In the Local Government Board's Third Annual Report in 1874, a report on the education of pauper children in the Metropolitan District by E. Carleton Tufnell, Esq. included a number of accounts from those who had experienced the system first-hand. One particularly striking account, written by 'W.H.R.', was introduced as "the autobiography of a pauper boy, showing his ascent from the condition of a street Arab to competence and respectability." It provides a graphic description of life in the 1850s and 1860s at a union workhouse and at the South Metropolitan District School at Sutton.
The identity of 'W.H.R.' has long been a mystery. However, my own researches have uncovered the author's name which is revealed in my Workhouse Encyclopedia.
My own earliest recollections are associated with the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich. In a little back street called Warren Lane, which consists of a row of small houses on the one side and the bare blank wall of the Arsenal on the other, I remember we lived. When I say we, it should be understood to include father, mother, myself, sister, grandfather, grandmother, and two uncles, both then young men. We occupied a back room on the ground floor of No. 2.
My grandfather had rented the room many years, and was employed at the Arsenal works. He was a carpenter, and I have understood that he brought up only two sons and a daughter, my Mother, out of 12 children. He had in his time been a soldier. My two uncles at the time I am speaking of were both seafaring young men, although never long away from home. My father was a thorough sailor; he had been a sailor from his boyhood up, I have heard him say, and he used always to tell me I should be a sailor when I was old enough. The whole of the family were given to drink, and I could drink as well as could be expected at that age. My nickname was 'Boatswain,' and the command would be 'Boatswain, drink.' I need hardly say that I could practise deceit at that early period of my life. Many a time have I put the jug to my lips, made a pretence to take a good drink, and then handed it back. Sometimes I was caught, and then it would be 'drink again' accompanied, this time by a nickname not quite so flattering as 'Boatswain.'
My father was the only one of the family I really did fear, because when he beat me it was something awful. I remember upon one occasion he beat me for spending a halfpenny, which was the change I should have returned after some small errand I had to run. I ran away from home that night, and was taken care of by some women who lived at the back of our house. I need not say what sort of women they were, but they were kind, very kind indeed to me. I lived with them a considerable time and used to run their errands. They kept me till at last I was forced to return home, but I would not go till my father promised not to beat me again. He did not do so again upon that occasion.
I well remember the time I could not read, but I have no recollection of learning to swim. I was considered a little wonder at swimming, and my father used to boast of it. Indeed, it was very seldom I got a wash anywhere else but in the Thames; the end of Warren Lane abuts on the Thames. I associated with a lot of little boys, who lived in the neighbourhood, and we could most of us swim. Our usual playground was Plumstead Marshes or the streets of Woolwich. Would any one ask me if I was happy the answer to this day would, be that, provided may father was on a voyage, I was happy. My mother was always sickly, my grand-mother walked with a stick, my two uncles had scarce any control over me, my grandfather was all day at the Arsenal, and there was I, without a shoe or stocking and no cap, but as happy and as free as a bird. I loved to run to the Arsenal gate and see the soldiers march out in the morning; the fine brass band was the great attraction. I never remember wearing shoes till we left Woolwich, which would be when I was about six years old. I remember one Sunday morning I ventured inside the iron railing round the church which stands near the Arsenal at the top of Beresford Street. I peeped in the door and got a good cut with a stick for my pains. I never again ventured near a church till I was compelled to long afterwards.
Need any one be surprised to hear that at the time I am speaking of I could swear like a trooper? I could and did, was never corrected for it, and must say that I never to my knowledge heard God's name mentioned except with an oath. It sometimes happened that we would miss Johnny or Tommy at play, and then it would turn out he had been sent to school. I never was, and never thought I should be, but I was ever ready to beg a piece of slate-pencil to scribble on the pavement. I had no idea what School meant, and although I knew pretty near every street in Woolwich, and could tell the names of some places a good way beyond, and knew what a church was, I never knew where the school was, and I never had to find out. My sister was five years younger than myself. I generally got plenty to eat, though was well pleased to run an errand, for a piece of bread and treacle. My grandmother looked after me more than any one else, but she often had a job to catch me to comb my hair, which was always matted and the comb hurt me. I always avoided the comb if I could. To finish this part as briefly as possible, I can sum up by saying that I was a ragged little urchin without shoes and cap, but generally liked by the neighbours because I was good at running errands, was always considered sharp, knew the names of all the public-houses, round about, and delighted. in playing about the marshes or the streets, also fond of the water, never had been inside a church or school, but had acted, in a pantomime at the 'Theatre Royal' in Beresford Street. I must have been about six then, and my grandmother got something for my acting. She used to wait just inside the back entrance till I left the house. It was only a short stay I had every night while the pantomime lasted.
Somewhere about this time we, that is father, mother, little brother, and baby, and myself and sister left Woolwich. Where we went I don't know, but it could not have been far from Woolwich, as my uncle James came every Sunday to see us. My father seemed suddenly to get a great deal better off, and. we lived in a decent street in a tidy house, and had upstairs rooms as well as downstairs. To this day I could never make out how it was or where it was, but I know it for a fact. Here for the first time in my recollection I wore shoes, but only when compelled My father was a good deal away from home, though only for a short time at once. I' was never so happy here as at Woolwich; and used to beg my uncle to take me back every Sunday when he came. I know there were no slips to be seen, and I missed the water, also missed my playfellows, and was for a short time sent to a dame's school: it may give some better idea of how we were situated when I say that I remember. wearing occasionally a red velvet spencer. Such an article I think is not worn now, but I remember it well, but would not positively say it was velvet. I used also to see my little sister with shoes as well as myself. I remember upon one occasion in this house we had about a dozen sailors come and had dinner. It was such a dinner as I had never before seen in my life, and I also remember a wager was laid that the woodwork of a clock we had was not mahogany but stained wood. I remember thumping the man who chipped a little piece out of it. How the wager ended I don't know, but I got a silver sixpence and was well pleased with it. I showed it to mother and she bade me keep it. I think I have said before that my mother was sickly; I never knew her to cry so much as she used to in that house. Perhaps I noticed it because I was more with her; she was very indulgent to me. I don't think we stayed here long, but I know that my father talked of going to the West Indies, and I heard afterwards that he went to Jamaica and there died. I also heard years afterwards that he deserted us. Which is right to this day I don't know, but it was some time after he left that we returned to Woolwich.
