Family Patterns Of Social Mobility Through Higher Education In England In The 1930s

Family Patterns Of Social Mobility Through Higher Education In England In The 1930s

Carol Dyhouse


The number of students in English universities rose significantly between 1900 and 1935. Oxford and Cambridge doubled their intake during these years, whilst the number of full-time students in the other nine universities with charters and five university colleges which existed by 1939 more than trebled (Table 1). [1] Contemporaries were conspicuously divided in their judgement about whether this expansion was “a good thing” or not. There was considerable anxiety about the “overproduction” of graduates in a hostile labour market by the later 1930s, with concern about whether this would breed discontent amongst the “overqualified”. [2] The problem of graduate unemployment was widely discussed as a European phenomenon. [3] A smaller proportion of the population in England (as compared with Scotland, Wales, Germany or North America) enjoyed the benefits of a university education, and English observers were not above congratulating themselves on this very limited access to higher education, which they saw as keep ing the problem of graduate unemployment within bounds. [4]

On the other side were those who kept up a chorus of protest against the “waste” of talent, drawing attention to the insuperable social, educational and economic difficulties faced by highly intelligent children from working-class homes who had little chance of continuing their education beyond the elementary school. In Social Progress and Educational Waste (published in 1926), Kenneth Lindsay had estimated that less than 1% of those attending the public elementary schools went on to university. [5] In 1938, Launcelot Hogben’s Political Arithmetic included an essay by David Glass and J. L. Gray on “Opportunity in the Older Universities” which submitted that “there were no grounds for complacency towards the rate at which the older universities are opening their doors to students of the poorer classes.” [6] They referred here to Oxford and Cambridge. There can be no doubt that the “other” universities were less exclusive. Doreen Whiteley’s report for the Sir Richard Stapley Educational Trust in 1933, The Poor Student and the University, adopted a rather more optimistic tone. She found that the university population was becoming “democratised”. [7] The provision of scholarships and public support had improved somewhat since her predecessor, G. S. M. Ellis, had compiled a similar report for the Trust nine years previously. [8] Although there were still grounds for concern (such as the tendency of Local Authorities to replace grants to poorer students by loans, and a continuing lack of scholarships for girls), she emphasised that over half of university entrants benefited from some form of financial assistance aside from family support, and that going to university could certainly no longer be regarded as “the privilege of the well-to-do.” [9]

Insofar as there has been a consensus of opinion in more recent years about the social significance of university expansion in England before 1939, it can probably best be summarised by reference to the work of sociologists, particularly Jean Floud, David Glass and A. H. Halsey, and historians such as Michael Sanderson and R. D. Anderson. [10] It is usually argued that, although the numbers of students from working-class backgrounds going to university increased during this period, they did so less dramatically than did the numbers of those from the middle class. Hence proportionally, the greatest increments of educational and social opportunity afforded by university expansion must be seen as having gone to the “service” class. [11] Oxford and Cambridge, of course, retained many of the characteristics of what Harold Perkin has described as “optional finishing schools for young gentlemen” well after 1939. [12] But both Perkin and Sanderson have suggested that the “other” English universities offered greater opportunities for social mobility. [13] Anderson’s carefully nuanced discussions of this subject have greatly illuminated our awareness of the social differences among Scottish, Welsh and English institutions as well as exploring the relationship between higher education and social elites in Britain. [14] Even so, Anderson has admitted that, “Generalisation about the social role of the English provincial universities is hampered by the absence of systematic information about their students’ backgrounds,” although with some exceptions, “the sources usually describe them as essentially middle class.” [15]

My current research project stems from a belief that our understanding of the social significance of the expansion of university education in the early part of the twentieth century is still rather patchy and incomplete. This paper will introduce empirical material which will clarify our awareness of the social background and experiences of a sample of students (around 500 women and 600 men) who graduated from English universities before the Second World War, and hence contribute to our understanding about why certain families and social groups chose to invest in sending daughters and sons to college. I focus on patterns of social mobility as experienced differently by men and women graduates, both in their family situations and in their working lives. Further, in exploring the question of parental aspirations and support for higher education, I shall highlight some of the ways in which mothers and fathers sometimes nurtured different aspirations for their families, or contributed differently to the educatio nal careers of their children. Education has often been seen as having represented “a central element in the creation and reproduction of cultural capital” amongst the upwardly mobile, and an understanding of the role played by mothers in encouraging their children into higher education may be seen as going some way towards restoring visibility to women in patterns of social mobility in history. [16]

The survey

Before moving on to these themes it is appropriate to give a brief outline of the nature and scope of the research with which I am currently engaged. In 1995 I carried out a survey of the social background, educational careers and life histories of a sample of women who graduated from six English universities or university colleges before 1939. Around 800 four-page questionnaires were distributed to groups of women who had studied at the Universities of Manchester, Bristol and Reading; at University College London, and at Royal Holloway and Bedford Colleges (now amalgamated) of the University of London. This choice of institutions reflected a desire to select different kinds of institution (older and newer foundations, institutions in different parts of the country, mixed as well as single-sex colleges), but equally depended upon the interest and co-operation of Alumni and Development Officers with access to lists of current addresses of former students (Data Protection Legislation bars any simple issuing of lists of addresses, and in each case the questionnaires had to be mailed by the institutions concerned). The rate of response was excellent, with over five-eighths (63.5%) of the questionnaires being returned (see Table 2). [17] Many of the women wrote long letters, or sent pieces of autobiographical writing; even more took the trouble to answer my questions (several of which were open-ended) in elaborate detail.

The data accruing from this study were rich, particularly in affording details about why these women had chosen to go to university, the attitudes of their parents, and the question of finance. These suggested interesting questions (and potentially some answers) relating to the issue of how different social groups had looked upon higher education as an investment, albeit an often costly investment requiring considerable financial sacrifice on the part of parents living through the Depression. However, I became convinced of the fact that it would not be possible to understand the picture fully without collecting similar data for male graduates. My study of women had been made possible by a grant from the Spencer Foundation. In 1998 I was fortunate to receive funding from the Economic and Social Research Council which has allowed me to conduct a similar study focussing upon male graduates.

Collecting similar data from male graduates posed certain problems. Women have a longer life expectancy than men, many male graduates tragically lost their lives in the 1939-45 war, and a gap of three years between contacting the female and the male graduates in the research had a significant impact. Women represented only about one quarter of the student population in the 1930s, but even so, to achieve my goal of collecting a similar number of completed questionnaires from each sex I had to extend the number of universities from six to eight. In the end I distributed 1085 questionnaires to male graduates from the Universities of Manchester, Bristol, Reading, Liverpool and Leeds, from University College London and King’s College, London, and from the former University College of Nottingham. The rate of response (over 53%) was lower than that of the women but still very high, and once again, people were extraordinarily generous, both in their replies and in sending me or directing me to a mass of further info rmation (autobiographies, entries in Who’s Who, correspondence, newspaper articles etc.). A fuller breakdown of the numbers of questionnaires circulated to men and women graduates of the separate institutions, together with those completed and returned, is given in Table 2.

The social background of the graduates surveyed

Doing research with living subjects can sometimes entail being given instructions. One of my respondents (LP69), who had graduated from Liverpool in 1938, directed me with a little note on the back of his questionnaire. “What I hope,” he wrote, “is that you will be able to undermine the myth that only the rich and the ‘posh’ got to a university in the 1930s! This is far from the truth” (this man’s father had been a department supervisor in a factory).

Richard Hoggart, whose background of course was far from being “rich and posh,” “went up” to his local University of Leeds in 1936. In the first volume of his autobiography, published just over half century later, he attempted a social portrait of the student body in Leeds during the 1930s. [18] There had been around 1700 students (two women to every seven men), the great majority of them (1300) being local. The students, he recalled, fell into “three easily identifiable, locally drawn groups”. The first group were unambiguously middle class, the sons of millowners studying textiles in order to take over family businesses; “the gilded youth of West Yorks coming in from the hills each day in two-seater sports coupes,” many of whom were studying medicine. The middle group were less well off but had parents who could either shoulder fees “or find charities which would pay”–the children of parsons, teachers and the like. The third group were “the really local and the poorest”, lower-middle and working class stu dents on scholarships or (more importantly) Board of Education grants for intending teachers. These were the “RSTs” or Recognised Students in Training, who were committed to following their degrees with one year’s teacher training and a certain number of years’ schoolteaching: if they chose not to honour this commitment, they were in danger of being asked to repay their grants. Students in this third group (in which Hoggart numbered himself) had to be economical in their habits, they dressed cheaply, and commuted to the university daily by bus or by tram.

