Edward Balne (b.1895) Education & Schooling – Writing Lives

Edward Balne (b.1895) Education & Schooling

Edward Balne was very interested in his education. As seen previously in Purpose & Audience he was very interested in the subject of education as a whole. It is one of the only instances throughout the entirety of the memoir that he seems to become angry on the page about the inequality of opportunity and treatment due to education in a world obsessed with class hierarchy.

At this time in our history – at the end of the 19th century – Britain was the most powerful country in the world. Naturally the poor and weak were looked upon as complete outcasts. Balne therefore valued his education because he saw it as a way to move on in life. He ‘was determined to get something better than ‘toil of the hardest, wages of the lowest and a home like a kennel as well as the degradation such a life entailed.’ [Balne, p36.]

This degrading life is detailed as follows:

The late 19th century and the first fourteen years of the 20th was not a period enjoyed by the poorest members of this ancient land. They (the poor) were at a great disadvantage from an educational point of view, and had no social standing whatsoever. The most menial and hardest working labouring jobs plus long long hours at work were their lot, and at wages which today would cause a riot.

So called homes were hovels and hardly fit for dogs to live in, and the majority, if not all the men and women suffered from malnutrition. It is little wonder that the death toll among such people was very high indeed.’

Orphaned Edward Balne was transferred from Southwark workhouse to The Cuckoo Schools, or The Central London District Schools, Hanwell in the autumn of 1897. He was two and a half years old.

The school itself was an extremely large complex; by 1935 it had grown to roughly twenty acres. It had plenty of facilities, including a cricket ground, a football pitch and extensive farmlands which at the time boasted a variety of fruit trees as well as a herd of cows to provide the school with various dairy products.

Plan for Hanwell School, 1914, from www.workhouses.org.uk

For Balne, his presence at Hanwell School was largely a positive one:

It was… with some surprise and delight that a few years after my entry I was told by one of my mentors that the ‘cuckoo’ school (this is not its official name) was one of the best if not the most comprehensive of its kind in all respects throughout Great Britain.

I was able to fully endorse that statement when I was about six to seven years old.

Balne attributes his start in life to his schooling here. He was taught the usual basics of education for that period: reading and writing, arithmetic, geometry and history. But unusually for the time, he was also taught diction. The boys were given clear instructions not to neglect their aitches – ‘woe betide any boy who made a persistent habit in dropping them.’ – Balne, p6. Preventing the children from speaking in  such a way so as to mark them out as specifically working class was a sure way of making sure their future would be as open to them as possible.

As an orphan, Edward Balne was not part of a family. As such the school, and education, was his home. This meant he wasn’t withdrawn from school school as an early age to work – as such he was allowed to progress in education up to the age of fourteen and 5 months, ending his school career in 1909. This means he does not quite fit into the pattern of a usual working class memoir. He was given time to read and improve himself without the burdens of a family life.

His memoir also shows some evidence of a pupil-teacher relationship:

There were eight classes in schools for the poor, and they progressed consecutively from class one to class seven and to the ex-seventh for the eighth and top class for boys of 14 and 15.’
Some of us reached the ex-seventh as early as twelve which was as far as a highly intelligent boy could reach, unless (as I was) the pupil was fortunate enough to be called into the Headmaster’s office… I was taught algebra, graphs, map reading, Euclid, and something about the political set-up in Britain. And the Headmaster (A.M Gill) taught me to play chess.’

Balne, p6

Although Balne does not make specific reference to being trained to teach himself, he was certainly given plenty of one-to-one attention. He stayed in education longer than was compulsory – in 1913 the compulsory age was raised to 13. Previously it was 10.

Balne has plenty to say on the subject of corporal punishment:

‘As with other establishments of this kind, the cane and the birch were both used as correctives – and fairly frequently. The birch was administered by the Yard Master [Previously referred to by Balne as an ‘ex-naval man in my time’, p5] and other boys who were available were obliged to be present to watch this form of punishment which even as a boy I considered to be barbaric.

The Yard Master in my day was a burly man and strong. If I was compelled to be an onlooker at such a spectacle, I would watch the first heavy swish and then close my eyes for the rest of the session. Sometimes we spectators would have to listen to the screams of the victim and I have known boys to faint watching these ghastly scenes… But cruelty among the educational controlling bodies of the time was rife throughout Britain.’

Balne p12

Interestingly – Charlie Chaplin also attended Hanwell School from June 1896 to January 1898, at the same time as Balne, (attended 1897-1909) and it’s very well known that he hated the corporal punishment in the schools he attended. It is likely he may have been present at one of the beatings described. In his autobiography he tells:

..the story of a boy of fourteen trying to escape from the school by climbing on to the school roof and defying staff by throwing missiles and horse-chestnuts at them as they climbed after him. For such offences there were regular Friday morning punishment sessions in the gymnasium where all the boys lined up on three sides of a square. For minor offences, a boy was laid face down across a long desk, feet strapped, while his shirt was pulled out over his head. Captain Hindrum, a retired Navy man, then gave him from three to six hefty strokes with a four-foot cane. Recipients would cry appallingly or even faint and afterwards have to be carried away to recover. For more serious offences, birch was used — after three strokes, a boy needed to be taken to the surgery for treatment. Chaplin himself once received three strokes with the cane, apparently for an offence he did not commit.’

– This information is quoted from a web page found here: , accessed November 2013

Charlie Chaplin, school photo at Hanwell School, age 7 in 1897. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Hulton Archive/Getty Images


It seems obvious that this Captain Hindrum is the same Yard Master Edward Balne knew. But Balne himself adds:

I attach not blame to the Yard Master. He was only carrying out his duty. The one I knew was normally a pleasant and kindly man and could have birched the wrong-doers much more heavily had he been a masochist. He most certainly did not care for this side of his job.’

This is an extremely interesting stance of Balne’s having previously condemned caning as ‘barbaric’. He compares his experiences with author Charles Lamb’s brutal experiences at the then charity boarding school Christ’s Hospital at the hands of the Rev. James Boyer, a man now well-known for cruelty. Authors Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Leigh Hunt have also written of terrible conditions under Boyer.

I’m sure you can draw your own conclusions about abusive treatment at Hanwell from the incidents described above.

Links that may be useful:

 – Hanwell School and Charlie Chaplin.

 – Information on Charles Lamb.

 – David Vincent’s Love and Death and the Nineteenth Century working class.

 – More information from the National Archives on pupil-teacher arrangements from 1846 to the early 20th century.

 – a link to the National Archives with more information on the poor law and the poor’s reaction to it.

Balne, Edward, ‘Autobiography of an ex-Workhouse and Poor Law School Boy’, MS, pp 175 (c.27,000 words). Brunel University Library.

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