Ancestry UK

Paved With Gold — Augustus Mayhew

Chapter IV (extract)


The history of one day at the pauper school was so like that of another, that to describe the daily routine was to record the events of the last four years that Phil passed at the place. The changes in the week days were hardly known to the boys by the names they bore, but rather by the alteration they brought in the diet; for what are ordinarily called Tuesday and Thursday were spoken of at the Industrial School as "meat-pudding days," whilst Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday were "suet-pudding days," and Saturday "soup- day," instead of being styled after the usual nomenclature of the almanac.

To those under eleven years of age the school itself presented little or no variety, whilst to those above that age it afforded the relief of working in the shops or on the farm every alternate day in the week.

With these slight exceptions, the life of the pauper seminary was as much a matter of drill, order, and regularity, as if the establishment had been some infantry rather than infantine barracks.

Every morning at six the bell in the courtyard rang with the same clatter as for a departing steam-boat, and instantly all the dormitories, which a few seconds before had been almost as quiet as hospital wards, were alive and bustling as a ship's company in a sudden squall.

The dormitories themselves were long, bare, but cleanly wards, with a row of iron bedsteads ranged down either side of them, whilst in one corner was a compartment partitioned off as a separate berth for the pupil teacher. The only things that broke the monotony of the white walls were the large placards of Bible texts placed over the doors, some impressing the precept, "SPEAK NOT EVIL ONE OF ANOTHER," and others bearing the words, "SET A WATCH, O LORD, BEFORE MY MOUTH, KEEP THE DOOR OF MY LIPS."

A minute or two after the bell ceased ringing the lads were up and partly dressed, with their bedclothes turned back, and ready waiting for the order of the pupil teacher to "face their beds." Then came the command "Kneel down," and in an instant all was silent again, with the youths bent in prayer at the foot of the iron bedsteads, and inwardly breathing their supplications to Heaven.

At such times even the most callous might have been touched by the solemn sight of the wretched fatherless creatures appealing to their spiritual Father for care and protection throughout the day.

The next minute the boys had taken their jackets from under their pillows, and, drawn up in file before the dormitory door, were awaiting the signal of "forward," to pass from the room and get their shoes from the nest of pigeon-holes in the lobby outside.

Then came the calling over names, and the washing in the lavatories at the side of the play-ground; and this done, the whistle of the drill-master was heard, and the boys were drawn up in rank and file for inspection.

All was now ready for breakfast and family prayer, but long before the meal the boys and girls who helped in the kitchen had been busy ranging along the tall, narrow benches that served for tables, and made the dining-hall look like a huge writing academy, the seven hundred cans of milk-and-water, and the seven hundred thick lumps of bread and butter, that formed the provision for the morning's repast. And when the large hall, big as an assembly- room, was filled for morning prayers with every soul in the place, except the youngest of the infants officers and servants, as well as boys and girls the eye was enabled to comprehend the extent of the bounty feeding such a host of mouths that must otherwise have gone without a crust. Nor could the visitor help contrasting the clean and tidy look of the destitute little throng with the filth and raggedness of other poor children, who are thought to be better off in the world than those who are driven to the parish for support.

When, in answer to the three taps on the table, the entire multitude stood up to say "grace," the clatter of their sudden rising was like the shooting of a load of stones, and as they remained with their eyes shut, half-intoning the supplication for a blessing on their food, they seemed like a legion of blind mendicants, all uttering the same petition for charity.

The boys were delighted with the drill that formed part of the summer exercises; for it was not only like playing at soldiers, but, from its half gymnastic character, had all the excitement of an athletic game. The old drill-master, too, who had served at "Waterloo, was as pleased with the work as the lads themselves, and evidently felt the same enjoyment at the mimic military evolutions as veterans are said to experience when teaching their grandchildren to shoulder their crutch.

Phil liked the drill much better than the schooling, and, indeed, had already made up his mind to be a soldier directly he was tall enough to "'list;" and when he heard that one of the boys had taught himself to play the flute so well that the superintendent had got him to be taken into the Guards as a fife-player, he thought it the greatest good luck that could possibly befall a human being, and every night made it a special request in his prayers that Heaven would be equally kind to him.

With the "pupil-teachers" Phil bore the character of being a dunce, but with his companions in the play-ground he was considered to be one of the sharpest among them. He was generally at the bottom of his class, though at gymnastics he could mount to the top of the pole quicker than any other; at arithmetic even the smallest boys on his form could jump over him, but at fly-the-garter he could take the "five foot leap," and clear a back, without even "toeing the line," far easier than boys double his size.

Immediately the summons was given for assembling for school, his animal spirits seemed to leave him; and no sooner did he enter the big schoolroom, with the different classes divided off by red baize curtains, and the lecture-hall-like seats, ranged gallery fashion, one above another, than his heart sank within him, and he sat lumpishly in his place, staring at the maps hung round the walls first glancing, half -vacantly, at the chart of "The travels of the Apostle Paul," then wandering away to the "Land of Promise after its conquest by the Israelites." Nor did he wake up from his reveries even when the big blackboard, hung like a cheval-glass, was wheeled in front of the class, and the pupil-teacher chalked the simple addition sum upon it; for when the boy -master asked the lads how many 6 and 8 made, Phil thrust out his hand mechanically with the others as a sign that he could tell, though, on being bidden to do so, the guess of twenty-two showed that his little mind was far away, wondering what Asia was like from the map, and how long it would take him to walk there.

At reading aloud from the "daily lesson book" he made as sad a mess as at figures; and even though the twenty boys before him had all repeated the exercise of "The Bird's Nest," drawling out the little verse,

God taught the bird to build its nest
Of wool, and hay, and moss;
God taught her how to weave it best,
And lay the twigs across.

Nevertheless, when it came to his turn, he stammered over nearly every word, and had to spell half the syllables, so that it was utterly impossible to get any sense out of the simple rhyme.

But what Phil hated worse than all, and what he firmly believed was nothing but an ingenious torture devised by some demon pedagogue, for the express purpose of worrying little boys, was the exercise called "Dictation" especially that upon "words spelt differently but having similar sounds," so that he was fairly driven out of his wits when he had to write down such a sentence as the following :

"You are right in saying that rite means a ceremony and wright a maker, as the marriage rite and a wheelwright, but it is difficult to write them all rightly, so pray write this sentence, "Mr. Wright's marriage rites gave the wheelwright's daughter — so she writes — all the rights of a married woman.'"

A stranger visiting the Industrial School with the knowledge that at least two-thirds of the little pauper boys were orphans, would doubtless have been startled to find them playing about the gravelled quadrangle as merrily as if they had the kindest and best of parents to take care of them; such a one would have come to the conclusion that others felt their destitute condition more keenly than the boys themselves. Nevertheless, there were moments when even the most thoughtless of the orphan lads were roused to a sense of their terrible loneliness in the world, and these occurred principally when any of the more lucky boys were visited by their friends; for then a kind of wretched envy seemed to seize upon the most destitute, as the conviction forced itself upon them that they might stop there for years and years without the chance of any friend ever coming to see them.

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