Education in the Far-Flung Chain of the Empire

Education in the Far-Flung Chain of the Empire

Tucked away in northwest England, Ambleside continues to represent the geographical heart of a Charlotte Mason education for many. The stunning landscape of the region is punctuated by sparkling blue lakes, rolling green hills, and meadows adorned with wildflowers so celebrated by the poetry of William Wordsworth. While novelist Daniel Defoe declared it to be “the wildest, most barren and frightful of any that I have passed over in England, or even Wales itself,” this landscape has been loved by many. Painters such as J. M. W. Turner and John Constable as well as numerous authors including Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome, John Ruskin, and Sir Walter Scott have been inspired by it. William Wordsworth felt so sure that the Lake District should be viewed as a valuable national property that, in 1810 his Guide to the Lakes was first published. This first-hand account of the breathtaking region that so inspired him served to draw others to this picturesque pocket, including Charlotte Mason.

From the iconic white walls of Scale How, to the slate roof of the Beehive where Mason’s teachers practised their craft with the local children, Ambleside was where Charlotte Mason dedicated herself to furthering her vision of education. Yet, her method of education was not to be geographically limited to just this part of England. As more and more families chose to offer their children a living education, Charlotte became known across the vast British Empire.

In Charlotte’s time thousands of families lived abroad somewhere within the British Empire. Accordingly, their educational needs had to be addressed while absent from Britain. While some students returned to England to complete their schooling, others relied on the instruction of their governesses, continuing their education from their corner of the British Empire. Families living abroad could complete the correspondence courses provided by the PNEU and the PUS. After all, the home was the centerpiece for Mason’s educational programs, even for those students living in places and spaces that were decidedly un-British, supported by their nannies, Indian ayahs, or African servants. Couched in Victorian and Edwardian social norms, families were offered a method of education that served to shape their sense of what it was to be English.

In Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived novelist Penelope Lively shares snippets of her experience of a Charlotte Mason education while living abroad. In Cairo during in the 1930s and 1940s while her father worked for the Bank of Egypt, Lively thrived on a wide variety of living books sent to her from England. Her governess used the PUS course to teach her and Lively experienced what it was like to be fed by living books, many of which gave her a glimpse of her “home country” of England, a country she’d never seen. Like many children of the British Empire, Lively had been born overseas. Their national home of England therefore remained largely unfamiliar. Familiar with being British, it was harder to identify as being English, never having stepped on home soil; but she relished the books and the method of learning.

Providing correspondence courses to families living abroad avoided the need to send students to boarding schools back in England. To do so would break up the family unit and surrender parental responsibilities for education. A correspondence course allowed families to venture into parts of the British Empire while still carrying their customs and traditions with them. Colonial mothers could use the programs provided by the PNEU and PUS to educate their children at home, and with the support of the PNEU home office in England, could offer a vibrant homeschool room from any part of the Empire, whether in India, Rhodesia, Palestine, South Africa, Malaya, or Australia. For example, articles promoting the courses appeared in The Straits Times, inspiring mothers to consider this approach to education while living in Southeast Asia.

At the 4th annual PNEU conference in 1900 Dr Schofield, the chairman, referred to the PNEU as an organisation pursuing “an imperial work.” He framed the work of the PNEU as important in training up “the children of a great Empire.”[1]  This theme of continuing to support families living within the British Empire continued for many years. World War I and the development of the League of Nations only served to encourage further thought on how to equip students in this new global framework.

However, as more British colonies walked the path to independence, their role shifted within the Empire, which was radically evolving into the Commonwealth. Accordingly, some felt that the approach to educating students living abroad needed to alter too. There was a sense for some that locally appropriate content needed to replace the Englishness of the approach. However, the PNEU and PUS did not appear too eager to adapt their programs to add in a local flavour.

