Educationalists worried not only about crowded homes and malnourished bodies, but the drabness of children’s intellectual and emotional lives. Inspectors frequently referred to ‘happiness’ as one of the most significant measures of a successful school. Nurturing a love of nature was seen as one way to foster this, judged particularly important in London, with its unambiguously urban environment. Many schools tried hard to promote the natural world to their pupils, with mixed success. These years also saw the increasing popularity of the ‘school journey’, a two-week-long educational fieldtrip, usually to a rural or seaside destination. The chapter also considers the way in which lessons in art, music and literature – the latter with a particular focus on Shakespeare – provided other opportunities to encourage creativity and attend to emotional needs. A significant number of London schools formed violin classes, for example, even in the poorest areas of the capital. It was hoped that school initiatives would impact a wider community, with school lessons used as a way of spreading certain values more widely within the neighbourhood.
In Laura Almagor’s chapter, she explicitly prioritizes scale as an analytical tool to provide a concise account of the professional life of the American-Jewish scholar Koppel Pinson. This use of the notion of scale enables us to see Pinson’s relevance by obtaining insights into various, seemingly unconnected, themes and processes within different networks and geographies. Indeed, this pioneer of the field of nationalism studies moved between abstract and concrete spaces: scholarly fields in the United States, and physical places in Europe and North America, especially in his capacity as educational director of the American Joint Distribution Committee in the German Displaced Persons camps immediately following the Second World War. However, the premise of Almagor’s contribution is that it is first of all ‘scale’ that enables the scholar to approach Pinson’s life in the most multifaceted manner possible.
This chapter explores the everyday interactions, conflicts and negotiations between schools and the working-class communities around them, and the ways these relationships were managed. In official circles, the school environment was usually valued over that of home and street. A sense of physical and ideological separation was particularly apparent during the general strike of May 1926. However, the chapter argues that schools did not always seek to impose their values in a straightforward way. Cooperation between home and school was often visible, even if relationships were complex and the power balance unequal. The angry parent appears far more frequently in surviving sources than those hundreds of thousands of parents who never had (or acted upon) any grievances. Yet many had a positive relationship with their children’s teachers. Parents could play a significant role in school life, with ties likely to be particularly strong in those parts of London which registered little mobility among its population. More often portrayed as being in a constant state of mutual enmity, the relationships between parent and teacher, home and school, and community and classroom were dynamic and fluid, changing over time and dependent on the issue at stake. Most importantly, they could be constructive as often as confrontational.
This chapter considers the ways in which schools prepared children for life after elementary school. Particular prestige was attached to scholarships, but for most children educational opportunities beyond elementary school were limited and preparation for employment was more important. The chapter examines the types of vocational training given in schools, whether informal support and advice; trips to local industries; lessons in maths and science; or subjects such as woodwork for boys and domestic subjects for girls – the latter intended as preparation for domesticity as well as employment. Advice given at school was often contrasted with the supposed ill-judgement of parents, who were criticised for rejecting scholarships or prioritising short-term opportunities over long-term prospects. A disconnect between the school’s advice and the preferences of working-class families appears most obviously in the case of domestic service. Of course, many parents were much more appreciative of the opportunities offered to their child than officials sometimes allowed, while schools were aware of the need to be flexible and might show sensitivity to local conditions. Those ex-pupils who remained most bitter in later life about their schooling are those who might – in a different context – have aspired to greater achievement but were constrained by systems and assumptions that were rigid and inflexible. However, within the bounds of the possible, most schools tried to do the best for their pupils. The school was idealised as a place where children might learn skills which – combined with hard work and ambition – would set them up for life.
What were schools for, why did they matter and what do they tell us about society? In this compelling account, the lived experience of the classroom illuminates the social history of interwar Britain. Drawing on a rich array of archival and autobiographical sources, it captures in vivid detail the individual moments that made up the minutiae of classroom life. Focusing on elementary schools in London – where global, imperial and national identities competed with local and family interests – it creates a mosaic of the educational experience across the capital between the wars. Interwar schools were not cut off from their surroundings: they were lynchpins of social life. This book charts the growing role they played in communities, the lives of young people, and the lives of their parents. It builds a story of the social relationships that shaped modern Britain: the overlapping interests of children, guardians, neighbours, teachers, school managers, inspectors, welfare workers, medics, clerics, local businesses and government officials. In doing so, it centres schools as key drivers of social change. By exploring crucial questions around identity and belonging, poverty and aspiration, class and culture, behaviour and citizenship, this book shows that schools were an integral part of interwar society. It provides vital context for twenty-first century debates about education, exploring how the same concerns were framed a century ago.
