Mary Davies (1889-1943) Schooling

The history compiled by Mary Davies, ‘An insignificant School’ includes accounts of school experiences from 1899-1943. Mary Davies begins the history with her findings of the school log book which covers 1889-1919, and it is from here we get information of the school syllabus circa 1890.  The recitations for the year 1891 are: ‘We are Seven’ ‘The Beggarman’ ‘Lucy Gray’ ‘The May Queen’ ‘King John’ (p5).  No further indications are given as to what the recitations may be, although they strike me as poem titles.  The lesson plans for infants were learning words such as;

‘The Sheep. The Cat. The Reindeer. Hippopotamus. Swallow. Eagle. Fly. Bee. Wasp. Cup and Saucer. Pin. Needle. Straw. Hall. Lead Pencil. The Sea. The Gardener. The Shoemarket. The Grapevine. Wool. Leather. Gold. Coal. Chalk. Rice. Cotton. Paper. Silk, Sugar. Rain. Snow.’

It is noticeable that these words do not have religious connections, so it is clear that education has become more secular by this time. (Please refer to the Religion section for more details.) By assuming these were common words at the time, words which were to be an important part of the vocabulary for these children, we also glimpse into the society. The words indicate that these words were in common use, and that items such as sugar, rice, silk and wool, were well heard of. Some of these materials were foreign imports made accessible on English soil by the slave trade, which had been abolished in England by 1807 under a parliamentary act. These items show Britain’s colonial connections in the nineteenth century.

According to the school log book, the dentist first appears in the school in 1911, and there is mention of a photographer, in 1914. Mary comments, ‘One wonders whether these were official photographs, since the financial details of the pupils and their poor backgrounds do not suggest that many would have had money to pay for photographs.’ This is evidence that the majority of the students were from lower working-class backgrounds. Furthermore this indicates that the well-being of the children was important, and the structure of many school figures today is not wholly dissimilar than it was in the early twentieth century.

‘The first fire drill is recorded in 1915, ‘perhaps this Fire Drill was necessary because of the outbreak of war?’ Regarding the war, Mary comments that ‘It is interesting to note that the First World War, in comparison to the Second, seems to have made little impact on the school. Unlike other establishments, Aldrington School did not even celebrate the end of the First World War, and some of the old pupils commented that it was closed in October and November 1918 because of the influenza epidemic.

Mrs Page, who attended the school from 1938-1943 writes how Aldrington School was hit during the Second World War; ‘I remember the dog fights in the sky, the German planes against ours, then the sirens went. If we had time we all had to go to the shelters which were across the playground.’ (p23) On a particular occasion, Mrs Page details how they were half way across the playground when two planes began to open fire, making ‘deep marks in the side of the school.’(p23)

The log book indicates that there was a regular nurse visitor who checked up on the health and hygiene of the school. Mary Davies writes that ‘on one of her periodic visits in 1919, she pronounced Aldrington to be “the cleanest school in Hove”’ (p7).

Miss Mainstone’s account says, ‘In November and December of 1899 an epidemic of diphtheria broke out, and quite a number of little children at Aldrington School lost their lives. (p11)’

Regardless of the financial backgrounds of the pupils who would have had limited items of clothing and limited access to soap and water, there seems to be a culture of cleanliness that is maintained over the years, according to the later accounts. Miss Mainstone states that ‘Boots and shoes (if you had any) had to be clean. Some children never did have any.’ (p8) Mr Goble says in reference to Miss Mainstone’s account, ‘That school nurse, by the way, used to come round the schools and look for nits in our hair every 3 months.’ (p18)


The most information regarding syllabus and school structure is gleaned mainly from Miss Mainstone’s account, a former pupil who goes on to become a pupil-teacher. Her account gives a relatively detailed insight into the curriculum and structure of Aldrington School from the 1899 to 1911. These are the formative years of the school after its establishment in 1899. The following accounts in the memoir are then shorter in length, and follow on chronologically from Miss Mainstone’s time period, either confirming the continuation of practices or mentioning innovations.

During her attendance, there were about 140 children, and three standards, in which the pupils were split. Children started their school education at the age of four, ‘and the hours were 9-12 and 2-4’. (p8)   There is no indication that the word ‘standard’ has anything to do with the children being grouped according to ability; rather I take it to mean the different age groups which they are split.

Miss Mainstone asserts that ‘there wasn’t much truancy in those days’. (p11) Despite the poor financial status of the children, (which is confirmed by the financial records of the families in the school log book), the parents were managing to send them to school rather than to work. The only evidence of the this is Mary Davies’ commentary on the log book, ‘the financial details of the pupils and their poor backgrounds do not suggest that many would have had money to pay for photographs.’(p7)

This suggests that these working class families were able to support themselves without having to draft the children into work, a common feature in Victorian times.

Miss Mainstone’s account also mentions ‘a school board man’, who investigated absent children, and ‘inspectors’ whose purpose seems to be similar to the Ofsted inspectors that schools have today.  It is interesting to note that the practice of independent inspection of the children’s education was already well established by the early 1900s, hinting at the importance given to the quality of education.

In 1862, Robert Lowe, the Vice President of the Board of Education was charged with the introduction of the Revised Code. This was instigated following the results of the Report of the Newcastle Commission which flagged the cost and inefficiency of primary education as failing. Previous to this, schools which received government grants were subject to inspection by H.M.I’s (Her Majesty’s Inspectors). The difference before and after the report however is the rigidity in which the schools were assessed, and the autobiography of one  H.M.I (John Kerr) confirms the relaxed nature of inspection pre-1862. Burnett includes him saying’ both teacher and inspector had more elbow-room and more free play.’ The revised code of 1862 included a ‘Payment by Results’ principle in which monetary benefits would only be granted to a school depending on certain milestones of the pupils. ‘For each child in regular attendance the school would earn 8s., subject to a deduction of 2s. 8d for every failure in one of the three ‘grant-earning subjects’’.

