Mary Davies (1889-1943) Religion

The oral history is a compilation of historical accounts from past students and teachers at Aldrington School. Ninety years after its establishment, Mary Davies, the compiler of the memoir ‘An Insignificant School: Aldrington Church of England School 1889-1943’ has taken on a project to research the school’s history. This leads her to collecting a number of accounts which give an insight into the nature of education in the early 1900s.

Religion is a key feature in each of the accounts, and its presence is unwavering by the time that our author attends school in the 1970s. Mary Davies says in the postscript, dated 1983,   that the headmistress was a traditional woman who insisted on all the teachers kneeling and praying against the Forces of Evil…because one of the teachers borrowed a costume from an odd character in Titian Road who lent out Daleks, organised Jousts, and sold Blood for stage plays’ (p25). This highly superstitious culture is a throwback to the early 1900s as outlined in Miss Mainstone’s account 1907-1911. She relates that her mother gave money to gypsies for fear of being cursed.

Although the memoirs talk of a formal education which is not heavily saturated by church doctrine, the accounts still make clear that there is a strong religious presence in the school, which is inevitably passed down to the pupils alongside their learning.  Mention is made in Miss Mainstone’s early accounts of the regular hymns that are sung at the beginnings of assemblies, and a few accounts later, Miss Lelliot confirms that the same hymns are still being sung circa 1909.

In his chapter on education, in Destiny Obscure[1], Burnett writes ‘The Sunday Schools introduced into England the idea of universal, free education on which ultimately, the system of day-schooling was built.’ (p.131) The National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church (1811) and the British and Foreign School Society (1814), were the two main bodies championing this.

In the early nineteenth century, the Church attendance of the working-class was steadily decreasing. The Church appealed to these families using a number of incentives such as free meals, and clothing clubs for children. The church also appealed to the working-class interest in being associated with the middle-class, as they were involved as teachers, patrons and visitors. Burnett asserts in Destiny Obscure, ‘the motives behind the movement were at least as strongly religious and social as they were intellectual.’ The grand motive was to teach children to read and understand literature ‘so that they could grow up in the hope of divine salvation.’ (p.132) Secular subjects were deliberately not included because the emphasis lay solely on equipping a child to read the Bible efficiently.

Thereafter, towards the mid and late 1800s, the attendance at of Sunday Schools was incredibly high. According to their own figures 1,550,000 pupils attending 16,828 schools in 1833, and ‘by the time of the Religious Census of 1851 2,400,000 were on the registers and 1,800,000 in attendance.’[2]  However, attendance at these schools did not automatically guarantee a good quality of education. There is great mention in Burnett’s writing of the ill-equipped nature of the teachers, who were not themselves widely educated, but still able to read and write. We can see a significant shift then in the very late nineteenth century, and the early twentieth century towards education. The teaching quality that is outlined in Mary Davies’ memoir is more strongly geared towards the secular subjects such as grammar, and letter writing, geography and history (although religious instruction is still an integral feature of school).

Sunday Schools remained massively popular until 1914, increasing even after the mass introduction of day-schools in 1870, ‘the number of pupils on register reaching a peak of 6,179,000 in 1906. The Sunday school officially abandoned secular subjects for children after 1870, (but not adults), and incorporated para-religious institutions such as the Band of Hope (1874), and the Boys Brigade (1883)’[3]. The social element of the religious establishment helped to maintain the popularity of the Sunday school, and further ingrain the Sunday school culture into English society elements of which remain today. Despite this however, it is only in Mrs Clegg’s account (circa 1907) that mentions a specific Sunday school. She writes, ‘My Sunday School was Sadler’s Hall in Stoneham Road. The preacher was Mr Sadler the chemist in Portland Road, a saintly man with a white beard.’ [4]

Miss Mainstone reinforces the strong religious presence in Aldrington School, as religious dates of importance were marked ceremoniously. She states, ‘Ash Wednesday and Ascension Day always meant a trip to St. Philips Church’[5].

One thing that comes across from the memoir is that religious education was enjoyed, respected and revered. Whether that is due to the fact that most working-class families were deeply religious, or the heavy teachings at school leaving no room to feel otherwise, appreciation for this religious guidance is shown. Miss Lelliot in her account shows this explicitly, ‘Religious instruction was excellent and most comprehensive, and took place every morning….I have been so very grateful all my life for this excellent ground work’ (p14)[6].

Mrs Clegg also remembered visits to St. Philip’s Church, and learning of the Creed and the Catechism, stating that ‘religious knowledge was paramount’ (p19)[7]

In Miss Mainstone’s account, we get the impression that she too enjoyed the religiosity of the school.  Writing about the regular visits of the local vicars and reverends she admits, ‘the highlight, I think once a month, was canon Rowsel (or Russell). Oh, to be taught by a Canon’ (p10).[8]

In fact the only negative association with the religious presence in the school comes from Mr Gale, who was at Aldrington School 1910-1915. He states, ‘Fathers were stricter in those days. Smiles did not come easy to them’ (p16)[9]. Mary Davies in her postscript, 1983, remembers the head mistress’s superstitious nature with ‘wry humour’ (p25)[10], suggesting that she does not hold the same rigid religious beliefs as her seniors.

 

Sources

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

http://www.mybrightonandhove.org.uk

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

Visionofbritain.org.uk


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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