Bessie Wallis (b. 1904) Education & Schooling – Writing Lives

Bessie Wallis (b. 1904) Education & Schooling

‘In a few months I would be thirteen years and that would mean leaving school. I dreaded it’.

Schooling is oftentaken for granted in today’s society; is an experience that was a luxury in the twentieth century. Education in the 1900s was given by the state from elementary level up until the age of thirteen but after this age schooling had to be funded either by family or by gaining a scholarship. School life was never straightforward for Bessie. The issues of finance and being a woman played a huge part in making it difficult to be educated. Bessie talks fondly of her schooling days and education was something which Bessie longed for.

1900s school, image of what Bessie's would of looked like.
Liverpool 1900s Postcard. Image of what Bessie’s elementary school would have looked like.

Yesterdays is full of information on the schooling situation in the early twentieth century. In the beginning of her memoir Bessie talks of the division of girls and boys in school. She explains that she and her brother started out at Brampton, until ‘there came a massive reorganization’ (1, b) and he had to move to Park Road school. Having to move from Brampton was due to the gender divide but Bessie’s mother did not believe in this and Bessie states that though ‘Mother was five foot nothing. She stood up to him furiously and said she would have her way’ (1, b)! The separation of the sexes in schools is something which is observed in many working class memoirs.

As well as attending state school, Bessie spent her Sundays in her local parish church attending Sunday school. Going to school on a Sunday is something in today’s society that would be a chore for many children, but Bessie talks fondly about her visits. Burnett states that Sunday school was a ‘highly honoured place in the lives of the working classes’ (Burnett, 136-7).

                                Rotherham Sunday School Figures, 1851 from Vision of Britain.

 How many people were attending Sunday school in Bessie’s area.


Bessie attended school up until the age of thirteen years old, this was when state school ended. School life was different in Bessie’s years, she recalls school to have been a positive place for her and the thought of leaving was something she dreaded (4, 16). Although she did not mind the thought of work, the gender struggle of women is something which angered Bessie greatly. Men were ‘the breadwinner and they came first (4, 16).

Bessie longed to continue in school and this was something she had the chance to do. ‘I won a County scholarship’ (4, 17), Bessie was lucky enough to be given the chance to continue in school but ‘it was doomed from the start’ (4, 16). Sadly the financial state of Bessie’s family meant having to pay for books and utensils was not an option and Bessie could not continue in education. At this time it was often the case that although scholarships could be won the chance to go was unlikely as working-class families were unable to keep up with the influx of equipment needed. Bessie displays herself to be above average in the academic table and staying on at school was not just her wish but also of the School Board Officer.  The Board Officer asked if Bessie wished to stay on as a pupil- teacher when her financial status was known. Although this was the answer to her dreams (4, 17) sadly her ‘parents turned the idea down flat’ (4, 17).

The level of Bessie’s academic ability is present throughout her memoir as she states that her ‘Grandparents knew of my flair with figures and I was allowed to attend to the shop’s accounts (4, 17). This is something which is very interesting. Although Bessie was deemed to be inferior in her eyes due to being female, her association with the family business at thirteen is intriguing.

Bessie’s school years ended abruptly at the age of thirteen, but in her later life Bessie was able to go back to school and train as a typist, indicating her academic knowledge did not go to waste. Bessie’s memoir explains how schooling was a huge pleasure for her, yet it was sadly taken away from her due to her being a member of the working-class.



Burnett, John, ed. Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s. New York: Penguin Books. 1984.

Wallis, Bessie. Yesterdays, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:0794


Image References

Ramstew, Ron. Liverpool Postcard 1900s.

Vision of Britain. Rotherham Sunday School Figures.

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