Blog, education

From School Dropout to University Student…

Francis Close Hall, University of Gloucestershire

This has been quite a year for me. I was not looking forward to my son’s last university open-day of the season on June 29th 2018. I was due to spend the day as his taxi service, sitting around for hours while he tried out sample lectures at the University of Gloucestershire.

Twenty-four hours later I was studying the university’s prospectus myself, and wondering if they’d accept me as an undergraduate on the basis of my handful of mismatched O-levels, and a portfolio of written work. Twelve months later, and I’m looking into topics for my Phd.

Things happened so fast after I discovered UoG accepted mature students that I’ve hardly had time to catch my breath. I’m lucky that my hobby of writing is also my full-time job. The idea of doing a degree in Creative and Critical Writing as part of my continuing personal development really appealed to me.

It’s the chance to read all day and call it work…!

The first piece of good news was that the usual minimum requirement of a degree at 2:1 level or above was waived for mature students. Then I found myself fast-tracked. I had an interview, where it was explained that my publishing history suggested I’d be better off going straight onto the Masters course, rather than doing a first degree. The list of modules looked so interesting I agreed straight away.

It was only on my way home from the interview that I started to worry. I hated the idea of being the oldest student in the place (it turned out I wasn’t—not by about three decades!).

I hadn’t driven in a city rush-hour since I became self-employed, back in the nineteen-nineties. Going back to that would be scary (I got used to it).

Nothing to it! (Pic By Jonas KIM)

The university car park is small. It’s always a case of squeeze in where you can, and I wasn’t a confident parker (Last week, I had to take my son for one of his regular check-ups at Gloucestershire Royal Hospital. The car park was packed and we were heading a procession of cars looking for a space. Suddenly I spotted one, flung the car into reverse and squeezed in with inches to spare. Son No. 1 was impressed. “It’s something else I learned at University!” I told him).

One of my regular lectures didn’t finish until 9:15pm. An hour’s drive home through wintry, pitch-black country lanes really didn’t appeal to me (I got used to that, too).

…except when boar or deer jumped out in front of me!

Somehow, I managed to enjoy my first year of lectures, workshops and assignments at university—and a whole lot more. That surprised me. Part of the reason I became a writer was because I like my own company. Going from an almost silent working life behind a keyboard to the full-on excitement of a campus was nerve-racking. The first time I spoke up in a lecture was scary, but as I had to attend two workshop sessions every week, it soon became second nature.

The more I did, the more I wanted to do. I’ve been interviewed about my job in front of a class of undergraduates, talked to a class of forty first-year students, taken a women’s empowerment course and completed a business start-up weekend. All that gave me the confidence to sign up for extra curricular activities, too. I haven’t been a party person since I got married, but I’ve been to two social events in this past month!

It’s party time!

I’ve got an amazing amount out of signing up as a mature student. I’d recommend it to anybody. It’s given me a whole new lease of life. Why don’t you investigate what’s available in your area? If there’s nothing on offer, try the University of the Third Age, or even the Open University. Blended learning, which is the term given to a mix of online activities, face-to-face lectures and tutorials make learning much more fun than it was when I was a teenager.

I’ve enjoyed all the things I’ve tried, especially the business start-up weekend. That was particularly useful. It’s made me wonder about setting up my own small business. That’s going to take a lot of thought and organisation, so follow this blog and sign up for my newsletter here to find out what happens!

1850-1950, education, Hannah More, Industrial Revolution, Mary Carpenter, Methodists, Slavery Abolition Act, Women's Lives In Bristol

From Slaves To Sisterhood—Women’s Lives In Bristol, 1850-1950

Last Friday morning, I did a couple of hours work on my computer, then drove Son Number One twenty miles to his consultant’s appointment at the hospital. After collecting a bag full of free prescriptions, we came home. He went up to his room to do some private study before his exams, while I went back to work on my current work-in-progress. 
 
