Daisy Cowper (1890 – 1985): Life & Labour

“There’s no doubt at all about Miss Cowper’s mark” – (I wondered “what”), and then she added – “It’s A – there’s no higher”.

Daisy enrolled at Clarence Street pupil-teacher training college in 1904, aged 14. This was her first step into her role as a teacher, a lifelong vocation. Later, she enrols at Edge Hill Training College as a ‘two-year residential student’ to complete her training, but notes ‘as there was no chance of my taking a 3-year University course, and there was a fee for entering as well, I did not take the Matric.’ It is clear that while some higher education was available to Daisy, she was simply too poor to afford a University education. Thankfully, the lack of a degree did not appear to alter her employment prospects.

‘I loved teaching, and felt no nervousness at all’

She documents many times how much she enjoys teaching and working with children, noting near the end of her biography that ‘I felt very easy at teaching before [Edge Hill]: in fact, I loved doing just that more than anything else.’ It is perhaps fortunate that Daisy did take such a shine to her training and employment, as working roles for women at this time were not particularly varied, and tended to consist mainly of service type roles, such as nursing, housekeeping, or teaching. Though it was not unusual for working class women to take up a role as a teacher, Jennifer Newby notes that:

With the increasing number of girls’ day schools after the 1870 Education Act, more elementary teachers were required. By 1914, the number of female elementary teachers had increased by over 800 per cent, since 1875. Traditionally, these women came from the lower middle class. Elementary teachers stayed on at school and learned to teach as ‘pupil teachers’. After the 1902 Education Act there were scholarships to allow poor but able girls to attend state secondary schools and teacher training colleges. These were much needed, as the average cost of a university education was around £400 in 1911. (Newby, 92)

Clarence Street, where the Pupil -Teacher Training College once stood.
Clarence Street, where the Pupil -Teacher Training College once stood.

By the time of her enrolling at Clarence Street and Edge Hill Training College, Daisy would not be seen as lower middle class, and indeed, refers to herself and her family as being ‘artisan class’. Daisy bravely describes her living standards with her mother and sister as adequate, though it is easy to perceive that money was always in short supply, and that the family did struggle at times. A notable instance is where Daisy describes coming home from school for dinner, and her mother breaking down in shame due to having nothing to feed her. Though things improved from then on, there was certainly no sense of luxury to be found in the Cowper’s lifestyles.

Her time at both Clarence Street and Edge Hill is described as basic, but happy.  Pupil numbers per class were in their hundreds, yet despite such crowded conditions, teaching appeared to be of a high standard, and Daisy later had a similar number of students in her care on her return to Clarence Street as a teacher herself. The ‘shabby’ Edge Hill Training College had modest fees of £25 for the two years stay, but as Daisy notes: ‘even that meant sacrifice by parents in homes where wages were small’. Regardless of the meagre living standards, ‘life for the next two years was supremely happy, and that is the opinion still warmly expressed by the diminishing band of girls of my year who still foregather at reunions’. It is clear that her time as a teacher had gained Daisy many lifelong friendships, both with teachers from her student days, and staff in her working days. Her life as a teacher eventually comes full circle after working her way through training, as she eventually returns to her old primary school, Upper Park Street, where she not only teaches, but goes on to teach other pupil teachers, too.

Daisy leaves one beloved for another; giving up her teaching career upon marrying her husband in 1916. Newby explains that ‘Many teachers left their job when they married. In London around 10 percent of female teachers were married in 1911, but only 4 to 5 percent elsewhere.’ (Newby, 93) Due to the circumstances for working women at the time, it would no doubt have been expected that Daisy leave her job to become a wife, mother and housewife. She does not appear to feel any bitterness or resentment at this prospect: ‘I was truly sorry to be leaving the work I loved so well, but I was completely in love, and wanted to be a good wife and a good housewife.’ Children also meant that Daisy ‘didn’t stop teaching, really’, as she later went on to have 4 children, whose ‘homework books littered the kitchen for some thirty-three years’.

Cowper, Daisy, (1890 – 1985), ‘De Nobis’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:182

Newby, Jennifer, Women’s Lives: Researching Women’s Social History 1800 – 1939. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Family History, 2011.

Picture credit: Ellena Parsons, 9/12/2013


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