Nostalgia: How home-making school in Dewsbury helped to teach household duties

Some time ago I received a pamphlet from a firm of professional cleaners which promised that in just one hour they could bring my cooker and oven back to a gleaming condition.

Sunday, 22nd August 2021, 5:00 pm
Sweeping the flagstones in front of their house was a daily occupation for houseproud women who also hung their washing on lines strung across the street. This lady was pictured on one of the many streets on the Flatts in Dewsbury, which were all practically identical. But which one is this? Chances are we may never know.

It was a tempting offer and one to which many busy working women would readily succumb because we all know cleaning a dirty oven is the worst job in the house.

But our mums would tell us our cookers wouldn’t get so dirty and wouldn’t take half as long to clean if we’d “kept up” to it and cleaned it regularly.

Our mothers taught us that to keep a house and its contents clean was to “keep up to it” on a regular basis. In other words have a routine.

The houses in which my generation were raised, especially those with cellars, were hard to keep up to and if you didn’t have a “routine” they would soon get on top of you.

With open coal fires in the house and smoking mill chimneys outside, there was soot floating all over the place, and with no labour saving devices to help clear it up, cleaning was non-stop.

House proud women, especially those who went out to work, would rise early and go to bed late to make sure they had time to carry out their household duties.

They knew that if left to itself, a house would quickly degenerate and become full of clutter with dirty washing piling up, not to mention the ironing!

Some women saw running a home as their sole purpose in life, and sad as it may seem today, many got a great deal of satisfaction from it.

Girls like me and my sisters were taught at an early age how to cook and clean, and my mother always urged us to do it with enthusiasm and plenty of “elbow grease”.

They were called household duties because they were seen as “duties” to be carried out dutifully if life and the home were to run smoothly.

My mother believed cleaning a home had to be done with a willing heart or not at all, which meant we had to put our hearts fully into whatever we were doing.

In the early 1900s, educationists were of the same opinion and a movement was started throughout the country urging local authorities to set up what were being called home-making schools.

Dewsbury was one of the first in Yorkshire to set one up but they believed such a school should be run in a house in which people had lived.

For this purpose, they bought a large detached house in Halifax Road, near to Dewsbury Technical School, which could accommodate 30 pupils.

This meant pupils received their education partly in the home-making school and partly at the technical school with two girls each week residing at the home with the headmistress and the assistant mistress.

At this time, more and more girls were leaving school at an early age and going straight to work in the mills and not being trained in what was considered the essential duties of running a household..

The chairman of the technical school committee, Mr W R Thompson, told teachers that because young girls were going straight to work after leaving the elementary schools, they were failing to learn what every woman should know.

They believed that by attending the new home-making school for 20 weeks, girls could learn a great deal that would be of the utmost value to them and their families in later life.

Mr Thompson said 91 per cent of girls who left elementary school would eventually become mistresses of a home, and the comfort and happiness of the people of this country depended upon the good management of its homes.

The Dewsbury education committee believed that buying a house in which people had lived would be the best place in which to teach the girls how to run a home. They should also be taught the virtues of thrift.

Over the years I have received many letters from women who attended the school and most said they had enjoyed it very much.

The girls spent two weeks staying at the house learning to cook and clean, and their work was supervised and monitored by the headmistress of the school who lived at the house.

One letter I received many years ago came from a lady who had lived on the Flatts as a child, and she wrote:

“I went to the school for a week and it was great.

“We learned how to run and keep a home and to cook as well.

“But what I remember most was how they tested us for honesty. They would place money under the rugs, and if anyone found it and didn’t say so, they were for it!

“It was a lovely big house and what they taught us stood us in good stead.

“I for one appreciated it. It put folk on the right track and helped put the world in better shape.”

The photograph above shows a house-proud woman who lived on the Flatts sweeping the flagstones in front of her house, or “flags” as we always called them, something which women did on a daily basis in those days.

They also washed them and scrubbed them, even though people would soon be walking all over them and getting them dirty.

Sweeping and washing the flags and scouring them and even black-leading the cellar grate to make it shine, might seem today to be just making work, but not so in my day.

I have used this picture before because it is one of the few I have of this part of Dewsbury.

I also showed it in the hope that someone might be able to identify which street it was.

Although many people thought they recognised it, no-one could be one hundred per cent sure.

I’m afraid the only person who could tell us would be the lady with the sweeping brush but she never came forward.