What counted as knowledge before the First World War?

One of the questions that has been raised during the massive open on-line course (MOOC) on World War I: Changing Faces of Heroism that I am teaching on is the extent to which working class men would have had knowledge of ideas of classical heroism in the years before the war.  A second-year PhD student here at the University of Leeds, Claire Martin, is working on the subject of the circulation of medical knowledge among working-class women in Yorkshire in this period. While not directly related to the First World War, Claire has kindly agreed to write a summary of some of the relevant historical discussions relating to the subject  of class and education, demonstrating just how complex and important questions of class, culture and education are to our understanding of the era.

If you ever read autobiographies and oral interviews of British working-class people who lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, you might notice a somewhat unsettling recurring feature. Systematically, the authors or respondents insist on the ordinariness of their lives and experiences, as they are being recorded. They are telling you that their stories are not remarkable, that they are not important. They are surprised that anyone would be interested in them. Interestingly, you don’t tend to find such disclaimers in autobiographies left by their contemporaries of the upper classes. There the authors seem on the contrary quite confident in asserting who they are, and what they did. (Gagnier, 1991: p.13) When you compare the two, it feels as if at that time your social status determined whether or not your story was worth being told, or indeed whether or not you could claim to have a story to tell at all. As I was reading these stories, it became clear to me that class shaped these people’s conception of what and who was important and worth being remembered. In other words, class shaped people’s ideas of what counts as knowledge.

To understand this, we need to look at the cultural context of Britain at that time. The second half of the nineteenth century was marked by a cultural revolution, inspired by the ideals of the enlightenment, and which promoted individualism. Free public libraries were opened throughout the country in an attempt to make knowledge accessible to all. In parallel, changes in education legislation meant that, by the 1870s, most people in the country were literate. The idea behind all this was to enable anyone, regardless of their background, to develop independent judgement. This was also a way to include people who had long been excluded from the traditional intellectual life by simultaneously enabling them to acquire knowledge and telling them that their stories and experience qualified as objects of knowledge too. (Joyce, 1999: p.39) Wonderful as it sounds on paper, however, the reality was quite different. The importance of education for all was increasingly recognised and access to it was certainly made easier, but working-class knowledge and experience were not so readily validated by contemporaries of the upper classes. During that period, the working classes remained the object of much contempt, more often than not described as a mass of uncultured, vulgar people by middle-class observers. They were not expected to think much or know their classics, if you will. The truth is, of course they did, but middle-class people would not recognise the validity of their cultural practices.

One of the main reasons for this was because working-class culture was based on practices which were fundamentally at odds with middle-class ideology. There was a real cultural clash, a collision between two completely different approaches to knowledge and its transmission. In working-class communities, knowledge was traditionally transmitted orally: working-class people were culturally used to asking their relatives and peers for answers to their questions rather than to open a book. (Rose, 2001: p.220) Besides, knowledge was seen as something to be shared with the community, and not selfishly kept or pursued for one’s own interest. In opposition to this, people from the upper classes relied essentially on writings and academic accreditation, and completely dismissed informal practices and oral tradition. So on the one hand you had intellectual practices based on long-lasting traditions of orality and mutuality, and on the other hand an equally deep-rooted culture dominated by writings and individualism. British intellectual life at that time was suffused with middle-class values, and the imposition of this cultural model was institutionalised: schools for instance promoted competition, and individual learning and achievement. What counted as knowledge was entirely defined by bourgeois ideology, and working-class knowledge and cultural practices were dismissed.

It would be wrong – and incredibly condescending – to think that working-class people did not engage with classical culture at all, and that their knowledge was essentially trade-specific or practical. Working-class culture was extremely diverse, both in terms of content and practices. Education was very much a collective activity, which happened in everyday informal settings, in a fairly unstructured way. We know that working-class girls for instance disliked being taught domestic science at school, and preferred learning directly from their mothers or other female relatives instead. (Roberts, 1984: pp.30-34) In his autobiography, Arthur Gill, the son of a Leeds shoe repairer, recalls the daily political debates between customers in his father’s shop. (Gill, 1969: pp.144-46) Most people read the newspapers, and discussed the news at work. People might not have had the means to buy or possess books of their own, but they would borrow them, club together to buy copies, or listen to public readings. In fact, reading aloud was a widespread practice, and for long a prime form of working-class education: people would read aloud in their homes, and listen to public readings on the street, in the pub, in various clubs, or in factories. (Rose, 2001: p.58)

