Mary Denison (1906-1997): Education and Schooling. – Writing Lives

Mary Denison (1906-1997): Education and Schooling.

‘No desks, no benches, no blackboard, and of, course, no standards. Hardly possible with only two pupils in the class’ (26).

Mary Denison’s memoir focuses entirely on her childhood and the ways in which it influenced her adult life.  Education is just one of these experiences and influences that Mary describes within her memoir. Mary dedicated an entire chapter to her education, highlighting the significance that education had on her. However, Mary’s experience of childhood differs from other writers on this website in two ways. The first is through the fact that she attended private school. Mary comments in her memoir how she noticed as a child that she went to a different school from other children in her parish. As we know from the home and family blog post, Mary came from a middle-class background which enabled her to attend private school. One critic who looked at the role of class within education is John Burnett who said that ‘the division of labour applied to educational purposes’ (142-143). As Burnett says the division of labour was present within education, and your class cemented which path you would take. This is something that Mary explored throughout this chapter as she comments on how her class privilege allowed her a different experience of education.

The second way in which Mary’s memoir is unique is through her gender. It was unusual for a girl to be allowed to stay in education past the age of 13 as girls typically left school to follow domestic duties. Mary is unique in the way that she was able to defy boundaries of both class and gender in order to obtain an education. This is an incredibly interesting aspect of Mary’s memoir as she creates a sense of gender consciousness during this time.

Leeds in 1906. Taken from

As mentioned, Mary is writing retrospectively and this is shown when she reflects on the classroom in her school. Mary comments on how ‘there were no desks, no benches, no blackboard, and of, course, no standards. Hardly possible with only two pupils in the class’ (26). The tone of the memoir shifts slightly here as readers may consider Mary to be describing the classroom as inadequate. This is a reflection that Mary would have made as an adult rather than the child perspective that she is writing from. As a child in a private school the facilities that Mary had access to would have been superior to those in a board school. It is possible that through the education act of 1964 the standards for education had began to change. It is also possible that Mary witnessed an increase in standards and accessibility of education and reflects on how her own experience of education differs from the expectations of the society that she now belongs to.

John Burnett looked closely at education and comments on how ‘access to education depended partly on local school provision, partly on the resources of parents to pay fees’ (130). This is present in Mary’s memoir as it possible that her school was funded by the church that she grew up in. From early on in this chapter Mary reflects on how prevalent religion was within the curriculum that she was taught in school. Mary says how the students had to do ‘Prayers – down on your knees on one side of the hearthrug, Miss Maud kneeling opposite’ (26). In addition to this, when the children were asked to read, they were given cards with biblical quotes on such as ‘the lord is my shepherd’ (26). As mentioned, it is likely that the school that Mary attended was funded by a religious organisation and that Mary’s privilege of being the vicar’s daughter enabled her to attend this school. However, Mary never names this school which makes it difficult to prove this theory.

The street that Mary describes in her memoir. Taken from

In the purpose and audience blog, I talked about how education had opened two doors for Mary. The first door was the world of books and ‘the other the door of the street’ (27). Mary comments on how the most memorable part of her education was the walk to and from school. Mary was particularly interested in the Empire theatre as she enjoyed discovering what the latest Pantomime would be. She says, What was the story this time – Dick Whittington, Robinson Crusoe, Aladdin and the wonderful lamp or Cinderella?’ (28). This highlights that education for Mary opened a door to a whole new world beyond the Vicarage gates. I find it particularly interesting that Mary engaged with both the theatre and books in this way and in next week’s blog post I will investigate why Mary had such a fascination.

Overall, I believe that Mary’s memoir brings voice and light to questions of education during the early 20th century. Mary’s account also highlights the fact that education was primarily accessible to those who were male and to those who had the finances to pay for it. Mary’s experience may be privileged, but her memoir captures aspects of education for both the middle and lower classes and the differences between the two. Throughout the memoir Mary appears to be torn over her experience of education. In one way Mary appears liberated and made aware of life beyond the Vicarage through education. However, in another way she appears to be disappointed and unsatisfied with the quality of the lessons and the school itself. I believe that Mary reflects on education as being more than just the classroom that she studied in; education for Mary represented the freedom and the ability to move beyond the Vicarage.

Works Cited:

Denison, Mary. ‘Church Bells and Tram Cars; a Vicarage Childhood’. Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special collection.

 ‘Mary Denison’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:250

Burnett, John. Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s. Routledge. 1994.

Images Cited:

Both images were obtained

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