My mother did not live long after our return; she and my little brother died the same night. It may seem strange, but I know that I lay wide awake on the floor in the old little back room, and next morning I saw them both. They were buried together in the old churchyard at Woolwich. I saw the spot long afterwards but did not follow the funeral. My grandfather had died long before we left Woolwich; my grandmother was now more feeble than ever, but she could walk with a stick. My two uncles were very unkind to her, and used to fight a good deal. James now took to selling fish, indeed he had done so for some time past, and had a stall on the market hill, where I used to love to watch him. However, I remember both uncles being away for some time; I think they must have taken a short voyage; at all events I was now very near starving. I seldom got much in-doors, and I don't think my grandmother had much to give us. I could sometimes get perhaps a penny, but whatever I got in the shape of money I always took to her, and generally I had to run and buy bread. Many is the pennyworth I have bought. Poor old woman, she must have been starving herself, but she would never let us want if she could help it. I think I was worse off than ever. My uncle James came back, but vowed he would not do anything for us unless grandmother would take us to the Union. She would not, and at last James left us altogether. I often saw him in the street, but did not dare speak to him: he was very cruel indeed. He afterwards opened a shop near the hill and sold fish. I must not forget to mention that once or twice a week we got a good dinner from a soup kitchen which was opened. My sister about this time was always ill. At last I remember we went before is lot of gentlemen (the Board of Guardians) and they asked me several questions. Where that occurred I do not remember, but I do remember shortly after being put into an omnibus with my sister, and leaving my grandmother crying and clinging to my uncle on Market-Hill. We were put down at a Union workhouse on the west side of London. I was then nearly eight years old.
I must say that my grandmother took a great deal of trouble to get myself and sister thoroughly clean before we went to the Union. My uncle James also bought us some new clothes, and I remember looking at my little sister with some feelings of pride to see her dressed so neat and clean. We were put down from the bus opposite the gate, and this conductor took us in. We were shown into the female receiving ward, and after waiting some time had dinner. It was on a Saturday, and we had pudding for dinner; we neither of us could eat it all and for some time after admission I could seldom eat all the meal served out; in fact I had not been used to regular meals, but got a little when I could. Hence I was often very hungry indeed between meals, but could not eat all when it came.
After dinner an old woman came and took all my clothes and then showed me into the bathroom, telling me to get in and not be afraid. I should think I was not afraid, indeed, I had been too much used to water. I was in the bath in a moment with a jump, but the next moment my screams and yells could be heard far and wide. The fact was, the water was hot, to me it appeared scalding hot. Mr. Willis the master came and several more, but could not get me in again. They lifted me, smacked me, coaxed, and at last used sheer force. I never was so afraid. in all my life; I thought they were going to kill me: Never before had I had such a thing as a hot bath; and never shall I forget it. They thought I was afraid of the water; it was not the water but the heat. I must not forget to mention that a string of not very refined language was largely mixed with my screams. I was a marked boy from that time.
When at last I got dressed in the uniform, Mr. Willis himself marched me off to the school, and, with a full and facetious account of my bath, left me in the custody of Mr. Darley the schoolmaster. It was Saturday afternoon, and the boys were 'kept in' for previous bad behaviour. They were all standing stock still round the school, and as quiet as could be. I looked at them and wondered at seeing so many and so still. Mr. D. asked me my name. I wouldn't answer. He asked me two or three times, but no answer. At last he got off the stool at the desk, and took hold of my shoulder, and said, 'What is your name.' I was out of his reach in a moment, and shouted out as loud as I could, 'Find, out, carrots.' He had red hair. There was a titter all round the school, and one of the monitors caught me by the collar, and got a punch in the head for his pains, which did not seem to hurt him in the least. He was a big boy, and had me up to the desk in no time. Mr. D. opened the desk and brought out a cane, and told me to look at it. I looked at the cane, but paid far more attention to the monitor who had hold of me. Mr. D. again wanted my name, and I wanted the monitor to leave go his hold and then I would tell. The monitor was ordered to leave go, and I sulked out in answer to the repeated query, Billy. At last he got my name, and to his credit he never touched me then to hurt me. It turned out that I was the smallest boy in the school, and had to stand at the end, as we were all in our sizes. I remember marching down the long passage into the dining hall to tea, and wondered whatever had become of my sister. When we got into the dining-hall, the thought struck me I might possibly see her; but no. I found out after, that she was on the infants list, and they did not attend the hall. All this time I had been very sulky, and when at last I had my bed pointed out, and when Mr. Waters the shoemaker had undressed me and put me into bed I felt so relieved. The boys soon began to make a noise in the bed-room, but not so myself. I remember putting my head right under the bed-clothes, and having such a quiet cry. Night after night I did the same, and used to long for the night to come so that I might cry, without being noticed. The next day, Sunday, we went to church, the dining hall Everything seemed very strange indeed. I had never before heard prayers of any kind, and of course did not understand them. I had often heard songs sung in a public house, and wondered to hear every one singing here. It did seem strange altogether.
I remember also when we came out of church the monitor came and pulled me out in front for having been fast asleep in church. Several others were 'stood out' as well as myself. I had also been talking, and that, coupled with what I had done the day before, I suppose it was, determined Mr. Waters the shoemaker to punish me. He had a small cane behind his back when he told me to put up my hand. I had not the least idea what he meant doing, and when he took my hand and himself put it out, I simply looked sullenly at my own outstretched hand. Presently, and without my being aware of it, down came the cane on my outstretched palm. The pain to me was intense. I yelled and flew at him, and before he was aware, had given him one or two good kicks. He then belaboured me pretty much the same style I had been used to, viz., all over; but not one touch seemed to hurt me so much as that stripe on the hand. After giving me a good caning, he wanted the other hand, but it was no use, he did not get it. It was sheer fright that made me obstinate.
