Five go wild in Wardour Street…until the police pick them up

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I can imagine that for some parents making sure their children go to (and stay at) school can be something of a challenge. The Police courts of late Victorian London fairly regularly witnessed prosecutions of fathers who were accused of allowing their sons and daughters (but usually sons) to play truant.  Fines were handed down which did little to help because in some instances parents needed the children at home to help either with piece work or, more often, to care for infants or elderly relatives while they went out to work.

Some tried very hard to ensure their offspring gained an education but this could be hard when the kids didn’t have boots or decent clothes to go to school in. We shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which pride existed in working-class communities where maintaining an image of ‘respectability’ was every bit as important to them as it was to the middle classes with whom the term is often more associated.

There was tremendous poverty in 1880s London but that didn’t mean that families were not striving every day to keep standards up. Mrs Rochford and her neighbours seemed to fighting a losing battle with their collective brood of five youngsters. Walter Rochford (11) and his brother  James (10) appeared in court at Marlborough Street alongside Ernest Flowers (10), Albert Carey (11) and Thomas Copeland, who was just 8. This ‘interesting youthful quintette’ as the paper described them, had been picked up by the police because they were begging in Wardour Street.

Four of them had no boots and they all hailed from Hammersmith, quite some distance away. Their mothers were in court to answer for them and to listen to the story they gave Mr De Rutzen.

The boys said that they often played truant from Board school, preferring instead to hide their boots in an empty house in Shepherds Bush to go begging house to house or in the streets. They slept in empty properties, tramcars and one even admitted to occupying a dog kennel! If they were ‘nice’ children in the countryside the whole episode would have something of Enid Blyton about it.

But they weren’t. They were five ‘little urchins’ and their mothers were at their wits end, not knowing how to control them. Some of them had been absent from home now for a week and so sending them to Board school was clearly pointless.

The magistrate had a solution however, he would have them confined in an industrial school, where they wouldn’t be able to run amok or indeed run anywhere without permission. It would probably mean the five would be broken up and would be separated from their families. I have no idea whether the parents were consulted or merely told this would be happening, but under the terms of industrial schools, they would (if they could) be expected to contribute something to their care.

The five boys were dispatched to the workhouse while the industrial school officer was sent for to determine their fates.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 12, 1887]

Four go wild in Kilburn, until the police spoil their fun

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For anyone that has read the Famous Five books, or Swallows and Amazons  this story might chime with memories of childhoods past. Today children seem to be hard wired to televisions, computers, or mobile devices, playing video games or ‘chatting’ with friends via social media. In the past – in the days before ‘technology’ – kids played in the street, built tree houses, and had ‘adventures’.

For the record I’m not sure exactly how trueand of that is, it may yet another myth of a British past that never existed (the same one where everyone could leave their front doors unlocked, you could see a film and get fish and chips all for tuppence, the trains ran on time, and England were good at football).

Whether or not this ‘golden age’ ever existed I do suspect that working-class children and youth had a very different experience of life than their wealthier compatriots. Most working class children in the 1800s would have worked, few would have gone to school beyond a basic primary education, and very few would have enjoyed much in the way of ‘luxuries’. Sadly, it seems, a decade or more of austerity is bringing that experience of the past back to some working class communities today.

Children (in any period of history) will find ways to amuse themselves if they are not otherwise engaged in tasks or education by adults. They will also ape adults, and seek to find space away from adults to act our their own fantasies of life.

Ernest Digwood, George Cronin, James Harwood, and William Wallace (probably no relation) were four small boys intent on creating their own world within the adult one. If they’d lived in the countryside they’d have played in the woods and fields, climbing trees, stealing eggs for nests, swimming in ponds or rivers, and running through corn fields.

But they didn’t grow up in rural Essex, or Buckinghmashire, or anywhere very green at all. Instead they had to make their fun in West London, among the streets and houses of one of the world’s busiest cities. Boys being boys they explored their patch and found an empty house on Kensal Road, at number 174, close to the canal. Today the area has little trace of its Victorian past, rows of modern social housing and warehouse space make this part of London indistinguishable from many others. But in 1892 these four boys found a place to play.

They had established a den, built a fire in kitchen grate and had brought provisions. I say ‘brought’ because they certainly hadn’t ‘bought’ them. The quartet had been out in the surrounding streets and had found a delivery van with an ample supply of food. Helping themselves, they returned to the house with ‘eggs, two loaves [of bread], some sugar, liver, steak, and four bottles of gingerade’. It was a veritable feast but they never got to enjoy it.

Someone must have seen them or heard them in the property and reported it to the police. PC 412X arrived and arrested them, taking them before Mr Plowden at the West London Police court. James Harwood was known to the court, having been in trouble there before. The birching he’d received then clearly hadn’t acted as the deterrent it was intended. He and Ernest were sent to the workhouse, probably to be beaten again. George Cronin and William Wallace were released into the care of their parents but could hardly expect to get away without a slippering from their respective fathers.

They stole and the broke into an empty house, and of course that’s wrong. But at least they had an adventure, which is something, surely?

[from The Standard, Friday, January 15, 1892]