Hygiene lessons and lectures in etiquette: the life of an interwar trainee

18th June 2010 at 01:00
They may sound prim, but pursuits of would-be teachers helped change women's role in society

They studied hygiene and English literature. They engaged in heated debates about the Old Testament and the desirability of cigarette smoking in a lady. And, in between, they judged one another by their ability to eat an egg gracefully.

This was the life of a trainee teacher in the 1920s and 1930s, according to Kay Whitehead, professor of education at Flinders University, Australia. In a paper published in the latest edition of the Gender and Education journal, Professor Whitehead examines the daily life of British teacher trainees during the interwar years.

After the First World War, increasing numbers of young women began to contribute to their family's income. For many, this began as soon as they reached the official school-leaving age of 14. But prospective teachers had to be 18 to enrol in teaching college, in effect closing the profession to all but the middle classes.

Indeed, trainee teachers were expected to be ladies: they needed to be well-groomed, nurturing and prepared to give up their career when the right man came along. Until 1944, working teachers were prohibited from marrying.

Teacher-training courses were designed to help frivolous schoolgirls to mature into dedicated pedagogues. Lillian de Lissa, founding principal of London's Gipsy Hill training college, said in 1912: "Most girls ... find it extremely difficult to think out problems for themselves, instead of memorising them ready-made from a book."

Trainees were given English, biology and history lessons.

Studying English, de Lissa argued, would help trainees to develop the "emotional responsiveness and sensitivity" that the well-rounded woman should have.

Biology served a less demanding purpose: to enable trainees to study nature at first hand. Some took to this more intuitively than others and became keen observers of feeding habits. "The first day's lunch was hard-boiled eggs," one trainee wrote. "Miss Keen turned to me and whispered: 'See where they put their eggshells! Test of character!'"

The demands of the course often sat uncomfortably alongside the more prosaic concerns of young flappers. One trainee noted in her diary: "In the middle of an interesting and elevated dialogue on the personalities in the Old Testament, Peggy complained about her starched petticoat."

Yet there was little time for such concerns: the trainees' leisure activities were also carefully timetabled. Along with rambling and lawn tennis, the young women were offered various improving lectures. In 1922, these included topics such as: "Is smoking in public ladylike?"

But the provision of such intellectual pursuits marked a change in the role women played in society. This was indicated during the 1923 wedding of a Gipsy Hill lecturer. Miss Duncan, her students noted, promised to "love and honour" her husband but omitted the word "obey".

"Young women could ... think about breaking with the tradition of obedience, in favour of independent thought within marriage," Professor Whitehead wrote.

"Each student would have the opportunity to plan and control her life and work, and gain the power of independent thought and action so necessary in a teacher."


Hygiene and social studies, including questions on the economic causes of social distress and the position of married women in the home.

English, in which exam questions required trainees to justify their choice of nursery rhymes for young children.

Practice of education, looking at the value of dramatic play.

History of education, with questions on Rousseau, Froebel and the attitude of the state towards children during the 19th century.

Various improving lectures on topics such as whether ladies should smoke in public.

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