Mary Stewart (B.1909-): Reading and Writing

We now view reading as an enjoyable past time, which gives us a chance to escape our every day difficulties. In the late 19th and early 20th century, this was often not an option for the working classes.

Literacy was on the increase across all classes, especially the working classes of Britain and the table below shows the literacy rate (in percentage) of both male and female literacy standards across the 19th century.


UntitledOften, the working classes did not get a free time in the day to relax and the literature itself was often incredibly hard to come by.

One way literate working class people could enjoy literature was the serialisation of classic novels in their local newspapers. Mary Stewart notes in her memoir: “At that time the Evening Chronicl were printing in serial form Charles Dickens Christmas carol.” [sic] Authors like Dickens gave the working class people stories they could relate to.


Mary makes no other mention of reading or writing throughout her memoirs, which is as previously stated not unusual of a working class autobiography in the early 20th century.

Interestingly, it is not about those that can read and write in Mary’s memoir. Instead she makes more mention of those who can not read and write, those who are entirely illiterate.

When describing her mother-in-law Mary notes she is: “..a bonny woman with real cream & roses complextion, vivid blue eyes & jet black hair, but quite illiterate.” [sic] The notion of being illiterate is as important a part of her personality as her looks. It would not be uncommon for adults in the turn of the century to be illiterate as it was not until the 1876 Royal Commission on the Factory Acts recommended that education be made compulsory in order to stop child labour and a further Education Act in 1880, which finally made school attendance compulsory between the ages of five and ten.

“I told you my Mother-in-Law was illiterate, so was her brother and mother”

She goes on to mention that all of her husband’s family were in fact illiterate and it was “..quite a while…” before she realised “..he couldn’t read or write..” Mary taught her husband to read and write however comically not her mother-in-law as she would have “..flattened me.” She also notes that she read to her husband’s family after dinner, so they too could enjoy the adventures of Charles Dickens: “ she said will you read it to us..” For the working classes, communal reading was one of the only ways they could spread literacy across the masses. They were the people of ‘self education’, they were improving their own lives through their own determination and perseverance. Often many pubs and local working mens clubs had a reading room, where men could access books and take part in communal and self learning. Mary’s family is an example of this new ideal of self-teaching and learning across the working classes.


  • Image 1:  Brown, R. 2011. Looking at History. Literacy: Revised Version, [blog] 11th January 2011, Available at: [Accessed: 20th November 2013].
  • Image 2:
  • Stewart, Mary. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, 2-741

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