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)


We interrupt this programme…

Before I start, please may I assure regular followers (hi, Mum!) that I am contemplating a post on the new seasons of Downton Abbey and Peaky Blinders and what they have to tell us about bereavement, survival and disability in the wake of the First World War.  In the meantime,  however, I will be spending the next three weeks teaching on this:



Changing Face of Heroism




If you haven’t already signed up, please do so.  If you have, please let anyone you think might be interested know about it.  It is completely free to register and join and you can take the course entirely at a pace that suits you.

As part of this course, our wonderful learning mentors, Chris Phillips and Philippa Read, will, I hope, be writing guest posts for this blog on aspects of heroism relating to their research, respectively wartime transport logistics (trains and canals) and classical references in French wartime culture and memory.  This is a new approach on the part of this blog, but one that I hope will lead to contributions by other students and colleagues who work in fields related to my research.  I hope you will make them all welcome.

And a final piece of publicity. The Legacies of War seminar series got off to a strong start in its third year with an excellent paper from Professor Roy MacLeod on ‘The Scientists Go To War’.  Our next meeting takes place on Thursday, 30th October at 5:15 in the Grant Room (Michael Sadler 3.11) at the University of Leeds when Dr Richard Smith (Goldsmiths) will be speaking on ‘Recovering West Indian Memories of the First World War’. Full details can be found here.  Please do join us if you are able to. All are welcome.

Why am I still writing about Michael Gove?

I thought that, with yesterday’s post, I had managed to get everything I needed to say about Michael Gove’s intervention on the First World War out of my system.  Then I read this and I discovered that I had not.

I consider myself a ‘proper’ historian, a ‘careful’ researcher and, as it happens, one who spends an awful lot of time reading the accounts, both contemporary and retrospective of ‘the men who were there’.  In fact, I have written at some length about why there are historical problems of privileging ‘the men who were there’ as witnesses to the ‘truth’ of the past.  And yet, unlike Mr Mastin, and, as it happens, Sir Richard Evans and Gary Sheffield, I do believe there is a value to showing Blackadder Goes Forth in the classroom, not simply for what it tells us about ‘the different ways in which the past has been interpreted’, and certainly not because of what it has to tell about the lived reality of the war.  But it does have a great deal to tell us about the history of how the war has been remembered and commemorated as a major cultural (as well as military) event in British history and is thus an important historical document in its own right.

I am not going to rehearse my defense of why the cultural history of the war is at least as important as the military history, this centenary year of all years, here.  I have been making that argument in just about every piece of academic work I have published and I have a book review to write.  But I am going come out and say yes, we should be showing students of the history of the war television programmes like Blackadder and getting them to read books like Birdsong and Regeneration. They will teach students as much about how the war was remembered in the last quarter of the twentieth century as they will about the war itself, but that too is part of the history of the war.

What is more, I would add that we should also be getting students to read Sergeant Michael Cassidy by ‘Sapper’, The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West, Unpleasantness at the Bellonna Club by Dorothy L. Sayers, Kitty by Warwick Deeping.*  They should be watching Journey’s End and The Big Parade and La Grande Illusion.  Will these cultural works tell them the ‘truth’ about war experience? Only as much as Robert Graves’s Goodbye To All That tells the truth of war experience.  But they do tell us a great deal about how the war was remembered and understood and interpreted by British (and French) culture.  And that, too, is the proper history of the First World War.

*I have personally cited all these works of fiction as historical evidence in essays which have been published by reputable publishers in independently refereed journals. References available upon request.

Politicians and Generals

I have spent the weekend trying to get to grips with why I feel so uncomfortable about David Cameron’s announcement of £50 million toward the centenary commemorations of the war.  On the face of it, all his announcements are self-evidently Good Things – more money for the Imperial War Museum (still one of my favourite archives if only for the irony of reading about war under a burnished 10 Commandments in the reading room that used to be part of the hospital chapel), school visits to the battle fields, additional funding for local history groups, a focus on memory and commemoration.

