One of the many functions of the Police Court magistrate in London was to deal with parents who refused to send their children to school. School boards had been created by the Elementary Education Act (1870) also termed Forster’s Act. In addition boards could seek to have bye laws passed that allowed for the fining of parents whose children played truant. By the late 1870s about 40% of the population lived in areas where school attendance (to the age of 10) was compulsory.
However, while the state and many parents recognised the importance of an elementary education for children aged 5 and over, not everybody agreed or was able to comply with the law. Children were useful around the home as helpmeets and carers, they could earn money in all sorts of ways, and so supplement the family purse.
Moreover sending children was not without complications and costs. The school boards made some exceptions for parents who lived a long way from the nearest school, but this was unlikely to have affected those living in London where schools were plentiful. Nevertheless parents who could not afford to provide shoes or even proper clothes for their offspring would choose to keep them at home, our of embarrassment as much as anything else.
Finally for all but the poorest school was not free; parents had to pay for it so this added a further disincentive. In 1880 schooling was made compulsory everywhere and in 1891 education became free in all board and church schools for children up to the age of 10.
Margaret Godfrey lived in Nine Elms, was widowed and therefore extremely vulnerable to poverty. She also had a son of school age, and another below the age of five. Margaret didn’t have the money to feed her children, let alone clothe them and buy shoes so she hadn’t sent the elder boy to school.
As a result she was summoned to attend Wandsworth Police court by the local school board and asked to explain herself in front of the magistrate. Her son, the court was told, was ‘nearly naked’ and she had approached the Charity Organisation Society for help. They had given her 5s ‘in kind, but no clothes for the children’.
Margaret said they had been living on dry bread for six weeks. She would be happy for the boy to attend school but she couldn’t send him without shoes. The superintendent asked the magistrate (Mr Bridge) to help with money from the poor box and he agreed.
Margaret would have enough money to buy clothes and the boy would attend Sleaford Street board school. No mention was made of helping provide the family with enough money to eat properly; if Mrs Godfrey wanted of course they could all enter the workhouse. That would have signalled the end of her family however, and having lost her husband I can imagine how desperately she wanted to avoid that outcome.
Now we have a free education system for all children that need it and a benefit system to help mothers like Margaret. Yet we still have children attending school without having had a proper breakfast or evening meal afterwards, and plenty of truancy and a state system that attempts to punish the parents for it – on occasion by sending them to prison. Plus ça change.
[from The Standard, Friday, February 21, 1879]