The Stepney Union School at Limehouse

The following account of the Stepney Union's school at Limehouse come from Florence Hill's Children of the State (first edition, 1868).

Twenty-eight years ago, this institution was found to be in a very unsatisfactory state. The boys had dwelt in the workhouse with the adult male paupers, and lying, cheating and stealing were declared to be their chief characteristics; while the girls, although they had sometime previously been separated from the women, displayed equally with the lads, selfishness, stubbornness, and great coarseness of language and demeanour, together with the lack of any spirit of self-dependence.

The then Chairman of the Union, Mr. George Frederick Young, and the Visiting Committee, threw themselves with zeal upon the task of reform. The children were removed to their present location in Church Lane, Limehouse, nearly a mile distant from the Workhouse. The services were secured of a governor and a schoolmaster and mistress, not only efficient in themselves, but who worked harmoniously together; an ample staff of subordinate officers was appointed, and — most important of all, perhaps — every pauper servant was dismissed. The guardians, though exercising close supervision, having confidence in their officers, avoided interference, giving them both power and responsibility. Besides the usual school-instruction, the boys were taught shoemaking, tailoring, carpentering, and spinning; the girls laundry and house-work, besides a variety of sewing and knitting.

It had been the practice to send some of the lads to sea, and a premium of £10 was offered to any employer who would have them, — but it was found that this plan attracted the masters of the lowest class of fishing smacks, who took the children for the sake of the money, and often so ill-treated them, that they would, if possible, abscond, thus relapsing into pauperism, or even sinking into crime.

The guardians determined, therefore, to erect the masts, rigging, &c., of a full-sized ship in the school-yard, and, engaging a seaman to drill and train the boys, they soon became so expert as to be sought in larger numbers than can be supplied, by the captains of high-class trading vessels. These, moreover, need no premium; so that though the ship cost the guardians more than £100, its purchase has proved a most economical measure. All these boys are taught to swim, and latterly they have been practised in rowing and the management of a boat.

Much attention is paid to music, both instrumental and vocal. The whole school learn singing, but admission to the highest class is a much coveted reward for good conduct. The members, boys and girls, practise together weekly, and some attend the choral festivals at the Crystal Palace. Eight or nine years ago, a band was established, which has been the means of preparing a large number of the boys for engagements in the army and navy. Referring to them, a Captain in the Royal Navy writes, "It is but an act of justice to the little fellows to say that their conduct has been quite exemplary;" and similar testimony is afforded by others. One young man has lately obtained an appointment as regimental bandmaster at a salary of upwards of £150 per annum.

An annual excursion — when, in fine summer weather, teachers and children, packed into vans, go far away into the country for a long day of enjoyment — affords a powerful incentive to good behaviour throughout the year. A record is kept of the children's conduct in good and bad marks, which are summed up before the treat takes place, and should the bad exceed a certain proportion, the unfortunate owner is left at home — a circumstance, however, that, considering the high character the children bear, cannot, it is to be hoped, often occur.

Bad temper, especially among the "Casuals," (i.e., children who attend during the temporary sojourn in the workhouse of their parents) is common, but serious moral offences are rare; and the prevailing spirit appears to be so strongly on the side of right, that misconduct, even only the use of coarse words, in an individual, is at once checked by the rest. The children attend the parish church, and when out walking often receive gifts of money, which, with certain restrictions, they are allowed to spend. Toys and other little possessions of the girls are kept in a general cupboard, to which all have access, but thefts from one another seldom occur. Those pupils who have parents in Stepney workhouse visit them there; but only once in three months, and accompanied by their nurse or teacher. It is a melancholy fact that, too often, such parents are their children's worst enemies; and the guardians have acted wisely in recognizing it, and in diminishing to the utmost any opportunity for the exercise of evil influence.

The class of children who enter workhouse schools are usually extremely filthy, their heads are infested with vermin, and their skins with disease; and as it too often happens, that even after a residence of many years they are still in this disgraceful state, it is obvious that the necessary pains have not been taken to cleanse them thoroughly, or that they have been permitted to become foul again by contact with new-comers. At Limehouse this shameful condition of things — very difficult, however, we admit to overcome where casuals mingle at once with permanent pupils — is obviated by detaining the children on entrance, in a probationary ward, until they are perfectly clean. After this period the elder children bathe once weekly and the younger twice. They have an abundance of plain food and frequent exercise in the open air. The boys' play-ground is provided with gymnastic apparatus, but that for the girls has none, which we think is to be regretted. Their general health is good, and the annual death-rate only 1.73 per cent., although the children are admitted as young as at two years of age, and none are excluded on account of disease, — fever and small-pox only excepted.

The girls are prepared chiefly for domestic service, but with them, as with boys, any showing a marked aptitude for the scholastic profession are trained for it — being made pupil teachers and sent subsequently to college. Several are now masters and mistresses of schools, in receipt of good salaries. The young people, when placed out, are encouraged to write to the officers and to re-visit the school frequently, when they relate their troubles to the superintendents, who give friendly advice, privately pointing out any fault on the young person's side; if there is ground for thinking ill-treatment has been practised, searching investigation is at once made. They are visited in their situations periodically by the relieving officer, and, what is still better, occasionally by their teachers, whose knowledge of their dispositions enables them to judge more accurately of their welfare. When out of place (unless guilty of flagrant wrong-doing) they are allowed, until they are grown up, to return to the schools. A few young women who have, after that period needed such help, have been placed in Miss Twining's Industrial Home. The total number of children dealt with during twenty-eight years, have been


while the average number in the schools have been 230 boys, and 201 girls. Of those placed out by the authorities, 98 per cent. of the boys and 94 per cent. of the girls are known not to have entered the workhouse subsequently, and there is good reason to believe that almost all of these are doing well.

The children who have remained but a few months in the school, and, leaving with their parents, have been provided with occupation by them, are also believed to conduct themselves, as a rule, satisfactorily.

In seeking the source of a success so far above that ordinarily attained in pauper schools, we find several causes to which we think it may be attributed. Among these is the large staff of paid officers, viz. .34, the higher among whom have been many years in the establishment, and enjoying the confidence of their employers, throw themselves heartily into their work. The variety and interest of the occupations for which the boys are trained, and the thoroughness of their teaching, open a wide field of industry to their choice, and enable them to take a comparatively high position immediately on leaving the school. The careful preparation of the girls for domestic service secures for them good situations; while the frequent intercourse maintained between them and their former teachers, and especially the permission to return to the school when out of place, both saves them from the corrupting influence of the adult ward, and prevents their sinking under the blighting sense of being friendless and homeless at the very age when sympathy and protection are most needed. Another and potent reason for the success of the Limehouse School lies in the warm interest in its welfare evinced by the chairman and guardians, whose frequent visits imbue the children with the feeling that they are their friends, and inspire the wish to do credit to their benevolent care, not only at the public examinations of the School, but in after-life, when the conduct of the pupils tests the education they have received.

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