Stephen Forsdick (b. 1835): Education & Schooling

… it cost ten pounds in those days to teach a boy a trade, so that it was considered quite a thing to get a boy into this school. (p, 3)

Stephen Forsdick’s education experience was one of a typical working–class member of society. As he was born in 1835, he attended school until he was 14 however this was not compulsory at this time, ‘The school age was from seven to fourteen years and the course of study embraced the three “R’s” namely: reading, writing and arithmetic.’(p, 3) The three “R’s” were a required method of teaching in most national schools until 1897, as it was seen as the basic education for a pupil to proceed further into a labouring career, following the cycle of the class system in Britain in the 19th century. The success of a school and its funding was based off it’s results, which explains how many working – class institutions did not have the ability to provide equal education as they were following a system provided by the government that favoured the upper classes of Britain at this time, which Stephen experienced throughout his time in education.

Stephen dedicates Chapter 2 of his memoir, ‘SCHOOL DAYS’, to illustrate his educational experience to his readers. He explains that his ‘first recollection of going to school, was to what was called “My Lord’s School”, because it was provided by the Earl of Essex.’ (p, 2)

The Earl of Essex (1567 – 1601)

As Stephen’s father was employed by the Earl of Essex, he had great influence on Stephen’s upbringing and his first encounters with education. Stephen’s memoir does not go into much detail about this, probably due to lack of memory of such an early encounter, however he does provide much more information on the “Free School” he attended from age seven to fourteen: ‘It was founded by Mrs. Elizabeth Fuller in 1656.’ (p, 2) According to British History Online, the school was founded and built in 1704, endowed by education pioneer Mrs. Elizabeth Fuller, as Stephen mentioned. This was a common occurrence in working–class communities, as those similar to Mrs. Fuller would work to support and provide education for the lower classes. David Vincent identifies this theme in his article Literacy and Popular Culture: England 1750 – 1914, in which he explains education ‘could be regarded as an outstanding example of successful cooperation between private philanthropy and public intervention.’ (Vincent, p, 53) This also provides an insight into how working–class communities came together to develop educational conditions for their children in the 19th century, which provided foundations for generations to come.

Education pioneer, Mrs. Elizabeth Fuller (1644 – 1709)

When Stephen began attending this school at age seven, the building remained precisely similar to its original foundations. As British History Online describes it as ‘an interesting brick building with stone quoins, which has a good open bell turret of wood on the roof.’ (British History Online: Watford) with Elizabethan fixtures still remaining in some of the classrooms, and Stephen describes it similarly as ‘The school house was a square two story building of brick, trimmed in white stone. It had a gabled roof with belfry on top and at that time was surrounded by a white picket fence… Mrs. Fuller buried beneath…’ (p, 3)

Illustration of “Free School”, c. 1700s

Stephen continues by painting a picture in our imaginations of his and his fellow classmate’s uniforms while attending the Free School. Firstly, he talks of the boy’s uniform: ‘The suits furnished the boys, were made of a dark frieze cloth, with knee breeches and cutaway coats. We wore black shoes and white stockings. The caps were flat with red tassel on top and red around the crown.’(p, 3) Secondly, he describes the girlsL ‘The suits worn by the girls were made of the same material, but they always wore aprons, with white cuffs and cellars and little white caps.’(p, 3) As many of the schools taught the beliefs of the Church of England, the children’s uniforms coincided with the religious attire: ‘We also wore a white Bib, like those worn by the clergy of the Church of England.’(p, 3)

In addition to this, Stephen attended Sunday school, which was on the same property as the “Parish Church” were he often attended with his mother and as part of the school’s curriculum, attended on Tuesday afternoons. Like most children of the 19th century, Stephen’s education involved quite an influence from religion, but as we know, Stephen eventually converted to the Mormon religion and abandoned his childhood teaching of the Church of England.

Despite Stephen’s minimal education in the Free School in Watford, his memoirs show that he is a poetic and enticing writer, perhaps maintaining the autodidact culture that many working–class autobiographers possessed as a means of self improvement throughout their lives. As Jonathan Rose writes, ‘Throughout the Victorian period… the British working–class maintained a vital autodidact culture that… found inspiration in the canonical works of Western culture.’(Rose, p, 54) Stephen perhaps found this inspiration through his travels and migration.

Stephen’s depiction of his education and schooling is brief, but provides a detailed insight into the lives of working–class children in the mid-1800s, including education, religion and British culture. The literate language used in his memoir is an example of what John Burnett describes as demonstrating ‘a contrast between the struggles and sacrifices of highly motivated individuals for education and self–improvement in the earlier part of the 19th century’ (Burnett, p, 166) which Stephen is a prime example of, being educated in the earlier half of the century and still pursuing a piece of writing that is extremely insightful and very thoughtfully written, with knowledge beyond the minimal education he received.

  • Forsdick, Stephen. ‘Untitled’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1.242a
  • British History Online,
  • Burnett, John. Ed. Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s. (London: Alan Lane, 1982)
  • Rose, Jonathan. Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences. Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 53, No. 1 (Jan – Mar, 1992), pp. 47 – 70
  • Vincent, David. Literacy and Popular Culture: England 1750 – 1914. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989)
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