Kathleen Hilton-Foord (1903-1998): Education & Schooling – Writing Lives

Kathleen Hilton-Foord (1903-1998): Education & Schooling

St. Mary’s School, Dover

Kathleen attended St. Mary’s School in Dover until she passed the Labour exam at the age of 12. Students were required to pass the Labour if they wanted to leave school and get a job. Kathleen talks about her school life in a happy way throughout her memoirs and her poetry; she mostly describes the games she and her classmates would play, including ‘rounders’, ‘the farmer wants a wife’ and ‘hopscotch’ (Handwritten memoir, p.2). The children often imitated political or historical events such as a Dover bi-election between Lord Astor and Mr Polson. There was once ‘near riot in the playground’ as they took sides and chanted their views (p.1). Kathleen and her friends would act out ‘wonderful scenes and Dances, and “statues”, usually to the light of a ghostly old gas lamp’ (p.2) on a makeshift stage from the sliding doors of nearby Leneys Brewery.

Kathleen’s own illustration taken from Grannie’s Girl

Having her hair “nitted” and other children being caned are two unhappy incidents from school that Kathleen talks about. She suggests that the ‘awful day’ the nurse came to do her “nitting” may have been ‘the beginning of the Health Service’ (Handwritten memoir, p.3). Kathleen sorrowfully recalls how one girl ‘was leant across a desk, her drawers pulled down and caned on her bare bottom’ (p.3); she is upset by this because the girl was kind and tried to help her. Kathleen’s feisty personality is shown in the recall of this memory as she says ‘if looks could have killed, my Headmistress would have dropped dead!’ (p.4). Other than these seemingly rare unhappy occasions, Kathleen appears to have enjoyed her schooling and describes aspects of it in a humorous way. She talks about the “beads” the children wore around their necks, which were in fact sweets that they were sucking on throughout the lesson. The teacher, she says, ‘was dum[b]founded as they were all literally disappearing before her eyes’ (The Survivor, p.3). Despite confiscating the sweets, the teachers seemed to find the children’s mischievous behaviour funny, as Kathleen says that there was laughter coming from the staff room.

The most significant aspect of schooling discussed by Kathleen is that of the ‘Labour’ exam, as I have mentioned, which was approached with mixed feelings. There was a ‘required sixth standard’ that had to be met when taking ‘the Labour’ if the student wanted to begin working (‘Leaving School’, Grannie’s Girl).  In the poem ‘Storm Clouds Ahead’, Kathleen expresses her eagerness to take the exam so she could find a job and help her grandmother. It seems there was a general consensus that women should have been involved in the war effort, something Kathleen felt herself; she says ‘women and girls were doing all sorts of jobs with most of the men at the war’ (The Survivor, p.5).

‘I would enter for the ‘Labour’

Leave school if I can

I was nearly twelve years old

Could help Gran and the war;

Now very enthusiastic

No drawbacks I saw.’

(‘Storm Clouds Ahead’, Grannie’s Girl)

Despite Kathleen’s best intentions for passing the exam and finding work, she seems to regret this decision as she is faced with disappointment on her first day in a printers, ‘sorting out little metal plates’ (‘Leaving School’, Grannie’s Girl). She is let go from her job when her boss sees how small she is and she accepts that her grandmother may have been right about staying at school:

‘Grannie understood now

You are much too young she said;

And are very small for your age as well

Stay at school instead.’


‘They told me that, that morning

Was the boss’s day to appear;

He did! gave one look at me and said

Get rid of her, no kindergarten here!


‘Well that was my first disappointment

I was only working a day

Grannie was secretly pleased, I know.

I told you so, I knew she’d say.’

(‘Leaving School, Grannie’s Girl)

Kathleen was given access to further reading through the Band of Hope Sunday School and the Girl Guides, enabling her to be an ‘imaginative and perceptive child (Handwritten memoir, p.4). The Sunday school appears to be a space where Kathleen and other children were treated equally; they all wore the same ‘red overalls with tiny white spots’ (The Survivor, p.3). The equality felt within the Sunday school contrasts to the experiences of formal schooling. For example, the children were rewarded or punished according to their behaviour at school. Some children were evidently poorer than others as they had no shoes and those dressed well were admired by the teachers, ‘I can remember a teacher taking me by the hand in the playground and taking me upstairs to show the head mistress and other teachers my “lovely clothes”’ (The Survivor, p.4). Whereas in Sunday school, Kathleen says ‘No matter from where we came, There was no class distinction, Nor feeling there of shame’ (‘Our Parish’, Grannie’s Girl).