Hoggart’s picture is not dissimilar to that drawn by “Bruce Truscot” in Redbrick University (1943), where the opportunities and lifestyle of the Oxbridge undergraduate are compared with the experience of “Bill Jones” of Redbrick:

Poor Bill Jones! No Hall and Chapel and oak-spotting for him; no invitations to breakfast at the Master’s Lodgings; no hilarious bump suppers or moonlight strolls in romantic quadrangles; no all-night sittings with a congenial group round his own–his very own–fireplace. No: Bill goes off five mornings a week to Redbrick University exactly as he went to Back Street Council School and Drabtown Municipal School for Boys–and he goes on his bicycle, to save the twopenny tramfare. [19]

Truscot’s description goes on in this vein, highlighting the shortcomings of provincial university buildings and facilities (“dirty, sordid” staircases, “grimy” classrooms, etc.) and the depressing prospect facing “Bill Jones” of an evening spent at home in a crowded living room helping sisters with homework and listening to “Dad’s politics” and “Mum’s grievances” when his mind should be thrilling to new worlds. [20] It is difficult to know how to interpret this kind of tone and stereotyping, which sounds uncomfortably patronising today. Even Truscot probably felt that he had been rather carried away by his own rhetoric, adding (rather lamely) a footnote to the effect that “not all Redbrick undergraduates come from these particular varieties of Drabtown school and home”. Many, he conceded came from good schools (though seldom the best) and comfortable homes. Nonetheless, he stoutly maintained that the average student’s background was aptly portrayed by his description. [21]

The problems and pitfalls of trying to categorise according to social class are of course legion. For the purpose of trying to understand more about the social origins of the graduates in my sample I decided to classify according to father’s occupation into seven groups, generally following the schemes devised by John Hall, D. Caradog Jones and Claus Moser in the 1950s. [22] My categories were: (1) Professional and High Administrative, (2) Managerial and Executive, (3) Higher Non-Manual, (4) Lower Non-Manual, (5) Skilled Manual, (6) Semi-Skilled Manual, (7) Unskilled Manual. Where there were particular problems in classifying occupations broadly designated, such as “farmer” or “engineer,” I used what was available in the form of other clues supplied by respondents (such as type of school attended, or details about financial support). Very few of my sample had mothers in regular occupation outside the home; where they did, this information was taken into account, especially of course where mothers were widows , or in the handful of cases where mothers worked in higher-status occupations than did their husbands.

The results of this analysis of social class of origin are given in Table 3. [23] Just over half (54%) of the women and something under half (43%) of the men in my sample were fairly clearly from middle class backgrounds (social classes 1 and 2). The rest, other than those “not given,” were from lower-middle or working class homes. I would suggest that the nature of the occupations represented in class 3 (Higher Non-Manual), including commercial travellers, railway and post office clerks, small shopkeepers etc., justifies their being grouped with the working rather than the secure middle class families in this assessment.

This breakdown by social class background is broadly similar for men and women except for the slightly higher proportion of women from social classes 1 and 2, and the lower proportion from class 6 (the Semi-Skilled Manual group). It is interesting that contemporary observers sometimes suggested that the women students in “civic” universities came from higher social class backgrounds than their male peers. [24] This may be partly explicable in terms of the much higher proportion of men than women who went to Oxford and Cambridge; there is also the consideration that many of the sons of middle class fathers went straight into family businesses. [25]

The information on patterns of schooling provided by this research (and from elsewhere) broadly supports this picture. Whiteley, in 1933, estimated that around 36% of the students admitted to English universities in 1929-30 (excluding Oxford, Cambridge and London) had been scholars at public elementary schools (she gave 10.8% as the comparable proportion for Oxbridge and 15.6% for the University of London). [26] A Report published by the University Grants Committee in 1939 calculated that the proportion of ex-elementary school scholars entering English universities for the first time in 1937-8 (again excluding Oxford, Cambridge and London) was 45.5% [27] My own information on patterns of schooling is far from complete, since many respondents gave details about secondary schools only, but it indicates that at least 47% of the men in the sample, and at least 33% of the women, began their careers in such schools (Table 4).

Vocational aspirations and university choice for men

The questionnaires yielded a huge amount of detail about why people had chosen to go to university, and I shall not attempt anything approaching a full summary here. However, the answers given to questions about goals and aspirations reveal patterns of difference around social class and sex which are pertinent to the theme of this article. To begin with, there was a marked difference between the sexes in the extent to which those going to university recalled having had specific vocational goals. Some 391 (68%) of the men had had clear vocational ambitions when beginning study, and a further 78 indicated less specific vocational goals, making 81% in all (interestingly, this comes close to Brian Simon’s estimate that around 88% of those entering “the modern universities” between the wars had decided upon their occupations before entry [28]). Only 38% of the women in my study indicated that they had had clear vocational goals, although this proportion rises to 51% if we include general vocational aspirations.

Where men indicated specific vocational aspirations these were likely to be in medicine (157 men, 28 women), engineering (67 men, 1 woman), theology (19 men, 0 women), law (21 men, 1 woman) or science (133 men, 96 women). Science is a difficult category because its more applied variants, such as dyeing and colour chemistry or leather technology (both specialisms at Leeds), were effectively male preserves. Women tended to do biology, botany or zoology (I have chosen not to count “domestic science” as science). A breakdown of the subjects studied by those in my sample is given in Table 5.

The costs of studying medicine and engineering were high, and it is not surprising to find that amongst the men, 66% of those who elected for medicine and 52% of those who took engineering sciences had backgrounds in social classes 1 and 2. There was a tendency for sons to follow fathers in these occupations, indeed it was not uncommon for middle class fathers to take an active or even directive role in charting their sons’ careers for them. Christine Heward, in her study of boys at Ellesmere School between 1929 and 1950, found that middle class fathers “managed” and directed their sons’ education through public school with an eye to their careers, and my evidence would support this. [29] Several of the male respondents from middle class backgrounds indicated that “their” choice of subject and university had in fact been their father’s. In more than one case this had unfortunate results: a graduate from Leeds (LS24) confessed that he had gone to university to study engineering because his father “wished it, for prospect reasons”: he had never been comfortable in his career. A graduate from Reading (RD7), the son of a factory manager in Sheffield, recorded that his studies in horticulture had been governed by his father’s plan of “setting him up” with his own nursery. In an age of rather less than formal entry procedures, it was not uncommon for fathers to “have a word” with Professors at the local university about their sons’ prospects, particularly in medicine and engineering. Fathers in social classes 1 and 2 held the purse strings: one graduate from Leeds (LS5) recorded that his father (a wool merchant) had shouldered the cost of nine years of university education for him, whilst he qualified first in dentistry, and subsequently to practice medicine. One man (UCX9), who as a youth nurtured a strong desire to study medicine, found his father strongly opposed: he had offered his son [pound]5000 on condition he abandoned his medical ambitions and went into the family business instead (the son held out, and his f ather “came round” and paid up for medicine).

It was certainly common for middle class fathers to discuss professional opportunities and the state of the job market with their sons. A graduate from Bristol (BR39) remembered that he had decided against following his passion for chemistry at university because his father, an analytical chemist himself, had argued that he “had seen far too many science graduates applying as lab boys, unable to find suitable employment.” His father suggested he do dentistry instead, because there was less overcrowding in that profession. Similarly the son of an engineer (LS90) who wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps took paternal advice about poor employment prospects in the early 1930s and was encouraged to opt for medicine instead (he recorded somewhat ruefully that the demand for engineering graduates was to rise steadily a few years later). Some young men from middle class homes were more independent about their choices, but they were secure in the knowledge that their fathers would support them, especially if th ey were “realistic” in their goals.

