Escaping the workhouse: the Victorian war on child poverty
In the 1840s, the government began sparing Britain's most deprived children the Dickensian hell of the workhouse and placing them in schools that promised good food, healthcare and an education. But did the reality live up to the ideal? Lesley Hulonce investigates...
It’s one of the most enduring scenes in all of 19th-century literature. The pauper Oliver Twist – nine years old, orphaned and consigned to the workhouse – approaches the pompous parish beadle Mr Bumble and begs him for an extra helping of gruel.” “Please, sir,” he pleads. “I want some more.”
Thanks to his pitiless response, Mr Bumble has secured himself a place in literary infamy. Yet so too has the institution in which Oliver uttered his famous request: the workhouse.
By charting Oliver Twist’s travails, his creator, Charles Dickens, perhaps did more than anyone to highlight the neglect and crippling hunger that faced so many children consigned to Britain’s workhouses. And, by the time Dickens wrote his famous novel in the late 1830s, this fate awaited more and more real-life Olivers.
Workhouses had offered accommodation and employment to those too poor to support themselves since the 17th-century. But in 1834, the government, eager to slash spending on the rising number of paupers, passed the Poor Law Amendment Act, declaring that poor relief would now only be offered in the workhouse. And so that was the destination for hundreds of deprived children – those, for example, deserted by their parents, or who had been orphaned at birth.
Social campaigners railed against the inhumanity of exposing children to such a system. And, by the 1840s, the authorities also had their doubts – though for different reasons. They feared that the ingrained immorality of the workhouses’ older residents would rub off on young paupers, turning them into prostitutes or criminals. They also believed that the poorest children were in need of education to “eradicate the germs of pauperism” and fit them for a productive life.
Over the following decades, they came up with three successive solutions to the challenge – ‘separate’ schools, cottage homes and ‘scattered’ homes – each aiming to improve the lot of Britain’s most deprived children, with varying degrees of success…
‘Separate’ schools sought to turn children into able and employable citizens – often in magnificent surroundings
The first attempt to rescue young paupers from the malign influence of the workhouse took the form of ‘separate’ or ‘barrack’ schools. These were designed to offer accommodation and an education in an environment free from physical abuse. Unfortunately, one early example spectacularly failed to live up to the ideal – with tragic consequences.
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In a ‘farm’ in Tooting run by Bartholomew Drouet, 1,400 pauper children were underfed, mistreated and neglected to such an extent that 180 of them died of cholera in 1849. Hunger and beatings drove Thomas Mills, a 12-year-old inmate, to run away twice from the school, while some of his fellow pupils were so thirsty they drank water that ran down a gutter from the girls’ bathroom. Punishments included severe beatings, head shaving, having clothes taken away, and boys being made to wear girls’ clothes in school.
An appalled Charles Dickens wrote several articles in The Examiner about the tragedy, damning Drouet’s establishment as “brutally conducted, vilely kept, preposterously inspected, dishonestly defended, a disgrace to a Christian community, and a stain upon a civilised land”.
Bartholomew Drouet had, it seems, single-handedly turned many people against separate schools for years. But the catastrophe of his “vilely kept” establishment did have a silver lining – and that was to sting the authorities into spending large amounts of money on separate schools that would genuinely improve children’s lives.
The North Surrey District School at Anerley, Upper Norwood opened in 1850 at a cost of more than £31,000. In excess of £43,000 was spent on the South Metropolitan School, while £50,000 was lavished on Lambeth Norwood School, which opened in 1885. Some of these new buildings were dubbed ‘pauper palaces’ because of their magnificent architecture. And they must have presented an awe-inspiring sight to boys and girls hailing from the streets or lodging houses of Britain. ‘WHR’, the pseudonym of a boy who had been moved from Greenwich workhouse to one of Surrey’s separate schools, was certainly impressed. He remembered his train journey to the school, walking up the hill from the railway station hand in hand with a friend and gazing up at the “magnificent place”. He was “fairly wild with delight, the place seemed so big” and the playground a “fine large yard”.
Edward Balne, also from London, attended Hanwell School. He spoke about “spacious playing fields, country lanes, extensive farmlands… fruit trees, a well-kept cricket ground and a football pitch”. Balne also remembered some teachers with affection – one was known as ‘Daddy Woodward’ because of his fatherly air.
The curriculum at these large district schools was designed to produce able and employable citizens. Children studied the Bible, tables, geography, reading and writing, arithmetic and dictation. The schools offered cultural pursuits, such as drawing and music, and vocational training including tailors, cobblers’ shops and a blacksmith’s forge. During a naval class the boys climbed over ships’ rigging with, Dickens related, “great delight”.
