Church, field and crinoline

19th September 2003 at 01:00

Edited by Shirley Howell, with notes by Rachel Young

pound;9 +pound;1 pamp;p (pound;3 international pamp;p) from Shirley Howell, 73

Meadow Rise Road, Norwich NR2 3QF.

This literary treasure paints a revealing and at times stark picture of life in a small Norfolk school and its rural community. Entries graphically describe the daily rituals of the classroom ("some of the girls have finished their knitting and commenced their garments"), and the intrusion of domestic and farming responsibilities ("the attendance for the week has been very low, the bigger children being absent gathering acorns").

Absences are noted for gleaning, stone-picking, bad roads, crow-keeping and carrying men's dinners to the harvest field. One day the mistress remarks:

"Only six children present - the rest having gone to see the races."

Outbreaks of whooping cough and scarlatina (scarlet fever) are recorded in the same matter-of-fact tone as pupil deaths.

This is an accurate transcription of the original log, brought to life by contemporary illustrations and notes about interesting or unusual events, with short summaries to make the text more accessible. The many, often trivial misdemeanours pupils are punished for ("laughing in church", "refusing to sweep", and "wearing crinolines") provide a marvellously vivid backcloth to the intriguing and thought-provoking school life reflected in the extracts from inspection reports.

In turn, the school leaders bemoan truancy, assaults on colleagues, interfering parents ("before the detention was expired her mother came to school and took her away because she wanted her at home"), visits by HMI, and unsatisfactory staff ("as yet the monitoress has shown no abilities for teaching and in consequence of bad sight is not able to maintain order, causing a hindrance instead of a help to the mistress"). In 1902, the mistress resigns, declaring: "The children continue to be unruly, especially the boys."

A great resource for those teaching the Victorian period at any level - fascinating, accessible evidence - this also deserves a place in the school library and staffroom.

Mike Beale is head of Holland Moor primary school, Skelmersdale, Lancashire

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