In the lower reaches of the middle class, as Hoggart observed of his “middle group” at Leeds, there was much more dependence on grants and scholarships. There were fewer reports of such specific paternal direction from this group. Many men recalled their parents’ cherished ambitions for their sons to gain a foothold in some “professional” occupation with security of employment and an adequate wage. E. L. Haste, the son of a textile designer and “middle manager” in a Bradford mill, financed his studies in civil engineering at Leeds with a local scholarship, and both a grant and a loan from Bradford Corporation. He lived at home throughout his course, involving a daily journey of ten miles each way. Mr Haste recalled his decision-making process thus:

Thinking about my future career it seemed to me that I needed a profession. That meant something like medicine, law, engineering or accountancy. Medicine took too long, accountancy would be unexciting, law too expensive, but engineering fitted nicely. (LS40)

This focus on the advantages of professional employment is very much in evidence when one looks at the explanations given for going to university by men who came from homes lower down the social scale. Here, sons were not unlikely to inherit fathers’ ambitions which had been cut short by financial exigency. James Lightbown, who went on to a distinguished career in analytical chemistry, working particularly on antibiotics, recorded that his father, who had run a small retail pharmacy, had once cherished an ambition to do work in the laboratory of the Government Chemist. However, at the time when Dr Lightbown began his studies in pharmacy at the University of Manchester in the mid 1930s, he recalls that his major preoccupation was that of finding a job with a pension (MC104).

Families who suffered in the Depression of the 1930s were often desperately keen to enable their sons to obtain the qualifications for secure employment, and many men recorded this as their major goal in continuing study. It was not uncommon for respondents to heavily underscore the words “secure job with a pension” in their answers to my question about why they went to university. The answers given to this question included the following:

I saw education as the key to the professions … and thus as a means of escape from the threat of manual or clerical drudgery (UC55, Dr C. Hentschel, father an intermittently employed engraver; modern languages UCL).

I thought H.E. would offer the chance to move from a working class milieu to a professional career (KC31, Mr A. Hall, father a commercial traveller; engineering KCL).

Any youngster in the East End of London during the 20s and 30s knew that the way out of the ghetto came through education. This would lead to a professional career rather than a commercial one … (UC34, Dr A, widowed mother kept a sweet shop; medicine UCL).

… courses leading to professional qualifications were eagerly sought … it was a fact of life in those hard times that people without qualifications worked in dirty blue overalls, doing the unpleasant jobs for a pittance. They were the first to be laid off when times were harder (MC1O3, father a foreman pattemmaker and foundry manager; engineering Manchester)

My working class family were consciously aiming to “better themselves”, socially, educationally and economically. I followed the tradition (NT14, Dr J Weston, father a postal sorting office supervisor, mother headteacher of a small village church school; physics Nottingham).

Many respondents emphasised that higher education had represented the possibility of escape: from the looming threat of unemployment, from poverty, from small village communities, from the prospect of working “on the land or the railway”, “from a miserable Pennine valley and a black future” (LS54, MC14, MC43, MC87, MC88, UC34, UC66). “I continued with higher education to avoid going on the dole”, wrote the son of a post office morse operator who began studying German at Liverpool in 1935: “Unemployment hung before us like a black cloud … my parents were almost fanatical about education … [I] was in a sense forced along the road to university” (LP16).

This respondent indicated somewhat unusually (for the men in my sample) that he had had no clear idea about planning a career when going to university. A grant from the City of Liverpool financed his first year of study. At that point he obtained a grant from the Board of Education for which he had to commit himself to five years’ teaching after graduation. It is clear from the sample as a whole that the sons of families lower down the social scale who were dependent upon these Board of Education scholarships were in the main those who were least clear about their vocational goals. The “pledge” to teach was often made out of strategic compliance, since there appeared no other way of obtaining financial support for study. A graduate in English from Bristol (the son of a semi-skilled workman) recorded:

My desire on leaving school was for Ordination. My Headmaster said “Teach first”. It has to be remembered that in those days the only way to get a grant-aided place at University was to go as an intending teacher. The primary aim of Grammar Schools was … to get as many pupils as possible to University. So many students, including me, became Board of Education proteges without having any burning desire to teach. (BR43)

This man, who taught for a few years and then became a clergymen, spoke for many of the men in my sample, a sizeable number of whom “got out” of teaching as soon as they could. A number did so gratefully with the outbreak of war. But where other sources of financial support were available, the men’s calculations about how their studies would improve career prospects were often very carefully thought through. Mr White, whose father managed a local coal stocking and machine tool business, opted for mining and metallurgy at Leeds. He had wanted to read medicine but family funds could not stretch to this, nor to veterinary science, his second choice. He chose mining at Leeds “because of its wonderful reputation for graduate employment” (LS37). Similarly, LS73, whose father was a chauffeur in the rural South of England, went North to Leeds because “Professor Rowe, in the Dyeing and Colour Chemistry Department, had a reputation for always placing his graduates in very good jobs in industry”.

Vocational aspirations and university choice for women

As was pointed out above, the women in my sample were much less likely to record having had specific vocational ambitions in going to university. Of those who did, a small number aimed at medicine, most of the others recording that their aim was to teach in a grammar school. This raises a number of questions. Janet Howarth’s and Mark Curthoys’ research on women students at Oxford and Cambridge before 1914 led them to suggest the possibility of a “dual market” for women in higher education, a market which encompassed those who sought a degree as a passport to earning a living (most commonly in teaching, since other openings for women were few at the time), but also a group of middle class women seeking knowledge and culture for its own sake, without any real intention of entering the labour market. [30] There was a sense in which this latter group enjoyed more freedom in their choice of subject and curriculum than their male peers, who had to think about their earning potential. [31] However, my own evidence would suggest that any such women were very much in the minority amongst those who attended non-Oxbridge universities between the wars. This is because most of my female respondents emphasised that their somewhat hazy career aspirations had gone hand-in-hand with a sense of pressing urgency about the need to earn a living, and a marked frustration about the lack of openings they remembered being able to envisage as young women.

I began this research expecting to find a pattern of middle class daughters (at least) encountering parental (and most probably paternal) reluctance to their university aspirations, stemming from a conviction that a degree would be “wasted” on a daughter destined for marriage. Indeed, Doreen Whiteley’s explanation of the fall off in the numbers of women going to university between 1924-5 and 1930-1 was that, in addition to the paucity of scholarships available to girls, they “were expected to stand aside in order to allow their brothers to proceed to a further education”, especially during times of hardship. [32] There is of course an important sense in which my sample is unrepresentative, in that it only selects the women who made it to university, and it cannot hope to represent the experience of the numbers who “got away”. There were certainly examples of parental opposition. Mary Corbin, who followed up her BSc in zoology from Bristol with a PhD in marine biology, and who gave her father’s occupation as “landowner”, recorded that her “parents were opposed to my attendance at university throughout my career: science was not considered a suitable subject for a young lady” (BF49). Nonetheless, only about a dozen of my 500 women recorded that their fathers had opposed the idea of their going on to further study, and rather more indicated that their fathers had suggested or even insisted upon it. It was evident that even in many of the better-off families, daughters were subject to economic imperatives: they might be expected to, or needed to earn. Dr Celia Westropp (who graduated from Oxford but as a medical student did her clinical training at King’s College Hospital, London), was the daughter of a banker. Her father willingly shouldered the cost of her medical education, but as she pointed out, she had five siblings, and:

All six of us had to have a training to earn a living, odd in those days, but my father had a widowed mother and unmarried sister to support. (KCF1)

The 28 women who qualified in medicine in my group were (even more conspicuously than the male medics) from middle and upper middle class backgrounds. Again, it was common for such women to follow fathers or other family members who had studied medicine. Unlike the men from affluent homes, some of these women used the language of “escape” that we have observed as characteristic of men from homes lower down the social scale. Here, however, it was the conventions of middle class femininity, rather than the poverty of working class life, that were seen as constricting. One female medical graduate from Bristol, for example, judged that her degree had transformed her life because “it got me out of a humdrum background of looks and clothes and the importance of wearing hats and gloves and using the right fork” (BX1).

