more specifically his childhood memories, illustrates this. Throughout the chapter titled ‘School’ Patrick shares humorous stories that give glimpses into his life. These candid moments allow us to relate to Patrick and connect with his story even more.
A notable character in Patrick’s childhood tales was that of Mr Moreiety aka ‘Mr Mo’ (28) the ‘first… male teacher on the staff’ at St Patrick’s (27). Upon Mr Mo’s entry into the school, Patrick noted that his head teacher ‘sought a protector as much as she did a new college, for St Pat’s was very rough indeed’ (27). It appears that Patrick’s school environment was very different to that of other working-class children. When looking at Daisy Noakes’ experience of the ‘harshness of her new teachers at Loder Road School’ (Daisy Noakes (b. 1908): Education and Schooling – Writing Lives) it is worlds apart from Patrick. Where teacher’s held authority in schools elsewhere, the rough nature of Craigneuk equated to evident power imbalance, which saw a parent silently stride into the classroom, pick up ‘the astonished Mr Moreiety’ and hold him in the air in a show of dominance. When one thinks of early 20th century teachers often images of strict teachers and harsh punishments come to mind. So to see this complete subversion of the stereotype is rather interesting. Patrick’s memoir gives voice to occurrences that are not as heavily documented in working class education.
The role of Mr Mo was ‘to administer the final polish before we divided into the mines, ironworks and steelworks’ (29). David Vincent argued that many children’s education were ‘dependent on whether working-class parents were prepared to send their children to school’ (1981, 54). It is evident through Patrick’s memoir that many children did not have a choice in whether they pursued education due to their family dynamics. In a time were workplace related deaths for the working class were common, Patrick saw his close friends plucked from their education and plunged into the world of world- ‘the coal pits which caused his father’s premature death never had a more willing victim that Harry’ (33). It is clear that Patrick disapproved of the actions of his friends. From the outset of of this chapter, Patrick voices how he wanted to ‘push the threat of the steelworks in the background’ (37) for as long as possible. The most tragic part in this, was that even the teachers had accepted the inevitable: ‘you’ll stay a while… and then you’ll drift away like the rest of them’ (37).
Much like ‘two thirds of all working people’ Patrick ‘remembered school as a positive experience” (Rose, 1993, 125). It was a place that allowed for him to escape and enjoy childhood. Despite Patrick’s passion for writing, his relationship with education was also conflicted. Where Patrick excelled in scripture, English and History, his abilities in Maths and Foreign Languages were wanting. Lacking attention from teachers and opportunity needed to find success in higher education, Patrick reluctantly honed his expertise in physical labour and left school at the age of 15.
493 MCGEOWN, Patrick, Heat the Furnace Seven Times More (Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., London, 1967), pp.192. Other edn., with an introduction by Asa Briggs, Readers Union, London, 1968, pp.192.
MCGEOWN, Patrick, Heat the Furnace Seven Times More (Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., London, 1967)
Vincent, David. Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Autobiography. London: Methuen, 1981.
Strange, Julie Marie. Fatherhood and the British Working Class 1865-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Image 2: A group of boys fighting. Retrieved from: Boys-Fighting.jpg (640×511) (historybyzim.com)