South London Memories: Remembering the pauper children

Children had been kept in workhouses with adults until the 1848 the Poor Law (Schools) created district boarding schools, to remove them from the harmful influence of the adults, writes Toby Porter.

The schools had more than 1,000 children. By 1856, 78 per cent of London workhouse children were in separate schools.

The model was two South London schools – one run by Frederick Aubin in Westow Hill, Upper Norwood and another run by Peter Drew school in Tooting which had 1,394 children from all over London.

Aubin and his wife were paid four shillings and sixpence per child.

Dickens gave a generous description of the one at Upper Norwood in Household Words – even if he did model one of his most notorious characters on Aubin – Mr Bumble, the tyrannical superintendant of Oliver Twist’s workhouse.

Children were given a basic education and trained in the type of jobs that would make them employable. For girls this usually meant as domestic servants; boys would be trained for a life at sea, or tailoring and shoemaking.

The building became the Norwood School of Industry at Westow Hill, a workhouse school for the City of London. It had a relatively good reputation, and was several miles away from the morally and physically polluting influences of the capital.

Charles Dickens

There is a description of the children’s homes, in the Chambers Edinburgh Journal, of 1840.

It said: “The children, at present 1,100 in number and of various ages from two or three to 12 or 13, are classed in two separate wards of divisions according their sex, and still further classified in their respective divisions according to age and capacity.

“The present contractor and superintendent is Mr Aubin, a middle aged man of that aspect which I am accustomed (being a stranger in the south) to regard as characteristic of the frank and upright Englishman.

He undertakes to pay all expenses in consideration of his receiving four shillings and sixpence a week for the support of each inmate – a rate which must be considered sufficient, though not by any means extravagant considering the excellence and copiousness of the diet, the comfortable clothing and lodging, and the extent of intellectual and moral instruction which is conferred.

“Mr Aubin being a benevolent man, willing to engraft any improvement in his system, the routine of the estate was revised and remodelled a few years ago, on the recommendation of Dr Kay, Poor Law Commissioner for the London district. It now serves as a pattern for the organisation of workhouse schools throughout the country.

“The great object held in view is to fit the children to engage with alacrity and ease in any species of useful employment to which they may be put on leaving school.”

This is Dickens’ take on the place, published in his magazine Household Words in 1850: “The exterior of the Norwood house is as dingy and ugly as a small brewhouse.

“To teach them at all was once 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.”

So they were gathered in large boarding houses.

“The proprietors often realised large profits upon the moneys allowed for maintaining this class of the population “About 900 children are congregated at Norwood, and out of the whole number there is not perhaps a dozen the offspring of decent parents.

Church Road

“Many are foundlings, picked up at the corners of streets, or at the doors of parish officers. The names of some of them suggest an idea of how they began life. Thus, one owned the name of Olive Jewry, whilst another was called Alfred City.

“Others have lost both parents by death, 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.

“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.

“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.

“They are caught like half-wild creatures, roaming poverty-stricken amidst the wealth of our greatest city. They are generally little personifications of genuine poverty compounds, as somebody says, of
ignorance, gin, and sprats.

“Arrived [at Westow Hill] 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.

“There had recently been an epidemic of measles in the place, when that disease destroyed eight of the sickliest out of 90 cases. Winter brings chilblains, a disease of poor blood, and ophthalmia, to which pauper children seem to be especially liable.

“The boys are kept four days a week at school, and two days at work in shops; the girls have three days’ schooling and three days’ training in household occupations, such as cleaning the house, washing, ironing, mangling, and needlework.

“The ungainly, slouching, slow lout, is taught to march, wheel right or left, in concert with others, punctually and accurately. They answer the commands ‘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 playground, 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.

“The place is indeed a little colony in itself, 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.”

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