Ancestry UK

London Pauper Children
by Charles Dickens


HIGH and dry upon a pleasant breezy hilltop about seven miles south of London stands a house worthy of a visit. Far enough away to be quite free from the cloud of smoke, yet near enough for easy access from London; it is a large house in the country, in and out of which a large family of essentially London tenants are perpetually going. Walk round the hill it stands upon, and a succession of charming views present themselves for admiration. A far distant horizon bounds a country made up of purple woods, rich golden brown stripes of corn-fields, and bright green meadows. Here young plantations; there stately single timber trees; with villas nestling under fringes of woods on pleasant slopes, whilst in the valley below runs the Croydon Railway, linking this charming, quiet country round Norwood, to the smoky, busy, useful London.

The place we speak of is the Pauper-School at Norwood, which may be called a factory for making harmless, if not useful subjects, of the very worst of human material — a place for converting those who would otherwise certainly be miserable, and most likely vicious, into rational, reasonable, and often very useful members of society; — in short, a house for training a large and wretched class in habits of decency, regularity, and order, and leading a pitiable section of the great two-million-strong family of London from the road to crime into that of honest industry and self-respect.

The exterior of the building has no trace of the architectural display that won for the school near Manchester the title of a Pauper Palace. The exterior of the Norwood house is as dingy and ugly as a small brewhouse. In shape it reminds one of the old cities, built upon no definite plan, but enlarged from time to time as the population found it most convenient. It is neither square, nor round, nor triangular; but then, when we go over it, we shall find that the lack of straight lines and right angles does not prevent the presence of much good, and of a fair amount of comfort and happiness within its confines.

The irregularity of its construction is explained by the fact that the place was established twenty-seven years ago, not by a public body, but by a private individual, Mr. Aubin, the present superintendant. The commencement of such a place was an epoch in the history of pauperism in this country. Before the time of the benevolent Jonas Hanway, no regard was paid to the destitute children of the poor, and those young children, whose ill-fate it was to be born of pauper parents, in town, were condemned to a life that began in the gutters of back lanes, and usually ended in the gaol, by fever, or more suddenly, on the gallows. Hanway secured the passing of a law empowering the parishes to collect the juvenile paupers and send them into the country for nurture and maintenance. It was a step in advance to get the children away from the dens in which they had previously been confined, but the nurture was of a very unsatisfactory kind. When an old woman applied for parish relief, she had two or three children given to her to keep, and out of their allowance she was to help to keep herself. She usually set them to collect firewood for her; or to watch sheep, or to scare crows; and, in their search for fuel, they were often taught to rob hedges, or fences, or trespass on plantations. At seven years' old they were sent back to finish their education in the workhouses, and frequently remained there for six or seven years without even learning their letters. Indeed, to teach them at all was regarded as a kind of small treason. "Teach paupers to read! What next?" was a common exclamation. Reading was, by a great many people, considered to be a mere premium for laziness — whilst writing was thought to be a temptation to forgery, and its then certain result — the gallows. To collect the pauper children, and "farm them out" to persons who would teach as well as feed them, was the next step in advance. The fruit of this plan was the growth of various places where large numbers of the pauper rising generation were gathered together in houses, the proprietors of which often realised large profits upon the moneys allowed for maintaining this class of the population.

Taking advantage of the generally and loudly expressed public opinion, that "something must be done," the Poor-Law Board succeeded in establishing some school districts near the metropolis. The first step taken was to purchase Mr. Aubin's place at Norwood, and thus take it into their own hands. This school had long been regarded as the best of its class, and as one where many steps of great practical value had been taken for the improved treatment of youthful paupers. The purchase-money of this school is said to have been about eleven thousand pounds, and the authorities wisely retained the aid of the man who had originated it, to carry out still further into effect their improved plans. This step was soon followed by others. In the publication of the Poor-Law Board, just issued — the promoters of our present poor-law system long ago saw the mischiefs of this plan, and after some years' consideration, and many difficulties, succeeded in procuring an Act of Parliament for the establishment of district pauper Industrial Schools. But though the law was made, it was found impossible to overcome the objections raised by parish authorities, and it was not carried out to any extent, until the terrible calamity of Tooting startled all England with the spectacle of hundreds of deaths by cholera, in an establishment where the little unfortunates were "farmed out."

In the Second Annual Report of the Poor-Law Board, Mr. Baines, its President, says that three very important school districts have, within the year, been formed in and near the metropolis. These are : — "1st. The Central London School District, comprising the City of London Union, the East London Union, and the St. Saviour's Union. The Board of Management of this district have completed all their arrangements and hold their regular meetings. They have purchased of Mr. Aubin his premises at Norwood for the district school, retaining him in the capacity of steward or superintendant of the establishment, and have appointed an efficient staff of teachers in every department. The school is now in full activity, upon an improved footing, and nearly eight hundred children (nine hundred) are maintained and educated in it.

"2nd. The South Metropolitan School District comprised, as originally formed, the Union of St. Olave's, and the large parishes, not in Union, of Bermondsey, Camberwell, and Rotherhithe.

