Mrs W.E. Palmer (b.1908): Education and Schooling Part Two – Writing Lives

Mrs W.E. Palmer (b.1908): Education and Schooling Part Two

Taking it all round, schooldays for most of them were happy, in later years Francesca and her school friends believed they owed a debt to their teachers, because they did try to instill  in their pupils the desire to learn, and learn they did (23)

This is the second of two posts which focus on Mrs W.E. Palmer’s childhood experience of education and schooling in rural Sussex. Read part one to discover how rural life affected young Winifred’s schooling experience, how the school day was structured, and insight into early 20th century teaching methods and lesson topics.

John George Brown (1831 – 1913) Paintings of Young Girls – Historical Arts: Early 20th Century Schoolgirls

As established in part one, education and schooling was extremely valued in Mrs W.E. Palmer’s village. However, as a girl of the early 20th Century, Winifred lived through a time in which the importance of education and schooling had become recognised nationally, as well as locally. As David Vincent notes, ‘by the end of the 1830’s, half of England’s population were still unable to sign the marriage register’. Yet, he shows that the following seven decades saw England move to almost full literacy with ‘99% of men and women signing their marriage certificate by 1914’ (Vincent, pp.1 & 22). Therefore, it is of little surprise to learn that in Mrs W.E. Palmer’s school, ‘English grammar was a subject that loomed largely in the school curriculum’ (20). She reveals that ‘children must have parsed and analysed hundreds of sentences during their time at school, tedious perhaps, but good for disciplined learning. Dictation too, half an hour every day’ (20).

By golly the teachers were determined that scholars should be able to spell. If they did not spell the words correctly the first time, they kept on till they did’ (20-21)

Mrs W.E. Palmer excelled during her school years as she recalls being ‘allowed to skip standard one, and go straight into standard two from the infants’ (19), so it is moving to learn that she failed her scholarship exam and was not awarded with the opportunity to go to grammar school. Still, ‘it was a difficult exam, and there were very few places’ (22). Whilst ‘only three children passed the exam while Francesca was at school’ (21), the rarity of gaining a scholarship was not confined to the children of Sussex. Rather, Mary Hollinrake, a working class author born in 1912, highlights how this was a reality for children across England. In her memoir Lancashire Lass, Mary reveals that she was one of ‘only 5 children from [her] area [who] had gained entry to grammar school’ (54).

Perhaps failing the scholarship exam was a blessing in disguise for young Winifred. The exam, which ‘was a written examination on every subject in the school’s curriculum’ (22), was exceedingly difficult. Yet, for working-class children, passing the exam would have merely been the first hurdle. It was not simply the intelligence and academic capability of the child that determined whether they would go to grammar school. The harsh reality lay in the fact that their class status played a significant role. Mrs W.E. Palmer admits, ‘even if they had passed, it is doubtful if their parents would have been able to afford to let them go to the grammar school’ (22). Therefore, the tremendous sense of achievement that a working-class child would have felt on passing the exam, would have been quickly undermined by their class status. However, never dwelling on the difficulties she faces, Winifred upholds her typically optimistic tone as she confesses that she ‘soon forgot the ordeal of the exam and only remembered the train journeys, they were the highlight of her day’ (22).

Hopscotch Grid Marked Out With Chalk

As well as highlighting the rigorous teaching methods of her school, Mrs W.E. Palmer makes sure to write about the fun, stress free aspects of her schooling experience. Reflecting on how her favourite playground games are still popular amongst young girls today, Winifred fondly recollects playing ’round singing games such as “in and out the windows” and “poor Jenny is a weeping”‘ (26), as well as ‘”hop-scotch” and “fruit basket turn over”‘ (26). Whilst, ‘little boys loved to have sparring matches just as they do nowadays’ (26). However, Palmer also brings to light the ways in which times have changed over the course of her life. She reveals that ‘the older boys liked boxing, but they did not have so much time out of school. The teenagers, boys and girls, had to help their parents, the girls in the home and the boys in the garden or on the farm’ (26). Significantly, the expectation to help at home was a reality for young Winifred and her siblings. As mentioned in my home and family post, Mrs W.E. Palmer and her brothers were responsible for delivering milk to the members of her village as her father could not afford to hire staff on the farm.

Children around a maypole – 1900’s.

However, Mrs W.E. Palmer’s favourite school event, ‘one never to be forgotten’ (16), was May Day- when the crowning of the Queen of May took place. The school organised this event and the children, dressed in their best clothes and wearing handmade  garlands, ‘gave a very pretty display’ (16) for the people of the hamlet. ‘Everybody turned out to watch’ (17) as the children proudly marched around the village, before ‘converging on to the field to see the crowning’ (17). As part of the celebrations, a maypole had been set up on the field. ‘The children caught hold of the ribbons and while dancing round the maypole, plaited and unplaited them to the music of the piano’ (17). Winifred confesses that it was such a marvellous event that the children ‘went home declaring it was the best day they had ever spent’ (17).   

Employed as a prominent theme of her memoir, Mrs W.E. Palmer illustrates the important role that education and schooling played in her life, and the lives of children across England. Despite her school’s rigorous teaching methods and use of the cane as a form of punishment, Winifred makes clear that her schooldays were some of the best days of her life.


Works Cited:

Hollinrake, Mary. ‘Lancashire Lass’. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:413. Extract 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): 2:413.

‘Mrs W.E. Palmer’ in John Burnett, Davis Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vol. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 2:582.

Vincent, David. Literacy and Popular Culture: England 1750-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989: pp. 1 and 22

582 PALMER, Mrs W.E., ‘Memories of Long Ago’, TS, pp.34 (c.12,200 words). Brunel University Library.


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