Daisy Cowper (1890 – 1985): Education & Schooling – Writing Lives

Daisy Cowper (1890 – 1985): Education & Schooling

Schooling is a topic that Daisy discusses extensively in her memoirs, though this is perhaps due to the impact it had upon her life, as she went on to become a teacher herself. As you will discover, she describes her school life as varying from one extreme to another; beginning with her first school, St Silia’s, ruled by a cruel, sadistic headmistress, and moving through to her changing schools to the enlightening and blissful Upper Park Street Board School, later known as Toxteth County Primary.

St Silia’s, circa 1969

Daisy’s first school was St Silia’s Church of England school, where she studied from the age of 5. Initially, Daisy describes the lower school experience as being quite enjoyable. However, when she becomes old enough to transfer to the higher school, run by the ruthless headmistress Miss McLaren, life at school becomes miserable and drab. The higher school of St Silia’s does not teach the same artistic subjects that Daisy enjoyed as a young child, and instead favours more worldly topics, such as science, which Daisy recalls with some disdain. The menacing Miss McLaren caused Daisy a great deal of anxiety, due to the headmistress’ apparent love of discipline. Daisy recalls her appearance with considerable clarity and with a rare sense of insensitivity; ‘I never feared and disliked anyone in all my life as I did her. She was ugly: she couldn’t help her ancient, sallow, wrinkled skin which hung under her neck and chin in disgusting folds, or her yellow-tinted whites of her eyes, but she could help being cruel and unloving.’

Daisy also goes on to recall the class poem that Miss McLaren had set for the children one year:

Tell me not in mournful numbers
Life is but an empty dream,
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem

To which she adds, ‘What utter abysmal dreariness for seven-year-olds.’ Daisy describes Miss McLaren in great detail, adding how ‘I never actually saw her teaching, but she would look in to terrorise a young teacher or to hand out punishment’.

Daisy’s time at St Silia’s comes to an abrupt end when, after spending several weeks off school with scarlet fever, Daisy returns to class, where she is asked to answer a multiplication question, ‘seven times, I remember’. Daisy had made a guess due to her having missed lessons, and Miss McLaren’s reaction to her incorrect guess had been a slap in the face. Daisy describes the experience as ‘humiliating and frightening’, despite not being particularly painful.

On this occasion it is sister Agnes who came to her rescue, insisting to their mother that ‘she’s not going back there!’. Agnes arranged for Daisy to be enrolled in Miss Robert’s Upper Park Street Board School, and life at school became infinitely more enjoyable for Daisy as a result.

Upper Part Street School circa 1971, which later became Toxteth County Primary.
Upper Part Street School circa 1971, which later became Toxteth County Primary.

Daisy recalls Miss Roberts as charming, and practically harmless in comparison to Miss McLaren. Even when receiving corporal punishment, Daisy explains that a slap from Miss Roberts would be barely felt, and that a one would receive a ‘reproachful glance from the kindest eyes imaginable, that seemed to smile because they couldn’t help it’. These two wildly varying comparisons of two headmistresses highlight the lack of regulation with corporal punishment in schools, and clearly it has affected the children exposed to it, as it did Daisy.

Miss Robert’s did not remain a presence in Daisy’s life for very long, as she married just one week after Daisy’s arrival, to leave and be replaced by the equally as admired Miss Amy Jones, who Daisy credits as having a considerable and lasting effect on her both as a pupil and a teacher, and cites her as strengthening her ‘sense of duty’ in her work.

Unlike Miss McLaren, whose sole purpose appeared to be terrorising the children of St Silia’s, Miss Jones was incredibly involved in her school and with her pupils. ‘…Miss J. knew just what was going on in the school, where was strength, and where weakness, for, of course, the exam tested the teacher’s work as much as the child’s! – cause and effect!’ Daisy describes lessons in Upper Park with nothing less than adoration, and appears to have been an extremely bright child, even going so far as to proclaim ‘I was so flummoxed at the first exam that I made what I believe to have been my only spelling error, ever, at school. I spelt u-p-o-n with an ‘a’!’.

It was Miss Jones who encouraged Daisy, with ‘five or six’ students to try for a scholarship of education at secondary school, ‘for the girls, Grove St. High school or Blackburne House High School’. Sadly, Daisy did not win, but did obtain a citywide prize in reading.

Daisy does not record having been taught by her family, but does describe how she would complete homework at the kitchen table, and that her mother paid for her to attend piano lessons, which were later cancelled in favour of Daisy using the time to complete her school work. Daisy’s mother also frequently read stories and poetry to her especially over dinner, ‘…and when our tea was terribly uninteresting and not at all ‘high’, mother would say, cheerfully, “well, let’s have another chapter of Emma Jane…”’. Daisy takes great delight in these sessions with her mother, who is clearly well educated herself.

Daisy later enrols at a pupil-teacher training centre, on Clarence Street, after successfully completing an entrance exam aged 14.

Cowper, Daisy, (1890 – 1985), ‘De Nobis’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:182

St Silia’s image from: ‘Liverpool Schools.’ http://liverpool-schools.co.uk/html/st_silas.html N.d. Web. Accessed 21st November 2013.

Toxteth County Primary image from: ‘Friends Reunited‘ http://www.friendsreunited.co.uk/toxteth-county-primary-school/b/d3f2da7d-144b-49f0-9896-8f71851775b4 N.d Web. Accessed 21st November 2013

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