Of the hidden curriculum, ignorance and prorogation

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Having just dealt with two gentlemen who had been found drunk and drawing a crowd around them near Cremorne Gardens, Mr Arnold’s Westminster Police court was now filled with a motely collection of working class men and women. They answered summons for not sending their children to school. The cases were brought by the Chelsea School Board in the person of Mr Cook the board officer.

In most of the cases the magistrate agreed that their had been neglect of duty on the part of the parents, and he fined them small amounts and extracted promises that in future they would ensure their children went to school. In one case however, he had to take a different line. This involved a very poor woman who said that despite her best efforts her son kept playing truant and there was nothing she could do about it. Her husband left for work very early in the morning and she too worked, so she could not make sure that when he set off for school he didn’t sneak back later on while his parents were out.

Mr Arnold was sympathetic and called the boy to the dock to explain himself. The lad said he was sent to school but didn’t go. The justice now ‘explained to the little fellow the advantages of going to school’.

He added that ‘poor people who had to work hard for their living could not be expected to to take their children to school and sit on a door-step to see that they remained there; and in cases where the parents did their utmost to comply with the law he should not convict them, because their children were rebellious’.

He went on to say that in some instances ‘those children were proper subjects for an industrial school’, where education would be combined with more severe discipline. This might have been a veiled threat to the boy to not play truant again but he wrapped it up in a wider warning to parents that thought sending their offspring away was an easy solution to avoiding prosecution and a convenient means of having them educated and cared for at the state’s expense.

Parents of children sent to industrial schools (or reformatories) were expected to contribute to their upkeep he reminded the court (and the reading public of course). For ‘those children ought not to be easily got rid of by their parents and become a burden to the ratepayers’ and he instructed Mr Cook to make his views clearly known to the School Board. The reporter finished his account by stating that:

‘The system of parents getting rid of their children by complaining that they are beyond their control is becoming very prevalent’.

The education offered to working-class children in the second half of the nineteenth century was basic and not designed to lift them up above their social status. Children were taught to read and write but also not to challenge their superiors and to learn to accept ‘their place’ in society. It has taken a very long time for this to change in Britain, arguably it is only from the 1960s or later that education has really affected the status quo, and some might reasonably suggest the effect is limited at best.

Education – and the encouragement of independent thinking – is crucial if society is to develop and not simply replicate the traditional hierocracies of the past. It is not an accident that public (private) schools are given charitable status to enable them to prosper, or are excluded from the national curriculum taught to most children. It is no accident either that the children of the wealthy and ennobled are much more likely to go to our top universities, while children from disadvantaged communities – notably BAME ones – are largely excluded.

Education is political – it always has been – and it probably suits the ruling elite for the majority of the population to be under education, to believe what the tabloids tell them, not to challenge the words of their ‘superiors’. There has been a clear move to silence the voices of ‘experts’ in political debate recently – on climate change, on political democracy, and on brexit most notably.

‘Ignorance is bliss’ some say; I would say it is dangerous and plays into the hands of those that rule us, those – if you but scratch the surface – who went to private schools like Eton, Harrow and Westminster, before finishing their studies at Oxford and Cambridge, before proceeding into positions of wealth and privilege because their parents were rich and powerful already. The attack on the Westminster bubble by disenchanted members of the public is misplaced in my opinion. Today the ‘old school tie brigade’ is ripping up democracy in front of our very eyes to serve the old order’s desire for continued wealth and privilege. If you see the proroguing of our sovereign elected parliament by an unelected cabal of unrepresentative privileged individuals as anything other than a coup in all but name, then I respectfully suggest you look beyond the tabloids and read a little more history.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 29, 1873]

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]

The bravery of one young man saves another from a terrible beating at the hands of his father

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Battersea, in Charles Booth’s poverty maps of 1889-90

John Hobart had just got home to the house his mother ran in Gywnn Road, Battersea when she called to him. Eliza Hobart rented rooms to a family who lived upstairs, a father (William Williams) and his young son. Eliza was worried because she’d heard screams from upstairs and it seemed as if Williams was beating his young lad half to death.

‘Go upstairs and stop it’, she shouted to her own lad, who hurried upstairs at once. He reached the Williams’ door and tried it but it was locked. He could hear dreadful noises from within so put his shoulder to the portal and forced it open. As he fell into the room he saw Williams brandishing a heavy rope and raining down blows on his boy. When he saw the intruder Williams let go of his victim and went for Hobart swinging his rope.

