The gamekeeper's girl aged nine, her magical century-old exercise book and a humbling lesson for today's schools
Who was Fannie Bryan All I know for sure is that she was born in 1889 and lived all her life in the tiny hamlet of Tidenham Chase, deep in the Forest of Dean, with views stretching to the River Severn.
I doubt she ever journeyed as far as Bristol, 23 miles away, but still, her education at a tiny village school provided her with skills that stretched her young mind to the full. /01/17/article-2087605-0F7DD9A300000578-111_634x361.jpg” width=”634″ height=”361″ alt=”Education Victorian style: Class sizes might have been enormous and facilities were basic, but the results speak for themselves” class=”blkBorder” />
Education Victorian style: Class sizes might have been enormous and facilities were basic, but the results speak for themselves
Alan’s father, a forester, gave him the exercise book, together with a charming album of postcards when Fannie’s cottage was cleared, years ago now, and they’ve been languishing in a drawer ever since.
He gave them to me because, like me, when he took them out to examine them, he was astonished at the story their pages told. Not about Fannie’s life, but about the decline in standards that has left so many of today’s schoolchildren intellectually impoverished.
It is a story that deserves a wider audience. For anybody looking at what Fannie achieved in her poor rural backwater is likely to reach the inevitable conclusion that we have let recent generations of children down. Badly.
A good read: Bel Mooney with Fannie Bryan's 1898 exercise book
Fannie was not born into a family of great intellectuals. I’m guessing her father, Jack, was probably a gamekeeper, because her exercises are written out in a hardcover book called The Gamekeeper’s and Game Preserver’s Account Book and Diary. There are a few pencil accounts by Jack: the birth of a couple of calves, the number of eggs laid, and details about the value of dogs and equipment in a kennels.
So did he work for the Big House nearby Very likely, because the sums involved seem enormous and the area was famed for hunting and game. There’s also a note which tells us that once a week he went ‘to town’ in his cart with his daughter to sell butter and eggs. That would have been Chepstow, just two-and-a-half miles away.
Was little Fannie badgering her father for some paper to write her homework on when he gave her that notebook Working people wouldn’t waste a thing – and so in 1898 he (or another adult) wrote her name at the front: ‘Fannie Bryan – nine years’, in confident steel pen and ink.
The pages which follow are impressive. The first thing you notice is the handwriting. Every pupil was taught a good cursive (meaning ‘joined-up’) hand, and made to practise letter shapes again and again.
Boring Nobody thought in those terms then. You did it because it got results. So at nine, Fannie was writing beautifully presented sentences which dance across the page.
And don’t think she was unusual. When I turn over the postcards slotted into her album I notice that her cousins wrote in the same way. For example, Wilf, a relatively lowly second steward on a steam ship, displays an elegant penmanship equal to hers.
A modern educationist would probably dismiss Fannie’s careful passages about geography as ‘uncreative’. But when I read her words about Switzerland, Belgium, Portugal, Vienna, Cape Finisterre, Rotterdam and the rest, I think of how fascinating all the information must have been to the country girl.
And there are interesting insights into her mind, as she asks: ‘Would you not rather live in those airy Viennese palaces than in the midst of town, yet most people like best to live in the crowded city. I believe the reason is they like having a great deal of company.’
How many nine-year-olds could write that fluently today
Worthwhile exercise: A page from Fannie's book
And what about this comment, which looks forward to 20th century conflict ‘Warsaw is the capital of Poland. It is full of soldiers. They are Russians sent by the Emperor to keep the poor Poles in order…’
And the poetry of this: ‘Cracow… is a small city… the kings of Poland used to be crowned there and buried there. On a high rock stands a church. A steep road leads to it. How many kings have gone up that road – first, very much pleased – to be crowned, and then – silent and cold – to be buried!’
A year later, at ten, Fannie is concentrating on her dictation. Older readers will remember this involved your teacher reading you a difficult passage that you had to write down making as few mistakes as possible, getting all the words and punctuation right. In Fannie’s book the dictations are perfect.
If the average sixth-former today used half of the vocabulary carefully copied out to learn by little Fannie Bryan they would be writing at a very sophisticated level indeed
But that won’t mean much unless I quote you a typical example: ‘The largest waves are seen there directly the storm has passed away, not while it lasts. No matter how furious the gale might have been, for the rushing wind has a tendency to blow down the waves, so to speak, and prevent them rising to their utmost height, it is when the storm is over that the swell rises; it does not however impress the beholder with its magnitude until it draws near to the rocks and begins to feel the checking influence of the sea.’
‘Incredible,’ do I hear you say Yes, Fannie had to follow and reproduce extremely complex sentences that would baffle most modern children.