None of that would have been possible in the period covered by my current project for Pen and Sword Books, Women’s Lives In Bristol, 1850-1950. I would still be living in the house where I was born—assuming I’d survived the birth of my first child. Without the miracle of medication taken for various health problems since then, I wouldn’t have lasted beyond the age of thirty-five. 
 
The internet, personal transport, antibiotics and many other innovations have changed everyday life so much. Things we take for granted would seem miraculous a hundred years ago. Only a decent lifespan before that, Bristol was famously thriving on the three S’s—Slaves, Smoking and Sugar. Back then those evils weren’t recognised as such,  but revolution was in the air. 
 
When campaigners against the slave trade, including Bristol women Hannah More and Mary Carpenter, inspired the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, it knocked out one cornerstone of the city’s economy. 

The Industrial Revolution came to the rescue. Bristol stopped relying on men and women toiling at piece-work in their own homes, and became an industry-driven metropolis. The Kennet and Avon canal brought in raw materials that weren’t as exotic as tobacco and sugar, but could be turned into products everyone needed, rather than luxuries. The mechanised manufacture of paper, textiles and soap demanded a huge workforce. Large factories sprang up all along the River Avon from St Philip’s Marsh to Bedminster and beyond, employing the latest technology. The smaller, more nimble fingers of women made them the first choice for jobs needing accuracy and speed on production lines and in operating machinery.  
 
Life in Bristol improved—at least for some. A steady stream of  employable labour abandoning poorly-paid seasonal work on the farm came looking for steady, indoor jobs in factories. They settled in the cheapest lodgings. These were damp, disease-ridden courts bordering the River Avon far below the heights of the rich, beautiful Clifton area. Boats heading out from Cork, filled with families   escaping the Irish Potato Famine made the Port of Bristol their first destination. Desperate people make cheap employees. Desperate women and their children are the cheapest labour of all. 
 
Religion came to the rescue of nineteenth-century Bristol. The pioneering Methodist John Wesley’s mission in the city made it a magnet for non-conformists. Like their Anglican contemporaries, Methodist women were subordinate to men, although they were encouraged to take a much more active role in worship. They spread the word, supported the life of their church and played leading roles in education. They were vital to the success of the Sunday School movement, knowing that where children are led, there’s a chance their mothers will follow. 
 
Fry’s—you came for the chocolate, but stayed for the social reform…
With slavery abolished, Mary Carpenter’s Unitarian background drove her to open ragged schools for the poorest of the poor. Later, she created reformatories to train offenders as domestic servants. Great Quaker families such as the Frys and Sturges spent their money improving the minds and conditions of the Bristol poor. Businessmen and entrepreneurs followed the money to the city. Its multiple supply routes by road, rail and water made it easy to import raw materials, and export the finished articles. These men brought their wives and children. Many were non-conformists, who bonded with the local Methodists and Quakers to create a wide network of men and women determined to do good.
 
Knowledge is power. With the introduction of compulsory schooling, and the examples set by intelligent role models such as the Priestman sisters and the Sturge Sisters, Bristol women became unstoppable. Education led to ambition, and the realisation they could find a life beyond overcrowded squalor in the Pithay, or the Dings. 
 
United in optimistic bloody-mindedness, Bristol women fuelled Barton Hill’s Great Western Cotton Mill strike of 1889, created a major hub for suffragette activities, developed a network of cooperative societies, and helped win two world wars with their work on the Home Front. 
 
Individually, they were resourceful, inventive and brave. Cobbler’s daughter Mary Willcocks had a ten-week flirtation with royalty which took her all the way to America before she returned to Bristol, and the life of an honest woman. Pauper Ann Howe exposed institutionalised cruelty at the mighty Bedminster Union Workhouse. Bristol inventor Sarah Guppy showed Isambard Kingdom Brunel where he was going wrong with his initial design for the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Frail, deaf Ada Vachell worked all her life to create opportunities for those even more disabled than she was.

The women of Bristol have proved themselves unbeatable.

 

You can find out more about the inspiring mix of saints and sinners who have called the city their home in my forthcoming book for Pen and Sword, Women’s Lives In Bristol 1850-1950.
 
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