Monday, June 11, 2012

My Dad's a Fire-eater

Children as young as five will be expected to learn and recite poetry by heart if a major overhaul of the national curriculum in England's schools goes ahead.  Education Secretary Michael Gove would like to see a new focus on the traditional skills of spelling and grammar of which the study of poetry will become an important part.  And as any student of history knows, there is nothing new under the sun.

In March 1884 Francis William Drew, master at Lydiard Millicent Church of England School, was preparing his pupils for the annual inspection.  As a large portion of the school’s funding rested on a pass or fail, and with it Mr Drew’s salary, the inspector’s visit was an important one.

The village school at Lydiard had an average weekly attendance of 139 in the spring of 1884.  Divided into standards according to ability, children enrolled aged five and worked their way through Standards I to VI if their parents could afford to keep them in school that long. Promotion to the next standard was on ability and the result of rigorous testing in the three R’s - reading, writing and arithmetic.  

The school leaving age was 13 but pupils could be withdrawn at 10 if an inspector was satisfied they had passed the required standard.  However levels of truancy were high in this rural area where boys were taken out of school to work at busy times in the agricultural calender; and girls missed out on lessons looking after younger siblings while their mothers worked in the fields.

In 1884 Standard I, the least able children in the school, were set  ‘Lucy Gray; or, Solitude’ a poem by William Wordsworth, to remember and recite.  This story of an obedient child who sets off across the moor with her lantern to meet her mother and is lost in a snow storm runs to 16 verses.

The task for Standard II was The Village Blacksmith by Longfellow, an eight verse tongue twister that ends:

Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought!

In 1884 Standard III have studied that cheery piece the Wreck of the Hesperus, also by Longfellow, in which a ship’s skipper fails to take the advice of an old sailor to put his vessel into port ahead of an advancing hurricane.  As the storm takes hold he lashes his daughter to the mast and takes his place at the helm.

“O father! I hear the sound of guns;
Oh, say what it may be?”
But the father answered never a word,
A frozen corpse was he.

Lash to the helm, all stiff and stark,
With his face turned to the skies,
The lantern gleamed through the gleaming snow
On his fixed and glassy eyes.

Standard IV had two set pieces; the inspirational story of King Bruce and the Spider by Eliza Cook – the moral being if at first you don’t succeed etc.   And just in case they felt the absence of doom and gloom they also had to learn and recite The Graves of a Household by Felicia Hemans.

And parted thus they rest, who play’d
Beneath the same green tree;
Whose voices mingled as they pray’d
Around one parent knee!

They that with smiles lit up the hall,
And cheer’d with song the hearth –
Alas! For love, if thou wert all,
And nought beyond, oh earth!

Pupils in Standards V and VI, the most able children in the village school, had learned a selection of verses from Shakespeare.

The 1884 inspection was a huge success.  Mr A.L. Saunders, Corresponding Manager of the school gave a summary of the inspector's report. 'The school has passed an excellent examination, there being not a single failure in any of the subjects of examination.  The infants are most ably taught and the results of the examinations are highly satisfactory.'

So perhaps the Education Secretary might be on to something here.  Note to Mr Gove - please choose something funny. My Dad's a Fire-eater by Roger McGough is a personal favourite.


  1. I remember my grandfather reciting the wreck of the Hesperus to me when I was a child. He hammed it up a lot but I do remember that he said he was taught it at school - he was born in 1890 in Scotland and moved to England when he was about 6.I remember learning the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and that was in the early 1960s.

  2. I missed out completely on poetry - it must have been out of fashion during my school days. But at a push I could recite My Dad's a Fire-eater - one I frequently read to my own children. My daughter says I liked it more than she did! Thank you for taking the time to comment.