The conclusion presents the key arguments of the book. It notes that a civilising rhetoric, born out of anxieties stemming from nineteenth-century industrialisation and urbanisation, remained inherent to the rationale of interwar schooling. Yet schools were now operating in a different social context. The authority of working-class parents had been bolstered by participatory democracy and recent wartime mobilisation, while technological change and the politics of aspiration and consumption had altered the relationship of schools and their communities. Schools were now better equipped to raise aspirations, rather than contain them: an expanded welfare remit and progressive ideas about the benefits of education meant that they could reflect a sense of possibility, even if practice was often restricted by economic realities. Rather than simply seeing schools as state impositions on working-class communities, then, this book argues that they were much more likely to be grounded in their locality. Written during the national lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic, which starkly demonstrated the importance of schooling to today’s children in so many different ways, the conclusion closes with some thoughts on the book’s contemporary relevance and suggests that perhaps the interwar period offers hope to those demoralised by our current political climate.
James W. Ford and the communist push into the Black Atlantic
In this chapter, Holger Weiss explores the African American communist labour union activist James W. Ford as one of the key global players in the history of interwar Communism in the black Atlantic. Weiss uses space in two intertwined ways: first, by tying together Ford’s activities in Chicago, Moscow, Hamburg and several other places, Weiss traces the vast agitation and propaganda network Ford helped produce, connecting black activists in Africa, the Caribbean, the USA and Europe. Second, Weiss shows how Ford was pushed and pulled from the centre of black transnational Communist agitation, as the many institutions that facilitated their work redefined what the struggle was about. Embedding the case of Ford in a careful exploration of the source material at hand and the layered organisational ‘solar system’ of the Comintern, Weiss probes the possibilities as well as the limitations of a single actor to forge global revolutionary politics. Thus, Weiss concludes, we can discern spaces of agitation that opened and closed across the inter- and immediately postwar years, in the end leaving Ford disillusioned as his older doctrines of class struggle were washed over by radical political pan-Africanism.
Focused on the small town of Gournay-en-Bray [Seine-Maritime], this chapter opens with a confrontation at a parish church slated to be closed in April of 1792. The struggle typifies the chapter’s theme, namely that one of the Revolution’s religious reforms—parish circumscription—represented a grave disruption and profound crisis among many French Catholics at the precise moment when a nation’s identity stood in the balance. To explain this neglected reform, the chapter reviews legislation for the circumscription of parishes found in the 1790 Civil Constitution of the Clergy. The decree specifically targeted communities like Gournay, whose two parishes (Notre-Dame and Saint-Hildevert) had a conflicted relationship dating back to the sixteenth century. The legislation indicated that one of these parishes should be closed. In light of long-running inter-parish tensions and the new religious mandate, a polarizing spiral quickly developed between the two parishes. When the Law of 3 February 1792 ordered the closure of Notre-Dame, relations between the two sets of parishioners grew from bad to worse. Stepping back from the story of Gournay’s two parishes, the chapter then considers parish circumscription under the Civil Constitution of the Clergy from a national perspective with the help of 89 laws passed between 1790 and 1793. In keeping with two maps and three appendices, the chapter’s findings offer what previous historiography has neglected—a more comprehensive explanation of this reform, its tenuous relationship to the 1791 Oath, and the degree to which the nation as a whole was affected.
In Gunvor Simonsen’s chapter she analyses the life of Adrian Bentzon, turtle dealer, Caribbean governor, merchant, business agent, planter, slave owner, bibliophile, father of five and partner of three. While Bentzon’s biography could be captured within the framework of the transnational, Simonsen argues that it was his participation in Atlantic scalar processes that made him what he was. Looking at the Atlantic world via Bentzon’s biography highlights this world as an assemblage of spatial processes of dis- and reintegration. The scalar force of these processes was not related to their nesting in a spatial hierarchy but rather to their ability to channel, or clog, particular resources from coming within Bentzon’s grasp.