Saturday 21 January 2012

In search of Martha Edith Shotbolt

Martha Edith Shotbolt

Martha Edith Shotbolt, always called Edith by her family, was born in the Bedfordshire village of Maulden in 1860. Her forebears, working on the land, had lived there for generations and some who bear her mother’s name, Summerfield, live there still.  Her grandmother had been a lace-maker; her mother was a straw plaiter. The plaiting and dying of wheat straw was an important cottage activity in those parts, processing the raw material of the straw hat industry, centred at nearby Luton.

People tended not to leave Maulden. The rector in Edith’s day, the Rev. Charles Ward, held the living for forty-five years. Perhaps it was he or his wife, Susan, who spotted that Edith was a promising girl, for whom something should be done. Certainly, in 1880, the recently-widowed Mrs Ward wrote a testimonial for Edith which described her life’s progress thus far:

"I have known Martha Edith Shotbolt since she was a child and have every reason to speak well of her. She was in the National School at Maulden first as a pupil, then as a monitor, & finally as pupil-teacher till she left to go to the Training College at Lincoln where she will have been two years next Christmas She has almost always obtained a first place in all her examinations and is now I hear head of the Lincoln College — Her Bible knowledge & Divinity are excellent — and she generally succeeds well in what she undertakes — She is a Church woman and Communicant and a well-principled girl."

I think it is likely that the Wards had encouraged her to make a career of teaching and arranged for her to go to Lincoln Diocesan Training School, an Anglican college, rather than to the nearer training college at Bedford. How did Edith view the prospect of leaving her village? Was she like Ursula Brangwen in The Rainbow who sees teaching as a passport away from her overcrowded home and applies for posts in Kent, in Kingston-on-Thames and Derbyshire, but first has to settle job at a local school before she can get a place at the Training College in Nottingham. If so, did Edith experience the same sense of liberation when she started her teacher training? D.H. Lawrence describes how Ursula felt as she began her course:

It was lovely to pass along the corridor with one’s books in one’s hands, to push the swinging, glass-panelled door, and enter the big room where the first lecture would be given …. Curious joy she had of the lectures. It was a joy to hear the theory of education, there was such freedom and pleasure in ranging over the very stuff of knowledge, and seeing how it moved and lived and had its being. (Ch.xv, ‘The Bitterness of Ecstacy’)

Edith started at Lincoln in January 1879. Her training there lasted two years. As she neared the end of her course, the Principal, Canon Hector Nelson, wrote her a glowing testimonial:
Edith’s testimonial from The Diocesan
Training School, Lincoln

"Miss Edith Shotbolt completes her two years training at Xmas next. She has passed her course here with the highest credit and with irreproachable character — She has uniformly appeared first in the College and government examinations — Her health is excellent. She gives good lessons and can teach well. I will gladly answer any questions very frankly and at the same time I know of nothing wh shd be kept back.Hector Nelson, Principal and Canon of Lincoln"

The college records show that Edith’s first post was back in Bedfordshire, at Cubbington near Leighton Buzzard. But within two years, and in a rather dramatic move, she had gone north to the Girls’ National School in Market Weighton, in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Had any member of her family ever gone so far afield before?  Probably not. But Edith flourished in her new school: an undated report by an HMI Inspector, Mr. J. Tillard, noted that ‘M.E. Shotbolt keeps good order and teaches in an interesting style’. Word of her success reached Lincoln, and the College records were updated:

Went to Market Weighton – did excellent work there – gained her Part. [i.e. her Parchment, giving her the status of a Certificated Teacher] and is married. Now Mrs. Dove.

Indeed she was. Edith had met and married Albert Edward Dove, the school master in charge of the village school in neighbouring Cherry Burton. And by 1891, probably earlier, she was looking after the girls’ division in his school of seventy pupils: another HMI report notes: ‘Cherry Burton: Mrs. Dove renders most efficient aid in this school.’ 

Albert Edward Dove
Edith’s husband was a Yorkshireman, educated at the Great Northern Railway Company’s School in Doncaster. Like Edith, Albert had graduated from pupil to pupil teacher before going to Cheltenham Training College. His first post as a qualified teacher had been at Percy Tynemouth School in Northumberland, and he had moved to Cherry Burton in 1883. Albert was an unusually tall man, at least a foot higher than his wife. In addition to being the village school master, he was the organist of the parish church, and he and Edith were well liked by the parishioners and the Diocesan authorities. When they applied jointly for another post in 1891 (at Rosedale Updale School, near Pickering in the North Riding), one of the Cherry Burton school managers , William Watson, wrote a strong reference for them both: their leaving, he said, ‘will be a great loss to the village’. His own children had been taught by Albert, ‘and it would be impossible for a better teacher to be found. He has the school in capital order and has wonderfully improved it in every way.’ Mr Watson added, ‘Mrs Dove is also a good teacher and I know by what my children tell me that she takes a lively interest in the school.’ At the same time, the York Diocesan Inspector of Schools, Ernest Barry, wrote a second reference: ‘Mrs Dove I knew before she was married. She is a capital teacher and fond of her work.’

