John Castle (1819 – 1888): Education & Schooling – Writing Lives

John Castle (1819 – 1888): Education & Schooling

‘I am forced to be a strong advocate for Compulsory Education’ (26)

Education is a recurring theme throughout the account of John Castle. John mentions his own education at a writing school briefly and with a small amount of regret, ‘I filled only two copy books’ (2). However it is not his education that is alluded to throughout the account, more the idea of education as a vital tool for social mobility. Social mobility however is an individual solution to a wider problem. What John Castle also sought to achieve is social change. Social change is an idea I explore further in ‘Politics & Protest’ but I will just introduce the idea by providing a quote from Co-Operative Culture and the Politics of Consumption in England, 1870 – 1930[i].

‘Co-operative ideologists in the second half of the nineteenth century hoped that their movement would eventually transform competitive, capitalist society into a society based on the principles and practices of mutual association’(29)

When taking care of his wife’s younger Brother John teaches him to read and certifies his opinion on the importance of education thus;

‘Such a deep impression was made on my mind as to the importance of education that I should have considered it a shame on my part to have any one under my care without learning to read or write’. (18)

The notion of education as a tool for social mobility is an idea that John begins to understand as he proves himself to be accomplished and hardworking within his own trade. At the point where his potential to be the foreman of the new weaving factory is being discussed the mayor of Colchester says;

‘Don’t be disappointed, Castle, it will not be you – those gentleman would have chosen you in preference to any one had you been a better scholar’. (26)

John addresses this issue directly;

‘Here I felt the importance of education – a chance of rising in circumstances but apparently lost from want of education’. (26)

A Victorian dame school classroom
A Victorian dame school classroom

In 19th century Britain education was certainly one of the only routes out of an impoverished background. With the first Education Act coming in 1870 just one year before John Castle wrote his account, this was the first national step to unify the school system and enable every child to have the opportunity for free education. John himself learnt to read at write at dame school at the age of nine. This year of formal education is very important to his later life as not only did it mean he was able to write this memoir, he was also able to become foreman of silk works, A position that required numeracy and literary skills. This education coupled with his own perseverance meant that John was able to succeed in the world of work beyond his upbringing.

John Castle’s education certainly differs from traditional literary representations of schooling in the 19th century, which tend to depict boarding schools for the middle or upper classes. However when compared to most working class depictions Castle’s education is fairly typical. 19th century and 20th century men in particular had to contend with making a choice between school and work. Usually male children were sent to work as soon as possible. John Castle understands this relationship and does not blame either of his parents for their inability to send him to school.

‘Who could I blame? My father? No; he died before I went to school. Could I blame a good mother who suffered hunger to give me as much education as cost her twenty-six shillings – or sixpence per week for twelve months? No’. (26)

Through his writing John Castle portrays his strong feelings towards the idea of education and the necessity it has to society. Drawing from his experiences, Castle seeks to educate further generations into both social mobility and rally them to seek social change on a wider scale.

[i] Gurney, Peter. ‘Co-operative Culture and the Politics of Consumption in England 1870 -1930’. Manchester University Press, 1996



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