Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Vera Brittain




On the 20th July 1914 Vera Brittain left her family home in Buxton and was driven the 12 miles by her father to Leek. On that day she was to take the final exam that would lead to her fulfilling a long held ambition of going to Oxford. Her father dropped her off in Leek while he journeyed on to the family business in the Potteries. She was distinctly unimpressed by the venue for the examination Leek Technical College in Stockwell St.

She later wrote in her autobiography "Testament of Youth"

"I felt strange and a little humiliating to be examined in the airless atmosphere of Leek Technical College surrounded by rough looking and distinctly odoriferous sixteen year old of both sexes. It was not a heroic for the final stage of my prolonged battle with persons and circumstances, and I left Leek with a depressed sense that I had certainly failed".

She need not have feared and she was accepted to begin her degree at Somerville College. The early struggles in her life to achieve the sort of education that she craved and the impact of the First World War are the principle themes of her autobiography, which is still in print having been originally published in the 1930s.

When Vera Brittain took the exam in Leek in July 1914 Europe was descended into the carnage of the First World War. In the previous month the Archduke Franz Ferdinand the heir to the throne of the Austrian crown was shot dead by a Serbian nationalist. On the day that a doubtful Vera left Leek Austria declared war on Serbia whom it blamed for harbouring the terrorists who had assassinated the Archduke. On August 4th Britain fulfilling a treaty obligation of century earlier to defend Belgian neutrality against aggression declared war on Germany.

The Technical College in Leek that Vera Brittain was so dismissive about was part of the complex within the Nicholson Institute, founded in 1892 as part of a national drive to improve the technical expertise of the nation. Classes that were run from the college included practical classes on cookery, handicrafts and silk manufacturer. Possibly some of the smelly 16 year olds that Vera complained about were completing some of these courses.