Miss Rose Amy Pennethorne, known as “Penny,” is no stranger to readers of Charlotte Mason Poetry.[2] She served as Organising Secretary to the PNEU from 1921 to 1940 and it was in this role that she visited branches around the Empire, including a trip to Australia in 1927. It is evident that concerns had been raised that the courses, coming from English headquarters, were not “Australian enough.” Pennethorne and others needed to consider whether they should extend their list of “overseas books.” However, the decision was made not to do that; rather, they needed to keep it English and keep the control of it in England. In her report to the Ambleside Council Pennethorne’s perspective on the issue was clear:

…I am strongly of the opinion that any ‘local’ headquarters would be a great mistake; it is the Union as a corporate body of culture all the world over, administered by a common centre, which is a vital force, and ‘local’ organisations would very soon have remarkably little connexion with the work of our founder.[3]

By this time there were many PNEU homeschools thriving around the world. Mothers relied on the PNEU and PUS — with their English head office — to help and guide them in their teaching endeavours and the Parents’ Review has various articles that feature families enjoying this method of education around the world.[4] While there might be an occasional nod to including a different book for say, Nature Study, while living abroad, regardless of geography, students were covering the same materials and reading the same books. This was seen as one of the great strengths of this approach to education:

But what I do want to make sure of telling you is that we feel, as part of the P.U.S., that we do not work alone,—we are a cog in a great wheel. Thousands of other children, all over the world, are thinking the same thoughts, and reading the same books as we, day by day. It does away with any feeling of loneliness, and gives an impulse and a zest to our work that would otherwise be unattainable. We mothers can never be grateful enough to the P.N.E.U. for gathering us—solitary and scattered links—into the far-flung chain of Empire, and making us realise that we are not mere individuals struggling with circumstances, but are really helping to build, in our small way, that Imperial “city never made with hands, which Love of England prompted and made good.”[5]

These families were a long way from the beautiful green hills of the Lake District that inspired poets and artists. These were families that, despite their isolation and the challenges of living abroad, felt connected through the PNEU and the PUS. While some wanted some local content to help teach in their geographical setting and balance “the Englishness” of it, broadly they took comfort that this method of education drew them together and united them.

As a contemporary home educator in Australia, I smile when reflecting that, over 100 years later, this sense remains. While we need to include books, themes, topics, and resources that are sensitive to teaching our children about the country within which they live — it cannot be all about “mother England” any more — the identity of being a Charlotte Mason educator continues to draw people together. After all, we are all pursuing the same goal in education and so we like to share insights on how to include new elements that reflect the place and culture we live in. We also wish to encourage one another on our learning journey, no matter where we live.

Personal Note

I hope that parents living in the Asia-Pacific region will join me, and my eldest son Joseph, on the Charlotte Mason Idyll Challenge, starting soon. I have been home educating for many years now and am involved in a range of different facets of homeschooling in Australia. Joseph has graduated from our homeschool and is currently studying Biotechnology at the Australian National University. In this chapter of his educational journey, he can clearly see the benefits of this approach to education and is happy to join in the conversation as a homeschool graduate. There are nuances to homeschooling in the Asia-Pacific region and we trust that offering this regional Discussion Group will guide you through Charlotte’s volumes in a meaningful way. We also hope that it will help you to see that offering such a vibrant and comprehensive method of education in this modern age is not only entirely possible but indeed, most favourable.

Jo Lloyd has a background in Law and the Liberal Arts. She is a home educator being enriched and inspired by the Charlotte Mason method for nearly twenty years. She also works in the education sector, seeking opportunities to support others on their learning journey. Jo lives in Australia with her husband Cliff and their three children. With Cliff’s Eurasian heritage, they enjoy sharing a cross-cultural life together.


[1] Remarks by the Chairman Dr. A. Schofield, Parents’ Review 11, no. 7 (July 1900): 409, 410

[2] You can read more about Penny here:

[3] “Miss Pennethorne’s Report to the Ambleside Council-November 1927,” CM box 35, file CMC 243/11

[4] Mrs Egerton Evan’s article from 1935 is a great example:

[5] Letter from Constance E. Fripp, Essexvale, S. Rhodesia, “A P.U.S. School-Room in Southern Rhodesia,” Parents’ Review 35, no. 6 (June 1924): 386

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