Susan Silvester (1878-1968): Education and Schooling

‘School of course was a thing which played a big part in our lives, but it was a poor sort of schooling we had’ (5).

Susan does not give much away about the nature of Victorian schooling. She does not spend much time discussing her personal experience of it, even stating ‘I can’t remember much about what we did at school’ (6). This leaves me to conclude that Susan’s education did not leave much of an impression on her, good or bad. 

At this point in Victorian era schools had not long been available to the poor. Until 1870 schools were only attended by children whose families could afford it (Victorian Children, n. pag). Susan attended a board school (‘Curdworth Board School’ [5]), which replaced what were known as ‘ragged schools’, typically thought to not be pleasant (BBC, n. pag). 

But again, Susan does not go to lengths to outline any grief regarding her education, which is surprising considering physical punishments such as caning (BBC, n. pag) which were used at the time. The only parts of school life I gather she did not enjoy was how there were ‘no school dinners’ (6) and only ‘cold water’ (6) to drink. Outside of Susan’s personal experience however, Susan tells of how a friend of hers who worked as a teacher noted how schools of those times could be cruel. An invigilator for an examination ‘made one girl withdraw because she knocked a ruler from her desk’ (22). It seems a miracle that children were able to learn anything in such harsh learning conditions.

Recreation of a Victorian classroom in the Reading Museum.

What I find even more interesting is that Susan does not express any fondness or sentimentality for reading or writing – which seems almost ironic in such a fluent and vivid memoir. She concludes: ‘I must have learnt to read and write and do sums without any difficulty’ (6). Perhaps the education system at this point in Britain’s history did not provide well for artisitc children, indeed, ‘the walls of the schools lacked creativity’ (Victorian Children, n. pag). It is after school, at fourteen, that Susan realised she wished she ‘could go to school again’, because there were then ‘lots of things she wanted to know about’ (6). I believe that this shows that Susan’s education did not do her justice, as her obvious desire to learn was not sparked early on. 

Curdworth Grammar School, early 1900s. (Most likely where Susan’s sons attended).

Whilst at school, she even admits she believed that anything outside of utilitarian teachings, ‘practical things’, were ‘quite meaningless… and absolutely useless’ (6). I argue that Susan only valued practical teaching initially because it was more relevant to her life outside of education, her life of labour. Susan also mentions how, at school, her and her peers would ‘do quite a lot of sewing and knitting… making clothes for the poorer children… in Sutton parish’ (6). This shows how community values informed the school curriculum, and also how manual labour was an integral part of late nineteenth century life, so much so that it bled into her education. 

The Victorian school system was strict and sometimes inhumane. From what I gather from Susan’s memoir though is that she made her way through education without any serious incidents. Thankfully, she must have, of course, gained a good grasp of writing, at least.

Bibliography

‘School in Victorian Scotland’ BBC.co.uk. N.d. Web Accessed 10 May 2020.

Silvester, Susan, ‘In a World That Has Gone’. pp. 31. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, Brunel University Library, Special Collection, 1:628, available at: http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/10895

‘Victorian Children’ victorianchildren.org N.d. Web Accessed 10 May 2020.

Images used

Readingmuseum.org.uk

Ourwarwickshire.org.uk

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