Hilda Swettenham (b. 1907): Education & Schooling – Writing Lives

Hilda Swettenham (b. 1907): Education & Schooling

While she does not go into much detail regarding her formal schooling, the voice, language and style of Hilda Swettenham’s memoir acts as a vague indication of her education. The 2,500-word-long, unpublished, handwritten manuscript consists mostly of depictions of the author’s young adulthood, as opposed to any references to her learning during childhood. Yet, the fragments of information that she provides are enough to allow readers to deduce an idea of the sort of education she received.

The most direct reference to formal schooling that Hilda provides within her autobiographical writing is that she ‘left school at fourteen years of age’ (2) in 1921. This was common in the early-twentieth century, as the Education Act (1918) had ‘raised the school leaving age from 12 to 14’ (), meaning that children were forced to finish their education and find employment in their early-teenage years. Although the author makes no positive or negative comments about this, readers are drawn to question how Hilda’s life and memoir might be different if she would have received a longer education in formal schooling, as ‘even the most precarious learner would struggle to write an autobiography on the basis of a few years schooling snatched before [being thrust into the workplace as children]’ (). She writes that ‘a good many […] people could not read or write but in their own field were highly educated’ (11), demonstrating the potential that much of the working class possessed, but were restrained from fully reaching due to their social background. The fact that her memoir exists, however, is a good indication of the position that Hilda held in the class hierarchy, as she seems ‘unusually articulate’ () for a working-class woman at the time. The level of literacy and confidence required to write such a memoir suggests that ‘working-class autobiographers were among the more literate—and consequently the more upwardly mobile—of their class’ (). Members of the working class had to ‘maintai[n] a vital autodidactic culture’ (), meaning that they became responsible for their own education as formal schooling was often not enough. While she did seem to undertake a formal education during her childhood, it is likely that Hilda took charge of much of her own education, picking up her voice, language and style from secondary forms of education.

Despite her lack of formal schooling after the age of fourteen, Hilda seemed to find other spaces in which her education could continue, including within her family, workplace and leisure activities. She acknowledges this within the opening lines of her autobiographical writing, advising the reader to ‘excuse spelling and possibly bad English’ (1), which is not unusual as ‘most working-class autobiographies begin not with a family lineage or a birthdate but rather with an apology for their authors’ ordinariness’ (). The Collyhurst author’s identity as a working-class, Northern woman seep through the pages of her memoir through her colloquial and conversational phrasing, using expressions like ‘when I managed to get a word in edgeways’ (6) and ‘please don[’]t think this is a moan’ (8). Her use of Manchester dialect is most prominent in an anecdote about her ‘Grannie Foster’ (10), in which Hilda mimics her ‘very distant relative[‘s]’ (10) accent, writing ‘“[e]eh lad tha’s going bald I’ll give thee something for that”’ (10). It is clear, through her voice, style and language, that Hilda’s autobiographical writing is influenced by the people around her, a product of the vernacular of Collyhurst.

In addition to these forms of secondary education, Hilda’s memoir makes allusion to popular culture, indicating how this has influenced her autobiographical writing. She mentions that ‘every time I see ‘Laurel and Hardy’ in those long night shirts[,] I shudder’ (4), referring to the comedy duo who were made internationally famous by classical Hollywood cinema for their slapstick films in the 1920-30s. It is very interesting that Hilda’s narrative, almost definitely unintentionally, mimics the style of comedy which Laurel and Hardy were famous for, using humorous asides to indicate her inner-most thoughts in a way that echoes their trademark ‘camera looks’ and ‘fourth-wall breaks’. It seems that, through this simple reference, the author has illuminated some other sources of non-formal education which have shaped the methods in which she constructs her memoir.

It is clear that, while her formal schooling stopped short, Hilda’s education continued throughout her life, allowing her to obtain enough skills to construct her memoir. The influence of secondary forms of education, like the family, workplace, leisure activities, and even media, stand out within her autobiographical writing, making it a unique and diverse read.


Primary Sources

Swettenham, Hilda. ”Early Working Life from 1921 to 1936′, and other autobiographical fragments’. The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography, 1790-1945 (3 volumes). John Burnett, David Vincent, David Mayall (eds.). Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989. 2:0750. Available: /uncategorized/hilda-swettenham-b-1907-biographical-entry

Secondary Sources

‘Education Act 1918’. UK Parliament. Web. Accessed: 25th April 2021. Available:

Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender’. Victorian Studies 30:3 (Spring 1987), 335-363. Available:

Griffin, Emma. Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution. London: Yale University Press, 2013. Available:

Rogers, Helen and Cuming, Emily. ‘Revealing Fragments: Close and Distant Reading of Working-Class Autobiography’. Family & Community History 21:3 (February 2019), 180-201. Available:

Rose, Jonathan. ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences’. Journal of the History of Ideas 53.1 (1992), 47-70. Available:


Figs. 1-5: Screenshots of the handwritten manuscript of Hilda’s memoir. Swettenham, Hilda, ‘Early Working Life from 1921 to 1936’, and other autobiographical fragments, MS, pp.24 (c.2,500 words). Brunel University Library.

Fig. 6: Nolan, Brian. (1963). Swansong Eliza Ann St., James Hole Collyhurst, Manchester [Pastel]. Tennants Auctioneers, North Yorkshire. Available:

Fig. 7: The British Film Institute. (1931). Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in Beau Hunks. Media Storehouse, Watford. Available:

If you enjoyed this, you might be interested in Carly Cain’s blog post about Education and Schooling in Wilfred Middlebrook, where she analyses how children left school at an early age and began working at a cotton mill in Lancashire during the early-twentieth century. Available: /education-and-schooling/wilfred-middlebrook-b-1899-education-and-schooling

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