Emily Gertrude Lea (1902-1976): Reading & Writing

The fact that Lea penned a memoir of 32 pages to begin with assures us that Lea was highly literate and could enjoy reading and writing leisurely.  Reading became particularly popular amongst the lower classes, used as a form of escapism, it enabled workers after long grueling days the chance to use literature as a way to imagine different forms of life. During the late 19th century illiteracy rates were quite high and thus the working class soon developed a reputation for self education. With most working class children being pulled out of school early, if they attended at all, many remained uneducated, creating wide cultural divisions between the classes. Eager to bridge this gap and “deploy a taste for high culture as a means of distinguishing themselves from their self assigned class”(Hinton 2008)  working class people soon realised that they could help each other and themselves by joining together to help educate one another.

20th Century Bible
20th Century Bible

With new eagerness for education amongst the working classes than ever before, Lea remembers how “Like most children of that period, I started school at the tender age of three. Not that we were compelled to start until we were five, but most mothers thought that was very late” (4). It is here at Sunday school, we can assume Lea learnt to read as Sunday’s schools aim was to teach children to read the Bible.

It is hard to grasp a sense of Lea’s reading taste as it is mentioned so little throughout her memoir.  However as we know Lea was bought up in a religious family and a keen church goer, it is probable that Lea’s main form of literature would have been through stories in the Bible, especially as she mentions that her older brother Albert received a prize of ‘Daniel in the Lion’s Den’ a famous biblical story.

The only mention of Lea’s own reading habits comes when discussing what presents she received one Christmas, commenting “By the time I was 6 I could read quite well the books provided and was very proud when I received an old one for Christmas… the book was ‘Tot at the Garden Gate’ and I can still see the little pictures” (5). Other than this Lea mentions no other titles, but her fond memory of the book assures us that Lea was an avid reader and enjoyed literature whenever she could.

Lea chose to use a typewriter when writing her memoir, meaning we are unable to asses Lea’s handwriting style and its legibility. Once again Lea doesn’t delve into too much detail about her education but recalls how she “learned to draw ‘pothooks’ in a box with sand, to spell with letter bricks and write with awful squeaks with a slate pencil” (4). Lea also mentions that when she reluctantly left school she “was enjoying life in the top class very much” (5), this combined with Lea’s writing style, grammar and spelling makes it clear to the reader that Lea, despite receiving only a short education was highly intelligent and enjoyed engaging in a variety of cultural activities.

slate pencil
Slate similar to what Lea learnt to write on


  • Hinton, James. ‘The “Class” Complex’: Mass-Observation and Cultural Distinction in Pre-War Britain’, Past and Present, no. 199, May, 2008
  • Lea, Emily Gertrude. ‘Reflections In the setting sun…I Remember after fifty years’Burnett Archive of Working Class autobiography, University of Brunel Library, 2-469


  1. 20th Century Bible: http://bibles.wikidot.com/tcnt
  2. Slate: http://www.twmuseums.org.uk/schools/boxes-of-delight/find-boxes/20th-century/20th-century-school-sunderland.html

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