Isaac Edward Brown, 1880-1974: Education and Schooling – Writing Lives

Isaac Edward Brown, 1880-1974: Education and Schooling

“Not so very distant in point of years, but ages ago in many other respects” (1)

Within the above quotation from Isaac Brown, he mentions that, in terms of time, advancement or age is not so very prevalent compared to how distant the previous world of the Victorians and Edwardians are, from a technological and social perspective. Isaac Brown’s world had undergone many social transformations and technological ones, but also Brown himself underwent drastic changes as the years would advance. From working in his uncle’s hairdressers at age eleven to becoming a chartered secretary and eventual college lecturer. This blog post will introduce you to Edward’s early life and his education, so we can understand his shift from school into the working world. I will elaborate upon his personal life and his family life in the post following this one.

Isaac Edward Brown had a story to tell that spoke of self-motivation and determination. Edward had managed to reach the role of a chartered secretary in his early twenties, before lecturing at Birmingham Commercial College in the 1920s and 1930s. This post will examine how he managed to enter the professional classes by building on the basic schooling he received as a working-class boy. Edward would recount there was never arguments or ill words spoken of towards the nature of his father, however.

Above, I have included a couple of images to give an impression of the environment that Edward Brown was surrounded by. Above what we have is The Royal Bell, 173-177 High Street in Bromley. The second image displays The Bell Inn prior to being rebuilt as The Royal Bell in 1898.

I included this above image within my Home and Family Life post here as well just to present the situation Brown was in during this time.

Isaac E. Brown’s teenaged years and older childhood was somewhat reminiscent of a typical working-class background. His education did not consist of homework like today and did not consist of much advanced educational matters other than the necessary.

Within the 1881 Census, it reveals that Isaac’s mother was staying at her sister, Elizabeth’s who was a beer retailer within Peckham. It is present within this document that the father was not present. It was shortly after his parents’ separation that he was sent to live with a relative in Bromley in 1886, where he was also educated at National School (1886-93) and Congregational Sunday School. Brown’s education consisted mainly of basic lessons, with a lack of focus on conventional forms of homework one would be used to in the 21st Century. The relevance with this therefore, is Brown is a gentleman who experienced little to no social mobility at a young age through education, at least not purposefully, for his culture consisted of more internalised circles of society that was predominantly focused on labour. But when we observe the gradual emphasis on reduction of the child labour laws hand in hand with the increase on focus for education, Brown’s autobiography presents a verbal account of social transformation.

Because Isaac attended a Church of England School, he remarks that his curriculum wasn’t too indulged within foreign studies or modern standardisations of lessons, especially secular ones. However he does remark, ‘Personally I was always very interested in Bible study and enjoyed the scripture lessons, although I had even then some dislike of dogma’ (9) Brown retains the memory that ‘My studies came easily to me, except drawing, which was entirely beyond my capacity…This course was naturally not popular with my teachers, who did not appreciate my argument that since I knew I could not draw it was useless to waste time in trying.’ (7)

Isaac’s childhood apart from education, with regards to recreational pastimes or holidays, Brown mentions that, ‘My first recollection of the sea is finding myself alone on a bank of sand and seeing the sea all around me…These annual trips were the more enjoyable to me as we did not go to the sea for our annual holiday’ (15) Though Brown was not university educated, it is interesting to note that through the later 19th Century into the 20th, ‘University adult education, with its roots in the Victorian reform of the ancient universities, was conceived and consumed as a political project and, until the present generation, has always carried progressive political connotations.’ (Goldman, p. 89) Now, this is relevant to Brown for the reason that it shows a gradually changing world with changing attitudes to education as a means of social progression, but also we observe Brown only being taught the basics. The basics being English history, art, music and scripture, so it seems that Brown was involved in a very working class upbringing, all the while living through a time where social mobility was made more ‘mainstream’ as it were. For the adult education as Goldman above references, what this resulted in was a wider group of adults being literate, with a knowledge of ‘progressive political connotations’. Goldman continues,

‘..after 1900 the adult education movement altered its focus in order to educate the emergent labour movement for the exercise of power. This in turn was challenged by a more class-conscious educational project, embodied in the Plebs League and Labour Colleges during the interwar period.’

L. Goldman above references a culture that was emerging within the classes and social politics during this time, this was the gradually transforming environment that Isaac was within. It is interesting to also consider that Brown, a working class publicly educated man had reached the point within his life that he gave lectures and wrote on economics. It truly is the image of a self-made respectability that I believe is intrinsic to many individuals. Brown was raised during a time wherein Educational Reform was a major issue at a forefront of much of the United Kingdom, for example religion was a major attribute and secularism was a debated notion as well. Brown references that during his time at school, he enjoyed the scripture lessons and this presents a deeply religious institutions, though Brown himself may not have been entirely as religious in later life. I mentioned within my ‘Introduction’ post to Brown that he had an affiliate called ‘Jimmy’ at school. He was actually the man James Churchill-The headmaster, who had introduced Brown to a series of Canings and disciple, but was a fair and just man. ‘I am gifted with a voice which is of a particularly penetrating quality which cannot easily be mistaken…and the result was that as soon as I opened my lips the teacher’s head swung in my direction…Chiefly from this cause my acquaintance with “Jimmy’s” collection of cane was close and intimate.’ (8)

“Government policy limited institutions of working-class education to the classes for which they were attended. In 1857, Ralph Lingen…explained its rules for giving out grants. He pointed out that the subsidised schools of the religious societies were intended for the “labouring classes who are dependant upon ordinary wages, and who do not employ Capital.” (Smelser, 47) Now, though this references approximately 30 years prior to Brown’s birth, I believe it is important to understand the culture of Brown’s environment and his parents, for many of institutions (or lack thereof) within a given environment almost certainly influences social means of education and its importance. Notice how in the previous quotation, Lingen references that institutions institutions were intended for the classes. Therefore, when we read that Brown received no homework, and the lessons were simple and not particularly academic from a modern standard, we can gather the impression it was for the aforementioned reasons. Furthermore, Brown’s parents inherited a culture that meant that ‘The general rule was that the poorer the family of the child, the lower the rate and regularity of school attendence’

‘Initially intended by reforming Liberals of the 1870s and 1880s to make responsible democratic citizens of the working class, after 1900 the adult education movement altered its focus in order to educate the emergent labour movement for the exercise of power.’ I will conclude with this, that this would be the beginning of a life of work for Brown at a mere eleven years of age. Please stay tuned for my next update wherein I will present the next chapter of Isaac’s life! ‘When I was eleven years old a very unwelcome change took place in my life. I had to start work in the saloon…It was hardly an attractive job. The customers were almost entirely of the working class…the prices charged were low, only a penny for shaving and threepence for haircutting’. Brown continues, ‘The hours were long – 9 to 8 on Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays, to 4 on Wednesdays, 10 on Thursdays…on Saturdays. (24)


1:93 BROWN, Edward, Untitled, TS, pp.199 (c.80,000 words). Brunel University Library.

‘Brown, Edward’, The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography (Brighton: Harvester, 1984) vol 1, no. 9

Smesler, Neil J. Social Paralysis and Social Change: British Working-Class Education in the Nineteenth Century. Primordial Imagery. Pg. 47. University of California Press. C. 1991 Russel Sage Foundation.

Education as Politics: University adult education in England since 1870, Lawrence Goldman Pages 89-101 | Published online: 19 Aug 2010 –

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.