From Highgate Hill to Kindle
When my mother was a small girl, my grandfather, Charles, stood holding her hand on Highgate Hill. Together they watched one of the first aeroplanes fly overhead. He looked down at Mother and said: ‘Nothing will come of those flying machines.”
Born within the sound of Bow Bells, the eldest of eight children, Charles was a scholarship boy at Westminster Boys School and sang in the choir at Westminster Abbey. Unfortunately, due to his father’s death, Charles had to leave school at the age of fourteen and find a job so that he could help my great-grandmother financially. Nevertheless, he acquired a lifelong love of reading, and I believe he would have been very enthusiastic about Kindle and other such devices.
Grandfather was fortunate to be born in time to benefit from the liberalism of the Prime Minister, Gladstone. Many people were opposed to mass education because they feared it would teach the workers to think for themselves, decide their lives were unsatisfactory and revolt. (The upper classes were always frightened of revolution.) However, the Education Act Reform Bill allowed schools to be set up by the Education Department in any district where provision was either inefficient or suitable; and from 1880 onwards it was compulsory for children to attend school until they were twelve years old.
When there were insufficient schools for the number of children a School Board was created and required to provide elementary education for children from the age of five to twelve.
Although parents had to pay school fees in the Board paid poor children’s fees.
By 1873 40% of the population lived in areas where education was compulsory. Fortunately for my grandparents they both lived in such an area, Charles receiving an excellent education and Annie’s a good one.
Annie’s father had been a rich man but he ‘took to the bottle’ and brought his wife and thirteen children to the ‘breadline.’ My great-grandmother earned a living as a midwife and Annie, her eldest daughter, was expected too help. However, my great-grandmother always found the pennies for her children to go to school but, (almost unbelievable to modern ears) one of Annie’s teacher’s said: ‘Oh, Annie, if you always come to school with a baby strapped to your back, your back will become crooked. Can you imagine what would happen today if a primary school child arrived in her classroom with a baby on her back? Leave aside IT studies, the world of e-books and print on demand, it is obvious there is an enormous gulf between schools for poor children in those days and modern day schools.
Annie valued her rudimentary education, and she always enjoyed reading, as she put it, ‘a good novel’, the more she cried over the sad or heart-touching parts the more she enjoyed it. She wept bucket loads over Little Nell in Dickens Old Curiosity Shop and admired Sir Walter Scot’s hero, Ivanhoe and wept over Rebecca’s unrequited love. Not bad for a child who carried a baby brother or sister on her back to school.
Had Annie been born earlier she might not have attended school until she was twelve years old. I think she would have learned the three r’s at school, but once she mastered the basics great-grandmother would have kept her at home to help. Fortunately, Annie mastered reading, writing and arithmetic, was taught domestic science and enjoyed gymnastics and art and crafts.
Annie could not have imagined future advances in education but I wonder if she valued her schooldays far more than many children do today. In England the powers of schools to expel unruly students have been eroded. Teachers’ means to discipline children have been reduced to the point at which disruptive children regularly prevent the rest of the class from learning. (I am not the only one who thinks that the abolishment of corporal punishment is praiseworthy, but in the United Kingdom teachers should be allowed to restrain violent pupils.
Most of today’s children enjoy far more material benefits than Charles and Annie could have ever hoped to enjoy, but this does not automatically mean their lives are either happier or more enriched. Certainly, good conduct as well as the attainment of academic standards was stressed and valued when Charles and Annie were at school. It was taken for granted that all children – unless they had a learning disability - would be able to read when they left school. I do not have statistics to prove it but believe those children who completed their elementary education unable to read were a tiny minority. Sadly, this is not true today. There are frequent articles in the newspapers and mention on television news broadcasts about children who leave secondary school unable to read at the age of sixteen.
The following gives me an idea as to the basic education Annie received.
The following are the six Standards of Education contained in the Revised code of Regulations, 1872
Reading One of the narratives next in order after monosyllables in an elementary reading book used in the school.
Writing Copy in manuscript character a line of print, and write from dictation a few common words.
Arithmetic Simple addition and subtraction of numbers of not more than four figures, and the multiplication table to multiplication by six.
Reading A short paragraph from an elementary reading book.
Writing A sentence from the same book, slowly read once, and then dictated in single words.
Arithmetic The multiplication table, and any simple rule as far as short division (inclusive).
Reading A short paragraph from a more advanced reading book.
Writing A sentence slowly dictated once by a few words at a time, from the same book.
Arithmetic Long division and compound rules (money).
Reading A few lines of poetry or prose, at the choice of the inspector.
Writing A sentence slowly dictated once, by a few words at a time, from a reading book, such as is used in the first class of the school.
Arithmetic Compound rules (common weights and measures).
Reading A short ordinary paragraph in a newspaper, or other modern narrative.
Writing Another short ordinary paragraph in a newspaper, or other modern narrative, slowly dictated once by a few words at a time.
Arithmetic Practice and bills of parcels.
Reading To read with fluency and expression.
Writing A short theme or letter, or an easy paraphrase.
Arithmetic Proportion and fractions (vulgar and decimal).
I assume that my paternal grandparents, George and Florence, were expected to achieve the goals set out above. However, George was a younger member of an old established West Country family of landowners. He received a superior education, enjoyed reading the Bible and studying politics newspapers, magazines and journals. He pasted cuttings about topics of national importance and the First and Second World wars in large leather bound scrapbooks. Yet his country roots always remained with him. By the time he married, he had moved to Kent and owned no more than a large back garden where he enjoyed keeping chickens and grew fruit and vegetables. Possibly, he would not have been deeply interested in computer technology. On the other hand, he might have enjoyed downloading articles, printing them and sticking them into his scrapbooks.
Florence, daughter of an architect, received a reasonable academic education at school, and, at home, a thorough education in deportment, social airs and graces and all matters domestic including sewing. Florence’s skill with the needle was much appreciated; she sewed for herself, her family and for church bazaars. One of my happiest memories is sitting on a stool at her feet stitching bugle beads onto chiffon. ‘Fairy stitches, tiny fairy stitches,’ she used to say to me. Thanks to her, I have always enjoyed sewing and knitting.
Today, ‘liberated’ women have a multitude of modern conveniences, career opportunities, access to television, computers, the world wide web, e-mails, Amazon, kindle etc., but, by and large, are they as contented as my grandmothers, who had the love of good men and took pride in their domestic skills? What, I ask myself, would they have made of modern technology?
In 1902, seven years before my father was born and eight years before my mother was born, the School Boards were abolished and Local Education Authorities replaced them. For the first time, secondary school education to the age of fourteen became compulsory. Would my grandparents have enjoyed further education? Regardless to the answer, I know Charles would have been as amazed by online publishing as he would have been by modern aircraft, although he stood on Highgate Hill with his small daughter’s hand in his and told her: ‘Nothing will come of those flying machines.”