Mrs W.E. Palmer (b.1908): Education and Schooling Part One – Writing Lives

Mrs W.E. Palmer (b.1908): Education and Schooling Part One

The village elementary school which came under the auspices of the church, was a very good one (13)

An Early 20th Century Classroom

This post is the first of two instalments which focus on Mrs W.E. Palmer’s childhood experience of education and schooling. Employed as a prominent theme of her autobiography, it is clear to see that ‘school was very much a part of the children’s life’ (13). With support from the church, the Women’s Institute, and the parents of the schoolchildren, it is evident that education and schooling was extremely valued by the members of Mrs W.E. Palmer’s village. ‘Parents took a great interest in the school, and indeed there was a camaraderie among parents and teachers’ (13), while ‘the organisers of school treats, Sunday school parties, and sports days etc, could always count on the Women’s Institute to help’ (14).

The school day was divided into two halves, and classes, ‘or standards as they were then called’ (13), were small. Morning school ran from nine till twelve, and afternoon school ran from one thirty till four. However, if a child ‘misbehaved or slackened in their lessons’ (23) they were made to stay behind to ‘make up for ill spent time’ (23). Highlighting their camaraderie, the parents generally ‘backed up the teachers…they did not mind their child being caned within reason, after all they had the same treatment given to them’ (23). However, there was often objection to their child being kept behind at the end of the school day. Mrs W.E. Palmer explains that ‘they did not mind so much in the summer, but did not like them to be kept in for long during the winter months. It was a dark and lonely road for a child to traverse alone, they had to be met’ (23).

The school teachers must have been well versed in botany, because the little girls were forever taking little bunches of wild flowers to the teachers expecting them to know the flower names. The teacher’s usually obliged, they were not often stumped for a name (18)

Claude Muncaster, R.W.S (1903-1974) – Clouds on a Summer Evening, Sussex.

Mrs W.E. Palmer, like most of the schoolchildren, lived at least two miles away from the school itself. This was not entirely unfortunate for Winifred as she enjoyed the picturesque walk through the countryside. ‘It was a favourite walk along the side road, which ran by green meadows, corn fields and copses, for several miles’ (16). However, young Winifred’s love of walking through idyllic, rural Sussex sometimes came at a price. Distracted by the beauty of the scenery, Winifred would often linger on her way to school which occasionally resulted in her being late. ‘If they were late and did not have a real bona fide reason, they received one stroke of the cane on the hand’ (13). Although Mrs W.E. Palmer was caned once or twice in the infants, she had learnt her lesson by standard two. By then she ‘had learned punctuality, and was wise in her generation, for she was never caned again’ (13).

Although Mrs W.E. Palmer recollects her school days in great detail, there is one teacher whose diverse teaching methods remain particularly poignant in ‘Francesca’s’ memory. Mrs W.E. Palmer’s standard four teacher, Miss Welling, was ‘college trained’ (20), ‘kind’ (20), ‘friendly’ (20), and ‘the idol of the little ones’ (20). Mrs W.E. Palmer proudly recollects how Miss Welling ‘introduced innovations into lesson time. For instance in history lessons during the summer, she would take her class into the playground, and teach them how to act out principle historical events’ (20). These included ‘”Egbert becoming the king of all England”, “Harold at Hastings”, “Stephen and the Magna Carta”‘, to name but a few. Mrs W.E. Palmer’s extensive list of principle historical events proves that Miss Welling’s innovative, diverse and fun teaching methods were effective and enjoyable.  

An early 20th Century School Teacher

Significantly, a HMI school inspector claimed that ‘a teacher whose heart was in [their] work gave instruction under healthier conditions and with greater efficiency from the feeling that [they were] free to do what [they] thought best for those under [their] charge, free to take account of and adapt [their] teaching to varying degrees of ability’  

It is interesting to learn that some of Mrs W.E. Palmer’s school lessons were influenced by the gender assigned roles of patriarchal society. Illustrating how times have changed over the course of her life, Winifred reveals that  ‘the headmistress also taught the older girls cooking on Wednesday mornings and needlework for the last hour on two afternoons a week’ (19). Another surprising revelation lies in the fact that ‘Francesca did not shine at needlework, she did not like it at school’ (19). Yet, ‘she was later on to earn her living at dressmaking, and grew to love it’ (19), which establishes the beneficial influence that Mrs W.E. Palmer’s education and schooling had on her adult life.

Find out more on Mrs W.E. Palmer’s childhood experience of education and schooling in part two! Discover whether Winifred passed her scholarship exam, how education was not confined to a classroom environment, and other fond, schooling memories such as May Day and games.


Works Cited: 

‘Mrs W.E. Palmer’ in John Burnett, Davis Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vol. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 2:582.

582 PALMER, Mrs W.E., ‘Memories of Long Ago’, TS, pp.34 (c.12,200 words). Brunel University Library.


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