A few women gave explicitly feminist reasons for going to university. These included the (smallish) number of those whose mothers were themselves graduates, as well as some girls who had been inspired by teachers conscious of the legacy of the pioneers of girls’ education in Victorian times. Mary Howarth (whose father had been a vicar), who graduated from Reading in 1933 noted that her headmistress had known both Miss Beale and Miss Buss, and that she had insisted “that it was essential for women to obtain degrees so that they could influence policies in a society which was largely male dominated in the late 1920s” (RF9). Rosie Bentham (UCF41), the daughter of the managing director of an engineering firm in Manchester, went to UCL to read geography with “strong support” from her family who believed that women should be educated “for the opportunity of independence as opposed to marriage” (she herself never married). “My mother was a suffragette manquee”, wrote Joan Venn (BSc), “and she wished me very much to go to Bedford–the oldest women’s college” (BD9).

Women from families lower down the social scale gave reasons for going to university which were in essence very similar to those given by men from similar backgrounds. Even though their career aspirations were less focussed, the economic imperative of escaping from unemployment, rural communities and lowly prospects in the labour market preponderated. Going to university (Manchester) “set me free from the everyday grind of my parents’ life” wrote one woman, whose father had been a weaver, whilst her mother did part-time cleaning to help with the family wage (MF11). Mrs Reid, whose father was a market gardener and whose mother ran a small greengrocery business, pieced together several scholarships to enable her to go from Kent to study French in Manchester. “I had no idea what higher education could offer me”, she wrote, “and no career plans–apart from a determination not to go ‘into service'” (MF115).

Women frequently recorded that they “had always wanted to teach”; others had the choice pushed upon them. “From the time I could speak I was told I wanted to be a teacher”, wrote Ella Day (BSc Manchester), “To my parents, poor and working class, it was the only way to lift us into a better life” (MF130). “I could not have gone to university without teacher training grants” pointed out another Manchester woman graduate, “so there was no choice of profession” (MF46). Nellie Goldie (whose father was a grocers assistant) studied mathematics at Royal Holloway: “It was assumed that I would teach”, she remembered, “but I dreaded the idea. I did not know what other career was open to a mathematics enthusiast at that time” (RH4). “Career planned by receiving Board of Education grant, without much enthusiasm on my part,” wrote another Royal Holloway woman (RH43). A long list of women confessed having had early ambitions to be something other than a teacher: a diplomat, a solicitor, a research chemist, business manager , veterinary surgeon, etc. Annie Parris (then Poulter) recorded that when she was sixteen years old, her father had told her that “now women had the vote, we could take any career we wished”. “Little did he know!” she added ruefully. Her father (a senior accountant with a shipping company) had “insisted” she get a degree, and Miss Poulter went to Reading to read agriculture. She graduated with a first in Agricultural Botany in 1929, then “discovered that there were no jobs in agriculture for any of the women graduates” (RF1).

Patterns of family support: women

Given that opportunities for women in professional work other than teaching were still very limited in the 1930s, it was something of an act of faith for middle class fathers to invest in their daughters’ education with confidence that this would “pay off”. However, many fathers still chose to make the investment. Miss B (BF10), whose father was secretary and general manager of a small company, told me that, although she herself thought she would probably end up teaching history in a secondary school, her father had discouraged her from applying for a Board of Education grant and decided to pay for her years at Bristol himself, because he wanted to leave her free for other kinds of work if she could find an alternative to schoolteaching (she ended up teaching because nothing else presented itself). Similarly, Dora Crouch (BD34), whose father ran a jewellery business, recorded that her family had paid up for her education at Bedford (with some sacrifice) because “they did not want me to ‘pledge’ to teach as t hey thought other opportunities might open up” (Miss Crouch ended up as a schoolteacher, too). In further support, legacies from grandparents and subsidies from godparents or wider kin were certainly not uncommon. Unmarried aunts and sisters featured as particularly important in the network of family provision. But here I want to look more closely at the role of mothers, first for daughters and then for sons.

Dr C, who qualified in medicine at Bristol just before the war, emphasised that “all the menfolk in my family [were] totally behind the higher education of their womenfolk,” but at the same time she paid tribute to the strong encouragement she had received from her mother in going to university, adding that:

My mother’s mother, born in Carmarthenshire in the 1850s, was left a widow in 1886 with two daughters and three sons. She devoted her energies to ensuring a career to the two sisters, and left the sons to find their own way in the world.

According to my own mother, this splendid lady said “boys will always survive, girls won’t unless they have an education and a career”. Both became teachers, and carried on preaching the gospel of education for girls. I believe I owe this grandmother a very great deal. (BF67)

It is interesting that a much greater proportion of the women in my sample (72%, as compared with only 46% of men) mentioned strong parental encouragement to go on to further study after leaving school. This may reflect the fact that higher education was less of a common choice for girls than for boys, who took parental support more for granted. The authors of some recent studies of social mobility have suggested that mothers may have a stronger influence on daughters’ educational ambitions and career aspirations than fathers, who have correspondingly more influence on their sons. [33] As R. L. Miller and B. C. Hayes ayes have pointed out, this idea of the influence of the same sex parent on children’s occupational aspirations would be congruent with role modelling or socialization theory. [34] As was indicated above, few of the graduates in my sample had mothers who were in regular employment outside the home at the time when they went to university, and there is little indication that many of these mothers had financial resources of their own. Mrs Gibson (nee Morrell), who studied English at Royal Holloway just before the war, was the daughter of an engineer. She recorded that when her mother (a housewife) inherited some money from her own parents she immediately earmarked this to pay for her daughter’s university tuition (RH12).

Only two of the women graduates suggested that their mothers had opposed the idea of their going to university. The story in the main was one of strong motherly support and backing. In those cases where middle class fathers were sceptical about the value of sending daughters to university, mothers might intervene. Marjorie Morrell (mentioned above) remembered that her mother had had to persuade her father that a girl had as much right to a full education as a boy (“The suffragettes, and Ibsen’s plays, were often discussed in my mother’s family … ” ). But even where mothers had had little education themselves, their support for their daughters was strongly evident. Lillian Kay, whose mother (aged 62 at the time that Lillian went to Bedford) “had never heard of universities”, recalled that her mother had been enthusiastic about her daughter attaining qualifications in the hope that she “would not have to work as hard as she had done” (BD68). Many women recorded that their mothers had resorted to taking in lo dgers, or to accepting cleaning jobs, in order to manage the expenses of their university education.

According to figures published in a University Grants Committee report just before the war, around 50% of university students lived at home: for various reasons the proportion of women living in halls or hostels was higher than that that of men. [35] Around 43% of the women in my sample and 63% of the men recorded that they had lived at home whilst studying. Mothers, as household managers, played a role in contributing to this indirect cost of higher education, and their small domestic economies and casual part-time earnings might be very important. Daughters were more likely to be expected to contribute to household duties than sons, and a few women mentioned that they had turned down opportunities to study away from home because they felt it necessary to help their families. Gender-specific expectations were also reflected in the testimony of a man who remembered that, even when studying away from home, he was able to “economise” on expenditure by parcelling his laundry up and sending it home: his mother w ould post back clean linen at the end of the week (KC55).

Patterns of family support: men

Maternal support and sacrifice was a common theme in the experience of the male graduates. The range of ways in which mothers managed to provide material as well as moral support was wide. There were examples of mothers who iced cakes, kept chickens, and (as with the women graduates) took in laundry and lodgers to help with finance. One mother became a cook in the Hall of Residence in which her son was living (RD18). Another made ice-cream in her backyard) and set up a small business selling tea and sandwiches to the village policemen in order to eke out resources (LS1). Some mothers who had left teaching on marriage were often in the comparatively fortunate position of being able to return to work in order to temporarily boost income: Mr D, who studied engineering at King’s, remembered that his mother had worked as a supply teacher in order to be able to send him [pound]2 10s per week in her weekly letter whilst he was at College (KC55). Widows–whether middle or working class–often had to be particularly resourceful. A male graduate from Leeds described how his widowed mother had rented a house near the university in order to provide a base for her four sons to study for professional careers (LS72). Another widow moved in as housekeeper to her unmarried sister (who did research in dairying in Shinfield), who in turn paid for her nephew’s education at Reading University (RD16) (the nephew became a distinguished professor of geology). Mr A. Vines (BSc botany, Bristol) recorded that his mother’s pension as a war widow had been just under [pound]2 per week. She had taken on domestic work (for around [pound]1 per week) to help support him in full-time education (BF21). Dr W. Parker, who graduated from Manchester in 1936, explained how, when his father (a pharmacist) had died whilst he was a student, his “ambition to qualify in medicine had crashed”. His mother responded, “if you are game, I am–I will take a pub to qualify you,” and so she did (MF71).

