Ancestry UK

Visit to a Pauper School
by "S.L.B."


A cold morning, with a damp atmosphere, which gave no promise of future sunshine, made an extra effort necessary to rise from our comfortable beds, and prepare for a day in the country. But our arrangements had all been made regardless of weather, and, as the train whirled us out of London, we left the fog behind us, brooding over the monster city, and, as the grey clouds which curtained the heavens were gradually drawn aside, the fitful sunbeams poured forth to cheer us on our way.

We had heard and read of metropolitan workhouses, of casual wards, and pauper hospitals. We were now on our way to visit a similar class of institution, where the children of our pauper population found shelter from temporal misery and the contamination of vice; but how different in organization and in results was this establishment will, I trust, appear as our narrative proceeds.

As we approached the building in the omnibus which had been sent for us to the station, we were struck by its immense size. Architecturally graceful it certainly was not, but what it lacked in ornamental design it made up for in boldness of outline and vastness of proportion. I was informed by the chaplain that the building, from end to end, measures 600 feet long, being the same length as the "Great Eastern" steamship. Yet, though so unadorned and severely simple in structure, there was in front of the entrance door an attempt at columns, which seemed to belong to some mystic order that the ancients never knew, but which served to support a solid verandah under which we alighted.

We were most kindly received, both by governor and chaplain, not to mention the dignified welcome of a large black retriever, who acted as pioneer and walked majestically before us the whole day long. Through long galleries, across which the noonday sun was now streaming, we wandered along, and could not' help remarking the exquisite cleanliness of the floors and staircases. "Had you seen them this morning," observed the chaplain, "after the children had trudged along them on their way to and from chapel, you would not have thought so; but all this has to be cleaned every morning."

We walked through the girls' school-room, where they were seated at the regulation desks in rows, three or four deep. Some were busy with slates and sums. One girl I noticed, apparently about fourteen or fifteen years of age, who had lost the use of lie? right arm, was writing slowly, but with great neatness, with her left hand. As we passed along, I was not a little puzzled to hear the chaplain summon "Plum-pudding" from the ranks of scholars; but the mystery was soon solved, as a neat, rosy girl stepped forward, and declaimed in a clear, bell-like voice, and with dramatic energy and feature, a capital receipt for making a Christmas plum-pudding. She seemed to enjoy reciting it as much as we did hearing her, and, when she finished, our applause was great and genuine, and a series of commendatory pushes and shovings sent her back into obscurity.

The school band next claimed our attention, which, in the large open courtyard, was performing several popular airs with great effect. I should here mention that the playgrounds of this school, which are very large in extent, are three in number : one for the infants, another for the girls, and the third and largest for the boys. They were originally laid down in the usual way with grave], but it was found that the dust unavoidably raised during exercise or playtime hurt the children's eyes, and, in consequence, the guardians, at a very large expense, had the whole of the three acres paved with stone. The result of this is, that the open spaces have now no drawbacks, but offer every facility for enjoyment and recreation. It was in the largest of these three courtyards that the school band was assembled — happy-looking, painstaking little fellows they were, in their blue uniforms and red facings, puffing away at the wind instruments as if their very lives depended on their blowing lustily and with good courage. We had not much time, however, to criticise the performance, for dinner was on the way, and the band, with its master at its head, had an important duty to perform; namely, to march, playing all the while, into the dining-hall. This they prefaced by marching once round the playground, and then facing about, and proceeding, to the sounds of their martial music, straight into the house. It was wonderful to see the perfect order with which these children, several hundreds in number, marched into dinner — the girls entering in at one door, and the boys at another, with the band preceding them. There was a military discipline about the whole ceremony. The children did not walk in unbroken procession, which would inevitably have caused delay and confusion, but in battalions, so that when they reached the seats allotted to them there was no scuffling or hesitation, one batch being fairly seated before another was admitted. The boys all sat on one side, the girls on the other, and each was provided with a knife and fork, and bread.

Hitherto all had been quietness and expectation, but when grace had been said there was a stir and flutter of excitement. Behind one long table stood two or three men, who served out the meat on hot plates placed in front of them, from which certain lads, duly appointed as waiters, shoved it on to the usual dinner-plate, and carried it off to each child in turn. By this means the child served last received his portion as hot as the one served first, which, had the meat been given in the usual way, minus the hot plate, would certainly not have been the case, as the process of serving lasted about half an hour. On another table were the potatoes, hot and steaming, and delicious they looked as they were added to each plate of meat as it passed. In close proximity to both meat and potatoes stood two small boys, like sentinels, each with a basin of salt, from which they dashed little spoonfuls into each portion as it passed them by. I found that to a few of the sickly children stout was given. To the full enjoyment of these delights we left the juvenile multitude, and entered the chapel. The chapel lies on a higher level than the dining-hall, and is approached by a flight of stone steps. It is a plain, unornamented room, nearly square, with organ at one end and pulpit and reading-desk at the other. No "long-drawn aisle or fretted vault" here certainly, or Gothic arch, or mediaeval windows; but will their absence cause the sound of those youthful voices to be less precious to God, or invalidate the orphan's prayer which, Sunday after Sunday, is borne upward to the Heavenly Father's throne? The children chant the service, for the authorities find that it secures more attention than if they took little or no audible part in it.