In his extensive study of British working-class intellectual life at that period, Jonathan Rose provides a fascinating account of working-class attitudes to knowledge and its transmission, and calls our attention to mutual improvement societies. In the second half of the nineteenth century, working-class people founded a number of cooperative education groups and mutual improvement societies based on their own cultural traditions. People would meet in various interest clubs, Sunday schools, and friendly societies, to listen to papers and debate ideas on a variety of topics – from politics to economics, literature, religion, history, or philosophy. (Rose, 2001: p.58) Cooperative education represented an alternative to dominant cultural practices and their middle-class bias. There was no hierarchy for instance, as you would find in a school with the teacher being the one who knows and speaks: everyone was on an equal footing. (Well, men were, that is – but that’s another story…) Considering that these people, owing to their social status, knew from experience the fundamentally oppressive nature of all hierarchies, this is hardly surprising.

In fact, working-class self-education was a form of cultural class struggle, based on the idea that knowledge is power – an attractive prospect for people who had long been denied both. Not everyone embraced this pursuit of knowledge though, and some working-class people resented what they saw as an accommodation to middle-class ideology. One example that illustrates very well how these tensions could translate in practice is that of working-class students who performed well at school and secure scholarships to go to university. These students ended up in a very awkward position, simultaneously ostracised both by their own community, who were suspicious of their selfish (because non collective) learning, and by a system that denied the validity of their experience and that functioned on values diametrically opposed to their own. (Rose, 2001: p.88)

What this means for the social historian or indeed anyone interested in working-class culture at that time, is that we need to look beyond classical and institutional knowledge alone, and to be aware of the erasure of working-class knowledge and experience by bourgeois practices and ideology. Contemporary social commentaries will tell you what middle-class observers thought of working-class people. School curriculums will tell you what kind of knowledge was deemed important according to middle-class ideology. What working-class people knew or enjoyed, what they read, what they discussed, how they acquired and engaged with knowledge – all this is absent from such records; and just as working-class knowledge and cultural practices are dismissed, so too are working-class people. Good thing some of them decided to record their own stories and experiences, unremarkable as they thought they were.


Gagnier, Regenia, Subjectivities: a History of Self-Representation in Britain, 1832-1920 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991)

Gill, Arthur, I remember! Reminiscences of a Cobbler’s Son (1969), Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies, Brunel University Library

Joyce, Patrick, “The Politics of the Liberal Archive”, History of the Human Sciences, 12 (2) (1999), pp.35-49

Roberts, Elizabeth, A Woman’s Place: An Oral History of Working-Class Women, 1890-1940 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984)

Rose, Jonathan, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001)


The Village, Part 1

So I started watching The Village last night, Peter Moffat’s new drama about a northern rural village over the course of the twentieth century.  It began, when else, in the summer of 1914 (I am waiting for a course-of-the-twentieth-century drama that has the courage to begin with either the death of Victoria or the end of the Boer War!) although it managed to avoid most of the First World War clichés by the simple expedient of ending the episode with the departure of the first draft of volunteers.

There were some lovely moments.  John Simm’s shame at the generosity (or patronage) of his neighbour in face of his drunken aggression, the dismissal of the unpleasant schoolmaster from the recruitment station for being too short, the use of a recruiting poster that was not the (anachronistic) Kitchener. The implication that Bert’s older brother enlists in order to escape from a life of subservience and drudgery, rather than from war enthusiasm was a particular pleasure.  But overall the whole left me feeling uncomfortable.  It has been sold as the anti-Downton Abbey, a dose of working-class reality in opposition to Julian Fellowes’s soft focus nostalgia for the upper classes and noblesse oblige.  And there were certainly very few positive views of the upper classes, although the middle class (as represented by the nicer, taller schoolmaster and the vicar’s suffragette daughter) came off best.  But in making the daughter of the local squire a sexually predatory halfwit, her mother a vicious snob and promoter of (literally) Victorian gender values and the squire himself a physically damaged recluse who forces his staff to turn their back on him when he passes, the caricature seems to have swung too far in the other direction. Nor did the working classes come off as any more real.  Even with the skills of actors such as Simm and Maxine Peake, they never really gained more depth than ‘violent, drunken failed farmer’, ‘put-upon wife’ and ‘naive country girl’.

