My review of “Class of ’37 Voices from working-class girlhood” Hester Barron & Claire Langhamer



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

About lipstick socialist

I am an activist and writer. My interests include women, class, culture and history. From an Irish in Britain background I am a republican and socialist. All my life I have been involved in community and trade union politics and I believe it is only through grass roots politics that we will get a better society. This is reflected in my writing, in my book Northern ReSisters Conversations with Radical Women and my involvement in the Mary Quaile Club. .If you want to contact me please use my gmail which is lipsticksocialist636
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to My review of “Class of ’37 Voices from working-class girlhood” Hester Barron & Claire Langhamer

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s