Walter John Eugene Elliott (1890-1977) Education and Schooling

Walter’s memoirs do not provide the reader with copious amounts of information regarding the educational system and school life in the late 19th and early 20th century. However, what we do learn from Walter’s memoirs is just how much the system has altered, giving the reader a stark contrast to what we see in school and education currently.

A Victorian classroom

At first mention of Walter’s school days, Walter recalls how they were ‘all given a text from the bible to learn, which had to be repeated each morning to [the teacher]’ (4). Thus, we are aware that, like many schools of the time, Walter’s school was a religious one. Through this the reader is given understanding of the importance of the bible and religion at the time, throughout all parts of life. Although there is no more information on the religious aspect of school life, Walter does go on to say later in his memoirs that ‘the Education Authorities took over the school which was Church of England’ (14). Following this, Walter says that several of his friends left the school, leaving Walter alone. This is significant as it could demonstrate how important families viewed religion at the time. This is because ‘Church of England schools generally heeded the rule that no pupil or teacher should be required to conform to religious belief or ritual’ whereas ‘Roman Catholic schools were less enthusiastic about obeying the rule. They enforced religious observance more strictly’ (Gillard D). Therefore, some families could have been upset for this change in their children’s schooling, resulting in the children no longer attending the school.

Although Walter was left alone after the change in the structure of his schooling, his experiences did not remain negative. This is because Walter began to receive important responsibilities from his teachers. Initially, Walter was put in charge of making ‘an Inventory of everything in the school’ (14) including ‘desks, exercise books, slates, pens, pencils, chalks, library books, ink wells, blackboards, maps on the walls etc, etc’ (14). Then, it appears Walter was put in charge of some students. Walter talks of how a teacher, ‘Mrs Hunniset…was taken ill’ (14) and then goes on to say that he does not ‘remember how long I was in charge of [the students]’ (14). Walter even says that ‘after Mrs Hunniset returned [another teacher] asked [him] to remain after school one afternoon’ (14), and that Walter had been ‘reported to the Education Authorities [for] all that [he] had done to help…and they had sent a cheque’ (14) to him. Thus, Walter had become a vital part of his school, so much so that the governing body were to pay him for his assistance. This clearly made an impact of Walter as he was able to recall the event so clearly more than 60 years later.

Walter being rewarded for positively helping the school was a big change from Walter’s earlier school life though. In his memoirs, Walter recalls a time where he was ‘caned’ (14). In explanation for his punishment he says how he had ‘noticed a nice big lump of rubbish’ (14) and that ‘it only needed a match put to it’ (14). Walter admits how ‘the temptation was too strong for [him], so as the bell rang…[he] nipped over quick then applied that match’ (14). Thus, we are given a character in Walter that contrasts that of the helpful student who voluntarily assisted the school. This though could demonstrate how effective the punishment of being ‘caned’ was at the time. This is because Walter fails to recall any other events whereby he acted in a way that warranted the punishment. This, together with how he helped the school in his later years, provides evidence of a character who had learnt his lesson and progressed as a person.

School life for Walter was thus a time of mixed experiences, like many children school had its good and bad points. Burnett claimed, however, that school life ‘was generally a full and happy experience on which [the autobiographer] looked back with affection and gratitude’. Although Walter only spends a short amount of his memoirs talking about his school days we do get the impression that overall he enjoyed his short time at school. Alongside Walter’s personal feelings of schooling, we are also given the understanding of a school life that is a world away from what children are presented with today. Children are no longer subject to enforced religious teachings, they are no longer punished physically and they also would not, like Walter, be paid for assisting the teaching staff.



Elliott, Walter J.E. ‘Untitled’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:227, available at: http//

Gillard D (2011) Education in England: A Brief History. Accessed. 28 February 2017.

Burnett (ed.), Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of childhood, Education and family from the 1820s to the 1920s (Allen Lane, London, 1982), pp.306-312. Brunel University Library and Ruskin College Library, Oxford.

Walter J.E Elliott in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:227


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