After it was all over, and we had returned from dinner and got into the playground, I seemed to make friends with some of the boys, especially one big boy named Lloyd, who knew me before I went there. There were also several boys, I might say about half a dozen, who knew me before I went there. The boys were walking very orderly about the playground, but I longed to go to the little room in Woolwich again and see my grandmother. I fully made up my mind to tell her about the beating I had received. It might be about three o'clock when Mr. Waters showed himself in the yard. I little dreamed that I was as much in his power as ever, for directly I saw him I flung a stone at him and ran away. He never moved and the stone never hit him, but I was wholly surprised, to see three or four boys run after me and in spite of utmost efforts to release myself, I was brought face to face with Mr. Waters. He caught hold of me, boxed my ears well; and took me into the schoolroom, and made me stand on a form all the afternoon. There I was in the schoolroom all alone, and did not dare get off the form. In very truth I began to see that there was no back door to get away, and that I must very much alter. As the pain wore off I began thinking of home, to me a happy home, about all connected with it; and more than all, about my sister. How I did wonder what had become of her. All the time I kept on crying, till at last the door opened and a lady came in; it turned out to be Mrs. Maurice the schoolmistress. She began talking to me and I listened. She spoke kindly; I seemed to like her, and showed her my hand, where I had had the stripe. She gave me a deal of advice, and went and begged me off the form. She had prevailed upon me to stop sobbing, but no sooner had she gone, than I was at it again. We had divine service again in the evening, and I got into trouble again for being asleep. This time I was let off, and so got quietly to bed, to again put my head right under the clothes and cry quietly, and wonder what ever had become of my sister. Thus my second night in the Union was like my first, in that I cried myself to sleep.
I believe I have a very good memory, and now that I attempt to write this out on paper, it seems as though it were only yesterday it all happened. The next day, Monday, opened my eyes very considerably. All passed off well till 9 o'clock, when we went in school. I was put in the lowest class with the other little boys, but soon got tired of it. I longed to be about the streets again, and wondered when it would all come to an end. It seemed as though I must get into trouble, for that day I got a stripe on each hand from Mr. Darley. This system of cutting the hand with a cane was certainly a new thing to me, and it seemed also to hurt me more than any other method of punishment could. I had never, before going to the Union, had a beating without seeing father or uncle, or some of them, who were beating me very much out of temper; but here the operation, let him be who he would, and we were subject to three, the tailor, shoemaker, and schoolmaster, always took it so coolly. It made me most awfully afraid of them.
I may as well here make a short digression to show how the school was managed. The schoolmaster and pupil teacher, together with four monitors, who were dressed differently to the rest, had entire charge of us during school hours. Apart from school time we seldom saw the schoolmaster, except in the dining hall, hut were under the control of either the tailor or shoemaker, or both, together with pupil teacher and monitors. The tailor and shoemaker had just the same power of caning as the schoolmaster. Between the three, there was a great deal of caning, and I shall have occasion to speak of it again presently.
I looked upon all three as brutes, and as far as the shoemaker is concerned, I have not yet altered my opinion. He did really seem to me to love to flog the boys. I once saw a boy with the two sides of his face black and blue. He showed it to the master in the dining-hall, and I believe Mr. Waters, the shoemaker, got into trouble over that. I also saw him once in the shoemaker's shop offer a boy a penny to take four cuts on one hand without flinching. The boy put his open hand on the cutting board and took the four cuts, but Mr. Waters would not give him the penny. I could give other instances of this man's what I call cruelty, but am afraid of being tedious.
I have been thus far, rather minute, because I think it is to get the first impression which school discipline has on the poor little street boy that you particularly want. To sum it up shortly, I must say that in my case it was fear. The utter impossibility of getting away and the terrible certainty of the cane for misbehaviour inspired me with terror. I had it more for bad language than anything else. It was no use trying to love the masters; I dreaded them. I seldom joined the boys in play for a long time; and it was not long after I was in the Union, that I was put in the infirmary. I was taken ill, and I believe it was brought on by freezing. My old home, humble and indeed almost uninhabitable as it was, to me seemed the happiest place in the world.
I suppose it must have been about a month after admission that I first saw my sister, although every Wednesday afternoon we were allowed to visit each other. I had no idea, nor did my little sister, why the boys went after supper into the dining hall; it was to see their relatives. The first Wednesday afternoon in the month was visiting day, and my grandmother was at the gate punctually at 1 o'clock, and so I was brought from the infirmary to see her. I had been ill, and was getting a bit better, and so was allowed to go, but it was not without the doctor's permission. He happened to be in the surgery, and the old nurse took me to him. How pleased I was to see her, also my sister for the first time. I begged hard of my old grand-mother to take me away, but it was no use. I may as well here mention that all the time the old lady lived, which as near as I can guess, must have been about 13 months after my admission, she never but once missed seeing me on visiting day, although she had to walk all the way from Woolwich, 3 miles, and she was aged and walked with a stick. I was always the first they called, to the porter's lodge to see her. I never had a Christmas dinner at the Union, though I must have been there about seven years. My uncle James was doing pretty well, having got a tidy little business as fishmonger, and he always contrived to have me out at Christmas. My little sister never went out from the day she went in. She remembered her mother, father, and all of them also, when we used to live away from Woolwich indeed, she could recollect that time better than the other. On. visiting nights we used to talk a great deal about old times, and both of us used to wish we were away. She used to beg to see Woolwich again, but she never did. She died at Sutton at the age of 15, and now lies in Sutton churchyard. I shall perhaps say more of her farther on.
