Amy Frances Gomm (1899): Education and schooling

Born in 1899, Amy Frances Gomm makes it quite clear in her section about education and schooling that she did not find it of much worth to her own self-improvement. From the sub-heading she uses—‘Off to School’ , she criticizes  the education  system that was in place when she and her sister Laurie attended. The phrase ‘Off to School’ was from  a poem on the front of a children’s book they had that tried to paint school out to be enjoyable  for the students. But Amy’s education was much more intermittent.

‘Some time during 1904 and 1905, I did go to school, perhaps half a dozen times. I’d go for a day, pick up something (it certainly wasn’t education!) that laid me low for days or weeks.’ (31)  She discusses how it was a long walk to school with many hazards including the bad weather. ‘They considered it safer, generally, to keep me at home. When I was coming up to seven, I made an ‘official’ start.’ (31) In accordance to government parliamentary stats, In 1880 an Education Act was finally made, making school attendance compulsory between the ages of five and ten, ‘though by the early 1890s attendance within this age group was falling short at 82 per cent.’

(Above, one of the schools Amy attended – Oxford Central Girls school)

During the early nineteenth century, a lot of the actual learning the children gained from was in fact when around the home. ‘The foundation for the eventual victory [full literacy] was laid not in the schoolroom but in the working-class family.’ Amy discusses this matter, explaining that ‘the chances are that it was only Laurie and Syd who were going. And its Amy writing. You see the difficulty?’ (31) Amy is clearly hinting that she did not need to go to school to become the successful working class writer that she was; ‘I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read (to my own satisfaction) and write. I certainly didn’t learn at school, although school must have ‘improved’ me.’(31) She is clearly quite sceptical with the idea of school, note the use of quotations around the word improved. Author and professor, Carol Dyhouse has also shown that ‘as late as 1920 most girls in England received a significant part of their education in the home.’ Amy then goes on to explain that it was usually her mother that taught her, and ‘dad wouldn’t have time.’(31) By Amy making this clear statement about her mother, it is clear that women and girls were expected to put domestic work before education. This leads to Amy leaving school athe tender age of fourteen to help out the family business. ‘While boys as well as girls learned gender roles and expectations in the family homes, Susan Williams argues that a ‘female knowledge’ was imparted down the generations of women in the home which included both the ideology of domesticity and lessons in the practicalities of domestic work.

Like many working-class autobiographers, including William Lovett and his own memoir ‘Struggle for Bread, Knowledge and Freedom’, she tends to focus greatly on the importance of self-education. ‘Whilst parents and children were subject to an ever more complex range of pressures, for the most part they retained freedom of choice.’ This sense of liberation also seemed to have rubbed off onto Amy, with her personality throughout the memoir resembling one of a calm, free spirit. Her motivation to learn came from her own inquisitiveness for life rather than learning for the sake of academia. She seemingly sees school as more of a day trip rather than a ritual process, talking more about the journey to and from school rather than the education itself.

(Above, a picture from the 1900’s. Children on the way to school by horse and carriage, similar to Amy’s village.)

When Amy discusses her school life, her sentences always appear to end in a negative way. ’Come rain in torrents or snow in blizzards as we trudged along, we just got wet; stayed in our damp clothes until we got home that night. There were no drying arrangements at school.’ (32)  She also tells a story about how Laurie and some of the other children would steal walnuts from the walnut trees on the way home. ‘For the whole of the walnut season, their fingers would be stained dark brown. Teachers would regularly make an example of them- a bad example. In disgrace, they’d have to stand in front of the class, holding up for all to see their disgustingly stained hands.’ (37) Amy, of course does not find it a disgrace and is again reiterating the cruelties that occurred in school during her generation.

Amy’s critical reflections on her schooling life are markedly different from her fond recollections of home life. The negative picture she paints for her readers is shown in her statement,‘The scratch of slate pencil on slate is something you never forget.’(38)

(Above, one of the schools Gomm attended – a picture of the ‘original primary school’ in Charlbury.)

Bibliography 

Burnett, John ed. Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education, and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s London:  Alan Lane, 1982.

‘Gallery’, (2016) <http://www.charlbury.info/gallery/old_pictures_-_places> accessed 6 March 2017

324 GOMM, Amy Frances, ‘Water Under the Bridge’, TS, pp.163 (c.55,000 words). Brunel University Library.

Hurt, J. (1991). Vincent David. Literacy and Popular Culture: England 1750–1914. (Cambridge Studies in Oral and Literate Culture.) New York: Cambridge University Press. 1989. Pp. xi, 362. . Albion, 23(02), pp.329-330.

UK Parliament. (2017). The 1870 Education Act. [online] Available at: http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/livinglearning/school/overview/1870educationact/ [Accessed 10 Apr. 2017].

Vincent, David. Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Autobiography, (London: Methuen, 1981)

Watts, R. (2013). Jane McDermid, The schooling of girls in Britain and Ireland, 1800-1900 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012. ISBN 9780415181969 Hbk. £80). The Economic History Review, 66(4), pp.1195-1196.

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