William Belcher’s untitled memoirs offer the reader an authentic look at the education and schooling system of working class families. The relatively few memories of his education allow us to understand his life more clearly and how he acquired his appetite for knowledge. Educated at Duncombe Road Higher Grade School, he also attended Sunday School and Evening Continuation Schools for 4 years, only to go on to study a part-time electrician’s course at Tottenham Polytechnic.
Whilst attending Duncombe Road Higher Grade School, Belcher, not knowing whether he ‘was quick or not…found lessons irksome…but took the step each time, to something more interesting’ (5), thus demonstrating his hunger for knowledge at this early age. Belcher uses a humble tone when talking of his education, however it is clear he was somewhat gifted. He claims ‘at ten we were doing what secondary children do at 14’ (5) and even ‘tried for a scholarship’ (6). Although failing in his attempts for a scholarship, it demonstrates his desire to achieve beyond what is expected of someone of his class, something which he continues to strive for throughout his life. Much of the interest of William Belcher’s autobiography lies in the supporting documents, which include school certificates, demonstrating some of his achievements in education and shorthand.
In his memoirs Belcher reveals his fondness for school life, stating how this education is something ‘I am proud to say I have retained’ and ‘found use for’ (6). He talks of how he had recently voted for his former headmaster at Duncombe Road ‘Henry Jones on the L.L.L elections’ (6), revealing his affection for this part of his past. Although, he does express this fondness for school life, he often makes remarks that seem to exemplify common working class struggles in education:
‘If teachers could visualise the confidence which their pupils place in them they would be surprised, and would rule by love, and not by the cane’ (6)
Belcher left school at a young age in 1898 and, instead, turned to ‘religious teachings’ (6) . He began to attend Sunday school at St. Andrews Church on Wells Street, exclaiming how he ‘found interest..and…much knowledge’ (7) in it. A Sunday School education was not uncommon for the working-class, John Burnett states:
‘The Sunday Schools introduced into England the idea of universal free education on which ultimately the system of day-schooling was built, and through their close association with the churches and with the ‘respectable’ elements in society helped to break down the resistance to the education of ‘the masses’ (Burnett, 135)
Sunday School plays an important role in the education of the working-class, with compulsory education being of attendance only up until 10 years old, many children had to educate themselves. Sunday School provided this universal free education and was an important factor in the lives of many of the working-class. William Belcher used this opportunity to further both his academic and spiritual education. Sunday Schools ‘were remarkably successful in adapting to changing social needs…concentrating on religious instruction, social activities and para-religious institutions’ (Burnett, 136). This social aspect of Sunday School is apparent in the memoirs, describing it as the ‘social stimulus’ of the community.
It is clear that education and schooling is a vital part of William Belcher’s life and sets him up in life with a desire to acquire knowledge. This working-class pursuit of knowledge, as Jonathon Rose states, ‘represented the return of the repressed’ (Rose) and helps to understand the motives behind Belcher’s work ethics, being that of a social class empowerment. Again, as with Belcher’s family life, schooling is associated with the church and the social aspect of such an education is an important factor for him, with a communal outlook being at the centre of his endevours.
Burnett, John Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education and Family from the 1820’s to the 1920’s Routledge: London, 1982
Belcher, William Untitled Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography. University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1.53
Rose, Jonathon The Intellectual life of the British Working-Class (Yale University Press, 2001)