The School House, Denton
In the event, they did not go to Pickering. But by 1895 they had moved, south this time, to Denton in Lincolnshire, their home for the rest of their teaching lives. And what a home! They lived in the school house, a large and elegant early Georgian building. Over the doorway was a fine broken pediment bearing the inscription ‘Learn to know God and thyself 1720’; above that, the arms of the Welby family, lords of the local manor. Here their children - Albert, Vincent, Irene and Vera - grew up. Albert joined the Navy, while Vincent and Vera became teachers. A local clergyman, the Rev. Percival Green, proposed to Vera, who turned him down, so (rather like Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice) he proposed to Irene instead. She accepted, and they were married in St. Andrew’s Church. Sir Charles and Lady Welby were guests at the wedding.

The wedding of Edith and Albert’s daughter Irene, 1913.
Albert, Vera and Edith are seated beside the bride.

The journey from Maulden to Denton is only 75 miles up the A1. The distance between the farm labourer’s cottage and the Denton School House (now a Grade II listed building), however, must have seemed immense, especially on that wedding day. Edith’s life, though, remained firmly rooted in her teaching. She published a book: ‘Evans’s Illustrated Object Lesson Book for Infants and Lower Standards by Mrs. A. E. Dove’. This was a handbook for infant school teachers, in effect a series of lesson plans all based on the principle of taking an object or a picture and getting very young children to look closely at everything they see, and then through a series of questions and answers, learning to describe and understand what they saw. Her objects were the plants, animals and household goods familiar to country children: this was very much a countrywoman’s practical view of what village girls would need to know when they became housewives and mothers. A lesson on bees and beeswax for example has a series of very careful outline drawings (done by her husband, Albert) showing the anatomy of a bee; and the questions and answers lead the child to a precise understanding of how a bee gathered pollen and made honey.
Edith’s book

The next lesson moves on to beeswax: the children bring beeswax from home, the teacher produces a piece of honeycomb:

Beeswax is useful for polishing furniture, making wax flowers and fruit, wax dolls and wax candles. It is also useful for waxing thread and bed-ticks. — How do we like to see our chairs and tables look? (Bright, shining.) How do we make them so? (Polish with beeswax.) What else can we polish besides our furniture? (Floors.) What kind of floors may be polished? (Stained floors and oak floors.) Tell the children that often the middle of the floor is covered with carpet, and a border is stained and polished. Tell them also about the polished floors in gentlemen’s houses.

Edith was well aware that many of the girls she taught were destined for life as servants and all of them would hope to become housewives and homemakers, so her object lessons were always practical:

Who has seen a little piece of wax in mother’s work-basket? What does she use it for? (Waxing her thread.) What good does it do? (Make thread go through work easily.) When does she use it? (When making carpets, bed-ticks &c.) Suppose mother has made a new tick for her feather bed, what will she do when she has finished sewing? (Wax the seams on the inside.) What good does that do? (Keeps feathers from coming through.)

Although Edith’s teaching revolved around the lives of infant girls, her own interests extended well beyond the infant school curriculum.  She was a keen gardener and a knowledgeable botanist. She was also a good mathematician, who delighted in setting herself difficult puzzles in algebra and geometry. In the margins of her hand-written recipe book are equations and theorems that were never part of her teaching life: alongside the  ‘economical recipes’ culled from Denton Women’s Institute and detailed planting schemes for the garden of the new home in South London to which she and Albert moved after their retirement, they reveal a mind always active and never narrow. She corresponded with mathematicians on the continent but at the same time never forgot her roots in rural Bedfordshire. When her daughter Vera had to produce a school project, she helped her put together a beautifully illustrated account, with samples, of ‘The Straw Plait Industry’, drawing on her own memories of cottage life in Maulden. Vera herself trained as a teacher of infants at Whiteland’s College (now part of the University of Roehampton) and began her career at Downhills School in Tottenham, a school in the news only last week – trying to resist Michael Gove’s attempts to turn it into an Academy.

Edith died in 1941, the year her granddaughter, Vera’s daughter Doreen Edith, was married to a south London curate called Norman Barlow. Their wartime wedding service was conducted by the same Rev. Percy Green who had once wanted to marry Vera but had had to settle for her sister Irene.

They say teaching runs in families. Edith Shotbolt was my great grandmother; I owe her, in a sense, everything.  If she and Albert had not married, I should not be here to write this account of her now. But I have to admit that until this week, when I uncovered two large packets of old family papers and photographs, I knew almost nothing at all about her. Looking now at the only clear photograph that survives of her, I see her gaze prefiguring a certain look I recognize as my mother’s. And in Albert’s face and balding head, is that almost me I see? Reaching across from my desk to my shelves, I search for, and find, a half-remembered poem by Thomas Hardy:

I am the family face;
Flesh perishes, I live on,
Projecting trait and trace
Through time to times anon,
And leaping from place to place
Over oblivion.                                                (‘Heredity’)

[I am grateful to Mrs Guenver Moyes, archivist at the Sibthorp Library of Bishop Grossteste University College, for kindly supplying information about Edith Shotbolt from the College archives.


  1. Sister in Law of my Great Auntie Emma Richardson of Maulden.. Emma was married to Martha Edith's Brother, Charles Jesse Shotbolt.