To resume my tale of Union life, I seemed somehow to fall in with the discipline after a bit, and when finally I knew right from wrong, I did not get beaten nearly so much. Mr. Waters, I think, was the first of our masters to leave. I remember most of the boys. seemed half wild with joy when he left. He must have been very much disliked. Mr. Darley, the schoolmaster, was the next to go. For my own part, I was rather sorry when he went. I should say now he was a kind-hearted man. He was succeeded by a Mr. Mullen, who had not been in the school a couple. of days before he made himself a hero with us boys, as he was the means of taking the power of flogging from the tailor and shoemaker. We loved him, they disliked him. However, I don't think he stayed long, but he used to work us very hard in school. I remember his leaving one Sunday, and I remember Roberts, the pupil teacher, crying. I was well-up in the third class when, Mr. Mullen left. He was succeeded by Mr. Saltley, and I believe him to be about the best schoolmaster we had. My the time be left I had worked my way from the third to the first class, and thence to a suit of blue, the uniform of a monitor, and a class of my own, the fourth.
It might be supposed that this was a happy time for me at the workhouse, and that I was thoroughly reconciled to my mode or life which was not the case, and it may hardly seem credible that this was really the worst part of my life. I look back to it to this day with feelings of almost hatred to one man, the muster tailor, Mr. Allen.
It was shortly after Mr. Saltley came that the then master tailor took me away from the school and I was made a tailor; three days I worked in the shop and three days weekly were spent in school. By that time I had become thoroughly used to my lot, very seldom was in trouble, enjoyed the sports in the boys yard, did not seem to have that longing to leave that I used to have, and in fact, was as happy and as hungry as ever I was in my life.
By the bye, boys under 12 at this Union are or were under-fed, 4 ozs. of sop bread for breakfast, 4 ozs. bread and butter for supper, and dinner in proportion is not enough. I know it because I have gone through it, and although from that time to this my life has been spent in workhouse schools or workhouses, I never knew such a scanty ration served out to boys between 6 and 12. But to resume.
Things with me went on well till Mr. Allen came as tailor. He early took a great dislike to me. Why, I cannot say, but certain he did. Three days in the week I was under him, and except the first month or so, got regularly two thrashings a day. I think I mentioned before that through the instrumentality of Mr. Mullen neither the tailor nor shoemaker were really allowed to beat us. Allen, however, did it, but though we did not dare tell the schoolmaster, yet we knew that he did not dare let Saltley know it. I say it now fearlessly, and I am well aware who will read these words, that Allen had me thrashed by, the schoolmaster, Mr. Saltley, on an average twice a day, that is twice a day on three days of the week. He seldom pretended in the shop that I was guilty of any wrong, but as regularly as he went to his luncheon I went with him to the school, and a few words whispered in Mr. Saltley's ear did the business. Mr. Saltley was wrong in not asking me any questions; it generally was a mere whisper and then a flogging.
Once only do I remember hearing the charge, but I should be really ashamed even if you were to wish me to, to write it on paper. That man, sir, was a blackguard, and may God forgive him. He was in my opinion the most paltry liar I ever met with. I do not say that all the boys disliked him so much as they did Mr. Waters, but almost every boy in the school pitied me, though they did not dare nay so. I will give one instance of his manners to me. It was Sunday evening; the boys were standing in lines round the school singing hymns end he was in charge. I should say he was over 6 feet high, and a powerful broad-built man. I must have been standing about 6 inches over the line. He came walking down the school with his arms folded, walking very slowly. I vas looking at him and singing; he pretended to be looking right straight in front of him. He marched just where I stood, and without appearing to take the slightest notice of me, I was felled to the floor with one of the most awful open-handed smacks I have ever had. I was taken up insensible and the blood spurting from my ear. I have never thoroughly got over it. At Sutton I suffered more with it than I have done of late years, but there is never a winter goes by when I do not feel much pain in the ears and head generally. It generally comes on by my feeling very dizzy; I know then what is coming and am never deceived. The affair was very cruel but I think was hushed up. He did not have me thrashed for two or three days after that, and he seemed very friendly to me in the shop. I think his whole system with me might possibly have changed, but it was told him that I said that if ever I lived to be a man and came across him he should be paid back. He asked me one day in the shop if it was true. I looked him steadily in the face and acknowledged it was true and I still meant it. His manner to me was, if anything, worse from that day forward till he left. I do now really and sincerely believe that if that man had stayed at the Union another 12 mouths he would have left me there for life a drivelling idiot.
There were, however, good times in store for me, when his successor, Mr. Porter, came. A few words more about Mr. Allen and I will leave off for the present. He ran away with the daughter of Mrs. Maurice, the schoolmistress, and was fortunate to obtain a several situations in the Poor law. At last he was compelled to give it up, left his wife and family to do the best they could, and went to Australia.
When Mr. Allen left the workhouse we were all very glad, but no one more so than myself. It is not of one or two acts that I complain. Almost the whole time he was there I was regularly thrashed, and it was quite a common thing for the boys to examine the marks about my body every Saturday when we went to the bath. I think I forgot to mention that previous to the advent of Mr. Saltley as schoolmaster, we were for sometime under the tuition of a Mr. Dawson. As far as I remember, he was a very easy going man; we never saw anything of him except in school-time and at dinner and supper in the dining hall. He used to work in school by what I call fits and starts. When he worked it was only with the first class. I was in the third, and used to mentally resolve never to get into the first. I now think him to have been a well-disposed man to us boys, I never knew him to beat a boy for the mere whim of the thing. But it was dreadful to see him teach. I remember him as almost always teaching arithmetic, and to multiply the second and third term together and divide by the first was his constant theme. He used to scream it out at the fop of his voice, and to see him throw a ruler, or a cane, or the chalk, or any thing that happened to be handy, it the poor unfortunate boy who could not understand, and also to note the passion he would get in, was enough to make us youngsters glad we were not in the first class. Indeed, while he was teaching, the rest of the school was perfectly silent. It was no uncommon thing however for him to play with the first class at anything, and I have seen him also letting off fireworks in school for our amusement. It may easily be supposed that while he was there the tailor and the shoemaker had unlimited power with the cane. It was a little time after Mr. Saltley came that that power was again taken from them. Mr. Saltley, like Mr. Mullen, would not allow it. I remember when Mr. Porter succeeded Mr. Allen as master tailor I thought that perhaps I should not now be knocked about nearly so much. Neither was I, but he used always to call me a fool, at least for a long while. The fact was that directly he stretched out his hand to take my work I used to start on one side as though he meant striking. If he spoke to me unawares it was with a start and a shudder that I answered any how, generally the first thing that cause into my hand. I never seemed to think at all about what he was saying, but my whole fear was a beating. It was the same in school. How I used to dread Mr. Saltley taking the third class, and yet he never to my knowledge wilfully punished a boy wrongfully, but I was afraid of them all. I was cunning enough to ask to leave the room whenever he took the class, and generally came back when I thought he would be done. It was about this time, or rather while Mr. Allen was at the Union, that I began to stammer. I certainly did get very bad at it, and did not thoroughly get over it till after leaving Sutton. The slightest excitement and I was all but speechless; if ever I did anything wrong, or fancied I was in any trouble, it was just the same.
