Mary Davies (1889-1943) Gender

Gender is one of the key themes that came across from my initial reading ‘An Insignificant School’, by Mary Davies. The history is made up of separate accounts from past teachers and pupils at Aldrington Church of England School.  My blog focuses on education, and this section will address gender in relation to it.

In his chapter on education in Destiny Obscure, John Burnett states, ‘self-help autobiographies were largely confined to male authors’. This is due to the fact that until after 1870s, girls had less access to schooling than boys. The Victorian attitudes on male and female roles in society had a huge impact on the decision of many working class families in allowing their sons and daughters to pursue formal education. Rather than considering the child’s intellectual capacity, the decision was predominantly based on the gender. Many parents could not afford their sons to be educated as it would take from the time and energy they would have to earn money for the family, let alone allow their daughters who were greatly needed in the up-keep of the house and general house work. Females would also need to be prepared for marriage, in which there was a unique opportunity for social mobility. This could possibly enhance the financial security of the girl’s family.

Miss Lelliots’s account also hints at the strict Victorian attitude towards gender segregation which was still in force during her time at Aldrington School, (1899-1907). ‘The playground was divided into two, the West side for boys, the East for girls.’ (p14)

‘In the 19th century, teaching was one of the few professions open to women though their status and position was much lower than their male counterparts.’ (

There is no evidence of any of the females who give accounts to Mary Davies, of progressing onto anything other than a career in teaching. Miss Lelliot says, ‘I knew at 7 years of age this is what I wanted to be, and my desire never wavered.’ (p15) There is no evidence that females would be prevented from pursuing male orientated jobs, however looking at the time that Miss Lelliot is referring to it is evident that doing a ‘man’s’ job would be unheard of. The onset of the World War I was the first time that women on a mass scale undertook male-held jobs. Previously, it was widely believed that women were incapable of strenuous manual labour due to their ‘delicate’ nature. This attitude towards women in England was perpetuated by the strict Victorian values and beliefs of society and gender ideas.

For further reading on the female war effort in Brighton, please see this link to a small feature on Kathleen Maud Bailey in the Women’s Land Army:

The pupil-teacher government scheme which allowed promising students an opportunity to work and train to become a qualified teacher was an important stepping stone in educating the working class youth in this era. However, Burnett outlines in Destiny Obscure that a high number of females did not complete all the stages before certification, remaining instead as ‘uncertified mistresses at a lower salary’. No reason is given for this, but perhaps the general attitude towards female education, and family commitments, was a preventative in them furthering their careers and education.


In Miss Mainstone’s account, there is evidence of further gender divisions as she mentions that ‘boys could leave school at 13, girls at 14.’ (p12) Due to her progression into the final standard, a year earlier than expected, Miss Mainstone was left with little option but to go into the infants’ school as a teacher. This tells us that the syllabus of learning was rigid, as she puts being, ‘not allowed to leave, nothing more to learn’ (p12)  as the reason for becoming a teacher. Furthermore, she mentions no advice given to her regarding other possible career paths, and she herself does not raise this as an issue. We are left to assume that her actions are accepted, possibly even expected. Although the pupil-teacher system was in place, none of the male pupils mention having followed the scheme in their accounts.

In his account, Mr Gale, a former pupil, confirms, ‘we were taught to write on slates, and to count on bead frames.’ Although the subjects for male and females were openly gender-orientated according to Victorian culture, there is no logic for the males to have used slates whilst the females had to use sand pits..  Mr Gale attended school from 1910-1915, and Miss Lelliot in her later account confirms that the sandpits are still in use in her attendance in 1924. It does seem that males were preferred in their use of slates rather than sand trays, however the only evidence of this is deducing this conclusion from the accounts. It is possible that the Victorian attitudes towards gender roles caused this as it was not expected that women would need to be able to write, whereas males were clearly encouraged in this field.

The gender orientated subjects, reflect heavily the Victorian expectations of men and women. Girls were taught cooking and needlework, whilst boys were taught drawing and counting. Mr Gale comments that at the age of fifteen, he left school and began working for the London and Brighton South Coast Railway as a junior clerk, remaining there for forty-five years. Laundry, cooking, and needlework were subjects that trained women to be housewives, as these are all domestic chores.

Mr Gale’s account also mentions one of his teachers; Miss Maynard, who he remembers standing ‘on a place of waste ground between Shelley Road and Tamworth Road (now the site of St. Peter’s R.C.  Church) and let passers-by have it. Votes for Women! And all that’ (p17). This resonates with the Suffragettes movement that had begun in England in 1872, which ties in with the fact that the full vote for women over 30 was only granted in 1918.  The need for equality for women is something easily enjoyed in the present day, (although one could say there are still injustices). Despite the gender inequality of 2013, it is a far cry from the open treatment towards female education that we see in this memoir.

In her postscript, dated 1983, Mary Davies writes, ‘it is interesting to see how the women on the whole can ‘rise in the social scale’ with more ease than men….(men) are readier to be happy in their appointed place’ (p24). This sheds light on the attitudes of gender roles and social mobility amongst the working-class as late as 1983 in England. The ability of a woman to engage in upward social mobility is actually an indication that her social status heavily depends on the type of man that she marries. The idea of ‘marrying up’, still stands today, although this notion now encompasses men as well as women.




‘An insignificant School : Aldrington Church of England School’ Mary Davies.

Burnett, J. Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s (Penguin: London, 1982)

Click to access SG7_Women_and_education_web_(Oct_2009).pdf

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