On Education

Education through Four Generations

I was lucky in my education. I was born at a time when economic background didn’t matter – if you had ability and could pass the Grammar School entrance examination, you could access a good education and even go to University. It paved the way for the working classes to more easily climb the ladder of success and enter the professions. I was brought up in a “one up one down” terraced cottage with outside WC…but was quick and eager to learn. When I entered the grammar school at the age of 11, my father had already decided that I would have all the opportunities that he had missed and that I would stay there for the full seven years, even though the standard school leaving age was then 15. I was able to stay in school until 18 and take my “A” level exams. I completed studies in one of the Professions Allied to Medicine…and was later to gain a first class honours in my BSc degree course.

My Father

My father had not been so lucky. He passed the grammar school entrance exam in 1934, but his parents could not afford to buy his uniform or books. The Education Act 1918 (known as the Fisher Act) had determined the standard leaving age for all as 14. This and later Acts were the first to plan for an expansion of education up to the age of 18.

However, unable to take up his grammar school place, Dad had to go to the Eastborough Elementary School, where he did well and became Head Boy before leaving to take whatever job he could, soon after his fourteenth birthday.

After a difficult start at a pawnbroker’s shop, Dad eventually joined his father at Aldham’s Mill in Dewsbury, as a woollen spinner. Only World War II saved him from spending all his working days in the mill. Somehow, someone in the army recognised his inherent intelligence and his abilities with figures and he was plucked from the ranks to serve in the Military Government in Hamburg after the war until he was de-mobbed…not bad for a boy with little formal education and zero qualifications.

So he left the Army with references which would soon enable him to gain employment with the Yorkshire Woollen District Transport Company. There, in spite of having no formal qualifications, he raised himself, by hard work, to become head of their cash office and Treasurer for the local branch of NALGO (National Association of Local Government Officers)…but he always regretted not being able to take up a grammar school education.

A Village Schoolroom

My Paternal Grandparents

My paternal grandfather was born into poverty in 1895.

The Elementary Education (School Attendance) Act 1893 raised the minimum leaving age to 11. This act was amended in 1899 to raise the school leaving age to 12 and ensured that even poor children received a basic education.

So, Grandad left school at the age of 12 and went straight into the mill and became a spinner, where he remained, apart from his WWI Army service, for the rest of his working life.

My paternal grandmother, born in 1898, was a bright child. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, many churches, among them Methodist Chapels, sought to care for the needs of the congregation, including the elementary education of children. Methodists started up schools wherever they went and examinations of children in the Sunday School had become a standard part of their practice by the early 20th century. Often the examination was done in the presence of the congregation and the successful children were presented with certificates.

Today, I was looking at Grandma’s prize book, gained in 1911, when she was just 13.  It was awarded by the United Methodist Churches and was for passing the Connexional Young People’s Examination. The fact that my Grandmother received a book in addition to, or instead of just a certificate, may have meant that she was singled out among the best students…I hope so.

She kept this presentation book, “A Peep behind the Scenes” by Mrs O.F. Walton, all her life. It was the only book that she actually owned and so it must have been very special to her…and she loved reading all her life. Grandma didn’t read the classics, but she did love a good romance, the sort of “Mills and Boon” of her age, I suppose. There was a place in Dewsbury Market Hall, where second hand books could be bought and later returned for a 50% refund, only for the price to be reduced and sold on again…thus Grandma and I used to go to the market once a week to select our new books in exchange for returns and I became an avid reader too.

My Paternal Great Grandfather

My paternal great-grandfather Edward, born in 1873, was one of the first generation of children for whom the state took responsibility for their education.

The 1880 Elementary Education Act made school attendance compulsory for children from the age of five up to the age of 10. Before then, although education was already governed by earlier Acts of Parliament, it was school boards who determined local rules and education was still only compulsory in about 40% of schools.

This 1880 Act removed the uncertainty of whether children would receive any formal education…and my great-grandfather would have been one of the first children to be able to take advantage of this Act and the certainty of five years of compulsory education. Many new schools were built around this period, including the infants school where I attended. Since my great grandad had lived in the same village, I think he may have attended this school too.

In the late 1800s, education wasn’t free, except for the poorest children, like my great-grandfather Edward. He would have left school at 10, but, as his father was then the publican at the Royal Oak in Earlsheaton, I am sure that Edward was also put to work in the family business from a very early age.

Running a pub didn’t suit Edward’s father, who had a run in with the law through some dodgy dealings at the pub and his commercial venture didn’t last long. Both Edward and his father were destined to work in the woollen mill, their wages being badly needed to help to support the growing family family, Edward being the eldest. This was the inevitable fate of working class children with only basic education. Edward did aspire to something more and later was to set up his own tripe shop business, situated in Wakefield Road, Dewsbury. Later in life he became a private gardener to a local mill owning family. In spite of his lack of education my great grandfather was a man of great dignity, who always wore a three piece suit, starched collar and tie and when he went out, wore a bowler hat.

Rise from Poverty

One of the pleasures of tracing our family history is to look at the lives of our ancestors in the context of the period in which they lived. In my family, through looking at four generations, we can see a typical rise out of poverty, simply through having access to an education. I was one of those generations, though I will always be proud of my own working class roots and of those who went before me. They were destined to live a difficult life for want of an education. Those who were able and adventurous enough were to set up their own businesses, others had skirmishes on the edge of the law, but they are other stories.

Updated 2020