I must, however, go back to Mr. Porter. He I should say was the most feeling and fatherly man that ever went there. It was not the sharp short 'Coss' when he gave me work or called me, but it was 'there, Cossy,' or 'now, Cossy, come here and get me a goose off the fire and clean it, boy.' Need I say that I gradually began not to be afraid of him, and many a time when I have been rubbing the goose just outside the shop floor, the tears have started into my eyes and have dropt simmering on the hot iron to think of the difference between him and Allen. At first I would take in the goose and simply put it down, but gradually I learned to think that it should be placed handy and on a stand, so as not to injure the board, &c. In fact, in lots of little ways I began to use my thinking powers, and here let me remark that the one system will make a bay think of but one thing, and that is how to keep out of sight as much as possible, and escape a thrashing, Gradually also I began not to be afraid of Mr. Saltley although he had flogged me more than any schoolmaster there, but it must be borne in mind it was always at the instigation of Mr. Allen. He would not allow Allen to do it if he knew.
From the third class I got to the second, and now was happy at the work-house as ever I was, and did not care much whether it was my day at work, or in school. I passed whole weeks without, a hiding and at last got into the first class. When that time came, I was not at all glad. I remembered Mr. Dawson, and though Mr. Saltley was not like him still he worked, the first class very hard; and I distrusted my own powers of keeping pace with the other boys. It should also be remembered that I was generally excused reading when it came to my turn, on account of my stammering so much, and when I got into the fast class Mr. Saltley would not excuse it, and so I had to take my turn at reading. I had not been long in the first class and was really trying to get on, when you, sir, came one day to examine the school. Of course I had seen you before, but I have reason to remember you this time. I remember we had to write out the Lord's prayer. I think this task took us all, Mr. Saltley as well, by surprise. You seemed also particularly sharp to prevent copying, and you had looked over about a dozen slates, the pupil teacher handing them to you, when my own was taken. You asked whose it was, called me off the gallery and asked how long I had been in the school, how old I was, whether I was an orphan, but not one word did you say about the exercise. I returned to my place, and should say as exact as I can remember, that in another fortnight, I was a monitor. You also remarked about my stammering and Mr. Saltley prided himself to you that he had to a great extent cured me himself. He had to a certain extent, but not to a great extent. I was now taken from the tailor's shop, entirely, and not long after both Mr. Porter and Mr. Saltley left. Mr. Lemon now became school-master and Mr. Daintry tailor. Mr. Lemon seemed to me to be school teacher and nothing else; he took not the slightest notice of us out of school hours, and consequently the tailor, Mr. Daintry, and Drood the shoemaker, had the run of the cane. I have not said much so far of Drood. He succeeded Mr. Waters, who was there when I went. As far as I remember he was, never loved by the boys, but he was far from being an unkind man. He seldom used the cane, but when be did he generally took a good deal of pains to get the right boy, and then laid on soundly. I should say from my own subsequent experience that, he was a real good officer, though not like Mr. Porter. Mr. Daintry was just a repetition of Mr. Waters, who loved to see boys, no matter who, writhe under the cane. Mr. Daintry was the same; Mr. Allen was different. He had 'spotted dogs,' and I was the most 'spotted' of all.
Mr. Lemon did not stay very long, and Roberts, or as we now had to call him, Mr. Roberts, the pupil teacher, really became schoolmaster. We had for a long time heard about Sutton, but so far as I was concerned, I did not then relish the idea of going there so much as one might imagine. You see, sir, I was now Mr. Roberts' best man. I was head monitor, and the tailor and shoemaker had very little to do with me.
I think it would he as well to state a short account of one really good hiding I got before leaving for Sutton. I was bead monitor, but my conduct out of school hours did not please Mr. Daintry; there were never names enough on the slate for bad behaviour, and at last he pulled a boy named Burney out of the ranks, only. a third class boy, and I was to write down the names of bad boys at his dictation. In fact, out of school hours, and in the absence of the tailor or shoemaker, Burney became bead monitor, and I was nowhere. Things went on like this for some time, till one day I took the slate from the desk and cleaned it. I wanted the slate to write on. the names of boys staying out of the dining-hall, so that I might draw their dinners. The slate was full of names ready for Daintry to flog when I cleaned it. I had not taken the trouble to look, and when Burney reported it, Mr. Daintry was almost wild with passion. Burney could not remember all the names, and Daintry, said I should suffer for the lot, which I did,. At first I thought it would simply be to lose my suit of blue and go back into the ranks, but it was not to be so. He brought out what we used, to call the 'Madman's cane,' a thick red one, and he ordered the to hold out my hand. I refused on the ground that the utmost a monitor should suffer was the loss of his place. In a moment he had my right arm twisted completely round, with the back of my right hand fixed firmly on his left knee, palm upwards. He beat it till the blood dropped on the floor. His left hand held my wrist on to his knee like a vice, and as I opened and shut my hand I caught the cane all over it, The pain was intense, and worse as I had a half healed cut on the hand at the time. The doctor heard of it, and I was put in the infirmary till my hand got well. I regretted very much going to the infirmary, because while I was there, the then head monitor, Jack Ricketts, got the chance which otherwise would have been mine, and went to Sutton, some three months before the other boys, to be a kind of messenger.
