An Education in Three 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 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 1918 Fisher Act had determined the standard leaving age for all as 14. Dad had to go to Elementary School, where he 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 generation earlier, in 1900, the UK Board of Education had wanted all children to stay on at school until the age of 14, but they still allowed many to leave at 13 or even 12 to start manual labouring jobs, when the school would release them. At the start of the 20th century, those most likely to leave school early were not the least able, but the most able, those who achieved the ‘leaving standard’ earlier than other students. They left school early so that their wages could supplement low parental incomes. So, Grandad left school at the age of 12 and went straight into the mill and became a spinner, where he remained, apart from WWI service, for the rest of his working life. His father, my great-grandfather, born in 1875, was one of the first generation of children for whom the state took responsibility for their education…which wasn’t free, except for the poorest children, and was compulsory from the age of 5 to 10.
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. My paternal grandmother was a bright child too. Today, I was looking at her prize book, gained in 1911, when she was 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 a certificate, may have meant that she was singled out among the best students…I hope so. She kept her presentation book, “A Peep behind the Scenes” by Mrs O.F. Walton, all her life. It was the only book that she had and so it must have been very special to her…and she loved reading all her life too. 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…thus Grandma and I used to go to the market once a week to select new books in exchange for old and I became an avid reader too.
One of the pleasures of tracing family history is to look at the lives of our ancestors in the context of the timeline in which they lived. In my family, through looking at three generations, we can see a typical rise of a new “middle class”, simply through access to an education, though I will always be proud of my own working class roots and of those who went before me destined to live a difficult life for want of an education. Those who were able and adventurous enough set up their own businesses, but that’s another story.