So why am I not embracing this announcement wholeheartedly?  I have come to the conclusion that it is mainly due to the steering committee that was announced, filled as it is primarily with former servicemen and politicians.  Yes, Hew Strachan is an excellent representative of the community of First World War historians in Britain, and Sebastian Faulks seems a sensible choice to represent the arts, although I am sure there are plenty of others who would be just as appropriate.  But they are so far outnumbered by ex-servicemen as to raise the question of what the steering group believes these are commemorations of.  Are we going to see commemoration the war as a total war, one that influenced every facet and stratum of society, not just in terms of mourning (as is usually commented on) but also in terms of changing attitudes, new forms of work and service and technological developments?  Or are we going to have commemorations limited to the Armed Services?  How much of the focus is going to be on this particular conflict and how much on the service and sacrifice of all British (and Imperial/Commonwealth) forces since then?

My other source of unease is the fact that no reference at all was made to the work that universities around the country have been doing for several years now and will continue to do for the next six years.  Yes, many of these projects come under the aegis of the IWM’s First World War Centenary Partnership but so do many of the Heritage Lottery funded local history projects that get a name-check.  I am acutely aware that the Legacies of War project, one which is partnering similar local initiatives, has taken two years of hard work to get off the ground.  A similar amount of time has been spent at the University of Newcastle developing an international network of research into children’s experiences of war in the early twentieth century.  Birmingham and Kent are both centres of research excellence for First World War studies.  And the International Society for First World War Studies, now in its eleventh year, was founded by two academics based in Britain.  There is a wealth of passion and expertise to be tapped in our research institutions in this country, equal to that of the local history groups who will, quite rightly, be contributing so much to the commemorations, passion and expertise which Cameron, in his announcement seems to ignore.  Hopefully it can be used fully by the Centenary Partnership and those of us who make our living out studying the Great War can demonstrate the leading role that British academics have played and continue to play in the study of the First World War.

Oh, and the award for most fatuous comment must go to General Lord Dannatt, quoted in The Times as saying, ‘This needs to be the start of an education programme on the history of the events that led to the outbreak of the war, to make sure it never happens again.’  Given the number of conflicts to engulf the world since 1918, I suspect that ship has sailed.

A musical interlude

My mother has just sent me this:

She thought I would be interested as I am a mild Ricardian, having been introduced to Josephine Tey’s The  Daughter of Time, as read  by Derek Jacobi, when I was about 14.  To be honest, Jacobi’s voice was, and still is, the primary appeal, but I do enjoy the book and I still find myself excited about the idea of history as a detective story, an investigation and uncovering of the ‘truth’.

What interested me most about the clip, however, was the fact that it is a Horrible Histories production.  Now, my two are still too young to watch the television show, although I have read some of the Horrible History books and several interviews with Terry Deary, who is depressingly rude about historians and history teachers.  But I was recently discussing the television programme with a friend whose older children apparently love it, and she herself finds it witty and amusing, so I was interested to see something of what I have been missing.

I have to admit that this clip does not allay any of my concerns about the programme as a teaching tool.  Yes, it does point out that Thomas More and Shakespeare (who based his play on More’s history) are biased sources.  But significantly it completely fails to present any sort of evidence, in however an amusing form, as to why the story we think we know about Richard is wrong.  Instead, it just asserts that he is not all the things that history has portrayed him as.

Having spent far too long commenting on undergraduate essays (and even the occasional professional monograph) about the problem of asserting rather than proving statements about the past, this worries me.  History as a discipline rests on the skill of marshalling sources to prove an argument.  Those sources may be suspect or biased.  They may appear mutually contradictory, particularly when they are personal narratives.  They are often problematic, which is why historians can carry on arguing about the same thing (Was Richard a good king or a monster? Was the First World War a futile waste of a generation or a principled defence of democracy?) generation after generation, as new evidence is uncovered or a new perspective is put forward.  Used properly historical evidence can change minds.  I have read very good arguments as to why Richard probably was a usurper who killed his nephews, based on evidence of his other actions prior their disappearance, which have moderated my earlier belief in his absolute innocence.  But if evidence does not form part of the discussion then what you get isn’t so much historical debate as something more like this:

This isn’t history so much as children squabbling in the playground.

So, I will continue to approach Horrible Histories with a certain amount of circumspection and make sure that when my children are old enough to watch it that we discuss how we know what we think we know about the past, as well as what that past actually may have been.