The Guardians gave the place to the head monitor; though Mr. Roberts did try for me to go, but with my poor hand in a sling, and covered almost all over with bruises, the doctor said it would not be me, and I think he was right.
My workhouse career is now drawing to a close, but before I enter the South Metropolitan District School at Sutton I should just like to say a few words more of the workhouse. In the first place, the diet of boys from 6 to 12 was the same. It was not enough. Every boy had the scraps of bread, 'odds and ends' in fact, put into a basin and filled with water and milk, not milk and water. If you would, sir, just take 4 oz. of bread and cut it into eight parts, then put the water and milk on it, you would see what sort of a breakfast a boy turned 11 years of age had to last him from 6 o'clock in the morning, till 12. The dinner was in proportion; if we had meat for dinner, it was 3 oz., and the potatoes were never weighed; but I have been so very hungry, that when I have seen the small piece of meat, and perhaps three potatoes come for me, I have felt as though it was not near enough before I tasted it. If, as was not unfrequently the case, one or two, or perhaps all three of the potatoes turned out bad, why, there was the meat only. At supper there was the half slice: of bread and butter (4 oz. bread) and a half pint of water and milk. I am of short stature, and I always put down my stunted growth to the fact of my being under-fed at the Union. As a result of this under-feeding, I may say that nearly every boy who was fortunate enough to have a halfpenny or a penny would directly after breakfast hang about the stairs leading to the bed-rooms to catch the old women who used to make the beds, and ask if they had an allowance of bread for sale. Many is the allowance (6 oz. bread) I have seen boys buy of the old women, and have also bought many myself. Boys also got into the habit of buying and selling their own rations. Thus, if Bob Jones coveted Joe Smith's top, he would offer Joe half his supper far it, At. the same time, perhaps, Bob had a mother in the house, who was certain to send by one of the bedroom women an allowance of bread for her boy Bob in the morning. If I remember rightly, nearly all our meat dinners consisted of salt beef. It was very salt, there was no water, and the wash-house was generally locked, except when we were washing. How I have suffered with thirst. Not one drop of water to be got, except during washing time. The only kind act I ever remember Mr. Allen doing me was when he first went to the workhouse. It was one Sunday afternoon. I was locked in school by myself on account of bad eyes, and was almost mad with thirst. The day was fearfully hot, and I lay on the gallery at the far end of the school all alone moaning, and I suppose making too much noise for Mr. Allen, whose room was just the other end. How long I had been so, I cannot say, but while my face was buried in my hands and knees Mr. Allen touched me, and asked what I wanted. I begged him to give me a drink, and he did. I fancy I see him now with a large jug of water. To me it was delicious. He went straight to the playground and opened the wash-house, and so every boy had a drink.
After all, I had a great deal to be thankful for at the workhouse. I entered it like a little heathen. Before going there, I had roamed unchecked about Woolwich, learning all kinds of wickedness and vice. Had that life continued, with no one but my poor old grandmother to look after me, I should soon have been far beyond her control, and I believe must eventually have been sent to prison, and perhaps as a transport. By the bye, I knew what convicts were from my earliest infancy, having seen them at Woolwich. As it was, I was now nearly 14 years of age, knew how to read, write, and calculate pretty fairly, had learned that God's name was sometimes mentioned without an oath, and also outside the walls of a public house. I had read well lots of Scripture tales, and had also a small library of any own. I had about eight or nine books, which I used to lend out on Sundays to the other boys. I generally took a little pride in my work too, whatever it was, and had lots of little opportunities of doing something for my little sister. As a monitor I got 2d. a week, as head monitor 4d., and so could now and then take her something when I went to see her. Poor little girl. She was the only relative I had in the world, except may uncle James, and he never came to see us except at Christmas, when he always took me out for a few days. He did not live in the little back room in Warren Lane, but whenever I went out, I used always to go and stand just outside the old house, and think of my mother and grandmother. I have often since wished she had lived, so that I might have been a blessing to her, poor old creature. She surely must be in heaven. I had not long returned from the infirmary when it was definitely settled that we were to go to the South Metropolitan District School at Sutton by the 9th April. It fell on a Monday, and on the Saturday night previous I lost my suit of blue. The fact was, that I was among the 60 going, and as we all had a new suit of cords my blue monitorial dress, that I had preserved from the day Mr. Porter gave it me, was at last sacrificed. As I stood in the ranks on Monday morning, some of the other boys smiled at me; others said outright that I need not expect to be a monitor at Sutton, and get 4d. a week for telling tales. Others, again, said that I had been a thorough good monitor, and one big fellow, named Smith, with one eye, prophesied I should be a monitor again at Sutton. I paid very little attention, but was wondering if Sutton would be such a place as the Union. We had an early dinner, and Mr. Willis, the governor, came to look at us just before starting. He called my name, said he hardly knew me in cords, and gave me half a-crown; there was about 1s.6d. due to me. I cannot say that I left the workhouse without regret, as I got outside, and turned round to have a last look. I thought of my little sister who was lying very ill in the infirmary, and whom I had not seen for weeks. I wondered if ever I should see her again; but I tried to look cheerful; and kept feeling my half-crown. When we reached the railway station, I was surprised to see both Mr. Willis and Roberts get in with us. It was the first ride in a train I ever had, indeed I had never but once before seen one. When we got out at the Sutton station, all eyes were directed to the schools on the hill. It did certainly look a magnificent place, and as I got up nearer to it, with my hand in Roberts', I admired it the more, and resolved to do the best I could there.
