It’s elementary – education.


A recent post reminded me of a 1930 case before The Court of Criminal Appeal that was lodged by a canal boatman convicted of failing to send his children to school. In ruling on the appeal, The Lord Chief justice said: 

“This case is simple but important. The appellant is a married man, having three children residing with him on a pair of barges whilst navigating the Grand Union Canal. He was summoned by the Education Authority of the County of Middlesex for failing to send his children to a school for their elementary education, and for which he was committed”.

The Lord Chief Justice continued his summation with:

“If the prosecution is successful, the defendant’s children will be educated free of charge. The prosecutors, therefore, are wantonly seeking to increase the public expenditure. It is difficult to see why, in the present state of the national finances, the children of a class already too prolific should be educated for nothing.

If a man can afford beer, tobacco, and entertainment, and a weekly contribution to a trade union, he can to contribute some small sum weekly towards the education of his children. The State at one time could well afford to educate them without the assistance of the parents, but it can well afford it no longer, and therefore we must look with particular suspicion on any attempt to increase the burdens of the State in this respect”.

A HIGHWAY LAID WITH WATER. An account of the Grand Junction Canal, 1792 – 1928, with a postscript. By Ian Petticrew and Wendy Austin.

The defendant, a Mr Bloggs, had appealed that his travels up and down the canal made it difficult for him to send children who were constantly in motion to a school which remained stationary, and questioned the Education Authorities’ right to intervene in the private affairs of a family who spent more than half the week in Warwickshire and other counties. Mr Bloggs won his appeal however, by simply asking The Court: “What is Education”?

In confining itself to the issue of ‘What is meant by Elementary Education in the Education Acts’, The Court found that no statute defined ‘elementary education’. The Middlesex Education Authority wished the Court to define ‘elementary education’ as that of reading, writing, and arithmetic, but Mr Bloggs had cogently argued that the words mean education in the elements of any subject which may be useful or necessary to the good citizen in that state of life for which he is destined by Providence, heredity, or inclination.

Mr Bloggs’ children had already acquired the rudiments of their father’s and grandfather’s trade. They could handle boats and navigate canals; steer a boat into a lock, open or close a lock-gate, make bowlines and reef-knots, clove hitches and fisherman’s bends, and to do many other useful and difficult things. The children were healthy, sufficiently fed, well-behaved, and attached to the life of the water. Mr and Mrs Bloggs were instructing them slowly in reading and writing, and albeit reluctantly, in arithmetic.

In concluding The Lord Chief Justice said:

“It may well be that our education authorities exaggerate the value of reading, writing, and arithmetic as aids to citizenship. In these days a person unable to read would be spared the experience of much that is vulgar, depressing, or injurious; a person unable to write will commit neither forgery nor free verse; and a person not well grounded in arithmetic will not engage in betting, speculation, the defalcation of accounts, or avaricious dreams of material wealth.

At any rate it will not be denied that the spread of these three studies has had many evil and dubious consequences. But the practice of navigation is at the bottom of our national prosperity and safety, and has played no small part in the formation of the British character.

The charge against Mr. Bloggs is that he has given his children an elementary training in the arts of this noble profession to the neglect of certain formal studies which are not essential to a virtuous, God-fearing, and useful life in the calling of their forefathers.

They are unable, it is true, to read fluently the accounts of murder trials in the Sunday newspapers; they cannot write their names upon the walls of lavatories and public monuments; they do not understand the calculation of odds or the fluctuations of stocks and shares. But these acquirements may come in time.

Meanwhile, as day by day they travel through the country, the skies and of England are their books, their excellent parents are their newspapers, and the practical problems of navigation are their arithmetic. As for writing, there is too much writing in our country as it is; and it is a satisfaction to contemplate three children who in all probability will never become novelists nor write for the papers.

What is in the mind of the Education Authority, however, is no great matter. The short point in this case is that Parliament does not support them. Parliament has nowhere said that the first essentials of an elementary education are reading, writing, and arithmetic”.

The Court held that Mr. Bloggs, was carefully, lovingly, and without cost to the State equipping his children for a useful career, providing for them an ‘elementary education’ within the meaning of the Acts. He was wrongfully convicted, and the appeal must be allowed. Costs were awarded to Mr. Bloggs, and a lump sum of one hundred pounds by way of compensation for his time and trouble.

Abridged from Rex v Bloggs (What is Education?) by A P Herbert

2 responses to “It’s elementary – education.

  1. Calvin John Mcphee August 26, 2013 at 19:03

    It’s funny how parents find it hard to prioritize their kids’ education when they can afford the unimportant ones. Like what http://www.themontessoriplace.org.uk says, kids can benefit a lot from great education, not just schooling.Thanks for sharing, by the way!

    Like

    • Peter Barnett August 26, 2013 at 20:17

      I hope you realise that A. P. Herbert was writing a parody of ‘Common Law’. Nevertheless he always wrote factually about existing law, he simply parodied how it could be interpreted by the judiciary.

      Like

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