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Working very well

In the autumn of 1882 – what was called then the Michaelmas Term – a boy called Frederick Adams entered the school – the Devon County School as it was known then. What happened to him?
Fred's Map of Europe
Fred's Map of Europe

He was about fourteen, give or take a few months.  He was to stay for two years.  That was quite common then.  Indeed, more than one headmaster, in his Speech Day address, deplored the fact that more did not stay longer.  Several reasons, probably.  Parents could no longer afford the fees, however modest they were.  More likely, many fathers,  who were men of modest education themselves – farmers, butchers, bakers, and so on (the school was explicitly designed to cater for ‘the middle classes’) felt that, by the time he was sixteen, a boy had had enough of education inserted into him; it was now time for him to go out and earn a living (most likely in Dad`s business).

It may seem short-sighted in today`s eyes, but one must remember that a nation-wide pattern of education did not exist as late the 1880`s.  There was some kind of a primary system, but it was not universal, it was not compulsory, and it certainly was not free.

The authorities had got across to parents that primary education was a good thing, and had just embarked on a crusade to promote secondary education.  They were a long, long way from dreaming up a sales campaign for tertiary education.

Fred`s horizons were lower, but they were at least a step further on from the old public schools` regime of Classics, Cricket, and Christianity.  He was taught English, Maths, some Science, Geography, History, maybe a little Art, and probably things like Music and Latin by special private arrangement.  One wonders how many candlestick-makers took up offers like that.

In case you should think that a simple syllabus was a straightforward and undemanding affair, let me offer a few samples from contemporary exam papers.  Fred`s first paper in exam week was on Religious Knowledge.  In fact there were four – on the Old Testament, the Acts of the Apostles, the Catechism, and the Gospel of St. Luke.   Incidentally, all in one day. Oddly, at the high-tide-mark of Victorian prudery, he was invited to explain the word ‘lusts’.

The following day, he sat not one Maths exam, but two, of two and a half hours each.  In the paper on Euclid, he was asked to ‘describe, on the longest side of a given scalene triangle, a rhombus equal to the triangle’, and to ‘shew [not ‘show’ but ‘shew’ – a nice biblical touch] that similar polygons are to one another in the duplicate ratio of their homologous sides’.

In Geography, he was asked to ‘name, in order, the states on the left bank of the Mississippi, and [to] give the chief town of each’.   How many Geography teachers could do that straight off the top of their head today?

By the way, these questions did not come from Fred`s exams in the year he left, 1884.  His ‘finals’, if you like.  He sat these papers in 1883, when he was fifteen.  God knows what the questions were like in 1884.

It is easy today to sneer at the ubiquitous grinding pedantry, but they reflect the thinking of the times.  Nation-wide education in 1883 was in its infancy.  Not only were the children learning (we hope), but everyone else was too.  How did you set an exam?  What did you ask?  What did you expect them to know?

In the same way, when the first railway engineers built the first railway stations, they had a problem:  we had never had railway stations before.  What were they supposed to look like?

            How ‘educated’ was a young person supposed to be?  People`s seat-of-the-pants thinking would have suggested that a child should be brought up to be obedient, God-fearing, diligent, careful, accurate, and neat.  If possible, literate and numerate.  And they should know something too.  Hence the emphasis on sheer fact.  In their favour, they did try.

            This explains why Fred`s History paper asked him to ‘name with dates the chief battles between English and Scotch armies from the time of Edward I to the accession of James I’.  That`s from 1272 to 1603 – 331 years.

            Out of the classroom, the school worked on the rest of Fred`s ‘education’.  He responded with commendable willingness.  The school magazine, the Register, published lists of boys who had good records of diligence and punctuality.  Fred`s name appeared there during every term of his attendance.

            There were four categories in the ‘work’ section of the reports:  those who had no complaints registered against them; those who had only one complaint registered; those who had two, and those who had three.  Fred`s name appeared regularly in the top group. Similarly,  his name appeared unfailingly in the list of boys who were ‘never’ late.

            Proof of Fred`s diligence comes from two of his exercise books which have survived.  In a beautiful hand, he multiplied three thousand, seven hundred and sixty-one pounds, sixteen shillings and twopence-half-penny by four hundred and fifty-nine. And got it right.

            His map of Europe is almost bemusing in its accuracy, detail, and neatness.

            Not much of a sportsman (no evidence at any rate), but unquestionably ‘a good boy’.

            Headmaster, Joseph Thompson, regularly wrote on his report ‘his conduct is excellent,  and he does his work very well’.  No doubt Thompson wanted all his geese to be swans, but, with a record like Fred`s, it is difficult to see what else he could have written.

            How many worthy lads like Fred went through the school?  They had done their best, and no doubt went on to do their best in adult life – working in an office, making ends meet, raising a family, dying in a war.

             How many of us would be more than content to see on our gravestone ‘his conduct has been excellent and he has done his work very well’?


Berwick Coates

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