Fortunately before he could do any damage a policeman arrived and subdued him, taking him away to the station while the little boy was carried off to the infirmary, bleeding from wounds to his head and face. The rope and a piece of wood was recovered from the room as evidence and the police constable reported that when he examined Williams at the station he noticed blood on his cuffs.

In court at Wandsworth Williams admitted beating the lad with the rope but denied the accusation that he’d hit with a piece of wood. He justified his actions by saying that the boy had played truant from school but had kept the money his father had given him for his fees. The justice, Mr Sheil, remanded Williams in custody while he decided what to do with him.

And that, I’m afraid, is the last we hear of him. If Williams came back to be punished or released by a Police court magistrate the papers didn’t report it. If he was sent for a jury trial or imprisoned or fined, again, we have no record. All we can hope is that his little boy survived and that may be due entirely to the determination of his landlady to interfere and the bravery of her son to intervene.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 26, 1885]

Child murder, suicide, neglect, and petty theft: just an average day in London

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This is the last in this series of posts from one week in 1884 and I’m going to finish it with a summary of the reports that appeared in the Morning Post under the heading ‘Police Intelligence’ which again show the diversity of business the police magistrate courts of the Victorian capital dealt with.

The most serious case was at Clerkenwell where Mr Hosack fully committed Sidney Clay to trial at the Central Criminal Court (at Old Bailey). Clay, a 30 year-old tobacconist from Holloway Road, was accused of ‘having encouraged and endeavoured to persuade Eustace de Gruther, doctor of medicine, to kill and murder’ a baby boy who was just two months old.

Clay’s lawyer argued that the doctor, as the only witness, was trying to implicate his client but the magistrate decided that the case needed to be heard by a jury and bailed Clay for £200.  In late February Clay was tried and convicted at the Bailey but it was recognized that the whole thing might not have been as intentional as it seemed at first. The jury recommended Clay to mercy and the judge gave him just six months hard labour. Interestingly here his age was given as just 21, not 30, so perhaps the reporter got it wrong at the original hearing – a reminder that we should always treat historical sources carefully.

Another tragedy of life was played out in Southwark Police court where Elizabeth Brockett was prosecuted for trying to kill herself. The 31 year-old (if we are to believe the report at least) was seen on London Bridge by a  wharf labourer. John Flanaghan was alerted by a woman’s scream and looked up to see Elizabeth who had just discarded her bonnet and shawl and was about to launch herself into the Thames. He rushed to save her, and, with the help of a policeman, managed to drag her back from the brink.

In court the woman told Mr Slade that she was ‘in great distress of mind, owing to the loss of two children’. She’d been very ill but promised never to try to do anything like this again. She was released back into the care of her husband.

At Hampstead John Redworth didn’t appear when his case was called. He’d been summoned by an officer of School Board for neglecting to send his daughter, Justina (9) to school. This was a common enough sort of hearing but was very rarely reported so what made this one special? Well it was that perennial issue around travelling people. Redworth was a member of a community of ‘gipsies’ who had been camping on Hampstead Heath. Apparently Redworth’s was the only family that had children of school age and so his was the only summons made.

He turned up in the end but too late for the magistrate (Mr Andrews) who had already adjourned the case for a month. The encampment had moved on the magistrate was told, so perhaps the court would decide to leave the girl’s education for someone else to deal with.

At Marylebone William Bliss (a footman) was charged with theft and receiving a china vase. He appeared in the dock with his accomplice and fellow servant Catherine Churchyard. The pair worked for a family in Chelsea and claimed the case had just been broken and they’d hidden the evidence to save Catherine getting into trouble. Mr De Rutzen didn’t buy this version of events and remanded them for a week to see what the police could find out about the case. I fear that at best the couple would have been dismissed from service, at worst they might have to spend some time behind bars.

