Joe Loftus (1914-1998): Education & Schooling – Writing Lives

Joe Loftus (1914-1998): Education & Schooling

“Schooling could and should have been such a thrilling adventure, vividly understandable no matter what the subject. In history-rich Lancashire with the evidence on our very door step in fact, teachers had to work hard to avoid making subjects interesting” (85).

According to the the year 1918 saw the introduction of the ‘Education Act’, commonly known as the ‘Fisher Act’. The act enforced compulsory education from 5–14 years. Because of this, Joe would have started school in 1919 at five years old, and his first school was St. Josephs in Bedford, Leigh.

‘View of St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School from Buts Mill’

The way Joe speaks about his education and schooling calls to mind the phrase ‘too clever for his own good’.  Even as a young boy, he is aware of the limitations of popular schooling methods at the time, which he refers to as “abstract and parroted arithmetic” (82). He believes that the education system had the potential to inspire pupils at an early age to succeed in life, especially those from a working-class background, but instead it lacked creativity and innovation. Joe even comments on the teaching style that many of his tutors adopted: “Some seemed to settle for a routine approach because their purpose and motivation had not survived intact […] you got some teachers who held their pupils at arm’s length, some who taught by minimal repetition or produced inadequately introduced and explained information out of a hat” (83). Joe is therefore highly critical of his schooling. In his later years however, Joe did become a ‘Technical Instructor’ and managed large ‘Skill Centres’, so perhaps one thing he took from his education was how not to teach!

Joe acknowledges that school was lacklustre ultimately because “the potential of young people could get smothered by the urgent need to be earning for the family” (83). Teachers felt efforts were wasted on pupils who were unlikely to take their education any further or put their knowledge to much use.  Instead, after leaving school working-class young people would typically get a labour-based job, in order to provide a source of income for the family.

Joe shares his opinion about 20th century schooling with author Jack William Jones (b.1900). Jack describes his education in the East End of London:  “Schooling? A joke! A joke in bad taste might be a better description” (1). Like Joe, Jack suggests that teachers were unable to deliver decent lessons to working-class pupils who attended public schools: “teachers struggling to teach hungry, tired children in classes which seemed to compare in number with at least six football teams: these were the kinds of schools I spent my young in and on leaving in 1914 at the age of 14, I knew little more than when I started” (3). (Read about Jack’s school experiences here). This proves that class was a determining factor in the ability to progress at school, and must have taught children at an early age the unfairness of life and how your background can limit you. However, this didn’t discourage Joe too much, as he writes, “despite these digressions I progressed at school and was in the top class or standard” (86).

‘”writing slates, neatly framed in wood, and we used slate pencils to save paper” (Loftus, p84)’

School was not always a disheartening, unexciting experience. Joe was caught up in “his first and only school fight” after being pushed over by a fellow class mate in the yard. He remembers “I was lanky and half-clemmed in comparison, but all set. I got the worst of it and was eventually pinned on my back on the rubble” (89). I think a young boy’s first fight holds great significance and is something that they should experience, because it will often teach them a bit about who they are as a person and how they react to violence. This altercation therefore acts as a ‘rite of passage’ for Joe and is a memory that has stayed with him for a lifetime. The encounter certainly enlightened Joe as he writes humorously “If you want to know who your friends are, get into a school scrap, get the worst of it as take time out to listen to the odds being called out while you’re on your back” (89).

‘A school cane being manufactured’








Joe was subject to the infamous cane in his school days. He remembers, “I was once ordered out front falsely accused of being off-key in a singing lesson. Me, who had sung in the choir and loved to sing. The louse. My humiliation and hatred was made more acute when I was caned in front of the class” (88). Penny Summerfield in her article ‘An Oral History of Schooling in Lancashire 1900-1950: Gender, Class and Education’ notes how “Girls were twice as likely as likely as boys to go home from elementary school with weals on their hands from caning and women teachers were as prone as men to administering such punishments. In fact some were particularly feared” (1987, 22). This transgresses the stereotypical view that female teachers were caring and gentle. One of Joe’s favourite teachers, Miss Mac, does fit into this category however. Joes describes her as “A graceful attractive young woman with a soft voice and fine Celtic good looks, she could often charm the best out of you with her lovely smile” (87).

‘Leigh Technical College 1900-50, where Joe attended in the evenings’

Penny Summerfield writes “One of the greatest crimes at girls’ secondary schools involved having any contact with the opposite sex” (1987, 25). Joe touches upon this segregation of boys and girls at school, saying bluntly “The effect of the sanctions was to make us think of girls more as sex objects” (90). The separation made him more aware of the differences between them, and in turn physically attracted him to them. This had the opposite effect of what sanctions were supposed to do in schools. Summerfield points out that separation was put in place mainly because “it was considered unseemly for adolescent boys and girls to of any social class to mix without supervision. Unsuitable associations might be formed or (unspeakably) virginity might be lost” (1987, 26).

When Joe left his second school, Sacred Heart of Jesus in Westleigh, Leigh, his education did not end. He and took “evening classes at the Tech, to study Building construction and when I saw Algebraic equations go up on the blackboard I was flummoxed” (86), suggesting again that his education was inadequate. In his later years he also took vocational training to become a joiner.

‘Sacred Heart of Jesus Primary School as it stands today’


Works Cited:

‘Joe Loftus’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 2:484

Loftus, Joe. ‘Lee Side’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:484.

Summerfield, Penny. ‘An Oral History of Schooling in Lancashire 1900-1950: Gender, Class and Education.’ Oral History Society 15.2 (Autumn, 1987): 19-31.

Buchanan, Kimberley. “Jack William Jones: Education & Schooling.” Web. Accessed 09/03/2017 /education-and-schooling/jack-william-jones-education-schooling

Images Cited:

“View of St. Joseph’s Catholic Primary School from Buts Mill” Web. Accessed 09/03/2017;sa=album;in=5715;nw;start=0

“A school cane being manufactured” Web. Accessed 09/03/2017

‘”writing slates, neatly framed in wood, and we used slate pencils to save paper” (Loftus, p84)’ Web. Accessed 09/03/2017

“Leigh Technical College 1900-50, where Joe attended in the evenings” Web. Accessed 09/03/2017;sa=album;in=16209

“Sacred Heart of Jesus Primary School as it stands today” Web. Accessed 09/03/2017;sa=album;in=17944

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