Guy Oates (1905-1987): Education and Schooling- Part Two – Writing Lives

Guy Oates (1905-1987): Education and Schooling- Part Two

For the last two years this place had taught me all I knew, which wasn’t much. It had sustained me as best it could, it had given me other boys to play and laugh – I had suffered by being within its walls, and I had found time to laugh and play. It had been everything to me’

(Oates, 2:48).

The Reality of School Life

The first day at the Yorkshire Society School was filled with revelations for Guy, who had been placed with the ‘nine to fourteens in the little boy’s room’ (2:17), and sorted into ‘form 2’ (2:17). However, due to his consistent truancy at Castle Yard School, Guy had fallen drastically behind, and it quickly became apparent to his teacher that he ‘could neither read or write’ (2:17). Consequently, he was ‘placed in form 1’ while all of the other boys remained in form 2. Although, strangely he occupied ‘the same desk’ and was ‘taught with the boys in form 2’ (2:17). A further revelation, was the discovery that he was now the ‘youngest, smallest, and lowest placed boy in the school’ (2:17), and while he did not understand what this meant to begin with, he ‘was soon to learn that life was not all play. Being the youngest and lowest [he] came last in everything. [He] must not get in front of any boy when lining up for anything, and this was to last for one whole year’ (2:17). This hierarchy impacted every aspect of his life while at school, and even the most basic tasks like bathing, which consisted of Guy waiting while ’twenty-nine boys had their pull of the bath water’ (2:17). When the older boys were done, Guy could finally bathe himself, although this meant that he was forced to spend two years washing in water that was ‘always cold’ (2:17). Even in the mornings, when the children would wash in basins, Guy would be forced to stop mid-wash, if an older boy came in, and relinquish his place. This would continue for some time, and eventually, as more older boys entered the wash room, there would be a small group of soaking wet ‘little uns- on a cold winters morning, in a cold damp wash room that was beneath street level, standing with no shirt on shivering’ (2:17). The implications of this went far deeper than the obvious risk of physical illness, and the constant humiliation led to unrecognised psychological issues, which left Guy feeling as though he didn’t ‘count for much’ (2:17). Having grown incredibly fond of Guy while learning about his life, I must say, this is a very upsetting moment in his memoir. To see his playful and mischievous nature so diminished and impaired, is truly heart breaking.

Food Glorious Food

On the 4thAugust 1914, Britain declared war on Germany and World War One began. Sadly, for Guy, this coincided with his time at the Yorkshire Society School, and meant that any hope of a varied and well-balanced diet was out of the question. Rationing and wartime shortages meant that certain foods or ‘commodities’ (2:18) were either unavailable or considered a luxury, especially for a charity school filled with growing boys who required only basic nutrients. Unfortunately, this meant that the boys were never given ‘gravy, custard, sauces and syrup’ (2:18), and their meals often failed to provide any variety or flavour (although, I doubt either were present on the menu to begin with). Despite this, the school always managed to provide enough food to ensure that each boy could have three main meals and their supper, everyday. During dinner, the Head teacher and his wife would serve a meal of ‘meat’ given out by Mr Norton, and a serving of ‘potatoes,’ from Mrs Norton. ‘Those boys who could afford to buy extras such as sauces or pickles (. . .) would have collected them before dinner and would now pour over their dinner’ (2:18), an addition which Guy insists would have been ‘a great help in getting down some of the meals’ (2:18). However, breakfast and tea was a very different affair, mainly due to the noticeable absence of adults, which meant that the older boys were left in charge of allocating the food with ‘no master to see each boy got his allotted amount’ (2:18). As Guy was the smallest, he was made to wait until everyone older than him had filled their plates and cups, at which point he was able to get his own bread and cocoa. Although, this must have been incredibly frustrating for a young, hungry, boy, Guy insists that ‘the real hardship came when getting no breakfast at all and sometimes little or no tea all on the same day’ (2:19). Often, by the time Guy reached the serving table, the pails of cocoa and tray of bread would be empty. Feeling helpless, Guy ‘would walk back to the table with nothing (. . .) and sit down, watching others eat’ (2:19), and though he hoped someone would take pity on him and offer him some scraps of their own inadequate portion, ‘none ever did’ (2:19). Once again, the effects of this hierarchy were both physically and mentally detrimental to Guy, who explains that this was his ‘first real experience of hunger and it hurt. To sit and watch others eat knowing [he was] going to get nothing lowered [his] dignity (. . .). [He] would go round all the plates picking up any bits that may have been left’ (2:19). Understandably, Guy was desperate for some food, and though he realised ‘how degrading this was,’ he continued to search, insisting that hunger made him ‘do funny things’ (2:19).

Yorkshire Society School (Guy and his brother Sep can be seen on the front row)

Jammy Tummy

At some stage during the constant torture that was hunger, Guy discovered the ‘salvation’ (2:19), which would go on to save him from ‘near starvation’ (2:19). This salvation was delivered in the form of supper, which was offered to each boy at ‘8.50pm’ (2:19) every night, and eaten in the classroom. A short while before this, the master would ask how many of the boys would like to have supper that night, and as Guy’s desk was located near the door, it was his responsibility to go and fetch the requested amount. Realising that he could not remember a time with ‘all thirty being required all on one night’ (2:20), he saw an opportunity to secure himself a regular food source, and taking full advantage of it, he would call down to the kitchen for ‘thirty suppers please’ (2:20). This meant that ‘if twenty-seven had been asked for, then the three over’ (2:20) could be saved for Guy, although, he had to be clever about when or where he enjoyed his reward. If he stopped to eat them at the lift, his master would become suspicious about the amount of time he was taking, and if he hid the suppers in the dining room, the older boys would notice if he tried to return for them later in the evening. In a moment of decisiveness, Guy settled on the idea of taking them with him, and with a glimpse of the mischief he had once been so full of, he placed the bread under his shirt with ‘the jam side’ (2:20) stuck against his tummy. Returning quickly to his classroom, Guy ate his allotted supper, and once the other boys began to get ready for bed, he would take his towel and head to the ‘ablutions room (. . .) for a wash’ (2:20). The charade was successful, and once there, Guy knew that ‘no one ever went in there at that time of night, it was always cold and damp’ (2:20). Safe in this knowledge, he removed the bread from his tummy and began to ‘lick off the jam, and put them on the wash basin’ (2:20), while he cleaned his tummy. Once clean, he would place the bread in his towel, wrap it up, and head back to his dormitory to settle down for bed. Once most of the boys had fallen asleep, and the rest were unable to see him, Guy would quietly enjoy his bread and jam, and ‘having a full tummy’ (2:20), he would drift off into a deep sleep. There is a sense of pride while reading about Guy’s triumph, and It is impossible not to smile at his resourcefulness and ability to master the jammy tummy tactic. Beneath his sadness and low self-esteem, there remained a mischievous, jam covered boy, who was determined to prevail over the injustice of his situation.


This brief section of the memoir highlights one of the more disturbing encounters experienced by Guy, and despite facing a variety of hardships during his time at the school, this is one of the most upsetting. Describing the event as ‘the worst that befell on me and others like me’ (2:39), Guy explains how he was forced into the shed by a boy of 16 who would ‘lay down, take out his penus and expect you to play with it’ (2:39). Understandably, this came as quite a shock to a nine-year-old child who was ‘innocent of anything of this nature’ (2:39), and although this was his first experience of this kind, ‘he knew it was wrong’ (2:39). His refusal to take part in such an act seemed to antagonise the boy, and in frustration he grabbed Guy’s hand and ‘put it on his penus’ (2:39). Resisting once more, Guy forced his hand away and violently bit down on the boy’s hand, as kicked his way free. Running to his classroom, where he ‘knew there would be other boys’ (2:39), Guy managed to make it to safety. However, when the boy entered the room a few moments later, Guy feared the worst, but was surprised when he ignored him and said nothing. For a child, the confusion and fear induced by this would have been unbearable, and although he had made it to safety, he knew his traumatic experience was not over. After a few days, the boy managed to corner Guy, and with the help of his friend, the two managed to pin his hand to a table and told him to open out his fingers. Next, the boy’s friend produced a pocket knife, ‘opened one blade and started very slowly at first to plunge the knife’ (2:39). Though he tried to escape, his efforts were in vain, and as the boy increased the speed, Guy felt ‘a sharp pain (. . .) and blood began to fall on the desk’ (2:39). This seemed to encourage the boy, who started to plunge the knife even faster, and once again Guy ‘cried out’ (2:39) as the knife stab through his skin. Satisfied, the boys released him, and in an instant Guy was up and out, running ‘to the cold-water tap’ to rinse away the blood, and after wrapping the wound ‘in a piece of old rag’ (2:39), he returned to his desk ‘waiting for the pain to ease off’ (2:39). In a heart-breaking moment, Guy reflects that he ‘was not told why [he] had been punished,’ but deep down, he thought he ‘knew’ (2:39).

