Ancestry’s Senior Content Manager, Miriam Silverman takes us through the new London school records from the London Metropolitan Archives. These two collections include admissions and discharges in mainstream schools that took place during the First World War, as well as an entirely new database of Pauper children’s registers, shedding an insight into the lives of a century of marginalised children.
Over the course of the Victorian era, several Poor Law District Schools were formed to remove children from workhouse schools and send them away to large live-in schools in Essex, Surrey, Middlesex and Kent. These schools were designed with the best of intentions, to remove poor children from the smoke, stench and corruption of the city and introduce them to new lives in the countryside where they would learn proper trades.
However, they were a step on from the orphanage schools attached to workhouses of Oliver Twist’s day. Charlie Chaplin famously was sent with his brother to Hanwell school in Ealing and spoke disparagingly of their stunted ambitions for the children and severe beatings that were handed out. And yet, they were designed to keep pauper children alive and healthy and prepare them for an adulthood that they may not otherwise have lived to see.
Clues to the status of the children are everywhere; only pauper children had the number on their clothing recorded (their clothes being provided by the school) and the parish to which they were chargeable. Herne Bay School recorded whether a child was an orphan or deserted and what class for diet they were in.
Like those children cared for today, pauper children show up in numerous different records of state. When Jeremiah Sullivan was discharged and ‘taken away by an attendant’ from his school in 1890 by the order of the Islington Board, he can be found again later (and earlier) in the London Workhouse Admission and Discharge registers, coming and going from St John’s Road Workhouse until he was 13.
Many boys also appear in the Exmouth Training Ship, maintained by the Forest Gate District (also on Ancestry). In fact, the army and the navy (Merchant and Royal) were by far the most popular options for boys at discharge. Girls seemed to fare less well and quite often found themselves back in the care of the school after they had left, having unsupportive or non-existent families to fall back on. This situation is heartbreakingly confirmed in the addresses of next of kin; so many parents and siblings were either in the workhouse, no relatives were recorded at all, or in the case of Frank Webley who resided at Ashford school in 1897, his dad, Frank was noted as simply having ‘gone away’.
The majority of the kids were in and outers, strictly temporary, and were kept far apart from the permanent children. Over the years, opinion moved against keeping them in these large institutions, which were not only prohibitively expensive for local authorities to run but were felt to do poorly for the children’s physical and moral welfare (opthalmia was rampant, as were food related illnesses). Small cottage schools and fostering came into fashion and rolls declined.
For non-pauper children, the additional records on release are rich in important details such as exact birth dates, admission and discharge dates and addresses, father’s names and their occupations; such information that you don’t often find outside of a census year. Sometimes a child gets a page each, complete with their exam results, physical appearance and previous and subsequent schools.
Father’s occupations are a fascinating clue to changing times. In Southwark in 1913, one page of a register included cooks, bakers, painters, charwomen, foreman, labourers, a glassblower, a cordwainer, a porter, a shoemaker and a piano forte maker. Old trades. But new ones were rapidly developing and they are captured on these pages. In 1916, Barbara Frances Courlander’s school records shows her to be the daughter of Leanard Courlander, film producer – testament to the new industry being born in these turbulent years. Many years later, her brother Roy became notorious as a Nazi appeaser in World War Two.
But even more fundamental social movements were afoot. Not only were more and more children going onto secondary school, extending the number of registers in the collection beyond primary level, but girls were entering into a very different world of work than their mothers. Girls like Janet Violet Palmer in 1915 who left to become a clerk at Oppenheimer in Finsbury Circus and Janet Ruby at Walston County Secondary whose first job was as a short hand typist at the Investment Register in 1919.
These new collections show us both the harsh times of the Victorian era and the brave new world that was emerging for women. There was better education for all, along with a burgeoning film industry – changes which would set the tone for the century to come. But beyond these general observations, they provide a glimpse into so many individual’s human stories and the world they lived in, how they learnt and moved into an uncertain adulthood.
Start exploring these collections now on Ancestry: