Mary Howitt (1888-1983): Education and Schooling – Writing Lives

Mary Howitt (1888-1983): Education and Schooling


‘More than any other factor, how the child’s father earned a living determined its chances of learning to read and write’ (Vincent, 3, 1989).

By the time Mary was born, women had overtaken men in literacy, and it was now commonplace ‘to encounter heads of household who had to look to their wives to spell out a letter or read a newspaper’ (26). This was due to the progress made with girls and education. Mary rode the waves of the increasing expenditure of primary education. Many working-class writers had to self-educate themselves in order to read and write, some only coming from unskilled labourers, and even the workhouses. Skilled labourers, like James Howitt, actually had the lowest rate of illiteracy, which nearly guaranteed Mary’s future. At the very beginning, Mary tells us that her father had an education as ‘The Dukes School’ in Northumberland. This school is still there today, yet the original building doesn’t seem to exist.

The Dukes School in Northumberland, Present day


Although James Howitt made it look easy, any working class family with 14 children going to school, had to deal with having a strain on their finances as, ‘Almost any purchase [being] an indulgence, almost any diversion from the daily round of work and sleep a privilege, and in this sense the provision of literacy, whether or not in the context of formal schooling, was no different in kind from the addition of meat to the dinner table, or a new shirt in the wardrobe’ (67, 1989) James’s eldest son, Willie, was sent to a private school, but when Mary and the rest of her siblings came along, they instead went to the local school.

Mary depicts her experience in education as passionately positive. It was something that she lived for, and was something that challenged her. Mary and all her siblings, bar the eldest, all went to the local school. Her father treated it as serious business, since at this point, the amount of education you had directly affected your position in life. All were taught to read and write, and all went to Sunday school and learned the bible. Later, a few of Mary’s brothers began training to be carpenters under their father. This kind of development was not unusual. In fact, it was essential for working-class families to pass down all their knowledge to their children, especially if they were too poor to attend school on a regular basis. Most children, by the time they were fourteen, already had various trade skills instilled into them.

Education is by far the most prominent theme in Mary’s memoir. Even in retirement, she still went and worked in a school part-time. Nearly every experience she’s had has revolved around her working in education. In her War-Time experiences, she used her school as a rest centre to house those who had their homes damaged by the bombing’s. Mary counted over a thousand people who depended on her school for refuge.Even though it defined her entire life, Mary doesn’t say much about her earlier years in education. Thankfully, Leslie Pearson, another great-great niece of Mary Howitt, provided me with this:

For those that can’t read it very well, this is Mary’s handwriting, saying ‘Church of the Benedict Monastery dedicated 674 A.D. Still standing at Monkwearmouth, Sunderland. Used every Sunday even in these days the Monastery was made of wood so it has gone but the (Saxon?) church is as good as ever. My School was near it in Monkwearmouth, Sunderland.’ Mary contributed to so many of the schools in her area that I simply can’t make a good assumption that she meant the school she attended as a child.

After much research, I did manage to determine that there was only two schools in New Herrington, Sunderland, one having only been open in 1964. That left only one school that Mary described as the ‘village school’ (1). This was Old Silksworth Village C of E School, which resided on Warden Law Lane.

The school was built in 1852, and had turned 30 years by the time Mary’s family came to New Herrington. On the Herrington Heritage website, it was described as ‘the centre for schooling and workship with clergymen travelling from Bishopwearmouth to conduct services on Sundays.’ Mary’s education was deeply rooted in religion, and led to her life-long faith in Christianity. Jennifer McNish, who wrote an article on the heritage website, said that, ‘Former pupils have many happy memories. There was a wonderful family atmosphere…’ even saying that there were cottages that resided within the ground, adding to the family-like qualities of the school.

One of the reasons why it was so difficult to find this school was because it no longer exists. At the opening of East Herrington Primary School, the number of pupils attending dropped very low, leading it to close in 1967.


Works Cited:

McNish (nee Laing), Jennifer. ‘Old Silksworth c of e Village School’. [Web]

‘Mary Howitt’ 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): 1:355

Vincent, David. Literacy and Popular Culture: England 1750-1914. Cambridge University Press. 1989.

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