There were many stories of this kind. This picture of mothers pulling out all stops to support their sons, particularly, raises interesting questions about women’s role in facilitating social mobility through education in this period. Although the evidence from this research supports the picture drawn by Christine Heward’s work on the role of middle class fathers and their sons, it suggests that for young men from families lower down the social scale it was mothers rather than fathers who often played a decisive role. [36] There were several cases where fathers had wanted their boys to take up jobs on leaving school and were reportedly very anxious and uneasy about the cost of sending their sons to college. Professor G. H. Arthur, who graduated from Liverpool in veterinary science in 1939, remembered that his father, a farmer, was less than happy about his son’s ambitions because he felt insecure about financing five years at college at a time of severe depression in farming. It had been his mother who encou raged his plans (LP56). Dr E (MC91), who read English at Manchester, was the son of a greengrocer’s assistant and a former domestic servant: he emphasised that it had been his mother’s determination that at least one of her children “should have a fair chance in life”. Edgar Scholey (BSc Leeds, 1936), whose father was a teacher, remembered that it had been his mother who had borrowed the money to send him to university (LS79). Ken Millins, whose father worked as a toll clerk for the Grand Union Canal, went to the University of Reading with maternal encouragement and support. His father had been keener that he should take up the opportunity of a traineeship with Price Waterhouse, though “he was not obstructive in any way” (RD18). It is not difficult to appreciate why many working class (and indeed lower middle class) fathers were anxious about cost: the son of an accounts clerk who graduated from King’s in the early 1930s pointed out that tuition fees alone absorbed a third of his father’s annual income (KC33) .

Dr F (medicine, Leeds, 1939) was the son of a wholesale fruit merchant. His mother (who had never worked outside the home) “was very ambitious for her children.” In her view “doctors, schoolmasters, bank managers and parsons were all respected members of the community” and she was determined that her son should join them (LS65). Similarly, the son of a builder and former seamstress (LS66) recalled that, although both of his parents had supported his decision to read physics at Leeds, it was his mother who was particularly determined to “give me a stable career, which no-one could touch” (this son went on to become a distinguished physicist). John Copley’s father was a music teacher. Both of his parents were ambitious for their son’s education (he graduated from Leeds with a first class degree in English in 1938) (LS22). However it was his mother’s outlook which had shaped “family policy”: an (uncertificated) teacher herself before marriage, Alice Copley’s view of the world was structured by a sharp division between those who were “qualified” and those who were not. [37] This was the ultimate class distinction, and there was no doubt in her mind about which side of the fence her son would end up on.

There were numerous stories of this kind. “I have appreciated the opportunity to fill in this questionnaire”, wrote one of my respondents, “it provides me with a chance to pay tribute to my widowed mother, who toiled away as a school cook to make it all possible” (KC41). I am well aware of the dangers of sentimentalising the role of working class mothers and of feminist critiques of the representations of self-sacrificing but all-powerful mothers which feature in so many (male) working class autobiographies and life histories of the period. [35] However, my observations are in accordance with those accounts of mothers’ role and agency in educational matters, found in surveys such as that of Jackson and Marsden earlier in this century. [39] I would submit that mothers often played an important part in mediating between two class-based forms of masculinity between the wars. As more traditional, work-based forms of masculinity tied up with apprenticeship, skill and regular wages were increasingly under threat a nd undermined by economic depression, the prospect of acquiring “qualifications” through a longer period of study and material dependency on the family looked like a more sensible investment. Working class fathers might find themselves less well placed to act as role models for their sons, and it was here that their wives’ motherly aspirations for their boys, not to mention these women’s diplomacy and resourcefulness in negotiating agreement about expenditure on higher education, often came into focus.

In a very large number of cases, the decision to support a daughter or a son through college was ultimately a family decision, and one which was discussed among parents, children, and sometimes grandparents, uncles, aunts and wider kin. In a period in which unemployment and its attendant hardships put families under considerable strain, networks of economic dependence on extended families often came into play. Dr John Tearle (who studied physics at Nottingham), remembered very well the complex process of decision-making which had gone on his family during the depression. His father, an aerial ropeway engineer, had been unemployed through most of the period 1929-1934. His mother had been an uncertificated schooteacher in her youth, although she had been obliged to resign on marriage. There were five clever children in the family.

We fell upon hard times in the late 1920s, when my sisters and I were all at the only grammar school in the city of Nottingham … Contracts for work in our father’s field dried up, and it is not surprising that he thought that education beyond 14 was a luxury we could not afford, but our mother refused to give up and went back to work as a supply teacher. Father found occasional work beneath his capabilities, and life on the dole and National Assistance was degrading for him; and being dependent on a wife at work was alien to the culture of the times.

It is impossible for anyone who has not lived through those years to appreciate how bleak the Depression was for the unemployed. But we knew that the only way out of poverty was to take our education as far as we could. My elder sister and I were usually at or near the top of our forms, and didn’t need any spur to succeed. (NT15)

John Tearle obtained a place at Imperial College, London, but could not afford to take it up. Instead, he made superhuman (but successful) attempts to piece together scholarships which would enable him to study at his local university college. He obtained a college scholarship of [pound]25, a Hayward scholarship ([pound]25), a further [pound]25 from the Nottingham o-operative Society, and a charitable scholarship of [pound]10 intended for “the poor of the City of Nottingham.” His sister, a gifted mathematician, was urged by her teachers to try for Oxbridge. The family discussed this, but it was effectively out of the question financially. There were grants available for teacher training, and Anne opted for this path in order to allow other siblings their chance. “I wanted to teach, anyway,” she told me. [40]

Dr G (MC119), whose father had worked as a railway signalman, had never wanted to do anything but study medicine. He recalled vividly how, two weeks before he was due to embark upon the medical course in Manchester, his father had lost both his job and his pension. His parents could not see how they could afford to support him. However “My teachers and my sister, newly qualified to teach, made it possible. Everyone in the family rallied round.” Mr H, who studied dyeing and colour chemistry at Leeds with the help of a Clothworker’s scholarship from his school in Gloucestershire, indicated that his parents had had no money to spare (his father was a chauffeur). Help with maintenance came from his grandmother who worked as a laundress and sent him 10 shillings or what she could afford every week (LS73). Family support generated a strong sense of reciprocal obligation. Many of my graduates emphasised that they had been acutely aware of the extent of parental sacrifice which made their education possible, and the y regarded this as a debt which they were determined to repay.

Did university education pay?

To what extent did family investment in higher education “pay”? The benefits of a university education are of course notoriously difficult to isolate and to measure, and here I shall confine myself to some fairly preliminary assessments of “outcomes.” A whole range of factors came into play in influencing the course of the careers followed by the graduates in this sample. Many–even a majority–of the men suggested that their experiences of National Service during wartime were probably as important as their university training in shaping their careers, and a very large number indicated that, although their degrees had secured them an entree into certain jobs and professions, any subsequent “successes” called for more complex explanation. One fairly crude estimation of social mobility can be arrived at by comparing social class of origin with that of destination. We have seen that only 43% of the men in my sample were from social backgrounds unambiguously classified as social classes 1 and 2. In comparison, a ll these male graduates, whatever their origins, ended up in jobs that would clearly locate them in these top classes. There was only one case in which 1 entertained some doubt about this, that of a man who had trained as a teacher but who had never managed to secure a post in a grammar school. After a spell in elementary schools he had turned to supply teaching, but had then given up and set himself up in a small laundrette which he ran until retirement at 70 years of age.

There were numerous stories of quite dramatic upward social mobility, a subject upon which many of the men in my sample chose to reflect. Dr Tearle, whose description of the hardships endured by his family in Nottingham between the wars was quoted above, mused upon the fact that, by the time that his own children reached university age, his income was such that their entitlement to grants was limited to the [pound]50 minimum which then applied. Another man (UC56), who vividly described the poverty of his family background in the 1930s (his father, a chauffeur mechanic, had suffered a physical breakdown through overwork and anxiety, and his mother had been a seamstress who “had turned to hairdressing”), read physics at UCL. After a very successful career in the Patent Office he reflected poignantly on the contrast between his own material circumstances in old age (he pointed out to me that as a pensioner, he was still subject to higher-rate income tax) and that of his parents. This was no isolated example by any means: many male graduates from poor and modest backgrounds undoubtedly became wealthy men, and it would be fairly safe to conclude that all or most of the men in my sample were enjoying reasonable comfort in their retirement. One indication of this was the frequency with which they emphasised the pleasure of being able to contribute to the cost of their grandchildren’s careers at university.

