“When I was five years old I went to school. I cannot remember much about it except that I stayed there until I was seven. I then went into the boys’ school, I must have learnt something in the infants because when I went to the ‘bigger school’ I could read. I must have been at least average because in this school I went through all the classes and finished at thirteen years old in what was known as XY, not many boys reached that class. The schoolmaster was a good man. But he did not spare the rod. He was very strict. If you tried to learn he was very helpful, but otherwise you were in trouble…” (p2)
Like many children, it seems Thomas had a typical school life, filled with fond memories and certainly some mischief. When writing of his life at school he goes into detail, as he does when discussing many different areas and topics he covers in his autobiography, recalling instances in which he was merited for his good behaviour as well as punished for his not-so good behaviour! He also takes time to discuss and describe the surroundings of his school which is particularly interesting for the readers. In turn, we can picture an image of a school setting dating back over 100 years ago. Certainly, an interesting picture particularly when comparing it to school settings from the modern era.
As highlighted in the introductory excerpt of this blog post taken from his autobiography, Thomas started school, like many other children both past and present, at five years old in when he learnt to gain basic skills in reading, as he discusses, and presumably in writing, prepping him for the move up to ‘bigger school’ when he was seven years old. It seems he excelled academically. He takes time to recall an instance which resulted in him being moved up into a higher class. “Another time when I was in Standard 6 and the master was giving a grammar lesson, he asked a question and a number of boys out their up their hands including me, he asked me to answer, which I did, then he called me out to the front of the class and asked how I got the answer. I told him and he sent me back to my seat. A week or two later I was put in a higher class.” (p3)
It seems his life at school was not without some trouble making and tantrums! He details two instances in which he got into trouble with his school master and his father, the first being a situation in which he was asked a question by his teacher. Thomas, a shy lad (he writes, “if anybody said anything to me my face went red” (p3)), failed to answer the question. His teacher then remarked how his face was red “like a crab”. Thomas then describes what happened next… ”We used slates in those days (writing paper had not come into use in schools) and I picked it up and threw it at him, it broke into pieces on the blackboard, and I knew I was in trouble. Two slaps of the cane was the result.” (p3)
This was not the only instance in trouble making that Thomas details. He discusses a time when he refused to go to school because his trousers were “not like the other boys”, resulting in a telling off from his father. Instead of having new trousers, Thomas wore pairs that his elder brothers had outgrown, that were cut down to fit his size. Perhaps this was a result of the family living in poverty. As I detail in my last post on Home and Family, Thomas’s family, like many of the mining community in Durham at the time, were extremely poor. Therefore, providing new clothes for growing children may have been another struggle the family contended with when Thomas was a young lad.
In 1901, at thirteen years old, Thomas left school and proceeded to join many of his peers, as well as his father and brothers to work in the local mine. Leaving school at such a young age, it is interesting to consider how far Thomas may have excelled academically if he continued in education to the age required today. In his final paragraph regarding his education, he expresses a passion for reading developed once he left school and had access to the mining Institutes library. During this time, he gained a passion for the more “serious” type of literature, contained in the “Hibbets Journal and Cassells magazine”. Indeed, he writes that his passion for reading “remained with [him] the rest of [his] life”(p4).
After reading about Thomas’s short period within the education system, it highlighted to me how far the current generation take education for granted. Sadly for Thomas, whose seemed to have great academic potential, his education was cut off at an incredibly young age after which he was expected to work, not only learn a trade which he would remain in for the rest of his life, but to also contribute to keep the family afloat. Certainly, a harsh existence for such a young boy. Who knows where he would’ve ended up had he received educational opportunities we are lucky to have today.
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987): 335-363
Mike Savage, Social Class in the 21st Century (Pelican)
Rose, Jonathan, ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 1 (1992): 47-70
McLaughlin, Thomas, The Life of an Ordinary Man, 1979, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1.475