The 1902 Balfour Education Act[1] was introduced to enable children to further their education past elementary (primary) level. There is no mention of secondary education opportunities in Kathleen’s writing, which suggests that despite the Balfour Act being in place, working class children were not being afforded the same chances as middle or upper-class children. According to The National Archives website, the Balfour Act ‘was a positive but inadequate step… annual fees put secondary education beyond the reach of most working class children’[2].

Although Kathleen’s education and incidences from school feature quite prominently in her writing, I think the most significant contribution to the shaping of her identity comes from her grandmother. If it wasn’t for her grandmother, Kathleen would have been sent to an orphanage along with her brothers when their father died; they were sent to a farm school at Bisley to learn a trade.

Bisley Farm School

Kathleen does not mention reading or writing whilst at home, but it is clear that the access to reading given to her through schooling is eagerly appreciated. I wonder whether she would have had this attitude to reading had she not gone to school. Her grandmother is literate as she reads in Lloyds Sunday Newspaper about her pension, so she may have had some access to reading, but not nearly as much had it not been for Sunday school and her education at St. Mary’s. As E. G. West claims ‘Sunday schools… played a very special part in English education and not least in the promotion of literacy’[3]. This is very much evident throughout Kathleen’s writing.

In my previous post on the purpose and audience of Kathleen’s autobiography, I suggested that her writing was of a spiritual nature. In her handwritten memoir and Grannie’s Girl she acknowledges having to read and recite poems about the “Demon Drink” and signing ‘the pledge’. The fact that Kathleen goes on to write her experiences in the form of poetry shows that she was influenced by the readings given to her in Sunday school, hence they take on a spiritual form.

Kathleen’s experience of education may be different to those from the previous nineteenth century because of the effects of World War One. Although she notes occasions where her teachers punished pupils physically, they don’t seem to have been as strict as you might expect. Whilst in school, Kathleen and her classmates experienced the first attack on Dover. She states how ‘Everyone was subdued; Even at School the teachers, Were in reflective mood’ (Storm Clouds Ahead’, Grannie’s Girl). And yet, once their initial fear was overcome, the children began to welcome the opportunity to miss lessons. When their classes were again disrupted by the raids they would ‘squeal with delight’ (‘Storm Clouds Ahead’, Grannie’s Girl).

Kathleen was in a unique position compared to other family members because of the attitude of her grandmother. She was encouraged to stay on at school, even though her grandmother struggled financially. By writing about her education in her memoirs and poetry, Kathleen shows how much she valued her schooling. Although she was small for her age and struggled at first to keep a job because of this, she seems to have been wise beyond her years. I think her reading and her grandmother’s attitude play an important part in the development of her character. She was conscious of people in a worse situation than herself and charitable towards them; attitudes she had developed through Sunday school and living with her grandmother.


Works Cited

[1] For more about this Act see (Early education acts) and

[2] No author. ‘Early education acts’. Human Rights 1848-1914: Background.  http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/humanrights/1848-1914/ accessed 17/03/13

[3] West, E.G. ‘Resource Allocation and Growth in Early Nineteenth-Century British Education.’ Economic History Review 23(1), April 1970. 68-95: 79

Image of St. Mary’s School:

Image of Bisley Farm School:

‘Hilton-Foord, Kathleen’. Grannie’s Girl in John Burnett, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography Vol 2. Brighton: Harvester, 1987 (2.398a)

‘Hilton-Foord, Kathleen’. The Survivor: The Memoirs of a little Dover girl – Born 1903 in John Burnett, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography Vol 2. Brighton: Harvester, 1987 (2.398b)

‘Hilton-Foord, Kathleen’. No title (handwritten memoir) in John Burnett, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography Vol 2. Brighton: Harvester, 1987 (2.398c)

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