Girls were put through three days of schooling a week, but also trained in ‘household occupations’ such as cleaning, ironing, mangling and needlework. Although these tasks were thought ‘natural’ for girls, many hated them. When clothes were returned clean from the laundry, buttons had to be sewed on and stockings mended. If the house-mother wasn’t satisfied, she would put scissors through the darn and demand that it be done again.
Discipline was rigorously enforced. Training regimes required children to resist temptations. At Swinton, if children were caught prematurely helping themselves to currants from the bushes that lined the playground, they were banned from picking and eating the fruits when they’d ripened.
For all that, in later life both boys and girls returned to visit places they once considered home. At Norwood, the inspectors remarked on the “pleasing sight of happy greetings and inquiries between the returners and their former schoolmates”.
Cottage homes promised inclusive, bucolic seats of learning – though the reality was often less romantic
By the second half of the 19th-century, the large ‘separate’ school had fallen out of favour, to be replaced by something, in theory at least, a little more intimate: the cottage home.
Cottage homes were the child welfare equivalents of the agricultural colony – villages of small houses in a rural location, each containing ‘families’ of children.
As the name suggests, both boys and girls were housed in ‘cottages’, cared for and supervised by a live-in matron or ‘mother’. They ate meals together, prepared by their matron and the older girls. They said prayers, did chores and took part in leisure pursuits.
Child welfare activist Henrietta Barnett perhaps summed up the ideal best when she described an inclusive and diverse cottage that was “ruled by a working woman as its mother, containing the helpful girl of 15, the weeny babe of three, the delicate child to whom the cosiest seat must always be given, the cripple who must be helped to school”.
In reality, cottage homes were far less intimate than Barnett envisaged. The system produced huge self-contained colonies that resembled small towns on an enclosed site. The one in Chelsea housed around 600 children. At Banstead in Surrey there were 20 houses, a school, infirmary, baths and a shop.
There’s little doubt that, in the larger homes, children could feel isolated from the outside world. At the Banstead home they led “a separate life from ordinary children”. There were high brick walls surrounding cottages in Kirkham, although separated siblings might meet in the school. A school inspector recommended that children at Pontypridd’s cottage home “be taught to play some games” – hardly a ringing endorsement of the leisure pursuits on offer.
But some children did recall their time at cottage homes with fondness. The granddaughter of one former pupil remarked that her grandmother had described the homes “so warmly” that she was shocked when she realised that cottage homes were a branch of the workhouse.
James Howard, a resident of Swansea’s cottage homes – who went on to gain a scholarship to Cardiff University and become a church minister – wrote affectionately to his matron Letitia Lloyd in later life. But he also claimed that, to one superintendent, beating “seemed almost a pastime”.
Howard also recalled that the boys took part in at least one organised fight a week, generally on Fridays after school. One battle apparently lasted for three evenings in a row – “night and mutual exhaustion were the only interruptions possible”.
The bosom of the community
‘Scattered’ homes immersed children in working-class life with considerable – sometimes too much – success
At the end of the 19th-century, received thinking on the best places to foster Britain’s most deprived children began to change again. The consensus was now that cottage homes were too detached from working-class communities – isolating children from the communities in which they would eventually have to make their way in life. The time had come for a new approach.
The solution was the scattered homes system, in which children would reside in groups of up to around 20 in houses ‘scattered’ about the union. There they would live in a family unit overseen by a house-mother. Crucially, they would attend local schools.
Early reports on the scattered system – which was pioneered in the Sheffield union in 1893 – were glowing. Inspectors declared that it had succeeded beyond “their most sanguine expectations”, as the children were “mixing more with non-pauper life”. They also remarked upon the children’s “happiness and contentment”.
In Camberwell, we’re told, children could “run about the streets and form friendships with other boys and girls, run all the risks and enjoy all the privileges of ordinary young humanity”.
In fact, if the scattered homes system had a drawback, it was that it integrated the children into their local communities too well. Inspectors noted makeshift and make-do regimes typical of working-class neighbourhoods that saw meat running out by Saturday, a lack of toothbrushes, and infestations of head lice.
Despite these drawbacks, the authorities hoped that immersing young paupers in working-class communities would spare them the feelings of worthlessness experienced by their predecessors in separate schools. “When I was 14, it was when scoring for the Hanwell team one Saturday afternoon at an away game, that I first became conscious of my lowly status in society,” remembered one such resident, Edward Balne. “The realisation that I was considered to be a member of the lowest form of human creation was an experience from which I have never fully recovered.”
Dr Lesley Hulonce is a lecturer in health humanities at Swansea University and the author of Pauper Children and Poor Law Childhoods in England and Wales 1834-1910.
This article was first published in the March 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.