“There are no words to express half what I feel about the teachers in our Council Schools, their enthusiasm, their patience, their energy, their devotion. When we think of what the lives of poor children are …” E. Nesbit
It has been a tough time for many children and teachers during Lockdown, with schools mostly shut, rapidly adapting to home schooling and being taught online, the inequalities of the nation shown up by concerns over free school meal vouchers and lack of data or laptops.
I started reading Wings and The Child or the Building of Magic Cities (1913) by E. Nesbit (of Railway Children fame) with some scepticism about this middle class pastime of borrowed silver candlesticks and marbled bound volumes set up by servants in the library or the nursery.
The first half of the book is about her thoughts on childhood, education and the state of England, the second half is how she makes her Magic Cities with the help of her children.
Reading this book, I get echoes of Baden Powell’s Scouting for Boys and E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, a concern for the rapidly urbanising State of the Nation, shown up in BP’s case by the poor standard of recruits for the Boer War.
What I didn’t realise is that Edith Nesbit, in response to many letters from children about her children’s book The Magic City (1910), exhibited and manned her Magic City at during the Child Welfare Exhibition Olympia of late 1912 and early 1913, the year her book was published.
Here at the Exhibition, she had a wide range of visitors from foreign royalty to teachers. Fellow exhibitors included the suffragette or suffrage societies.
Regular blog readers will have read my recent posts on H.G. Wells’ Floor Games (1911) and Little Wars (1913).
Edith Nesbit (or Mrs Hubert Bland) and her husband Hubert would have known Wells and his Little Wars friends like Mr W. (Graham Wallas) through the socialist Fabian Society. Arguably Wells’ science fiction books have their own criticisms of the state of the Nation or colonialism and Empire such as The War of the Worlds or The Time Machine.
Reproaching my initial modern prejudice about this book and her Edwardian Middle Class background, Nesbit shows that she is aware or able to adapt her thoughts to the situation of children in rural or urban board schools (primary schools) established in the 1870s.
The Poor Child’s City – CHAPTER VII, Wings and the Child, E. Nesbit, 1913
“When my city was built at Olympia a great many school-teachers who came to see it told me that they would like to help the children in their schools to build such cities, but that it would not be possible because the children came from poor homes, where there were none of the pretty things—candlesticks, brass bowls, silver ash-trays, chessmen, draughts, well-bound books, and all the rest of it—which I had used to build my city.
So then I said I would build a city out of the sort of things that poor children could collect and bring to school. And I did. My friends Mr. Annis and Mr. Taylor, who were helping me to explain the city and show it to visitors, helped me with the building. We did it in a day, and it was very pretty—so pretty that the school-teachers who came to see it asked me to write a book to say how that was done. And so I did.
There are no words to express half what feel about the teachers in our Council Schools, their enthusiasm, their patience, their energy, their devotion.
When we think of what the lives of poor children are, of the little they have of the good things of this world, the little chance they have of growing up to any better fate than that of their fathers and mothers, who do the hardest work of all and get the least pay of all those who work for money—when we think how rich people have money to throw away, how their dogs have velvet coats and silver collars, and eat chicken off china, while the little children of the poor live on bread and tea, and wear what they can get—often enough, too little—when we think of all these things, if we can bear to think of them at all, there is not one of us, I suppose, who would not willingly die if by our death we could secure for these children a fairer share of the wealth of England, the richest country in the world.
For wealth, by which I mean money, can buy all those things which children ought to have, and which these children do not have—good food, warm clothes, fresh country air, playthings and books, and pictures.
Remembering that by far the greater number of children of England have none of these things, you would, I know, gladly die if dying would help. To die for a cause is easy—you leap into the gulf like Curtius, or fall on the spears like Winkelried, or go down with your ship for the honour of your country.
To lead a forlorn hope, to try to save one child from fire or water, and die in the attempt—that is easy and glorious. The hard thing to do is to live for your country—to live for its children.
And it is this that the teachers in the Council Schools do, year in and year out, with the most unselfish nobility and perseverance.
And nobody applauds or makes as much fuss as is made over a boy who saves a drowning kitten. In the face of enormous difficulties and obstacles, exposed to the constant pin-pricks of little worries, kept short of space, short of materials and short of money, yet these teachers go on bravely, not just doing what they are paid to do, but a thousand times more, devoting heart, mind, and soul to their splendid ambition and counting themselves well paid if they can make the world a better and a brighter place for the children they serve.
If these children when they grow up shall prove better citizens, kinder fathers, and better, wiser, and nobler than their fathers were, we shall owe all the change and progress to the teachers who are spending their lives to this end.
And this I had to say before I could begin to write about how cities may be built of such materials as poor children can collect and bring to school …” (E. Nesbit, Wings and The Child, 1913)
You can read the rest of this section and the whole of Wings and the Child here:
Wings and The Child – A very interesting book , along with Little Wars and Floor Games that captures the spirit of our childhood games and our modern gamers’ scrap modelling.
Many of her other comments in Wings and The Child on the ‘institution’ of Education from the content of curriculums, class sizes and the lack of time for concern for the individual personality of children might be heard in school staff rooms and home education groups today.
The communal or collective efforts (collective in many senses of the word) to make these Magic Cities in urban or rural Board Schools must have been splendid sights to see, the shiny tin can city version of the glories of the Victorian and Edwardian “Nature Table” in primary schools and Sunday Schools.
Bravo Board and Council School Teachers!
Blog posted by Mark Man of TIN, 24 January 2021