"3rd. The North Surrey School District includes the Unions of Wandsworth and Clapham, Kingston, Croydon, Richmond, and Lewisham. The managers have purchased fifty acres of land near Norwood, and have commenced the erection of a building capable of accommodating six hundred children.

"It will thus be seen that provision has been made in and around London for; the proper education and training of more than two thousand poor children. We have, moreover, sanctioned arrangements whereby, when completed, .the state of the children of other metropolitan parishes will be very materially improved."

About nine hundred children are congregated at Norwood, and out of the whole number there is not perhaps a dozen the offspring of decent parents. Many are foundlings, picked up at the corners of streets, or at the doors of parish officers. The names of some of then suggest one an idea of how they began life. Thus, one whilst owned the name of Olive Jewry, another was called Alfred City. Others have lost both parents by death, and been left puling living legacies to the parish, but the majority are the children of parents living in workhouses. When able-bodied paupers claim relief, they are "offered the house". They are received into the Union, and their children are sent up to this out-of-town school that fresh air, cleanliness, good food and the schoolmaster, may try what can be done to lift them up from the slough of pauperism. Let us examine the process through which they go.

The children, on their first appearance at this Norwood School, are usually in the most lamentable plight. Ignorance and dirt, rags and vermin, laziness and ill health, diseased scalps, and skins tortured by itch, are their characteristics. They are the very dregs of the population of the largest city in the world — the human waifs and strays of the modern Babylon; the children of poverty, and misery, and crime; in very many cases labouring under physical defects, such as bad sight or hearing; almost always stunted in their growth, and bearing the stamp of ugliness and suffering on their features. Generally born in dark alleys and back courts, their playground has been the streets, where the wits of many have been prematurely sharpened at the expense of any morals they might have. With minds and bodies destitute of proper nutriment, they are caught, as it were, by the parish officers, like half-wild creatures, roaming poverty-stricken amidst the wealth of our greatest city; and half-starved in a land where the law says no one shall be destitute of food and shelter. When their lucky fate sends them to Norwood, they are generally little personifications of genuine poverty — compounds, as somebody says, of ignorance, gin, and sprats.

A number of pauper children having been owned as chargeable upon the Central London District, to whom the Norwood School now belongs, and the requisite papers having been filled up, they are sent to Weston [Westow] Hill. Arrived there, and their clothes having been steamed, if worth preservation, or burned if mere rags, — the new comers are well washed, have their hair cut, and are newly clad in clean and wholesome, but homely, garments. According to their ages, they are then drafted into a class; those between two and six years pass to the infant school; those of greater age are enrolled on the industrial side of the establishment. Now the training begins. They are all sent before the doctor, who usually finds them sallow and sickly; but by aid of Nature's physic, — fresh air, — and Nature's rule of exercise and regularity, assisted by extra diet, and with the occasional aid of some good London beef and porter, very few drugs are wanted, and their looks change for the better. Early in August, this year, — the period of our visit, — there were but two children confined to bed out of more than nine hundred; and those two were poor little scrofulous shadows of humanity, such as may be found in the top wards of hospitals, labouring under disease of the hip and spine, — paying the penalty of sins committed by their parents before them: There had recently been an epidemic of measles in the place, when that disease destroyed eight of the sickliest out of ninety cases. But for this, the mortality would not have gone beyond one in a hundred through the year. The summer is their healthiest season; for winter brings chilblains, a disease of poor blood, and ophthalmia, to which pauper children seem to be especially liable.

After their introduction to the doctor, the bath, the wardrobe, and the pantry, they are handed over to the school-master or mistress, as the case may be. On the day of our visit, two hundred and forty boys were receiving instruction in one large new school-room; two hundred (infants between two and six years old) were being taught in another room; two hundred girls were reading, writing, and sewing in a third apartment; the rest of the occupants being at work, or at drill, or at play, in other parts of the establishment. The boys are kept four days a week at school, and two days at work in shops which we shall presently see and describe: the girls have three days' schooling and three days' training in household occupations, — such as cleaning the house, washing, ironing, mangling, and needlework. The way these portions of the establishment are arranged may possibly furnish materials for a future paper.

