Blaker Family of Sussex - Reminiscences


"My Schools and Schoolmasters."

IN surroundings such as I have described, I was "raised." As far as I can judge, children were more robust and healthy, and less sensitive to external influences than they are at present, but I doubt if their mental faculties were so acute, which might be due to the less exciting lives they led, to the less early educational pressure and to the more wholesome and plain food. Especially the bread, which, being made at home, of pure wheat flour, much less white and finely ground, was far more nutritious and sustaining; in fact, men could almost live on it alone. There were none of those "prepared" foods, whose value as food has generally been impaired or destroyed by the preparation they have undergone.

Obedience, truthfulness and respect for parents and elders were the aims which mothers had in view in bringing up their children, and there were two sayings which were constantly repeated, "Spare the rod and spoil the child" and "Children should be seen and not heard"; and, though a rod was considered a necesary part of the furniture of a nursery, I think the second was the more hated. To have to sit still for half an hour or longer in the presence of visitors without speaking, unless first spoken to, was a dreadful trial.

The greatest pains were taken, by the best of mothers, to teach me the rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic. At eight years old I was sent to school to Miss Lee, at Lewes, and at the end of a year was removed to the Grammar School at Steyning, which had a great reputation owing to the personality of the master, Mr. George Airey. He was a Westmoreland man, of good presence, and gentlemanly manners. He took the greatest of care with his boys, looking well after them himself, and feeding them well, according to the ideas of the day. He was an accomplished classical master, and the tone of his school was excellent. With the robustness of mind of a "North-country man," he was in every idea a gentleman. "If you want to fight, you shall come into the middle of the playground, and we will see you fight fair, but I will have no underhand bullying." Needless to say, he had no fighting, and very little bullying. He encouraged cricket and field sports of all kinds, and his was the first gun I ever fired. Our half-holidays were frequently spent in hunting rabbits on some land belonging to Mr. Richard Lidbetter, known as the "Baron of Bramber", a generous and very witty old gentleman, who kindly gave us permission. Mr. Airey firmly believed in the cane and the birch, which he used rather freely, and those, and the hope of obtaining one of the prizes given at the end of each half-year, kept us well up to our work. The work had to be done somehow, no excuse was admitted, and as there were in those days none of the modern "Aids to learning," every word had to be thought over and puzzled by means of dictionaries and lexicons. May not this rather severe system have instilled into the boys' minds those habits of thoughtfulness and perseverance, which enabled so many of them to take and retain good places in public schools and obtain at least an average amount of success in after life? Taken in all, Mr. Airey was an excellent man and schoolmaster. I have visited his grave more than once and looked on it with feelings of affection, respect and esteem.

There was "no care beyond to-day." Boys slept well and got up refreshed. No optician was wanted and a doctor but seldom. I cannot help comparing this with the system of school life at the present day, in which the masters push on the quickest and most precocious intellects, in order to obtain the greatest number of scholarships. Children are urged on by the stimulus of competition; knowledge, sometimes of an almost useless kind, is poured in quicker than it can be assimilated, and memory is cultivated, while the faculties of thought and observation, as well as the requirements of the developing brain and muscle, are lightly regarded. There are defects of vision now which constantly require the aid of the optician, and doctors get hard-earned fees. Hard-earned because it is painful to see some of these children, with their flabby limbs, moist pale skins, furred tremulous tongues, twitching features and restless or vacant eyes, sometimes adorned with spectacles, and listen to the oft-told tale : "The examinations come on in a few days, at the end of the term. He (or she) is very anxious to pass. I think he has been working to hard. He works late at night and begins again early in the morning. It seems to have got on his nerves, he seems afraid to be alone and talks in his sleep about his work."

I once asked a gentleman, a don in an Oxford College, what became of the men who came up with a brilliant reputation and took scholarships? His answer was : "A few do well. Most of them 'damp off' and disappear." If the cultivated "mens sana in corpore sano," in the greatest number, is the aim of education, may not something be said for the old system?

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