The picture was far less clear for the women graduates, 67% of whom married. Unmarried women who remained in employment were mainly in teaching. A substantial proportion of this group remained in classroom teaching until retirement. This was extremely rare amongst the men: most of the men who had originally started out as classroom teachers either became headmasters, or they left schoolteaching for lectureships in higher or further education, or for posts in educational administration. In sharp contrast to the men, a number of the unmarried women graduates who had stayed in schoolteaching confessed to some anxiety about their economic circumstances. One particularly moving account came from a woman who was currently living as a spinster in her late 80s in a nursing home. She had spent much of her life supporting a widowed, invalid mother, and was anxious about whether her pension would “hold out” to cover her cost of living in a home for very much longer (RF18). Again, this was no isolated example. As gradua te teachers, who had mainly (although not wholly) been employed for a large part of their careers in grammar schools, I decided to categorise single women teachers in social classes 1 and 2. Graduate teachers retained a higher social status than non-graduates, a distinction which had been particularly marked in the 1930s, but persisted after the war and through the extensions of secondary education which followed the Butler Education Act. However, there is no doubt that the economic position and earning capacity of the graduate women teachers in my sample remained conspicuously below that of the men.

Where women married, there is the question of whether and to what extent their social class position should be seen as deriving from that of their husbands. The fact that women’s employment histories after marriage were commonly intermittent, chequered and part-time, makes for problems. Where they were widowed early (not uncommon in my sample, not least on account of the war), or where marriages broke up (relatively uncommon in my group), women clearly experienced dramatic changes in their social and economic position. Hardly surprisingly, those women in my sample who fell into these two groups were amongst those who were most likely to have considered that their graduate status had represented “a lifeline.”

The question of whether a university education was “wasted” on a woman was much debated in the 1950s. Research carried out by Judith Hubback, originally published as a Political and Economic Planning study, Graduate Wives, in 1954, and subsequently as a book, Wives Who Went to College (1957), purported to show that it wasn’t. [41] These publications generated a lively and voluminous correspondence in the press at the time, much of which centred around Hubback’s emphasis that the popular stereotype of the woman graduate as a bluestockinged spinster was no longer pertinent in an age when three-quarters of graduate women were likely to marry. Her finding that just over half of her sample of 1165 married women graduates were at the time involved in full-time or part-time employment tended to get lost in the welter of jocular remarks about marriageability and horn-rimmed spectacles, much relished by the popular press of the day. [42]

Hubback’s sample comprised graduate women of different age groups, whereas my own, focussed on graduates mainly in their 80s, was made up of women looking back on their full life histories of family and career. Nevertheless, some of the findings are similar. The fact that two-thirds rather than three-quarters of the women in ray group married probably reflects the inclusion of Royal Holloway in my sample, since (like Hubback) I found that 36% of women graduates indicated that they met their marriage partners at university, and women who studied at this all-female, rather isolated college in Egham during the period had manifestly fewer chances of socialising with the opposite sex than did women in more coeducational settings (only 60% of the Royal Holloway women married, and none of these met their spouse at university). A not insignificant number of women (and some of the men) judged that one of the benefits of going to university was that it had widened their choice of marriage partner. It is hard to escape surmising that for many of the women (unlike the men) this offered more opportunities for upward social mobility than those otherwise available through educational achievement in a gendered labour market. [43]

Although it is extremely difficult to summarise the information about women’s employment histories that the questionnaires yielded, around 51% of the women graduates appear to have stayed in paid employment more or less continuously until retirement. Prominent amongst this group were, of course, the 33% of women who never married, many of those who married but remained childless, many of the women doctors, and some of the teachers. Around 36% of the sample “took time off” for childrearing, returning to employment later on a full- or part-time basis. Around 12% seem to have given up paid employment permanently either on marrying, or after the birth of a first child. Less than 1% of the sample indicated that they had never taken up paid employment after graduation. My questions about work elicited long and detailed answers from women, and they were commonly troubled, defensive, or somewhat polemical in tone. They ranged from the explicitly feminist (the graduate from Royal Holloway (RH58) who remembered the jo y of securing a job as a book reviewer, “I was more than just a housewife and Mum. I was a real person”) to its assertive antithesis (“I did not work ever again, thank God. Too busy looking after my family and enjoying doing so. Consider this a woman’s most privileged job” (RF13)). The quality of this evidence richly illustrates the controversial status of married women’s work after the war and well into the second half of the twentieth century. Very few of the graduate women, even among those who remained single and in paid work throughout their lives, replied to my questions about employment as did a large proportion of the men, namely by simply attaching CVs.

All in all the attempt to classify women according to social class proved frustratingly difficult. If one assumes that women who remained married could be classified largely according to their husbands’ occupations then almost all of this group would realistically fall into social classes 1 and 2. Ranking according to the women’s occupations, where married women were involved in full- or part-time employment would produce a very different picture, and such a picture would never come into clear focus because of the chequered quality of women’s working lives, and particularly their tendency to take jobs at very different levels of status and remuneration at different points of their life cycle. However, widowhood and old age could and did entail a dramatic downward turn in social circumstances for the women who had married: there were many stories from women who had had to take secretarial and clerical-administrative jobs well below the level that their graduate status might be thought to have qualified them f or when their husbands had died. When husbands died young, and wives were left with small children to support, the situation was particularly difficult. The general pattern amongst those in my sample who had fallen into this category had been to attempt to return to teaching, falling back upon kinship networks (particularly their own mothers) for help with childcare. The complaint that few of the jobs which were available to women paid sufficient for childcare or household assistance was near universal.

It would be difficult to escape the conclusion that graduate status came nowhere near to providing the clear economic and social advantages for women that it did for men. The majority of the women in this study indicated that they had gone to university for economic reasons: they had wanted to improve their earning capacity, and they wanted better jobs. That their vocational ambitions tended to less specific than their male counterparts probably reflected an all-too-realistic perception of the lack of openings for women outside teaching at the time. Although the majority of women married, only around 12% of the sample abandoned paid employment altogether thereafter. The advantages that the possession of a degree brought to men were significantly undermined in the case of women, married and unmarried, by a hostile, gendered labour market.

In an article which appeared under the title of “Labour Lost by Love” in The Economist in June 1954, an anonymous reviewer of Judith Hubback’s work concluded that

From the economic point of view, money spent on a girl’s education is a long term investment, and the material dividends are often paid in invisible ways, and may, it must be faced, be very small. But that is no argument against university education for women. Quite apart from the point that she may need a career, it is the undeniable human right of the able girl that her mind should have the opportunity to develop no less than that of the able boy. [44]

Questions about the ways in which, and the extent to which education confers earning power have long intrigued economists. In The Inequality of Pay (1977), Henry Phelps Brown emphasised that certain forms of training, such as in medicine, were a necessary condition for entry into certain occupations and could therefore be regarded as an investment (as in human capital theory). [45] However by no means all forms of higher education could be regarded as falling into this category: they might be necessary but not sufficient conditions of incremental earning capacity, and hence they might be seen, he suggested, as “a road and not a bus.” For many of the middle class men in this study who read medicine, science and engineering, their education was a bus. For men from families lower down the social scale it was sometimes a bus to schoolteaching, but they were soon on the road to higher things. The few women who did medicine managed to squeeze themselves on to a bus, although there was much more room on those that led to to the school gates–often the end of the line. For the rest of the women, graduating from a university can probably best be seen as starting out on a long, slow road to an uncertain destination.


This paper has suggested that mothers as well as fathers played an important role in family decisions about whether to encourage and support children through higher education. Very few of the mothers of the graduates in my sample had had the benefit of a university education; indeed for many of them, schooling had ended at fourteen. However, these mothers’ ambitions for their children’s education as a route to social betterment might be at least as powerful as fathers, and sometimes more so. In middle class families, fathers were likely to take the lead in decisions about their sons’ education and careers. Lower down the social scale it is striking that mothers often played a more decisive role. The evidence suggests that middle class fathers, as well as mothers, might encourage and influence daughters, and that there was little difference between fathers and mothers in their support for girls going to university in families lower down the social scale.

