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How the Sussex Weald learned to read and write

* 18 August 2003 *

How the Sussex Weald learned to read and write

Learning to read and write was not high on the agenda for the working class villagers of the Sussex Weald during the 19th century, but somehow 90 per cent of them became literate.

It is this surprising fact that has prompted a University of Sussex researcher to explore how and why literacy develops in impoverished communities.

Barbara Maidment, who is studying for a DPhil in historical linguistics, is appealing  for old letters, diaries and other forms of writing from families whose ancestors lived in the Weald.  "Knowing what people wanted and needed to read and write helps explain motives for acquiring literacy," she says. 

Barbara hopes her research might help in planning modern literacy programmes.  "There are still more than 200 million people worldwide unable to read and write to an accepted level, 66 per cent of them women, so illiteracy is still a major problem," points out Barbara.  "We may be able to better understand the problems these communities face by looking back at how England largely eradicated illiteracy."

"In the early part of the 19th century, the Weald was one of the poorest and most backward areas of the country," says Barbara. "For the labourer in the field, whose occupation did not demand the ability to write, the benefits of literacy might have been only dimly perceived.  Yet whilst every incentive to become literate was lacking, and long before school attendance was compulsory, more than 90 per cent of the population acquired a functional literacy."

Barbara used the marriage registers of the parishes of Withyam, Mayfield and Ticehurst to measure literacy rates. "It is our only statistical evidence," she says. "Married couples had to sign the register.  Of course, some may have learned to write their name for this purpose alone, and about ten per cent never married, so the registers aren't an entirely accurate record of literacy levels."

She is also exploring the impact made on Wealden literacy levels by some of the nineteenth century's great social upheavals, such as the arrival of the railways and the emigration exodus, when some of the Wealden poor were given assistance to start new lives in North America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  Families were separated, some permanently, by great distances, and Barbara expects to find that deep families ties, and the need to keep in touch, were among the factors which motivated people to value literacy. 

* Notes for editors *

Barbara can be contacted  on 01273 677591, email :

Press Office contacts: Jacqui Bealing or Peter Simmons, University of Sussex,
Tel. 01273 678888, Fax 01273 877456, or

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