The school for the eldest boys is a long room newly built, with an enormous dormitory above it. The ventilation has been provided for in a way that seems very satisfactory: By day the boys are divided into six classes, ranged on forms with desks before them, each class being separated from the others by a curtain which hangs from the ceiling, and is sufficiently wide to separate the sections of scholars from each other, and to deaden the sounds of so large a seminary, but yet not wide enough to prevent the master as he stands on the side opposite his pupils, from getting a view of the entire school. Black boards and large slates are amongst the tools employed for conveying instruction, but the more advanced pupils are supplied with paper copy-books for writing lessons. The school is under the charge of a chief-master, far more competent than those usually found in schools beyond the pale of Government inspection. He is a B.A. of the University of London, is author of a small English grammar; and enjoys, as he deserves, a liberal salary. Under his hands the pupils appear to make excellent progress. The upper classes write well to dictation, are ready at figures, and are practised in the grammatical construction of English words and sentences. Twelve of the boys are in training as teachers, and six of these are now what is called "pupil-teachers," and are entitled to an allowance of money by way of reward from the Privy Council. This allowance is set aside for them till they display, on examination, a sufficient proficiency to entitle them to admission to the training-school at Knellar Hall or Battersea. Whilst in these higher schools they receive the money set aside for them in the earlier stages of their school progress, and when, by successive examinations, their efficiency is sufficiently tested, they pass from the grade of pupil to that of master: the boys from Knellar Hall being appointed schoolmasters to Workhouses; the boys from Battersea to be masters of National Schools in various parts of the country. A boy gets this promotion in life by his own merits. For instance, at the Norwood Pauper-School, the most apt pupil becomes, as elsewhere, the monitor of his form or class. W hen the day of examination arrives, he distinguishes himself before the Government Inspector of Schools. This official is empowered thereupon to select him as a "pupil-teacher," &c.; he becomes an apprentice to the art of instruction. To encourage the chief-master of the school to help on his boys to this reward, an allowance of three pounds a year is made to the master for each boy who thus distinguishes himself, and thus gains promotion. Thus, there being twelve boys at Norwood so in training, Mr. Imeson, their instructor, gains thirty-six pounds a year for his success in bringing forward that number of his scholars.

In appearance, the boys have little to recommend them, and it is tolerably evident, that if not raised a little in the social scale — if not taught to do something and know something — they would inevitably belong to the class of incurable paupers, who burden poor's-rates and hang about workhouses all their lives. Society must educate such boys, if only in self-defence. Some of them are at first most turbulent, but by patient management they gradually subside into the orderly arrangements of the place, and often those at first most unruly become the quickest boys in the school. The energy that would make them nuisances, when rightly directed makes them most useful.

When the hours of teaching are over, the boys are assembled in one of the large open yards belonging to the establishment, and are there exercised by the drill-master. This official is an ex-non-commissioned officer of Guards, who in a short time makes the metamorphosis seen on parade. The ungainly, slouching, slow lout, is taught to march, wheel right or left, in concert with others, punctually and accurately. They answer the command, "left wheel," "right form, four deep," and so on, like little soldiers, and seem to like the fun. This gives them at once exercise in the fresh air, notions of regularity and prompt attention, and a habit of obedience to discipline.

There is also a naval class. Behind the school is a play-ground, two acres in extent, and in the centre of this stands a ship. True, its deck is of earth, but there are bulwarks, real bulwarks all round, and rising up above are genuine lofty masts, with rigging complete. Up these ropes the boys swarm with great delight. At a given signal they "man the yards," give three miniature cheers, and then, all in chorus, sing God save the Queen. They evidently like the fun, pride themselves, boy-like, upon their feline power of climbing, and one or two of them show their expertness and bravery by disdaining the rope-ladder — pardon us the shrouds — and slide down the main-stay from the top of the foremast to the bowsprit

All these things are evident sources of enjoyment; for running, and climbing, and shouting in the open air, are natural to the human animal in a normal state of existence. Of the climbing, there is a story told which illustrates the character of a very worthy man now passed away. Dr. Stanley, the late Bishop of Norwich, paid many visits to this school, and always looked on with evident pleasure whilst the lads were enjoying themselves with their ship. One day the good-natured dignitary was looking on, when he began to rub his hands together, and presently turning to an officer of the place who stood by, said in a genial, half confidential tone, "If I were not a bishop I'd join in and climb that pole myself !"

Besides this drill, or parade, and this exercise aloft, the boys, on two days of the week, are employed in the Industrial training of the place. The smaller boys, in classes of about thirty-five, are ranged on benches round a large tailor's shoes Patterns decorate the walls, and "corduroys " in all stages, from the huge bale to the perfect breeches, are seen all round the room. The boys stitch and sew, and make and mend, under the instruction of a master tailor, a large part of the clothes worn in the place. When each boy grows bigger he is drafted into a neighbouring shop, where, also, under a competent master, he learns the craft of St. Crispin. It is curious to see thirty or forty little cobblers, all in rows, waxing and stitching, and hammering on lap-stones, and entering con amore into the mysteries of sole and upper leathers, brads, pegs, and sparrowbills. When they have learned all these things, some of the lads pass into a third shop, where they are made acquainted with the forge, and anvil, and sledge hammer, and where they help to shoe horses, construct iron bedsteads, and make and mend all the iron-work (and there is a great deal of it) required by this family party of nearly a thousand souls — pauper children, masters, and servants, together. After going through all these stages of training, with the incidental knowledge picked up in the stables with the horses, in the playground with the dogs, when helping to feed the pigs, and whilst aiding the operation of milking the twenty-five cows which supply milk for the house, the boys have acquired a great amount of useful knowledge. The place is indeed a little colony in and if its inmates had not often to pass from it back to the sinkholes of London, they might leave Norwood almost with the certainty of becoming good and prosperous citizens.

This article first appeared in Household Words (1850), 1, no.23, pp.549-552. The establishment it described was the Central London District School (formerly Mr Aubin's School of Industry) at Westow Hill [not Weston Hill as given in the article] in Norwood but moved to new premises at Hanwell a few years later.

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