My name is Jenna Fox and I am currently undertaking a placement with National Museums NI at the Ulster Folk Museum in Cultra as part of my Master’s degree in Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies at the University of Ulster.
My placement involves transcribing a collection of handwritten notebooks which were compiled by individuals in the late 1950s and 1960s. These notebooks were essential for the development of the Folk Museum as they record by county and locality anecdotes and information on truly diverse topics. The notebook that I will be discussing was written by a teacher from Larne who covered all manner of topics including local country cures for ailments, superstitions and folklore, the role of the town blacksmith, as well as her favourite confectionery that she enjoyed as a child.
As the author was a teacher, her discussion of her experience as a child in early education from 1900-1910 is particularly illuminating and in-depth. Her writings range from topics such as lesson plans, to school equipment, classroom layout and even the stress that was felt by teachers and pupils alike on the “dreaded” examination day!
Our author describes her childhood classroom as being a large room with “one half filled with long desks for written subjects”, while on the other half “classes stood around in semicircles for reading, geography, arithmetic, or any oral lessons.” Unlike today, children were switched around in class, moving every half hour “like clock-work” between working at desks and standing for class. She notes how regimented this was, describing how “there was no dawdling along in groups”, lamenting “how tired we used to get standing with our toes to a chalked line for half the hour.”
As you would expect, centrally heated classrooms were not the case at the time. Rather, the author describes how the class was heated by “two huge fires in that big room.” Unfortunately, she points out how not all the pupils could be “near enough to them all the time to keep warm” and so generally, “fingers were numb” and their feet “itched with chilblains.”
The author recollects how her classroom “had the dignity of a large platform” at the front which the teacher taught from. On the wall behind this, hung a large world map which was used in lessons. Children would “chant all the features” that could be found, including “continents, oceans…islands, capes, seas…countries and their capitals.” Our author notes how teachers “were not very travelled or even very “well read” in those days”, and so to the “starved imaginations” of the children, the world map was little more than a series of “relative positions of lines and dots” without any real meaning. The map of Ireland was taught in a similar way, and the author notes how she only has to “shut [her] eyes to visualise any of the features learnt, and can still chant the sequences.” Wall charts of “wild birds, wild animals and fishes” were hung on the classroom walls, and were often “bought by the teachers out of their own pockets.”
As far as a playground was concerned, the author notes how they did not have one in her school, but were “fortunate in having a class-room extra” which was used to put smaller children into while “the bigger brothers and sisters did drill.” At break time, or “recess”, the children “played on the street outside” instead, with boys playing “tig or marbles” and the girls enjoying a bit of “skipping” or “quieter games of make-believe.” She remarks how “some venturesome boys” would go further afield, to “watch the train coming up the railway” or to “go for a drink to the spring.” This had its own consequences as the boys were punished for all being “out-of-bounds!” As for punishment, the author recollects how “a naughty boy would have preferred a slap with the cane” rather than “face the indignity” of being sent to the dunce’s corner.
The school had “no cloak-room” and so children’s coats “cluttered to the wall.” The author notes, “I still think I can smell them on a wet afternoon.”
Much like today, budgets for financing schools were tight. The author notes how “funds for equipment and materials were practically nil.” Sometimes the school could fall back on money raised from “endorsements” or “annual concerts” which were held to “raise a little money.” Indeed, pupils had to bring “their own books, pens, pencils” and even “subscribed a few pence every winter for coal”, although it remained cold in the classroom.
The author recollects how on winter afternoons the classroom would be so dark that they wished “that the gas could be lit so that [they] could see [their] sewing.” Unfortunately, they were refused, being told “no, that belonged to the church.”
As for classroom materials, the author describes how they would write on slates, using them for sums which a teacher would mark by giving “a chalk-mark on the margin if one was correct.” She notes how the slates were cheap, although they were later replaced by jotters much to the relief of teachers, as “sometimes the quietness of our well-turn school was shattered by the sound of a falling slate.” While the jotters were made “of cheap paper and could be bought for 1/2 d or 1d” they were still “considered an expense” after slates. Indeed, the author remembers “as a child filling up every corner of a page before “turning over”, and if a little space could not hold a sum [they] would draw a flower in it.”
Despite the lack of budget, meagre supplies, tight classroom layout and large class size, the author remarks upon a very wide ranging curriculum. This is perhaps more impressive when considering “there was no compulsory attendance age in those days” and so often classrooms were filled with “tots of 3 years” who were sent to school “with an older brother or sister.” These “babies” were “often relegated to senior pupils by the over-worked system teacher” and would “stand round a wall-chart or tablet” and learn “the names of a few letters” or learn to read “little phrases…all with two letters.” When the children had mastered the two-letter phrases, they were “promoted to three letters” and so on. It was only when children had “learnt all the tablets” that they were allowed to advance to reading books.
The author remarks how these reading books were supposed to last a year, with each page “supposed to last a week.” She comments how “children were doomed to stick to that book for a year”, remarking that “brighter children knew it off by heart long before that” and were forced to “wait until the dullards knew it.” These books advanced slowly with “increasing difficulty (and indeed more interest)” up to the “sixth book” after which one was considered to be “Through the Books.” This was quite the achievement, she notes, as “many men who later on in life reached high positions finished their school education at the sixth book.”
Subjects which were covered included:
This was taught from “copy books” instead of the blackboard (or even white board!). The author notes how “left-handedness was forbidden” and children were forced to adapt to writing with their right hand. “Penmanship was important” at that time, and some schools even entered competitions, which could result in “a case of books as a prize for the school and an individual prize for a boy”, should he “complete a copy-book nearest to perfect in the whole country.”
This was taught at a “ball frame” and “no other concrete material was ever used.” However, it was frowned upon if a child “naturally fell-back on the counters nature provided them with, - their fingers.” As for more advanced mathematics like algebra, “extra fees were paid to the teacher” for instruction at many schools.
A lot of emphasis was placed on “phrasing and analysis.” Interestingly, the author notes how teachers were “very firm about the correct use of English” in class, remarking how “the country was more bi-lingual then.”
This was often taught, but “there was not the same freedom or variety as today.” Children instead had a set garment to make each year, such as “pulse-warmers” or a “pair of mittens”, and even “long black stockings” which were made up by senior girls.
Additionally, children attending country schools often attended “evening classes in their local country school” as frequently they had to “leave school early to work on the farm.” The author also notes how if children wished to remain after they had been “Through the Books”, a teacher might “give them lessons in Book-keeping, French or Embroidery.”
“Oh! All the fuss…”
Much like today, a lot of pressure was placed on students and teachers alike when “Examination Day” arrived. On that “dreaded day”, pupils’ “work was shown to an “Inspector” for marking, whom the children “expected to be an ogre” but who often “turned out to be quite human!” The author notes how as a child she did not realise that teachers were paid according to the “results system” and only knew that a “terrible lot seemed to be involved” on examination day.
And a terrible lot did indeed seem to be involved. The author remarked how “it was hard to recognise some of one’s fellow scholars” as children were brought to school with “hair tidy and boots shining” with everyone “decked out in his and her best.” The “anxious” teacher would issue “threats” to keep children well behaved, and would often pad out a girls sewing-bag if “it had not much to show for the year. And as often happens, the author remarked how after “all the fuss”, maybe in the end the inspector “never came near her.”
So high pressure was that day, that when “the front door closed in the afternoon behind the inspector”, everyone “breathed a sigh of relief.”
I hope you have enjoyed reading these recollections of early education.
You can find out more about the Ulster Folk Museum’s two schools here:
Ballydown National School