H J Harris (b.1903): Autobiography, Class and Schooling – Writing Lives

H J Harris (b.1903): Autobiography, Class and Schooling

‘I am willing to give you any explanation of how Charity Schools were run, when there was no social security and NOBODY cared: We lived on a shoe-string, and there was no room for waste in ANY direction’ (Harris, 20/03/79)

When HJ was admitted to Muller Orphanage, he automatically had a place at the school within the orphanage.  The school known as ‘God’s Orphan House’ was a fully established Christian school in which George Müller founded the Scriptural Knowledge Institution (SKI) for Home and Abroad in 1834.  The aims were to aid Christian Schools and Missionaries to distribute the Bible, and to run scripturally-based day and Sunday Schools.  By 1835, five day schools were in operation.

It seems that almost all of the auto biographers as children had some connection with organised religion and HJ was no different.  In fact, the orphans at Müller’s had their whole day planned around prayer and scriptures.

‘Upon waking at 6 and before breakfast as we were Scripture Union members we read aloud and in turns a verse of the Bible reading for that particular day’ (Harris 30/01/84).

Because HJ was at an orphanage school his schooling was interwoven with his chores,

‘Besides our ordinary school programme we were assigned various chores.  We scrubbed floors, washed down paintwork, made beds and emptied chambers etc.  Also we dug spuds, and heeled in cabbages and the like’. (Harris 17/10/83)


After prayers and chores the school day began at 10am with a bell.  Reading aloud was the first hour with each child having his own reader and they read in turns throughout the class.

‘There was parsing and analysing of sentences, essay writing, pre-cising and reporting a speech in another person’ (Harris, 03/05/78

Each house contained school rooms and the curriculum was the same throughout the whole orphanage.  The children had to memorise facts, mainly religious because they had quizzes.

‘Often we would have Bible quizzes,(although we didn’t call them that in those days) We were sometimes asked “out of the blue” What was the first time a password was used in battle? Of course it was Shibboleth’ (Harris, 03/05/78) 

HJ mentions in his letters the different forms of punishment the children experienced at the orphanage,

‘There were many forms of punishment.  As it was forbidden to speak at meals. The monitors would report any breach.  The usual punishment was standing facing the corner with hands one [on] head for an hour. Or if a persistent offender, writing two hundred lines such as “Silence is Golden” in best copperplate handwriting’. (Harris, 03/05/78)

‘The cane was generally used for what was termed careless school work, or any retardation in grasping any subject in the school curriculum or syllabus.  Cheating (or even suspected cheating) was caning across the backside.  The usual “six of the best”‘ (Harris, 03/05/78)


There was so much poverty around at the time so food was very important.  The food HJ had at Müllers would not be considered healthy or suitable in today’s standards.  HJ mentions the dinners at the orphanage always being the same for a particular day,

‘Mondays was always Potatoes (steamed in their jackets) brawn, and cabbage or peas.

Tuesdays, Thick stews. (about half a litre)

Wednesdays, as for Mondays.

Thursdays Thin stew and a slice of bread.

Fridays Rice and Treacle. The same tin basin holding somewhat less than a pint.

Saturdays, as for Mondays and Wednesdays.

Sundays A basin of rice with raisins’. (Harris, 03/05/78)

Following lunch ‘the afternoons were occupied by us boys knitting our own socks and doing some clothing repairs’. (Harris, 03/05/78)  If you read Life and Labour Blog post you will find out how useful this skill was to him whilst he was without a home and living on the streets.

Müller was accused of robbing factories and mills of cheap labour because he kept the children in his care until they were much older but he wanted to prepare them for a better life. At Müller’s the standard of education was high, because he wanted to give each child a chance to succeed, he states in one report,

“If any of them do not do well, temporally or spiritually, and do not turn out useful members of society, it shall, at least, not be our fault.”

Burnett found in other working class memoirs that in certain areas in Victorian Britain, education could be brief.  In rural areas, children had to leave school to help with the harvesting (130).  HJ was fortunate enough to continue with his education.

‘The boys were usually kept at the school until 14 years of age, but the girls, 17.  Usually boys were apprenticed to a trade of their choice.  The girls were trained in all kinds of Domestic work, as it was customary for them to be placed into service (with Christian Families)’ (Harris, 03/05/78)

Dr Andrew Bell had written in his book  An Experiment in Education that ‘There as a risk of elevating by an indiscriminate education, the minds of those doomed to drudgery of daily labour, above their condition and thereby rendering them discontented and unhappy with their lot’

Müller received criticism for this high standard which was described as ‘above their station’.  I agree with this statement in terms of HJ and his experiences because the standard of education was so high, it hindered him from settling into the community.  He had supposed to have been educated in a way to function effectively in society but he had been educated in a way that impaired his progress throughout his life because his way of talking led him to be misunderstood and to further have his sanity questioned (Vincent, Literacy, p15).

Everywhere I went I was a laughing-stock, speaking correctly and grammatically, but knowing none of idiomatic forms of speech.’ (Harris, 18/04/78)




Bell, Andrew Reverend. An Experiment in Education. Cadell and Davis: Edinburgh 1797

Burnett, J. Mayall. D. Vincent, D eds. The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated Critical Biography 3 vols. Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989.

Burnett, John ed. Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education, and Family from the1820s to the 1920s. London: Alan Lane, 1982. [An excellent book of reference]

Harris, H.J. Autobiographical letters 197801984, TS, pp.13 (c5,000 words). Brunel University Library

Lovett, William. Struggle for Bread, Knowledge and Freedom. 1876

Ashley- George Muller’s Orphanage

Children’s Homes The Institutions that became for Britain’s children and young people.  The Muller Orphanage, Ashley Down, Bristol

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