The authors of this wonderful book, which gives a voice to working class children in 1937, said that “they stumbled across an entry in the online catalogue (of the Mass Observation archive) entitled ‘Children’s essays; observations in schools’” From this clue they were able to uncover the essays of children living in Bolton and the surrounding areas in the years 1937 to 1940.
Mass Observation was an organisation established in 1937 by a group of left-ish intellectuals who wanted to create an “anthropology of ourselves”. They wanted to understand the everyday life of people in this country. “Worktown” was the pseudonym given to Bolton.
The Observers were mainly people from outside of the town and from a different class than that of the one they had come to report on. There were a few men from working class backgrounds who became involved, such as the future playwright Bill Naughton and also local teachers such as Miss Kemp and Miss Taylor.
Miss Kemp is one of the stars of this story. She was a teacher at Pikes Lane Elementary School who got her students involved by encouraging them to write essays about their lives. Through these essays we find out about the minutiae of the lives of the children: their hopes and dreams, their sense of reality about the lives of themselves and their families.
Dorothy Kemp’s early life was not that different from her students. Her family were typical working class; her father worked in the mill while her mother was a dressmaker before getting married. She started her teaching life, aged 21, at Pikes Lane.
But she was luckier than most of her students because she was able to train as a teacher. An idealistic teacher, she wanted to bring progressive ideas into the classroom, to encourage hands-on learning and also valued the experiences of the children within the curriculum. Thus she was the ideal person to become involved with Mass Observation. One of her students writes: “I would choose to be a teacher at Pikes Lane. I should like to teach Senior II and be a nice teacher like Miss Kemp.”
But the reality of life for most of these children is that they were destined for a job in a local mill. after leaving school at the age of 14. Secondary education was not free and was only available to working class children who were able to win a place at the age of 11.
Through the essays the harsh realities of life for these children was made plain. Dora summed it up: “Sometimes the teacher says, “take your books out’ but at home my mother will say, ‘Put your book away and do me an errand.’”
Mass Observation did not identify ethnicity in their reports. Bolton did have an Irish community and I wonder whether, if they had reported from a Catholic school (which would have been predominantly Irish) a different view on learning and politics might have been revealed.
Alice Foley (1891-1974) from Bolton was one of the few working class women to write a biography. And, although she is writing about an earlier period, it does show how through progressive organisations such as her trade union, the Labour Church and Socialist Sunday School she broadened her life and experiences.
In the book there are few references to politics. Although most of the young women would have ended up in the mill which that was heavily union organised, there is no mention of this in the references to the later lives of the girls. Trade unions and the Labour Party have always been ways out for working class people to a different life. Did any of them follow in Alice’s footsteps through their trade union into a better world?
For me Class of 37 is an important book . It is well written and researched. I loved the way they incorporated the words of the girls and photographs. The authors also followed up their research with tracing the present day relatives which again is another fascinating aspect to their history.
We need more histories of working class children and people. I hope this book it will inspire teachers and children to continue the work of Miss Kemp and her students in documenting their lives.
Buy it here
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