There can be little doubt of the fact that those male graduates in my sample whose family backgrounds were working or lower middle class experienced upward social mobility during their lifetimes: they themselves were very conscious of this. The question of whether parental investment in a daughter’s education “paid off” in this period is more complex. It certainly did so in terms of personal and cultural enrichment. A very large number of the women in my sample judged that their education had “made all the difference in the world” to their lives. The occupational and economic benefits for women, and outcomes in terms of their own social betterment, were somewhat less clear. However, social mobility has to be seen as an inter-generational as well as a lifetime process. There is no reason for supposing that graduate mothers were any the less ambitious for their children’s success than their own mothers had been for theirs. Indeed, amongst the women graduates, one of the most commonly perceived benefits of high er education was that they felt able to support and encourage the education of their own children. This idea of “cultural capital” bequeathed to the next generation lies at the root of perceptions of the demand for higher education as spreading like a “virus” or “infection” in society, or as “snowballing” through successive generations of the population. [46] One woman (BF73) who graduated from Bristol before the war reflected that, “More than anything, I feel that our degrees set the tone for the education of our children,” and concluded that “if our success is to be measured by theirs, then we did reasonably well.”

Abstract: Carol Dyhouse, “Family Patterns of Social Mobility through Higher Education in England in the 1930s”

The paper examines the role of higher education in producing social mobility in England in the 1930s. The data result from large-scale surveys of graduates of a number of non-Oxbridge universities and university colleges in those years, chosen to get a mix of circumstances. A higher proportion of women than men appeared to come from middle class backgrounds, partly because of the exclusion of Oxbridge. Men appeared to have stronger career aspirations than women, targeting professional careers partly as an escape from the conditions of the 1930s Depression. Yet most women saw their university education as linked to a need to earn a living, though teaching was the main prospect. The view of certain sociologists that fathers supported sons and mothers supported daughters has some substance, but mothers were also important support for sons, especially from lower classes. Upward social mobility occurred for virtually all men, but the pay-off to women from university education was more ambiguous, and often rested o n the university as a place for meeting their spouse. Probably the main effect for women was a ‘snowballing’ of encouragement to their offspring to attend university, through successive generations of women.


I am grateful to the ESRC for a grant in support of my project on “The Value of a University Education as Perceived by Students and their Families before the War” (award reference no: R 000237596). My thanks, also, to the Spencer Foundation whose grant in support of my work on women in British universities from 1993-5 allowed me to carry out the survey on women graduates. This research would not have been possible without the cooperation of Alumni and Development Officers in the universities concerned, all of whom were generous with their time and support. Professor G N von Tunzelmann gave indispensable help with statistics. Obviously, all responsibility for material presented here remains my own.

(1.) England’s nine “other” universities, with the dates of their charters were: Birmingham (1900), Bristol (1909), Durham (1832), Leeds (1904), Liverpool (1903), London (1836), Manchester (1903), Reading (1926) and Sheffield (1905). The University Colleges, with their dates of foundation, were Exeter (1901), Hull (1926), Leicester (1922), Nottingham (1903) and Southampton (1905). For total numbers of full-time students, see Table 1.

(2.) W.H.G. Armytage, “Flexner to Truscot: The Stocktaking Phase of Civic University Development, 1930-1944,” Universities Review 26 (1953): 5-6.

(3.) W. A. Kotschnig, Unemployment in the Learned Professions: An International Study of Occupational and Educational Planning (London, 1937).

(4.) Kotschnig, Unemployment in the Learned Professions, 121; Armytage, “Flexner to Truscot,” 6.

(5.) K. Lindsay, Social Progress and Educational Waste: Being a Study of the ‘Free Place’ and Scholarship System (London, 1926), 193.

(6.) D. V. Glass and J. L. Gray, “Opportunity and the Older Universities,” in Political Arithmetic, a Symposium of Population Studies, edited by L. Hogben (London, 1938), 419.

(7.) L. D. Whiteley, The Poor Student and the University; A Report on the Scholarship System (London, 1933), 19.

(8.) G.S.M. Ellis, The Poor Student and the University; A Report on the Scholarship System, with particular reference to Awards made by Local Educational Authorities (London, 1925).

(9.) Whiteley, The Poor Student, 23-25, 78, 30. Whiteley was critical of the idea of student loans on the grounds that those Local Authorites offering them were ignoring their “duties of providing equal opportunities to all classes of able students, accepting the less costly and less glorious role of money-lender” (p. 78).

(10.) J. Floud, “The Educational Experience of the Adult Population of England and Wales as at July 1949,” in Social Mobility in Britain, edited by D. V. Glass (London, 1954), esp. 112-16; A. H. Halsey, A. F. Heath and J. M. Ridge (eds.), Origins and Destinations, Family, Class and Education in Modern Britain (Oxford, 1980), 181-9, 206; M. Sanderson, Educational Opportunity and Social Change in England (London, 1987), 42; R. D. Anderson, Universities and Elites in Britain since 1800 (Basingstoke and London, 1992), 47-58.

(11.) Halsey et al., Origins and Destinations, 206.

(12.) Anderson, Universities and Elites, 53; H. Perkin, “The Pattern of Social Transformation in England”, in The Transformation of Higher Learning, 1860-1930: Expansion, Diversification, Social Opening and Professionalisation in England, Germany, Russia and the United States, edited by K. H. Jarausch (Chicago, 1983), 218.

(13.) H. Perkin, The Rise of Professional Society: England since 1800 (London, 1989), 248-50; M. Sanderson, The Universities in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1975), 20; M. Sanderson, The Universities and British Industry, 1850-1970 (London, 1972), 98-9.

(14.) Anderson, Universities and Elites; see also the same author’s Education and Opportunity in Victorian Scotland, Schools and Universities (Oxford, 1983).

(15.) R. D. Anderson, “Universities and Elites in Modern Britain,” History of Universities, 10 (1991): 238.

(16.) The quotation is from R. Crompton, Class and Stratification; An Introduction to Current Debates (Cambridge, 1998), 205; see also A. Witz, “Gender and Service Class Formation” in Social Change and the Middle Classes, edited by T. Butler and M. Savage (London, 1995), 45.

(17.) Some replies came in a long time later, and were not included in the response rates, though some of their interesting comments are included in the discussion below.

(18.) R. Hoggart, A Local Habitation (Life and Times, Vol 1:1918-1940) (London, 1988), 184-5.

(19.) “B. Truscot” (E. Allison Peers), Red brick University (London, 1943), 21.

(20.) Ibid., 20.

(21.) Ibid., note 1, 20.

(22.) J. Hall and D. Caradog Jones, “The Social Grading of Occupations,” British Journal of Sociology, 1/1 (1950). See also C. A. Moser and J. Hall, “The Social Grading of Occupations” in Social Mobility in Britain, edited by D. V. Glass (London, 1954).

(23.) Differences between universities are also interesting, though there is no space to take them up here. A fuller exposition is given in a companion paper.

(24.) Truscot, Redbrick University, 20, note 1. There are no women from Nottingham in my sample, which may distort the picture, as Nottingham men come disproportionately from lower social strata.

(25.) Anderson, Universities and Elites, 56.

(26.) Whiteley, The Poor Student, 29.

(27.) University Grants Committee, Returns from Universities and University Colleges in Receipt of Treasury Grant, Academic Year 1937-8 (London, 1939), 5. Brian Simon estimated that before the war, “just over half of the students in the modern universities originally went to elementary schools”; see A Student’s View of the Universities (London, 1943), 42.

(28.) Simon, A Student’s View, 46.

(29.) C. Heward, Making A Man of Him: Parents and their Sons’ Education at an English Public School 1929-50, (London, 1988), 77 and passim.

(30.) J. Howarth and M. Curthoys, “The Political Economy of Women’s Higher Education in late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century Britain,” Historical Research, 60/142 (1987).

