Ellen Cooper (b.1921-2000) Education and Schooling: Part 1 – Writing Lives

Ellen Cooper (b.1921-2000) Education and Schooling: Part 1

‘At Christmas we had a party and prize giving, and in the summer the teachers took the whole school on an outing to the London Zoo’ (pg. 3).

Ellen Cooper’s memoir revolves largely on the retelling of her memories from her family home in Southend on Sea, Essex. Her memoir also touches on a range of topic areas including her experience of education and schooling. John Burnett commented that ‘most writers of autobiography received some schooling, however brief and rudimentary, and almost all of them included some account of it in their memoirs’ (Burnett; 1982, 8).

Given the brevity of Ellen’s memoir, as discussed in my Purpose and Audience post, the information provided on education and schooling is brief yet interesting. Part 1 of Education and Schooling will explore Ellen’s experience in primary school and Sunday school and part 2 will provide an insight into Ellen’s life in secondary school and her scholarship at the Arts and Crafts School in Southend.

Let us begin with primary education. Ellen and her two siblings attended the same primary school that was in their local area. ‘The three of us went to a local school, about ten minutes’ walk away.’ (pg. 3). The closeness meant that she could walk to school. As Ellen was the oldest of three siblings, she was obligated to walk her brother and sister to school. ‘Because I was the eldest my job was to take the others to school.’ (pg. 3).

Ellen does not mention the name of her primary school. ‘[The] autobiographer is liable to forget, misremember, remember selectively, embellish, invest and rearrange events in the interest of creating an engaging story.’ (Rose; 1992, 52). Perhaps Ellen did not remember the name or felt it wasn’t necessary to include it.

Sunday schools are an important theme in working- class autobiographies and most of the writers from the Burnett Collection attended Christian schooling sessions. ‘The Sunday Schools introduced into England the idea of universal, free education.’ (Burnett; 1982, 10). In 1906, over 6 million children attended Sunday school. In fact, the first mention of education and schooling in Ellen’s memoir is of Sunday school. ‘When I was about eleven years old, my brother and I went to Sunday school, and later on my sister went as well.’ (pg. 3). Perhaps Ellen’s parents wished to wait until her sister, Lily, was older before she attended Sunday school with her siblings.

Ellen recalls how she and her brother enjoyed and indeed benefited from Sunday school. ‘We liked that very much, I’m sure we learned a lot.’ (pg. 3). Ellen was educated 5 days a week in school and yet she was happy to attend schooling on a weekend. This emphasises Ellen’s strong faith in Christianity. Sunday school began a strong culture in Ellen’s family and indeed for many other working-class families across Britain. The incorporation of learning and activities made Sunday school a fun experience for many working- class children.

Ellen’s memories from Sunday school are vivid and most exciting. Ellen recalls ‘At Christmas we had a party and prize giving, and in the summer the teachers took the whole school on an outing to the London Zoo, and Mum was allowed to come with us, it was a lovely trip.’ (pg. 3). Ellen provides 21st century readers insight into the activities surrounding Sunday schools in the 1920s-1930s.

Ellen’s father worked on a Sunday and her mother often volunteered at the Sunday school and accompanied the group on trips. Ellen recalls ‘I think mum used to treasure those Sunday afternoons.’ (pg. 3). Not only did Ellen and her siblings benefit from the school so too did her mother. Perhaps the Sunday school provided her mother with a time for relaxation and time away from her domestic duties.


Mrs. E. Cooper ‘The house where I grew up’, unpublished memoir, 1993, 8pp, Burnett Collection of Working Class Autobiography, Special Collections Library, Brunel University.

Burnett, J. Autobiographies of Childhood. The experience of education. Vol. 32, Issue 10. History Today. 1982.

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.

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