On leaving the chapel, we wound our way through a labyrinth of corridors and staircases into the nursery. Here was a touching sight. In a long, rather low-roofed room, were seated at a low table between twenty and thirty infants. Some of them appeared as young as two years, but we were informed that most of them were stunted in their growth, and were really several years older than they appeared.

They had finished dinner, and some of them rose as we entered, and, clustering round one of the gentlemen of our party, began pouring forth, quite unasked for, a volume of song. It was amusing to watch the little consultations which took place as to what was to be sung next, their faces all in a glow of excitement and delight, as Mr. A—— knelt down, and courteously listened to their prattling music. It was wonderful to think how many an infant, whoso voice was then attuned to joyous melody, had been rescued from depths of degradation and sin, where sounds of blasphemy and scenes of vice had banished everything that was pure and holy. It was a blessed contrast; the comfortable room, the bright warm fire and home-like nursery fender, and tiny beds, the stout motherly-looking nurse, with the wretched homes, the cold, the hunger, the nakedness from which these poor helpless little ones had been rescued. I think they would have gone on singing till now — for the babes seemed born to sing, so incessantly and voluntarily did they keep it up — but that "nurse" stopped them at length, and then, as we turned to leave the room, the song gave place to the parting word, "Good-bye, gentle man."

We next visited the laundry, one department of which is managed entirely by women, the "wringing" process being considered too trying to the strength of young girls. The drying-room was a marvellous apartment, consisting of a row of enormous drying screens, each of which had a separate stall or niche, and that pulled in and out at pleasure. In one of the larger rooms mangling was going on, the mangle being constructed in some approved new fashion, which the governor was kind enough to explain to me, but which I confess I did not quite understand. In another room we found several young girls, scrubbing and scouring, and trotting about the wet paved floor, apparently like ducks in a pond, enjoying the mess, and talking merrily all the while. The appearance of the governor, whom they called "master," seemed to please them not a little. "Good morning, master," said one or two, looking up from their work broom in hand, whilst a cheery smile lit up their faces; and a third, bolder than the rest, exclaimed in a tone of delight, "Jenny's in the copper, sir," and on looking round we saw a girl standing in the middle of a huge vessel, and apparently engaged in cleaning it. "Jenny's in, the copper to-day is she?" repeated the governor, smiling and quite entering into the joke; and whilst Jenny, overwhelmed by the public attention to her conspicuous position which the remark had drawn forth, turned her blushing face away, he touched her cheek, and observed that Jenny was the best person to be in the copper, for her hair was as nearly the colour of it as could be; and in truth it was a head-gear of such fashionable hue as many a Belgravian young lady might have envied.

Though our minds were so intently occupied with all we saw, the demands of hunger made themselves felt by this time, and we did ample justice to the luncheon which awaited us in one of the rooms set apart for the governor's use. These rooms are in the front part of the building, and, had the horizon been free from mist, we might have had a fine and very extensive view of the surrounding country. As it was, the distance was hazy, and the trees, which had not yet put on their leaves, still looked black and bare in the wide plains which lay stretched before us. "With no dream of summer's glories to distract our imaginations, we were fain to turn to the matter-of-fact scenes of the present hours, and to devote our attention to the workshops of the establishment. These were small apartments, which ran along all one side of the playgrounds, in each of which a different trade was plied. Tailoring, shoemaking, carpentering, etc., etc., all came in for a share of our inspection. By the time we had gone through these shops, and listened to another highly successful performance of the school band, the majority of the children had assembled in the same hall where they had dined, and they favoured us with some songs very nicely sung, and several pieces of poetry remarkably well recited. But we all agreed that the girls' drill, which we afterwards went out into the playground to witness, was the most astonishing thing of all. Here some sixty or seventy of the elder girls, all in clean white pinafores, were marching with military precision round the inclosure, their drill master at their head. With hands close pressed to their side and heads erect, and not a note of music to aid them, they kept the most perfect time, and when they faced about, and at the word of command commenced a series of (apparently to us, the uninitiated) difficult manoeuvres, our surprise and admiration reached its climax.

Many a regiment of painstaking volunteers might have envied the precision with which these manoeuvres were executed; the firmness of step, the absence of any appearance of hesitation or uncertainty with which each young Amazon performed her part.

After saying adieu to the courteous officials, away over the green fields we sped homeward; and in the train, whilst journeying back into the vortex of London life, mused over the scenes just witnessed. I thought of the youthful hearts throbbing within those walls, with such various emotions of love, and joy, and happiness. I dared not dwell on the possibility of future crime, which for aught we know might be lurking there; the seeds of sin and vice which only needed circumstances or opportunity to ripen into guilt. I preferred to look on the brighter side, to think with the poet that some mute inglorious Milton" might be amongst the number, some "Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood;" and to picture these children as rescued from some fearful pit of woe, and glancing upward to the pearly gates and flowery pastures towards which we were leading them. S. L. B.

This article first appeared in Leisure Hour (1866) pp.806-7. The identity of the establishment it describes is unclear though it may perhaps be the North Surrey District School at Anerley.

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