This explains the emphasis given to attendance which is mentioned by Miss Mainstone in her account, and further picked up on in later accounts.

‘At Christmas, if you had a year’s unbroken attendance, you received a prize…Three years unbroken attendance brought you a watch.’(p8) Mr Gale (former pupil) in his account later corrects this as he insists that it was seven years having missed it by a month due to a scabies health scare.

The reliance of the school on government funding explains the strict following of protocol in many aspects of school life, as in order to run, the guidelines set by the educational boards would have to be met. This indicates that not only were there incentives for doing so but harsh consequences for failure to comply..

On a larger scale however, these strict rulings seem to have benefited the standard of education in England for the government-funded schools. ‘Gone were the days when the early Reports of H.M.I.s had revealed some appallingly low standards of teaching by brutal and ignorant staff…’wholly unfitted for their office’ and ‘utterly incompetent and unfit’.’ (Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s)

The impression of the school from this account is that there are limited financial resources, which provided more evidence that it was amongst the government-funded schools. According to Miss Mainstone’s account, ‘sand trays were used for teaching writing’ to save money on paper and ink.

At the age of 15, she became an instructor of twenty, four-year olds, but her working class background made it impossible for her to continue on two shillings a week, so she left.  Burnett’s chapter on education states that this ‘pupil-teacher system as an alternative to monitorial methods’, was implemented in the 1830s by the Secretary of the Committee of Council on Education in England. This scheme mentioned by Miss Mainstone was available to more advanced students who would be drafted in to shadow a schoolteacher for at least five years and receive further education whilst teaching the younger years. The government agreed to pay a small salary to these pupil-teachers who if successful in ‘the Queen’s scholarship, would qualify as certified teachers at the end of the five years, by which time they would be entitled to ‘an augmentation grant’, and possibly extra fees if they undertook the training of apprentice pupil-teachers themselves. (Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s)

This programme involved the state in the recruitment and training of teaches, providing indirect control of educational standards. According to Burnett, pupil-teaching provided the majority of primary schoolteachers up until 1914, and was a major way in which working class students could go on to higher education, combining a salary (albeit small, according to Miss Mainstone), and higher education.

The school was financially stable enough to stop charging its fees after the year 1902. ‘It had been 3 pence each Monday, but if there were three or more children in the family, only 2 pence each.’ (p8) This is most likely due to government funding as it was not a private school, and the structure and system detailed in the accounts mirrors the structure of a government funded schooling of the time.

Miss Mainstone mentions that she was taught letter-writing ‘even in those days, about 1909-1911’(p11), suggesting that it was a rare skill to have been taught at that time. Presumably, by her statement, ‘even in those days’, letter writing was not seen as a necessary part of education, perhaps due to their working class backgrounds, or female gender, or both. Nevertheless, it was taught, so this also indicates that the quality of teachers had vastly improved compared to roughly thirty- forty years previous where teachers themselves had only a basic education (as stated in Burnett’s Destiny Obscure).

Miss Mainstone writes, ‘Most children ate the food that they had brought for their dinner when we went out to play at 10.30…so they had nothing left to eat later.’(p8) This is again a loose indicator of the financial status of the families that attended the school.

Mrs Clegg who attended Aldrington School at 1924-1937 re-iterates the structure of the school which shows that many of the features mentioned by Miss Mainstone were still in place 20-30 years later. ‘We sang the hymns that Miss Mainstone mentioned….the much dreaded cane was still in existence, and the sand-trays’.  (p19)

The eleven plus exams as they were widely referred to up until the late twentieth century is mentioned in Miss Mainstone’s account also. She says, ‘East Hove and Connaught Road were charging 6d each Monday for education, but if you passed the examination you had the chance of attending these schools FREE.’ (p10)

The educational reform of 1862 instigated an emphasis on basic education; however, Miss Mainstone’s account mentions the teaching of French in the secondary schools. ‘French was taught in these schools too-amazing progress.’(p10) There is no mention of it being taught in Aldrington.

Regarding the education of Mary Davies’ the compiler of the history, we can assume that the rigidity of the education system seen in the early accounts, is not a carbon copy of the education that Mary Davies would have received. In her introduction to the project, Mary Davies puts her time of writing as 90 years after the opening of the school, (1889). The English education system at this stage would no doubt be well influenced by the recent Victorian era, yet the proximity to the new millennium prompts us to believe that some education developments would have been established.

However, it is notable that as the accounts progress over the years, there is in fact little change to the education system, the values, and the ethos of the school.

I came across an article on the Sussex University website which has an article mentioning the ‘Argus’, This is the name of the newspaper which Mary Davies uses as her first point of call in her researching the school’s history.  She says in the chapter titled ‘The Beginning of the Quest’, ‘The next part of my quest was to write a letter to the local newspaper, the ‘Argus’, and from the replies to that letter most of the rest of my journey was illuminated.’   The Argus press is in fact still running to this day, and in the year 2002, there was a graduation notice of a local woman named Mary Davies who graduated in Creative Writing at the age of 81. This definitely fits our author’s description; however, unfortunately I have not found further evidence to make a concrete connection.








‘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)


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