Eva Annie Shilton was born on November 6th, 1908, on Colchester Street in Hillfields, Coventry. I felt an immediate affinity with Eva on account of our sharing the same birthplace, and this drove me to learn more about her own life and upbringing. Eva’s memoir is not a complete autobiography as such, as it only concerns her education and upbringing. It is clear that Eva valued her education highly, and the fond memories she has of her childhood and family are evident in the descriptive detail of her schools, friends, and parents.
Her memoir is entitled ‘School and Family Life in Coventry: 1913 – 1921’, and was dictated to her daughter in her later years to be transcribed. This dictation gives an invaluable insight into the life of Eva herself: on more occasions than one I found myself reading the memoir as if Eva were dictating to me personally, giving her work a peculiar intimacy.
Eva attended four schools during her childhood; she began at St. Peter’s Church School in 1914 before moving to a ‘private’ school in a large attic, and finally started at South Street Elementary School aged nine. She also attended Wheatley St. School for cooking and washing lessons, though only temporarily. Her time at St. Peter’s, though, was interrupted by a serious bout of diphtheria which rendered her immobile for nearly four months. Despite this, her enthusiasm for reading and education was unrelenting.
Though John Burnett states that ‘schooling often had to take second place to the needs of the family’ (1994, p.130), Eva was always driven by her parents to achieve more than her status would grant her. During her time at St. Peter’s she was the only student who could read, and she reflects that ‘they hadn’t all got a father who taught his daughter to write on the white oilcloth tablecloth from the age of three.’ (Shilton, p.2). Financial difficulties following the war, however, paired with two new siblings, made it impossible for Eva to attend a new school on special recommendation from her teacher: “access to formal education depended partly on local school provision [and] partly on the resources to pay fees” (Burnett, 1994, p.130)
Gender also played a pivotal role in her education: Eva provides detailed descriptions of the compulsory sewing and knitting classes, which she had little engagement with, largely on account of her lack of aptitude for needlework. Fashion, though, played a large role in Eva’s childhood: despite the poverty her family endured she was given sixpence for a ‘bobbed’ haircut, and her mother fashioned her a ‘gym slip’ from an old frock over the course of three weeks.
The importance of family in Eva’s life is clear, and the feelings of sentimentality that run through the text are testament to the home-orientated nature of her upbringing. Equally it seems that even during immense financial strain, her parents were willing to go to extraordinary lengths to give Eva a happy childhood, which can only be admired.
Burnett, J., 2013. Useful Toil: Autobiographies of Working People from the 1820s to the 1920s. Routledge.