We all passed into the dining hall, and I stood exactly at the end of the front row, where the harmonium was. There was a good deal of speaking, and I thought at the time that a lame guardian from Greenwich spoke the best. After that, Mr. Dennett told us, to sing the national anthem, but my astonishment was intense to hear the harmonium. I had never in my life heard or seen such a thing, but at the end of the seat where I was only the back part was visible to me, and I stood there puzzling my brains to know how he played. However, I was soon brought to my senses to move on, and I was the first boy who had the bun and orange, which was served out to us all. Then we were marched into the playground, and to see the fine large yard made me forget the workhouse and all connected with it, sister as well, for the time being. My cap went flying up into the air, the orange and bun went after it, and I felt as though I could go too. I was fairly wild with delight, the place seemed so big. We were from different parishes, but we soon got asking one another if we could play such and such a game. The Rotherhithe boys had coats like policemen, and it was the best fun to stick up the collar and chalk the number on it. I was happy; we were all so to a certain extent, but some, who had left mothers behind in the workhouses, were crying before the night was over.
When we went into the bed-rooms, I was again astonished at the bigness of the rooms, indeed every thing seemed to be on a large scale. How most of us did romp about the rooms that night; the Rotherhithe boys' coats again coming into requisition. At last we settled down a bit, and I began talking about the man who played the music, and wondered how he did it, when it was said on all sides that he played with the fingers. I did really think he was the most wonderful man I ever knew. Next morning I was one of the last boys up, and when we went downstairs, I was surprised to see some of the boys cutting up large turnip-looking things (I afterwards learnt they were mangel-wurzels), and eating them, I had never before seen one, but, after getting a taste, was quite willing to invest a halfpenny for a good slice of one, and ate it at once. When we went to breakfast it seemed such a treat to get a good slice of bread and butter instead of the sop crumbs. The boys soon began to fraternise with each other, and considering how we had come together I think we got on capitally.
We did not go into the school next day, and while I was playing with the others, Mr. Todhunter came into the yard and inquired after me. The boys seemed to take no notice of his being in the yard (rather different from the workhouse that), and of course I did not till beckoned me and put his right am round my shoulder and walked me up the yard. We walked about half a dozen steps in silence, and then he asked me my name, and whether I should like to be a teacher. I answered at once 'yes'. He asked if I had any friends to ask about it, and my answer was 'no,' and if I had I should not ask them. I think Roberts must have made it his business to speak for me the day before, but I have never found out since. My answer seemed to please him, and he told me to go to his room and take the breakfast things away and tidy it up a bit. From that time I was 'schoolmaster's boy,' and was pleased with the post. Directly I got in the room I saw Mr. Dennett and the harmonium. He asked me a few questions, and left me. He had hardly turned his back when I touched the harmonium, but the puzzle was where to touch it. I pressed both my hands nearly all over it, but no sound. I gave it up, and cleared away the things, and was sweeping up the hearth when Mr. Dennett came in and began playing at once. I dropped the broom and looked at him in sheer surprise. The next time I was alone in the room I took a chair and began as he did, but no sound came; every key I touched but still the same result. Then I fancied it must be broken, and I looked underneath, pushed the bellows down with my hands to see better, and again tried. This tune them was a sound, but of short duration. At last I gave it up as a bad job, and wondered whether it was broken.
The next morning I was up early getting a fire and cleaning up, when Sinclair, the pupil teacher, put his head in the room, and asked if he might touch the harmonium. I told him it was no use, as it 'would not go,' when to my astonishment he played with one hand the national anthem. I thought Mr. Dennett clever, but to play a tune, and with one hand only, was simply wonderful.
I have thought this little incident of the harmonium worth relating, because it may show how very stupid a boy must seem to his employers when he leaves the workhouse to go out into the world for the first time. Many a time since I have bad it in my power to speak a good word for a boy or girl to the employers when they have complained of a child's stupidity. I have stood and talked with people by the hour together, and have generally prevailed upon them to let willingness cover a great deal of stupidity. Hence it generally gains, if new boys offer their help and merit.
From that time I meant cultivating the acquaintance of Sinclair, and was not long in school before I found he was a long way beyond me. Indeed, whether I was the best scholar at the Union or not, I very soon found that there were plenty here before me. Mr. Todhunter must have found it out too, for I was not to be a teacher that year, but his choice fell on Sinclair and Perrott. They were both apprenticed, and I was promised for next year, but after George Perrott gave it up, then my chance came. Although I was not to be a pupil teacher just then I still kept on being 'schoolmaster's boy,' and one day when Mr. Todhunter gave them both leave to go out for a walk by themselves, I stood by, and, after they bad gone, he asked me if I should like to go. Of course I said 'yes, sir,' and a little note to the Superintendent, from whom I got a tin ticket which passed me out of the gate, did the business. I can never forget how I felt as I went down the long road by myself. One would have thought I should run to catch the other two, but somehow I wanted to be by myself, and so I sauntered up the Downs, thinking as I went along how different from the workhouse. Here I was trusted, and seemed to be as free as in the old days of playing on the Plumstead marshes. Is it, I wonder, childish of me now to confess that before I got to the end of the road I several times rubbed my eyes to make sure whether it be so or not? I don't think anyone but he who has under-gone the same thing can thoroughly enter into the emotions of the workhouse boy being trusted out for the first time alone, nor do I think anyone else should judge harshly or laugh derisively at him. God help him, poor boy I I've befriended scores since, and hope I shall yet again.
I will just relate how it came about that after all I was to be a teacher that year, and will then sum up my Sutton career in as few words as possible. Perrott after a few months got thoroughly tired of being continually in school, and at last fairly rebelled against it. Nothing could induce him to continue it; and I shall never forget one morning while I was putting Mr. Todhunter's parlour to rights how he brought Perrott into the room and must have talked with him for at least an hour. No father could have advised a son better; I seemed to really love him, and at last he asked me in Perrott's presence if I was ready to take his place. I knew I was not scholar enough, and told him so, but he said he did not mind that, and I promised to try. Some time after I was cleaning the floor in the afternoon, and you, sir, walked into the room. I had at a moment's notice to clear away pail, &c., and sit down to the examination. Mr. Todhunter had previously worked me up very much for the examination, but still I was not fit, and after you had looked at the papers, you, sir, declined to take them away, but they had to be done over again and forwarded on. Hence it was not nearly a year before I was called upon to pass my second examination. Mr. Todhunter worked far harder with me than the others, and I am sorry to say I did not take it kindly of him. I did not see why I should have more lessons to learn than they, and when an exercise had to be done over again it was with a good deal of private grumbling on my part. I had not sense enough to see it was all for my good. I should say that not one boy in a hundred ever thinks of the immense advantages he has in such a school, nor do they in the least appreciate at the time what is there done for then.
