The theme of Education and Schooling is very prominent in Robert Ward’s ‘A Lancashire Childhood’, and arguably could be the main theme’. You can read in full here, which is his memoir transcribed by myself.
“Shortly after it was published he bought me the Children’s Encyclopedia, probably my greatest single educational influence for many years.” (4)
Robert Ward mentions his education and school life very frequently throughout his memoir. There isn’t just one section in which he discusses it, it is a constant theme throughout. As Robert’s memoir is based on his childhood, it is not surprising that his education and school life is so prominent, as it is what would have consumed most of his days. He does not describe his school experience to be negative at all and despite him not explicitly saying it, it seems that Robert enjoyed his time and gained a lot from it.
Robert began his education at the Infants Department of the Littleborough Central School in which he does not have much memory of except for his very first day; he recalls crying, so much so that his teacher, Miss Lindop, had to “[sit him] on her knee” (1). He would have joined at the age of around 5 and so “blanks” (1) in memory is to be expected. Progressing up from the Infant’s Department, Robert joined the “big school” (1) a year or so later, and this where he stayed until he was 13. Again, he doesn’t have too much to say about this time other than the fact he found a few of his teachers to be quite strict, and he even said he was “afraid” (1) of his headmaster. This is not too dissimilar to something a child just starting school now-a-days would say; starting school is very daunting, especially for a young child, and this was clearly still the same in Robert’s time.
The Littleborough Central School was clearly quite strict as Robert tells us that “every morning all those who were late were automatically caned” (1). To a modern reader this seems rather barbaric as there is definitely laws against this sort of behaviour today, however this was a normal form of discipline in the early to mid 20th century; one can only presume that they made this punishment so bad in the hope of encouraging students not to be disobedient.
Despite the discipline in Robert’s school being quite strict, the wellbeing and best interests of the students are at the heart of the institution. Robert speaks of an ongoing problem he experienced when he was a child, which was fainting. It was particularly an issue when he had to walk into the morning assemblies; assumingly the large mass of people in one place overwhelmed him. Rather than telling him to get on with it, or even ignoring him, the teachers removed him from the situation entirely, and “a few months’ exclusion from these activities cured [him] of the habit” (1). This shows that the relationship between Robert and his teachers was a positive one and they truly wanted to help him.
The statutory age that children could leave education in the early 20th century was 13 years old; only those who could afford to pay for education could continue for an extra 4 more years and sit their “Matriculation Examination (five subjects, including Mathematics and English)” (11). Fortunately, Robert was one of few that won the Alexander Harvey Scholarship which meant he was given a grant from the government to pay for his further tuition. This tells us that Robert was clearly very bright and his teachers and the government saw a lot of potential in him. Due to the scholarship, Robert was able to progress into the ‘High Grade Department’ at The Littleborough Central School, which was a “really small grammar school” (11); this meant that Robert received, most likely, the best education available at this time.
Robert’s education and learning was not limited to just the classroom, he also attended Sunday School at the Stubley Chapel. Robert takes a rather humorous tone when he discusses why one would attend Sunday School; he tells us that parents may have wanted to send their child there “perhaps to get them out of the way” (6), and the children themselves may have wanted to attend as, “only regular attenders would qualify” (6) when treats were handed out. This adds an heir of mischief; as Sunday School would have been a very important activity, designed to encourage children to become good, religious adults, but their intentions may have said otherwise; rather ironic! From attending Sunday School for several years, Robert learnt to play the piano by the age of fourteen. He was so skilled in fact, that he was “recruited to play the organ for the hymns” (6). This is contrary to the fact that one of his teachers once told him that he had “NO EAR” (1) when it comes to reading or listening to music; Robert certainly proved that teacher wrong!
From the way Robert discusses particular subjects, we can denote that he had far more interest in the likes of Music and English, rather than the more practical subjects such as Woodwork and even sport based subjects; he goes as far to say he “detested Woodwork” (2). This is rather interesting as his father was skilled in lots of areas of labouring, which most likely included woodwork. This may be down to the fact he nearly “severed an artery in [his] wrist” (2) when he tried to use a chisel, and by the way he explains this ordeal, it sounds as if it was traumatic. Robert ended up attending college to become an English teacher. We can assume that one of his English teachers, Miss Royds, helped him choose this path as he tells us he “owes [her] a great deal” (11). This is rather heartfelt to see him so appreciative of the education he received. Robert’s father had “very positive ideas about education and was determined that [he] should do well at school” (4); this tells us that he would have received great encouragement at home from his father in particular, and this was the push that helped him to succeed.
Ward, Robert. ‘A Lancashire Childhood’. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. Special Collections. 2:0797.
Rose, J. (1993). Willingly to School: The Working-Class Response to Elementary Education in Britain, 1875-1918. Journal of British Studies, 32:2, pp. 114-138.
Marsh, J. (2016). Pretend play. [online] The British Library. Available at: <https://www.bl.uk/playtimes/articles/pretend-play> [Accessed 28 April 2021].
Rose, Jonathan, ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 53. 1 (1992): 47-70
Image 1 – Littleborough Central School. Retrieved from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/808solutions/8441816540
Image 2 – St Nicholas Church Littleborough. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Nicholas_Church,_Littleborough