Unlike every other aspect of Guy’s memoir, this small section fails to provide many details. He does not say if this was an isolated incident, or something which he went through repeatedly, though he does say that it happened to others. In volume seven of his memoir (around 30 years after the incident), while working with vulnerable children in Nottingham, Guy begins to talk about the measures he took to ensure children were protected from incidents like the one he had experienced. He explains that ‘to keep control and to see (. . .) how things were going, [he] would walk into a boy’s home and without reporting to the house mother or house father, would walk straight up into the dormitories or bedrooms. If [he] ever caught two boys in one bed they were in serious trouble. [He] saw too much of that at boarding school’ (7:47). Though his description of the situation in volume two is brief, the incident had a lasting effect on Guy, and despite the 30-year difference between the horrifying experience and his time in Nottingham, it clearly remained at the forefront of his mind. As readers, we will never know if Guy was forced to endure this type of abuse again, but what is clear, is his determination to protect other boys from it.

After doing a little research into incidents like Guy’s, I found that there are many cases of this type of behaviour in institutions such as children’s homes and boarding schools. Although, they usually seem to involve adults who are in a position of power, and the children they are entrusted with, whereas Guy’s experience involved only children. Additionally, the articles that I found seemed to discuss cases which took place around the early 1960s onwards. When looking for instances within the period in which Guy attended school, I was completely unsuccessful, and I realised that this is possibly connected to the period and society’s attitudes towards this type of incident. The topic of sexual abuse and children was considered a taboo until the later part of the 20thcentury, and as this changed, more people found the bravery to talk about their experiences and seek justice. However, prior to this gradual change, many people felt that they were unable to talk honestly about their suffering, for fear of unsympathetic judgments. Therefore, the fact that Guy included this in his memoir, which was written throughout the 1980s and the early stages of this change, is incredible. His decision to include this section and talk honestly about his experience is remarkably brave and commendable.

Guy and His Education

Guy dedicated an entire volume of his memoir to education, and although part one and two have covered many aspects of it, I can tell you that they have barely scratched the surface. For a boy who was unable to read or write at the age of nine, he has certainly done an incredible job of creating a memoir that is rich in detail, and uses a variety of techniques and resources. Throughout his life, Guy repeatedly referred to his lack of education, or his inability to write well, and he frequently talked of his intelligence compared to those around him. Even when he was given contact details for a publisher, who may have been interested in his memoir, he decided not to send his work because ‘behind [his] mind all the time was the shame [he] would feel when they began to read [his] writings and find the mistakes’ (1:59). While Guy goes on to be confident in his work and family life, he was never able to overcome the low self-esteem and sense of inferiority, that he developed during his time at the school. Having spent two years living within a system of hierarchy, which placed him below everyone around him, it is hardly surprising that he felt this way, and sadly he never found the courage to send his memoir to the publisher. What a great shame that is, because if he had been able to appreciate what he had created, despite the limitations of his education, he would have realised that he had written an amazing memoir, rich with detail, historical importance, and a splash of his cheeky personality. Guy managed to prevail, and his memoir is evidence that some things don’t need to be perfect to be brilliant (just like Guy himself). 

As we move on to the next stage of Guy’s education (yes, there’s more) I hand the reigns over to my fellow Guy enthusiast, Tasha, who will delve into tales of Headmaster disaster, and the tragedy from which Guy never truly recovered.  

If you have enjoyed reading about Guy’s life, you may like to explore the full collection of Guy Oates Posts.

If you would like to read some of our fellow Writing Lives students blogs, then look no further! Here are some of the posts Tasha and I enjoyed for this particular theme:

Jennifer Rose: /education-and-schooling/martha-martin-b-1871-education-schooling-1-2 this post is about Martha Martin and her fond memories of childhood at Sunday School.

Similar to Guy James. H. McKenzie expresses his frustration throughout his memoir about not having a good education /education-and-schooling/james-h-mckenzie-1862-1952-education-and-schooling this post was written by Taylor Liddell.

Natasha Ebbrell’s post – /education-and-schooling/kathleen-m-lindley-b1920-education-and-schooling on Kathleen M Lindley shows an insight into the life of someone who went to a convent school.


Oates, Guy.The Years That Are Gone.Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library, Vol. 1&2. 

Further Reading:
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987): 335-363.  
Rogers, Helen and Emily Cuming, ‘Revealing Fragments: Close and Distant reading of Working-Class Autobiography’, Family & Community History, 21:3 (2019): 180-201.  
Rose, Jonathan, ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 1 (1992): 47- 70. 
Savage, Mike. Social Class in the 21st Century. London: Penguin, 2015.
Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247.  

Burnett, John ed. Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education, and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s. London: Alan Lane, 1982.
‘Plate 45’, in Survey of London: Volume 23, Lambeth: South Bank and Vauxhall, ed. Howard Roberts and Walter H Godfrey (London, 1951), p. 45. British History Online 
[accessed 8 April 2019].
‘Westminster Bridge Road’, in Survey of London: Volume 23, Lambeth: South Bank and Vauxhall, ed. Howard Roberts and Walter H Godfrey (London, 1951), pp. 69-74. British History Online 
[accessed 8 April 2019].

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