Beneath that exercise, and all through the book, are lists of words she was obviously supposed to memorise. Here are some examples: Londoner, refluent, spectral, embargo, weird, shadowy, listless, engineer, gurgling, dissolve, alert, stealthily, leisure, companion, purify, venture – and so on.
If the average sixth-former today used half of the vocabulary carefully copied out to learn by little Fannie Bryan they would be writing at a very sophisticated level indeed.
As for the pages of mathematics, Fannie’s sums – her pounds, shillings and pence, long division and fractions – look very difficult to me, but then maths was never my strong point. The point is, each calculation is laid out neatly, and (from the teacher’s markings) most of them are correct. And I get a touching sense of Fannie as a real, normal child when, after some sums (these ones less neat, as if she was bored) you find a lovely little doodle in ink — of an ostrich.
Why do I close this book feeling saddened, and even angry Because it demonstrates what an ordinary child could do, when nobody was assuming she couldn’t (or shouldn’t) be stretched because she was working class.
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But was she typical I pulled from my bookshelf Winifred Foley’s classic autobiography, A Child In The Forest, about her childhood growing up in the Forest of Dean. Fannie was about 25 when Winifred was born some 15 miles away, but their backgrounds would have been very similar.
Winifred Foley, whose family rarely had enough to eat and who wore ‘scruffy’ clothes, writes of being promoted to the top class at the village school when she was nine, like Fannie.
She describes how the teacher ‘took us out of the classroom… with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Black Beauty, Lorna Doone, Treasure Island. This wasn’t just “doing the classics” – as she went along, we followed, spellbound. Every day, life became richer. Learning new words was like having the key to free the imprisoned thought I’d been unable to express’.
What modern child of that age would tackle those marvellous books What teacher would expect them to
Last week the Schools Minister Nick Gibb said that many primary school pupils were unable to enjoy books such as Harry Potter and the Narnia series because ‘they haven’t learned to read properly’.
He said that about one in six 11-year-olds struggle to read and one in ten boys that age has a reading age of seven or below. In the last nine years England has fallen in the International Reading League Table, from 7th to 25th. Behind the statistic is a tragic story of children who have not been given the ‘key’ that meant so much to Winifred Foley – and no doubt to Fannie Bryan – the key to a mind which could be challenged.
Today, it is hard not to fear that for many who deserve better the key has been lost. Let me emphasise that I am writing this as the author of more than 25 children’s books, who has visited scores of primary schools and received hundreds of letters from children over the years.
Charming as they were (and much appreciated by me) I’m sorry to say that not even the best of them would measure up to Fannie Bryan’s work in terms of an ability to write well at the age of nine or ten.
When did the change happen Why were writing exercises, tough spelling tests and punctuation thrown out of the window When did teachers stop expecting children to do well, to be stretched
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When my son, Dan, first went to primary school in 1978 he wasn’t taught how to read or write – not in the sense that I was in the Fifties, or Fannie Bryan was in the 1890s.
In late Seventies Britain, playing in the sandpit was considered an area of expertise. There was little structure to the day and it was fine for children to mess about with their backs to the teacher – because that’s how classrooms were arranged. Remember Left-wing educationists (who ruled – and I know because I spent a couple of years as an education journalist) spoke of tried-and-tested teaching methods such as ‘sitting in rows’ and ‘learning by rote’ as if they were positively vicious.
It was all about ideology, not children’s needs. And certainly not about raising standards as a means of children escaping their backgrounds.
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At Dan’s South London school his teacher looked at me as if I was a dinosaur (as well as a pain in the neck) for suggesting that he wasn’t making progress and some spelling might be useful.
Two years later, in despair at what the state school was doing to him, we reluctantly entered him for a small prep school in Bath. They were seriously worried at how far behind his peers he was – but brought him up to scratch in one term.
How Not because of class size – because after all, in my own post-war baby-boom inner-city Liverpool primary school, we had 50 per class and astonishing standards. No, by a rigorous application of the 3Rs, which a Victorian (and Edwardian and later) child took for granted.
Looking at Fannie’s book, I can’t help grieving for those common-sense rules of learning – lost amid conflicting political doctrines, educational fads, lies about standards and endless doctrinaire tinkering by those whom Education Secretary Michael Gove has dubbed ‘the enemies of promise’.
Of course, it goes without saying we have thousands of dedicated teachers preparing the lessons they will deliver to happy children who are doing very well in school.
But if so many of our teenagers are lagging – in English – behind their peers in Canada, Australia and Shanghai, we have to ask ourselves why.
It pleases me to bring Fannie and her beautiful writing into the light. She may never have left the hamlet where she was born, but that little drawn ostrich alone is proof that she was encouraged to travel as far as she could, within her imagination.
Is it too much to hope that we can all learn something from her homework