“We had good teachers. Marvellous teachers, like I mean to say because I remember all the things that we was taught then, Mr Greenham was a grand man.”Mrs Yates (p.8)
Mrs Yates’s interview with John Berger gives readers an insight into the education and schooling of working-class children in Lower Darwen. In 1887, at the age of five, Mrs Yates attended the factory school which was run by the mill to provide working children with education after the Factory Act of 1833. Joseph Eccles, who took over the Blackburn mill after his father’s death in 1818 is credited with opening the Lower Darwen mill school in 1817. The school cost fourpence a week and consisted of two rooms- one for infants and the other for the juniors. Mrs Yates describes the unappealing layout of the factory school in her interview: ‘the infants went in the little room and you went under, we called it the hovel […] there were steps to go into the little room and then when you got in the big room you went up the steps on the outside’ (p.12). This description illustrates the unpleasant conditions of the factory school in which the children had to learn. The juniors had to enter the school by the fire escape which does not give the safest and most welcoming feeling.
It was during the 1830s that education was viewed as a necessity rather than an accessory. Schooling was once reserved for the higher classes but in the mid-nineteenth century, schools were being established in working-class towns and villages. Especially in mill villages such as Lower Darwen: ‘The first major legislation of the nineteenth century to include provisions regarding education was the Factory Act of 1833, which initiated state interest in the education of factory children by compelling employers to assure schooling for their young operatives’ (Kestner, 1988) thus creating opportunities for working-class children in education.
Unfortunately, Mrs Yates’s education was cut short as she just missed out on the Elementary Education (School Attendance) Act of 1893 which raised the school leaving age to eleven. This meant that Mrs Yates began working at the mill a year earlier at the age of ten which her parents were particularly happy about: ‘My parents were delighted because I could go to the mill at ten’ (p.13). It appears that her mother was not at all concerned about her daughter’s education as Mrs Yates mentions in the interview: ‘She didn’t approve of the way, I did, you know, because my father used to encourage me to read and she thought I should grow up lazy’ (p.4). Her mother suggests that intelligence was not principle in a working-class woman’s life. Contrary to her mother’s wish Mrs Yates read lots of books in her adulthood and she lists some of her favourite female authors in the interview, ‘Louise Alcott […] Ethel M. Dell […] and Elinor Glyn’ (p.28). She particularly enjoyed the novels Little Women and Good Wives.
Books that Mrs Yates Enjoyed
Her schooling consisted of few subjects: reading, writing, arithmetic, history, and geography. Aside from these subjects, the girls would also have lessons in sewing and knitting once a week to aid them in their domestic activities. Mrs Yates loved her teachers and thought their tutoring was ‘Marvellous’ (p.12), she informs Berger that she still remembers all that she was taught back then. Mrs Yates would work at the mill in the morning and attend school in the afternoon, and this would switch round each week. It’s beyond doubt that this schedule had an impact on her education. Berger asks Mrs Yates if she was able to learn when she attended school after work, to which she responds: ‘Well you saw what my copybook was like’ (p.14). This passing comment evidences the struggles of balancing a work schedule with education for working-class children.
On Sundays, Mrs Yates and other children in the village would attend the Sunday School that was run by Miss Eccles which offered them extra schooling. Gerard Scholfield gives background on the famous Miss Eccles of lower Darwen:
‘Miss Helen as she was called by the villagers, taught at the Congregational Church Sunday School, was active in temperance work, and child welfare. She was a member of the Blackburn Education Committee, and became a county magistrate on the 29th of January 1931. During the time Miss Helen ran the ‘Elms’ it was thrown open during the summer so that the village children could have garden parties.‘ (Schofield, n.d.)
The Sunday school would start at 9:30 am then the children would attend chapel at 10:30 am, have dinner then return to school from 2 pm till 3:30 pm. For a penny the children would have two extra hours of schooling on top of the minimal schooling hours received during the week. Miss Eccles, who was an educated middle-class woman gave the children an opportunity to further their knowledge and offered them enjoyable recreational time amongst the gardens at the Elms where the Eccles family lived. It’s evident that she cared for the education and the wellbeing of the children in lower Darwen.
Although education is not a prominent theme within this interview, Mrs Yates speaks fondly of her school life and her teachers. She loved to read, and this offered her an escape from her dull time at the mill:
‘there was a lot of very romantic stories in them, you know and that’s what I used to pore over all day […] well I used to be going over them, again in the mill you know, and seeing who I was going to marry. All that sort of thing. You know. Weaving little romances’ (p.24).
Her imagination was set on her future love life and how she could liberate herself from the all-encompassing mill. It’s comforting to know that through her education Mrs Yates learned to read which therefore allowed her to exist in these fantasy worlds in the unpleasant mill factory.
Kestner, J. The Concept of Working-Class Education in Industrial Investigative Reports of the Eighteen-Thirties. Browning Institute Studies, [online]. 1988. Available at: <https://www.jstor.org/stable/25057828> [Accessed 8 March 2021].
‘Mrs Yates: Before My Time’ Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection.
Schofield, G. n.d. Lower Darwen, A History by Gerald Schofield. [online] Cottontown.org. Available at: <https://www.cottontown.org/Housing/Parish%20histories/Pages/A-History-by-Gerald-Schofield.aspx> [Accessed 20 March 2021].