Wilfred Middlebrook (b.1899): Education and Schooling – Writing Lives

Wilfred Middlebrook (b.1899): Education and Schooling

During his childhood, Wilfred attended a number of schools. In 1903 and 1904, Wilfred’s first two schools were ‘old church schools’ and from here he moved to a ‘newly-built council school’ (p.21) in the ‘cotton town of Nelson’, (p.17) called the Whitefield School. With the beginning of school life, came the beginning of a defect for Wilfred that would stay with him for the rest of his life– ‘I began to stammer’ (p.21).

Nelson Town Centre in 1896: the ‘cotton town’.

Wilfred reflects on his stammer, claiming his parents blamed ‘the method of teaching English’ that was used by his teachers (p.22). He recalls how he would come home from school, eager to display his new-found knowledge but his words would fall over themselves when he attempted to try and explain the way in which he was taught to spell. Wilfred states the other children learned to spell by ‘pronouncing every vowel and consonant separately, finally joining the jumble together to form a single word’ (p.22) and that, in fact, other children did not develop a stammer because of this method of teaching. But he must have been different from the rest of them, his ‘timid and highly sensitive nature re-acting in the wrong way to this stuttering form of tuition’ (p.22).

When Wilfred was overly-excited, he would often hop from one foot to the other in a frantic endeavour to get his words out. In these scenarios, his mother would impatiently cry ‘if you can’t say it, sing it’ (p.22). He reflects that on the rare occasions when there was cake for tea– an act that only tended to occur when the family had company– Wilfred would have to ‘ask properly’ (p.23). He claims no one knew of the ‘mental torment’ he experienced as he strove to make his request from the kitchen door and utter the simple phrase ‘please may I have a piece of cake?’ (p.23). A phrase that Wilfred states he could not get out without ‘hopping about from one foot to the other’ (p.23).

During his reflection on school, Wilfred reminisces on the childhood games he played with his friends. There were ordinary street games played by children in those days that Wilfred recounts– such as ‘hopscotch, rounders, tally-ho, bobbers and checks, big, marbles or taws, and various round games where boys and girls joined hands and sang endless verses’ (p.25). Wilfred recalls a time when he went to school with a ‘little cotton bag full of marbles and speedily lost the lot to a couple of husky lads’ (p.25) who had challenged him to a game and won them all. To make matters worse, later that day Wilfred states his mother ‘soundly thrashed’ (p.25) him after he returned home with the little cotton bag, she had ‘taken the trouble to make for the previous night’ (p.26), completely empty.

Another game Wilfred notes in his memoir is called ‘Skip and Jump’– a form of hopscotch that Wilfred and his friends preferred to call ‘Hop, Spit and Jump’ (p.29). Wilfred details the game, explaining that a ‘small glazed tile was slid along the pavement, and this had to be reached in a limited number of movements. The umpire might call out “a hop, two spits and a jump” and, starting from a chalked line, the contestant had to do just that’ (p.30). He adds that when you had to spit as far as possible, it was often ‘awkward if the wind was in the wrong direction’ (p.30).

Infants at Whitefield School (1956): 50 years prior, Wilfred would have sat just like these children, posing for his school photos

In 1905, the Middlebrook family moved to Sorden Road. With an extra addition to the family–a baby boy– a bigger premise was needed. The new house was now closer to Whitefield School but Wilfred states, it was not the distance he had to travel that concerned him but the ‘method of getting there’ (p.40). Wilfred writes that ‘one didn’t just walk to school, or even run in the ordinary way…sometimes there would be a phase of walking to school without treading on a niche, planting each foot firmly in the centre of every flagstone, the the fashion would change to a kerb-edge trot, when we had to keep on the extreme edge of the kerb without falling off’ (p.40). Wilfred’s memoir demonstrates the innocence of working-class children, during the 20th century. It is rather refreshing and lovely to hear that before children were submerged into working life, at such a young age, there remained a period of time were they were allowed to be just that–children. A time, when like Wilfred, their biggest worry was what method of walking they’d adopt on their way to school.

Young children playing in the streets of London

In the first section of Wilfred’s memoir, he discusses the music lessons he endured and the endless attempts to become a professional he underwent. Wilfred’s father, Rufus, was a music lover and believed his son should also become ‘a music lover, and a pianist too’ (p.42) and undertook the responsibilty to teach his son the rudiments of music. At the age of 7, Wilfred recalls spending hours trying to master ‘the musical signs and notations’, only to find himself ‘caught in a cocoon of crotchets, swamped by a sea of semi-breves and finally drowned in a deluge of demi-semiquavers’ (p.43) and unable to transfer what his brain could not understand. Jonathan Rose quotes the work of John Burnett, noting that ‘teachers often went beyond the prescribed codes to introduce music, English literature and foreign languages into the curriculum (1993, p.116).

At the age of 12, the ‘serious business of helping’ (p.73) to earn his keep began and Wilfred started work as a half-timer in the cotton mill, spending half a day at school and half a day at work until Wilfred turned 13– when he would leave school and start work full-time. Prior to this, Wilfred discusses his part-time job he had at the Grand– the theatre in Market Street. Here, Wilfred worked as a chocolate boy selling ‘ cigarettes, sweets and bars of chocolate’ (p.64) to the crowd at the theatre and recalls how the job enabled him to see the ‘inside of a real theatre for the first time’ (p.66). Speaking of his job, Wilfred remarks how the job proved to be ‘an experience that lost little of its novelty through repetition’ (p.69), continuing on to say ‘each week there was a different play, and, sometimes, a fresh play every night; one could not possibly get bored in a job like that’ (p.70).

Market Street in Nelson. The biggest building on the right hand side is the Grand Theatre, Wilfred worked at

Once beginning his work in the cotton mill, Wilfred’s memoir begins to take a turn. There is a bigger focus on working, and factory, life which demonstrates how work became a core part of Wilfred’s life and his sense of being. Jonathan Rose notes that men viewed their first day at work as a ‘rite of passage into manhood’, like a ‘graduation into the ranks of wage earners’ (2008, p.181). A large portion of Wilfred’s memoir is dedicated to work, rather than his education. This suggests that work was much more important to Wilfred and he held it at a higher regard. Perhaps, this was because more work led to more experience and better equipped skills, and this subsequently led to better job roles and higher wages.


Middlebrook, Wilfred. Trumpet Voluntary, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:0527

Rose, Jonathan. ‘Willingly to School: The Working-Class Response to Elementary Education in Britain, 1875-1918’, Journal of British Studies 32. 2 1993, 114-138.

Rose, Jonathan. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, Yale University Press, London. 2008


[1] Nelson Centre in 1896. Accessed 12.03.21. Available here:

[2] Infants in 1956 at Whitefield School in Nelson. Accessed 12.03.21. Available here:

[3] Young children playing. Accessed 10.03.21. Available here:

[4] Market Street, Nelson. Accessed 15.03.21. Available here: http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/38452/photos/110721

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