I will, however, go on with my own case. Often while at the workhouse in the dining-hall I have looked over to the young men's side, and have envied them exceedingly. No thrashing for them, far more to eat than I had, as was evidenced by the fact of their always having food for sale to its boys, and they to me always seemed happy; besides they could go in and out as they liked. this I knew, and longed for the time to come when I could do likewise. Such a thing as getting may own living and being for ever independent of the workhouse never struck me. Nor did I really very seriously take a dislike to the workhouse till long after being at Sutton. Mind, I hated the workhouse school, but to be on the men's side was quite a different matter. There I knew them as always being happy, and doing pretty much as they liked, with the power of staying or going as they thought fit. Could anything to the poor workhouse boy's eyes be more enjoyable. Therefore it was that after getting used to my lot at Sutton. I never seemed to thank Mr. Todhunter for all his extra pains with me. I accepted the post of teacher because I knew it to be the best place in the school, but it must have been some two or three years before I gave up all thoughts of again turning to the men's side of the workhouse in after life. Mind, I do not say such is the case with children now, who are placed while young in the district school, but it must be remembered that I had had nearly seven years of the workhouse discipline, and I now say most truthfully that the result was to make me dislike the school because of the discipline, and to long for the men's side, where, if they ever had to work hard and laboriously, I never saw them. The bright side only of their existence was visible to me in those days.
Many a time when Mr. Todhunter has been lecturing me on my want of proper carefulness and attention to my studies, I have stood very patiently, thinking if it came to the worst he pointed out it would only be the "men's side," and that I did not dread. It was not so much his lessons and exercises which drove the thoughts away as the habit of reading I got into. All kinds of books, especially history and travel, I eagerly devoured, and the result was that I opened my eyes to the fact that if ever I was a 'workhouse bird' for life, I should never have an opportunity of gratifying my then most ardent wish to travel. Mr. Todhunter indulged my fancy for reading, and Lord Macaulay's Essays on Clive and Warren Hastings did me incalculable good. I longed to go to India, and when he told me one day that perhaps I might become a teacher there if I would but try, the workhouse spell was broken. I thought of it, and worked hard for it. My object, the first really definite object I ever had in my life, was to be an army schoolmaster, so that I was then sure to travel abroad somewhere. I did try, and all but succeeded, but as my stunted stature floored me at last.
It will thus be seen that though I preferred Sutton to the workhouse, it was only Sutton school to the workhouse school. That dread of being always in a workhouse was at Sutton firmly implanted in me. I do not think, had I remained in the workhouse, that I should ever have come to a prison, but I do think it very possible that I should never have risen a step above the paper element. At Sutton, however, the thing was done. The spell seemed broken; the idea of always being a pauper I at last held in abhorrence, or in other words, at the South Metropolitan District School at Sutton I was thoroughly depauperised, for come what would in a fair way, I was determined never again to enter the workhouse as a pauper.
As an instance of this determination, I will just mention that after leaving the S. Union, where I had been engaged as a schoolmaster, and remaining nearly three months out of employ, and just before being appointed schoolmaster at another school, I was as nearly as possible going to America, where I had no idea of what I was going to do, and where I should not have landed with 20s. in the world. I was reduced very much at the time, but anything before the workhouse. The day I was appointed to the school I had promised to pay for my ticket to New York.
My history at Sutton varied but little from year to year. There were no changes, except when Mr. Gilligan took Mr. Dennett's place. Twice only while there I had my ears boxed, once by Mr. Dennett, and I thoroughly deserved it, and more than it, and once by Mr. Todhunter, when I did not deserve it. Mr. Todhunter was under a wrong impression at the time, and my stupid stammering seemed to tie my tongue. He gave me one good box on the ear, and ordered me to the teacher's room. We were alone at the time about six in the evening. I looked at him amazed, but did not utter it sound. He found out his mistake in about twenty minutes, and then he apologised; but he did not do it privately, but in the presence of all the teachers. How I did love him, and that night I went early to bed, and lay very quiet. Those were the only two occasions I was ever, what shall I say, touched. How different from the workhouse!
I must say that at Sutton I was thoughtless and happy. Had I but known what an opportunity I was having, could I but have foreseen what use all the instruction would have been to me in later life, how differently I would have employed may time. Mr. Todhunter never should have had half the trouble he had to make me do my work, and more than my work, and you, sir, would never have known me as a workhouse schoolmaster. I hope I should have been far superior to it.
A few more words, and I must dismiss my Sutton history. My sister came there about six months after myself; she looked very ill, and in fact never thoroughly recovered. From the first day of our entering the workhouse till the last day of her life, she never knew what it was to go out for a holiday. Her one great desire was to see Woolwich again, but she never did. My uncle James never did take much notice of her, and so she really pined away, and died in 1858. He took no notice of me either after I got to Sutton. I may perhaps plead in extenuation of my one great fault at Sutton, thoughtlessness, that the long long illness of the poor little girl had something to do with it. She, or rather her poor frail body, lies in Sutton churchyard, and I hope the same spot may be ready for me when the time comes. I have also another wish, which I continually cherish. It is this, that should I ever grow old, and have the means to spend the last few years of my life free from work, that those years may be spent at Sutton, as near the school as possible, so that I may pass away to a far better country, where there are no `gutter children,' with the dear old building as plainly visible us possible from the window of the sick room, where I hope to die.
Will the great God above, who has guarded me all my life long, and who has indeed been a father to the fatherless, and the orphan's stay, answer my prayer? I trust he will, and believe he will. I don't feel to be able to write more. Would you wish me to say anything more about Mr. Todhunter? I seem as though I could not. I almost reverence him, and will leave it for him to say if my subsequent behaviour to him has shown me to be grateful or not. I seem as though wanted to say something more, but really cannot express it.— W.H.R.
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