Mrs Yates (b.1882): Education and Schooling

“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’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 most safe and welcoming feeling.

Factory School

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 mentions some of her favourite female authors, ‘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 that their tutoring was ‘Marvellous’ (p.12) and 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 e.g., attend school in the morning and mill work in the afternoon. It is beyond doubt that this schedule had an impact on her education.

It has been understood throughout history that working-class children were extremely unintelligent due to the lack of education and demanding work hours. A study carried out in 1920 shows the intellectual status of school children from a southern cotton mill village and the results are alarming.

The Intellectual Status of Children in Cotton Mill Villages

L. A Williams explains the results in the table above: ‘normally the central tendency should appear between 90 and 109 (perfectly at 100), in the case of these 591 pupils it appeared between 80 and 90 (actually at 86.5). In fact, more than one-half of the pupils examined were below normal intelligence.’ (Williams, 1925). Therefore, the children in the mill village were extremely underachieving.

It is evident that school children in mill villages were not receiving the education they should have. This could possibly be a result of the inadequate schooling hours or the conditions in which the children learned. The schedule of Mrs Yates and many other working children in the nineteenth century could be the cause for the poor intelligence of the children presented in this investigation. 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 copy book 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:

‘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 half-past nine then the children would attend chapel at half-past ten, have dinner then return to school at two till half-past three. 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 the children enjoyable recreational time amongst the gardens at the Elms where the Eccles family lived. There is no doubt that she cared for the education and the wellbeing of the children in Lower Darwen.

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 is comforting to know that through her education Mrs Yates learned to read which therefore allowed her to exist in these fantasy worlds in the factory.


Kestner, J. 1988. The Concept of Working-Class Education in Industrial Investigative Reports of the Eighteen-Thirties. Browning Institute Studies, [online] 16, pp.57-75. Available at: <> [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] Available at: <> [Accessed 20 March 2021].

Williams, L. 1925. The Intellectual Status of Children in Cotton Mill Villages. Social Forces, [online] 4(1). Available at: <> [Accessed 8 March 2021].

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