And then there was the focus on sex.  Yes, the story is being told from the perspective of a 12-year-old boy, so such a focus can be justified.  But did we really need quite so many scenes of voyeurism and sexual innuendo, culminating in a scene straight out of Lady Chatterley’s Lover?  The whole thing felt extremely Lawrentian, in fact, which coming from me is not particularly high praise.  I do like some of Lawrence’s poetry (Snake is something of a favourite) but as a portrayer of class and sexual relationships in his fiction, I have always found him unconvincing.  Or at least no more convincing than Fellowes’s historical world view.

Can there, then, be no middle way in how the past is portrayed in contemporary television drama?  Are we condemned to see history either in terms of soft-focus nostalgia or sex-and-violence grimness?  Parade’s End might point in another direction, having a satirical bite to its vision of the upper and upper-middle classes at war, although Ford’s portrayal of working class characters verges on the sentimental.  And it was, of course, an adaptation of contemporaneous fiction rather than a contemporary fictionalization of history, a point which rather supports my on-going argument that the fictions of the past have as much to teach us about the times they were created in as any facts.

In short, I don’t know.  I will carry on watching The Village, at least for the moment, but I will need a lot more convincing that this is the correct and necessary riposte to national and international obsession with Downton.

Age and Class

I am currently supposed to be writing an article on the politics of voluntary medical services in wartime but keep on being distracted by thoughts about age and class in relation to wartime masculinity.

‘Indeed, to the end of his life the Dean never really understood what work it meant to run a house, a college, or a camp efficiently. All through his life meals appeared, rooms were cleaned, beds were made, clothes were washed and mended, and he took this for granted.’ (P. Pare and D. Harris, Eric Milner-White 1884-1963, A Memoir (London, 1965) quoted in E. Madigan, Faith Under Fire: Anglican Army Chaplains and the Great War (Palgrave, 2011).)

Milner-White served as an army chaplain during the war, hence Madigan’s interest in him, but the point he is making about the class background of the majority of Anglican chaplains (public school and university educated, middle to upper class social millieu) and the sense of entitlement that this bred applies equally to a great number of other men who served in combatant roles during the war, as Madigan himself notes. The idea that these men might not have known how to run a camp, because that sort of organizational work was something that others did, is quite a startling one. It is forcing me to ask who had the sort of organizational and logistics skills to make the army function in wartime (I am starting to believe the old soldiers’ theory that the NCOs really did run everything) and to return to Ross McKibbin’s endlessly fascinating discussion of the stratification of social class in Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951 (Oxford, 1998) for a reminder of the complexities of the British class system in the first half of the twentieth century.  It is easy to talk about the ‘middle classes’ and assume that we know what we mean by that (usually ourselves) but applying that label historically takes some careful thought, something I will admit I haven’t been taking enough care with recently.  I tend to focus on continuities in my work, ways in which social and cultural assumptions have not changed that much over time despite all the great historical event of the last hundred or so years, or at least have developed from a common base that remains recognizable today. It is very healthy to be reminded that some things have changed enormously and that getting to grips with why those changes occurred and what the implications might be is part of my job.

And then this morning I received an e-mail from my colleague asking if I could recommend any studies on the experiences of middle-aged men during the war. And I can’t. Age was a hugely important aspect of the recruitment process in Britain during the war and had profound influence on ideas of appropriate service and, consequently, masculinity during the war years. (It was also hugely influential in ideas about shell shock, something I am exploring for a paper I hope to give at a conference in the spring.) Yet, while underage volunteerism has been discussed fairly extensively in the literature, I can think of no study of those too old to serve. There are plenty of anecdotal stories of over-aged men who volunteered, and many did serve in non-combatant roles (including those being studied by my colleague who contributed to the logistics effort). But there is no systematic academic analysis that I can think of. If anyone can suggest any, I would be profoundly grateful as this is something that I am going to have to look into in more depth, if only because I suspect a number of the orderlies and ambulance drivers I am studying fit into this category.

And, after that digression, I return to the politics of the British Red Cross, the St. John Ambulance Association and the Friends Ambulance Unit.