Elizabeth Rignall (1894): Education and Schooling – Writing Lives

Elizabeth Rignall (1894): Education and Schooling

This did not mean, however, that I neglected my studies; for at that time I had high ambitions-unfortunately not to be realised, owing chiefly to that same lack of funds at home

Emanuel School, 1899
Emanuel School, 1899

Elizabeth first became aware of class-consciousness when her family moved to a ‘rather select neighbourhood’ (Rignall, 64), just off Wandsworth Common. Carolyn Steedman argues that class is ‘a learned position, learned in childhood, and often through the exigencies of difficult and lonely lives’ (Steedman, 13). This certainly translates to All So Long Ago, as the ‘aloof’ (Rignall, 64) neighbours shunned Elizabeth’s family due to their humble status, signified by them not keeping a maid: ‘But Mother did her own work. That was the unforgivable sin!’ (Rignall, 64). Elizabeth’s schooling served to dispell the neighbours’ prejudiced views of the ignorant working class: ‘the sight of their (Jack and Lambert) triumphant school caps, which were most attractive, and of my high-school straw hat must have been a real pill for the neighbours to swallow’ (Rignall, 65). With both her brothers attending Emanuel, ‘one of the oldest public schools’ (Rignall, 64), the family were raised never to feel intimidated by the education system or by class distinctions: ‘in those days Jack was as good as his millionaire master’ (Rignall, 65).

Although published in 1859, copies of Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help had sold ‘over a quarter of a million by 1905’ (Briggs, 1955,118). Elizabeth’s memoir certainly invokes the spirit of self-help, that of the individual relying on oneself to improve his or her own welfare and economic position in society: ‘The solid foundations of liberty must rest upon individual character; which is also the only sure guarantee for social security and national progress’ (Smiles, 1859,18).  Smiles encouraged self-education, ‘often the best education of a man is that which he gives himself’ (Smiles, 325), a sentiment that is also echoed in Recollections of My Life, the working class autobiography of Joseph Terry: ‘The school of adversity is the best school for educating (Terry 12). However, Elizabeth held institutional education as the key to a better future, depending on the few government scholarships available to continue her studies: ‘What I did achieve had to be done by means of scholarships, not nearly so universal as nowadays. But I liked my schoolwork, and did my set tasks and homework faithfully’ (Rignall, 74).

St. Katherine's College
St. Katherine’s College

The ambitious Elizabeth studied at St. Katherine’s College in White Hart Lane, ‘the first C. of E. college opened for prospective women teachers’ (Rignall, 75). Elizabeth embraced the independence and freedom of college life, sticking with the same group of friends from her old school and getting involved in the extra-activities: ‘both at school and college I played hockey and cricket in the first teams at both sports, and- a bold step- I never did wear a pair of corsets’ (Rignall, 75). However, academically, Elizabeth struggled with her attempt at an external Honours Degree in French and English at London University, using her memoir to reflect on the restricted policies placed on education in her time compared to now: ‘Suffice it that I failed in French while being successful at English. This meant, in those days, that I should have to take the whole examination, French and English again, whereas things have been made so much easier, and in my estimation so much more just today’ (Rignall, 75). Undeterred, Elizabeth left college without her desired qualifications, but with the same driving ambitions of becoming a teacher: ‘Thus although urged to try again I refused to do so, preferring to accept the adverse verdict of the University and go out to earn my living’ (Rignall, 75).

I finally left College unsung, as did all the rest of my year, which, however was voted by Miss G. as the most troublesome- but at the same time the most interesting year they had had for many a year!


Briggs, Asa, Victorian People: A Reassessment of Persons and Things, 1851–1867, University of Chicago Press, 1955

Rignall, Elizabeth, All So Long Ago, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:586

Smiles, Samuel, Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character and Conduct, Floating Press, 2009

Steedman, Carolyn, Landscape for a Goodwoman: A Story of Two Lives. London: Virago, 1986

Image References:

 (Accessed: 08/12/2015)

 (Accessed: 08/12/2015)

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