It was a great pity they did not go to school’ : truancy and the Victorian state’s motivation to educate the masses.

RAGGED TRUANTS CAPTURED

Truancy is not a new problem. In the pages of the Thames Police court in the late 1880s huge numbers of parents appear to answer charges of not sending their children to school. Most are fined small amounts and dismissed. It is rare to know why children were not attending school or whether a brush with the law meant that future attendance improved.

In late October 1880 Mr Paget was sitting in judgment at Hammersmith Police court as a number of summonses for truancy were presented to him. They were brought by a superintendent of schools, Mr Cook, who had the power (should the magistrate require it) to place children in Truant Schools for a period of weeks or months. It was generally thought that this (presumably harsher) environment encouraged children to go to normal day schools thereafter.

Of course while it is often assumed that kids play truant because they don’t like school (for all sorts of reasons we better understand today) it was often the parents that kept their offspring at home. Children could help with domestic duties, with the care of younger siblings or elderly or sick relatives, freeing parents to go to work. Children also worked, especially when that was piece work (like making matchboxes or mending shoes or clothes). In short for many poor families children from about 10 were useful in the family economy and weighed against the opportunities presented by a basic education (which were, let’s face it, few) having them at home was probably better.

One mother told the justice that her truant daughter was 12 and had secured a position as a servant, which was why she wasn’t at school. She appeared in court with her youngest child in her arms, as if to emphasize the necessity of moving her children on to make space for the new ones. Another explained that her son had not been to school for nine months because he was needed to take lunch to his father who worked in a brickfield.

In one case the magistrate wanted to know why it was the mother in court when the summons had required the presence of her husband.  He could read she said. Nor could she, or her truant son. Mr Paget declared that ‘it was a great pity they did not go to school’ but adjourned the hearing so the summons could be read and the father given time to attend.

In the end many cases were similarly adjourned while enquires were made into the reasons given (ill-health, lack of money or shoes) for truancy. Mr Cook the schools superintendent said he would try to find places in Truant Schools but few were available. He wanted the parish to build a second one. That would cost money, and money was probably at the root of the problem.

The Victorian state wanted the children of the poor to be educated, up to a point. They wanted them to be better-educated factory hands, soldiers and servants, not educated so they challenged their place in society. This was often moral education that shaped a nation rather than improved the lot of its poorest.

Thankfully (I say, tongue firmly in cheek) we’ve left all that behind…

[from The Standard, Thursday, October 28, 1880]

An Italian displays a touch of bravura in court, but it does him no good

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St Margaret & St John’s Workshops in Westminster c.1875

Frederic Calvi was an Italian immigrant in London. Calvin worked as an engineer, and was presumably quite  skilled or reliable one as it was reported that he was ‘in constant work’. So it is something of a surprise to find this otherwise respectable working-class man in front of the Police Court magistrate at Marlborough Street on  charge of deserting his three children.

The case was brought by the Westminster Poor Law Union as it was them that had picked up the costs of supporting the children. And the costs were considerable. Mr Tett, the settlement officer for Westminster, claimed that they had spent £40 on caring for the Calvi children.

Having made some enquiries into the engineer’s situation Mr Tett assured the court that there was no need for him to have dumped the three children on the parish, as Calvi earned plenty of money and was well able to support them.

However, there was no mention of a Mrs Calvi so perhaps the children had no mother and Frederic was a lone parent. If that were the case, and if he didn’t have other relatives in England, then he might well have struggled to maintain a living and look after his family. There were plenty of Italians in London (as I’ve found in several past posts) but most of those recorded in the press were working as musicians.

Had Calvi come over on his own and married here? Or had he brought his family with him? This might be important as without an extended family or support network any change in his circumstances might throw him (and his children) into poverty.

In court before Mr Newton, Frederic was adamant that he needed the parish’s help. He had fallen sick he said and so was unable to provide for his children. That was the reason he’d taken them to the workhouse. He added that ‘it was well known that in England innocent people [like himself] were condemned’.

His attitude in court probably didn’t help him. Here was an occasion to throw yourself on the mercy of the justice, not to defy the system. But Frederic was clearly a proud man, or a callous one who cared little for his kids. Either way his actions and his attitude hardly endeared him to Mr Newton.

The policeman that had brought him in added that the Italian engineer was bullish when arrested. He said the prisoner declared he ‘was a Bismarck and would get over it’. What did that mean? It was probably a reference to ‘a rare stumble’ by the German chancellor in 1875 when his aggressive diplomacy nearly led to war on the continent of Europe as he attempt to force France to abandon rearmament backfired. Thereafter Bismarck proceeded with utmost caution. Calvi was indicating that in future he would do the same.

Sadly for him (and his three children) Mr Newton was not in the mood for second chances. He found the engineer guilty of deserting his children and sent him to prison for a month at hard labour. Exactly how that helped the situation or eased the strain on the Westminster parish purse (which would now have the children for another month) I’m not clear.

Calvin displayed a cavalier attitude on hearing the sentence however. He turned to the magistrate and challenged him to a game of billiards.

‘Double or quits’, he shouted, ‘He would be sure to get off’.

[from The Standard, Monday, November 22, 1875]