(31.) J. Howarth and M. Curthoys, “Gender, Curriculum and Career: A Case Study of Women University Students in England before 1914,” in Women, Education and the Professions, edited by P. Summerfield: History of Education Society Occasional Publications, No 8, (Leicester 1987).

(32.) Whiteley, The Poor Student, 24.

(33.) R. L. Miller and B. C. Hayes, “Gender and Intergenerational Mobility,” in The Social Mobility of Women, Beyond Male Mobility Models, edited by G. Payne and P. Abbott (Basingstoke, 1990), 61-3.

(34.) Ibid., 62.

(35.) University Grants Committee, Returns from universities and university colleges in receipt of Treasury grant for the academic year 1937-38 (London, 1939), figures for England, leaving out Oxford and Cambridge, abstracted from Table 1; C. Dyhouse, No Distinction of Sex? Women in British Universities, 1870-1939 (London, 1995), ch. 3.

(36.) Heward, Making a Man of Him, 77.

(37.) J. Copley, Autobiography, vol 1, “Mother and Father”, 165 (unpublished Mss).

(38.) On this theme see (for instance) Carolyn Steedman’s “Introduction” to K. Woodward, Jipping Street (London, 1983).

(39.) B. Jackson and D. Marsden, Education and the Working Class (Harmondsworth, 1962), 97. See also A. Miles, Social Mobility in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century England (Basingstoke and London, 1999), 151-2, for comments on mothers as “inculcators of ambition”.

(40.) Letter from Mrs A. Fletcher, 24 Oct 1998.

(41.) J. Hubback, Graduate Wives (London, 1954); J. Hubback, Wives Who Went to College (London, 1957).

(42.) Collection of press cuttings and reviews relating to Wives Who Went to College held by J. Hubback.

(43.) On marriage and social mobility see A. Heath, Social Mobility (Glasgow, 1981), ch. 4.

(44.) “Labour Lost by Love”, The Economist, June 26 1954, 1036.

(45.) H. Phelps Brown, The inequality of Pay (Oxford, 1977), 254.

(46.) For the idea of demand for higher education spreading like an infection, or as snowballing, see R. Layard, J. King and C. Moser, The Impact of Robbins (London, 1969), 16-17.

Table 1

Numbers of full-time students, England only, 1901, 1934/5, 1937/8

All English Oxford & Other English

Universities Cambridge Universities

Total % M/F Total % M/F Total

1901 Men 11,755 84.9 5367 90.9 6388

Women 2090 15.1 535 9.1 1555

Total 13,845 5902 7943

1934/5 Men 28,366 76.9 9281 87.0 19,085

Women 8526 23.1 1383 13.0 7143

Total 36,892 10,664 26,228

1937/8 Men 28,409 78.1 9380 87.0 19,029

Women 7969 21.9 1398 13.0 6571

Total 36,378 10,778 25,600

% M/F

1901 80.4


1934/5 72.8


1937/8 74.3


Source: UGC figures, 1929/30 to 1934/5, 1937/8

Table 2

Numbers of questionnaires distrinited to and completed by graduates

1) Women

Nos. Nos. Response

Code distributed completed rate %

Bristol BF 123 88 71.5

Manchester MF 225 136 60.4

Reading RF 108 63 58.3

Royal Holloway Bedford * RH & BD 230 145 ** 63.0

University College London UCF 108 72 66.7

Total 794 504 63.5

(*)Numbers distributed cannot be separated because on confidentiality

(**)Royal Holloway 58; Bedford 87

Note: Some late returns from King’s College (KCF) and Bristol

(BX) were not counted in these responses

2) Men

Nos. Nos. Response

Code distributed completed rate %

Manchester MC 260 120 46.2

Reading RD 44 18 40.9

King’s College London KC/KCX 133 74 55.6

University College London UC/UCK 150 93 62.0

Bristol BR 97 59 60.8

Leeds LS 164 96 58.5

Liverpool LP 195 95 48.7

Nottingham NT 42 22 52.4

Total 1085 577 53.2

Note: X in the code is for students from other universities finishing

their qualification (e.g. in medicine)

Table 3

Social class of origin of respondents in each university

Univ. %PHA %MEx %HNM %LNM %SKM

1) Men: Percentages in each social

class of origin, by university

BR 14 24 17 19 10

MC 13 28 17 18 11

NT 0 14 36 14 14

RD 11 22 22 22 11

LS 13 32 22 10 7

LP 22 22 21 14 11

UC 30 26 23 2 14

KC 24 20 23 12 7

Total 18.2 25.1 21.0 12.7 10.2

2) Women: Percentages in each social

class of origin, by university

BF 17 34 17 7 11

MF 16 26 28 5 12

RD 16 48 14 11 8

UCF 38 24 13 6 15

BD 29 37 15 3 11

RH 16 38 26 3 17

Total 21.4 33.1 19.6 5.8 12.3

Univ. %SSM %UM %ng Total

1) Men: Percentages in each social

class of origin, by university

BR 12 2 4 59

MC 9 1 4 120

NT 14 9 0 22

RD 6 0 6 18

LS 11 1 3 96

LP 2 1 7 95

UC 3 0 2 93

KC 4 0 9 74

Total 7.1 1.0 4.7 577

2) Women: Percentages in each social

class of origin, by university

BF 5 3 6 88

MF 7 1 5 136

RD 2 2 0 63

UCF 3 0 3 72

BD 1 0 3 87

RH 0 0 0 58

Total 3.4 1.0 3.4 504



UC/UCF University College London PHA

KC/KCF King’s College London MEx

BR/BF Bristol HNM

RD/RF Reading LNM

NT Nottingham SKM

MC/MF Manchester SSM

LS Leeds UM

LP Liverpool ng

BD Bedford College

RH Royal Holloway College

Social classes

UC/UCF Professional, Higher Administrative

KC/KCF Managerial, Executive

BR/BF Higher Non-Manual

RD/RF Lower Non-Manual

NT Skilled Manual

MC/MF Semi-Skilled Manual

LS Unskilled Manual

LP not given



Table 4

Students beginning their schooling in public elementary schools,


University Men Women

Bristol 56 38

Reading 50 29

Nottingham 68

Manchester 55 38

Leeds 52

Liverpool 35

University College London 32 20

King’s College London 45

Bedford College 25

Royal Holloway College 38

All 47 33

Table 5

Numbers taking each subject, men and women

1) Men

Univ. AR HU TH LA SS MA NS ES MD AG Arts Sci Total

UC 4 13 0 4 3 6 15 7 41 0 24 69 93

KC 0 3 13 4 7 5 10 11 21 0 27 47 74

BR 2 3 2 2 11 4 10 9 16 0 20 39 59

RD 1 3 0 0 0 0 7 0 0 7 4 14 18

NT 0 2 0 0 1 4 12 2 0 1 3 19 22

MC 5 18 2 4 14 7 33 12 25 0 43 77 120

LS 0 10 2 1 4 3 35 12 29 0 17 79 96

LP 6 12 0 6 8 6 11 14 25 7 32 63 95

Total 18 64 19 21 48 35 133 67 157 15 170 407 577

2) Women


UCF 5 27 0 0 9 5 13 1 12 0 0 41 31

BF 1 34 0 0 18 4 20 0 7 0 4 53 35

RF 3 13 0 0 13 2 8 0 0 18 6 * 29 34

MF 21 50 0 1 21 11 23 0 9 0 0 93 43

BD 2 22 0 0 23 16 24 0 0 0 0 47 40

RH 7 18 0 0 8 17 8 0 0 0 0 33 25

Total 39 164 0 1 92 55 96 1 28 18 10 296 208

Univ. Total

UCF 72

BF 88

RF 63

MF 136

BD 87

RH 58

Total 504

(*)Diploma students

Note: Science (Sci) excludes Domestic Science


Universities Subjects

UC/UCF University College London AR Arts (General and Fine)

KC Kings College London HU Humanities (esp. Languages)

BR/BF Bristol TH Theology

RD/RF Reading LA Law

NT Nottingham SS Social Sciences **

MC/MF Manchester MA Mathematics ***

LS Leeds NS Natural Sciences

LP Liverpool ES Engineering Sciences

BD Bedford Colege MD Medicine

RH Royal Holloway College AG Agriculture

DS Domestic Science

(**)includes History and Geography unless offered in other combinations

(***)includes Maths with Physics

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COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group