Fermin Rocker (b.1907) Education and Schooling

‘With a background such as mine, adjustment to the outside world was bound to be difficult’ (Rocker.1998.53.)

Fermin was the first in his family to receive a state education. Despite his intelligence, his father Rudolf was mainly self-taught in terms of literacy and had not received even an elementary level education. By the time Fermin was born however, Britain had introduced compulsory elementary education until the age of thirteen. Being introduced in 1913, Fermin would receive a long stint of compulsory education. Despite being working class, arguably the Rockers showed that education begins at home. As John Burnett highlights in his book ‘Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, education and family from the 1820s to 1920s’, schooling was very brief in the early 1800s and was dependent on family circumstances. In Fermin’s father’s case he had a very disruptive childhood losing both his parents and running away numerous times from an orphanage, meaning his education was very much cut short. It would be his uncle Carl who was a substitute parent and member of the Social Democratic Party in Germany who would encourage Rudolf to self-educate through his interest in left wing politics.

Many children of this era found their parents to have a great interest in self education. This blog by Annie Taylor about Wirral born Norah Fearon Knight describes how her Mother had no schooling at all yet saw the importance of self education to better herself

Fermin, unlike his family, had the privilege of receiving a lot of education and guidance both in his home life and in British state education. However, Fermin would face some struggles in his school life being from such an educated family with radical politics and a different outlook on the world. For a working-class family, the Rockers were very cultural and stood out amongst their community in the Jewish East End. Fermin although encouraged by his parents did not play with other children on the East End streets as many did in the era, he was much happier alone drawing, reading and playing with his toys. For this reason, Fermin had scarcely been away from his parents except from occasions his mother (a great believer in fresh air and outside activity) would force him to play on the streets with the other children. The school Fermin was assigned to was very local to his home at Dunstan house, being only a short five-minute walk away in Smith Street. Fermin recalls a typical tearful departure from his mother on his first day of school, however unlike other children this would continue for the whole first week

Photo of a 1900s London Primary school retrieved via Getty Images.

‘I Was unable to master my tears any longer and burst out sobbing. I felt utterly forsaken and abandoned… and it was only by the end of the week that I showed any signs of coming to terms with the inevitable’ (Rocker.1998.105.)

Fermin did eventually settle in to school as he realised it was ‘not the purgatory I had imagined it to be and, it even had a few bright spots’ (Rocker.1998.106) Smith Street was a small school , especially for a London borough, with only two storeys and typical for the time, a playground on its roof. Fermin had a fairly easy time at Smith street and recalls getting on well with his teacher Miss Service as well as his headmistress who he was shocked to hear had bad health and died in his second year of school. Fermin points out that nearly all his teachers were women and he believes this feminine touch did a great deal for his confidence and self-esteem, being praised often for his artistic talents in his drawings.

The artist’s happy school years included special events such as ‘Empire Day’ celebrating the British empire. Fermin having dark features was chosen each year to dress as an ‘Indian’, this included wearing an Indian style robe as well as a turban. Coming from an anti-imperialist and anarchist background Fermin was torn at the concept even as such a young child, however did admit he rather enjoyed being the centre of attention:

An illustration from Fermin’s memoir of the annual Empire Day

Being decked out in Indian robes and having a big turban on my head was, however quite an inducement and there was also the consideration that those I represented were in the Empire by compulsion rather than choice.’ (Rocker. 1998. 109.)

Besides art, Fermin loved history and geography having learnt a lot about them from his father and their vast book collection at home. His father taught him the name of every European capital before he began school as well as sometimes swapping the nightly bedtime story for a lesson on a historic event. British power and prestige still being very prominent in the early 1900s, Fermin found himself conflicted as his family were very much against the lessons learnt about Empire and would argue against the teachings of British imperialism.

‘There was no one else in our class whose values, views, and more were as opposed to the generally accepted ones as mine…’ (Rocker .1998. 111)

Fermin had a happy school life and recalls this period of time fondly. However, as I will explore in my next post his family’s unusual beliefs would lead to some less happy times.

You can keep up to date with all posts about the life of artist Fermin Rocker via my twitter account @EmmaSellarsLJMU


Burnett, John ed. Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education, and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s London:  Alan Lane, 1982.

Fermin Rocker. The East End Years: A Stepney Childhood. (1998) Freedom Press: London


Image 1 :
Fermin Rocker. The East End Years: A Stepney Childhood. (1998) Freedom Press: London. Page 109.

Image 2: Retrieved from Pinterest via Getty Images

https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/339599628131079935/  [Accessed 15/05/2020]

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