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The life of country children

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Country life for working families before the early 20th century was not at all as some popular paintings portray – roses round a cottage door, happy and healthy children playing in a well-cared for garden. Many families with three or more children would live in cottages with only two rooms. Parents would do the best they could, but very low incomes meant that living conditions were often horrible. Bedclothes, for example, could well be beyond the finances of the poor and so they would make do with sacking and rags, frequently filled with vermin. At Steeple Claydon in Buckinghamshire a loan society was set up by the local gentry to loan blankets to poor families in the winter and such societies could be found all over the country into the early 20th century.

An 1858 painting by George Washington Brownlow entitled 'Straw Plaiting School in Essex'
An 1858 painting by George Washington Brownlow entitled ‘Straw Plaiting School in Essex’

It was not until the 19th century that a law was passed that required children to go to school. This did not mean, of course, that schools did not exist. For the children of the middle classes and the aristocracy there had always been options available, but they were few and, by and large, cost money. As far back as 1553, Archbishop Cranmer proposed a new code of Church law that would require the clerk of each parish church to teach children the alphabet as well as the catechism. This was never adopted however, but there still remained strong practical reasons for parents wishing to have their children at least able to read.

The United Kingdom Census in 1861 shows that out of 4.3 million children of primary school age in England & Wales, 1 million were in purely voluntary (church) schools and 1.3 million were in state aided voluntary schools, but 2 million had no schooling. The 1876 Royal Commission on the Factory Acts recommended that education be made compulsory in order to stop child labour and in 1880 a further Education Act finally made school attendance compulsory for children between the ages of five and ten, though by the early 1890s attendance within this age group was falling short at 82%
Schools at the time emphasised the learning of facts and required that the children memorise these facts. A few examples from The Rev Dr Brewer’s My First Book of Geography give the flavour of what the children had to commit to memory.

Teacher: How may the number of counties in England and Wales be remembered?
Pupil: It is the same as the number of weeks in the year.
Teacher: Who divided England into counties?
Pupil: Alfred the Great.
Teacher: For what purposes?
Pupil: That persons might more easily refer to places, and that order might be more easily preserved.
Teacher: What is the climate of England?
Pupil: Moist, but healthy.
Teacher: What is the character of the English people?
Pupil: Brave, intelligent and very persevering.

Poorer families were often tempted to send their children to work if the opportunity to earn an extra income was available. In rural communities, the help of children at harvest time was vital. Also plait schools and lacemaking schools could be very tempting as a way of enabling children to help with the family income. Moreover, plait schools and lace schools had long thrived before the 1880 Education Act was passed and so the loss of income would be keenly felt. Attendance officers often visited the homes of children who failed to attend school, but they frequently proved ineffective.

Children would be expected to help with harvesting, bird scaring, rat catching and the many other tasks linked to country life, which meant that such schooling as there was had to be missed at certain times. P.H.J.H. Gosden’s book “How they were taught” refers to school log books of the time mentioning hay harvesting as the cause of absenteeism in Ivinghoe in 1875 and Cublington in 1891. The poem below illustrates the tasks that children might do.

The sheep get up and make their many tracks
And bear a load of snow upon their backs,
And gnaw the frozen turnip to the ground
With sharp, quick bite, and then go noising round
The boy that pecks the turnips all the day
And knocks his hands to keep the cold away
And laps his legs in straw to keep them warm
And hides behind the hedges from the storm.
“Sheep in Winter” by John Clare – 1793-1864

In 1857, the Bishop of Oxford received a complaint from Radclive-cum-Chackmore in North Buckinghamshire that few children over eight or nine attended school because the boys were taken for work and the girls for lacemaking. (There is a blog on our website about lacemaking.) In 1867, the Royal Commission on the Employment of Children, Young Persons and Women noted that in the Buckinghamshire and Berkshire lacemaking industry, farm labourers treated it as normal that their daughters would be sent to lace schools from the age of four or five and as a result gaining little or no formal education. Towards the end of the 19th century, changes in fashion and machine-made lace led to a decline in lace schools.

The other “cottage industry” prevalent in the Chilterns was straw plaiting. Once again children as young as four would be sent to a plait school where they would spend many hours in the charge of a teacher who might teach them a little reading, but mostly concentrated on proficiency and speed of plaiting. The most popular teachers were the ones who got the most work out of the children. The children would have to finish uncompleted work at home and it was not unusual to see them plaiting as they walked home and in the street as they talked with friends. About thirty yards of plait was considered to be a day’s work. Ivinghoe in Buckinghamshire was seen as a plaiting centre and there, as in many towns and villages, this interfered with such education as was available towards the end of the 19th century. The practice of plait schools was so common and the money earned so important for the poor labourer households that police or Factory Inspectors could make little difference. Only the collapse of the plait trade brought an end to the plait schools.

Multiple other excuses however were found to keep children away from school. Girls could be kept at home for the weekly washing day; when the cowslips bloomed boys and girls would be taken by their mothers to collect the flowers for cowslip wine and cowslip pudding. Some might be kept at home on traditional festivals such as St Valentine’s Day, Plough Monday and for local village or church events.

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