So in just four reports that day we have a child murder, an attempted suicide, servant theft, and a case of truancy involving travellers. If we added a fraud, a case of domestic violence, and some drunk and disorderly behaviour on the streets in the West End we would have a very normal day at the Police courts of Victorian London.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, 31 January, 1884]

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]

A mother’s anguish at her inability to send her children to school

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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]

Mr Barstow brooks no excuse for truancy

‘No equally powerful body will exist in England outside Parliament, if power is measured by influence for good or evil over masses of human beings’. The Times, 29 November 1870.*

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The school holidays are over again and millions of children are returning to their classrooms. Since 1918 (and the controversial Fisher Act) secondary school education has been compulsory for all children in England and Wales, initially up to age 14 and now, effectively to 18. Parents that allow their children to miss school (to be truant) can be prosecuted, fined and even imprisoned in rare cases. In  2015 alone almost 20,000 parents were prosecuted for allowing their offspring to miss school and there has been the highly publicised case of Jon Platt who was fined £120 plus costs for choosing to take his children away on a family holiday to Florida. Mr Platt successfully appealed the decision to the High Court before it went on to a Supreme Court hearing which upheld the Isle of Wight council’s original decision.

The case turned on the rights of parents over the desire to protect children’s education. The law insists that children attend school regularly so that they can benefit from the free education system provided by the state. This has a long history in England with  early attempts to provide schooling for the children of poor families (wealthy parents had long been able to educate their kids) going back to the eighteenth century. It was in 1833 that the state first became directly involved in school education with parliament voting money for the creation of schools for the poor.

Educating the poor was considered to be a crucial tool in fighting crime and poverty in the nineteenth century. Commentators from the end of the Napoleonic Wars onwards equated delinquency with a lack of formal education, moral guidance, and opportunities for gainful employment. If children could be taught to read and write, and learn to respect their ‘betters’ then society could go a long way toward eradicating the so-called ‘criminal class’ that Henry Mayhew and others wrote so much about.

In 1870 the Forster Act attempted to address the perennial  problem of inadequate supply of schools for the children of the poor. It created board schools (fee paying but with fee waivers for the poorest families) for children aged 5-13 (or 10 if if the child could demonstrate they had reached a certain level of education by then). Attendance was compulsory on the basis that there would now be a school within range of the child’s home.

One of the consequences of creating a compulsory system of course was that the new School Boards had to enforce it. The parents of children that failed to send their youngsters to school would be prosecuted, and those prosecutions ended up before a Police Magistrate.

In some cases children were hard to police (just as they are today), parents may well have simply been unaware that their sons or daughters were playing truant. In other cases there was considerable complicity on the part of the adults; children were useful as helpmeets at home, or as extra hands at work. And inevitably poverty and illness took its toll. I have read cases of mothers not wishing to send their children to school without shoes, too poor were they to properly cloth them but too proud to ask for charity.

Given that many parents might well have had reasonable (or at least understandable) grounds for keeping children at home this report of cases before the Clerkenwell Police magistrate is instructive.

Mr Barstow presided over a series of School Board truancy cases heard in September 1874, just four years after Forster’s Act. He was pretty ruthless in upholding all the School Board officer’s complaints.

In one case a ‘poor woman’ told him that:

‘the small average attendance made by her two children was caused by the illness of her husband, which had extended over 14 weeks’. During that time, when he could not work she had gone out to earn enough to keep the home together. She had tried to send one child to school in the morning and one in the afternoon, so that he should never be left uncared for.

Mr Barstow fined her 2s 6s, plus 2s costs.

Next was another poor woman who carried a baby in her arms. She too had failed to make sure her other children attended school and was fined the same amount. Sadly she didn’t have 2s and sixpence so she was sent to the house of correction for five days. Presumably she took her children with her or they went tot he workhouse, there didn’t seem to be a husband at home to stand with her.

There were several parents prosecuted that morning, nearly all of them ‘of the poorest class’ and the magistrate fined them all without exception. His final case was a ‘respectably-dressed’ man however, who claimed that he had not sent his boy to the school as it wasn’t ‘very effective’. Mr Barstow asked him to provide proof of the inefficiency of the school in question which the man was unable to do. In future, Barstow said, he would need to see evidence of a school’s failings if he was to excuse any non-attendance.

The man was clearly frustrated at being dragged through the courts in this manner. He declared that he thought the act was designed to deal with ‘the “gutter” children and street Arabs’, not with respectable families such as his own. Mr Barstow paid him no heed and handed him the standard 2s 6s fine plus costs. 

Men like Mr Barstow probably believed in the project of public education and were well placed to see the results of poverty, ignorance and crime on London’s population. Education then wasn’t about empowering children or providing them with an opportunity to develop and grow. Rather it was an exercise in social control and social engineering, churning out ‘good citizens’ who knew their place in the unequal hierarchy of Victorian society.

Plus ça change

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 05, 1874]