Ancestry UK

Penn Street Industrial School for Boys, Birmingham, Warwickshire

In 1846, a Ragged School was established at Little-Ann Street, in the Digbeth district of Birmingham. Prominent amongst its instigators was Mr Brazier, who became governor of the establishment. In 1853, the School moved to new premises on Penn (now Bromley) Street, Deritend, with several old cottages being adapted for use. The premises were enlarged in 1854 with the addition of an Infant and Girls' School, which provided an extra 250 places.

On January 30th, 1863, part of the site was certified as an Industrial School for boys, allowing it to accommodate up to 20 boys who had been placed under detention by magistrates. The establishment now had three sections: the Industrial School, which was also attended by boys from the neighbourhood as day scholars; and a girls' and an infants' day school. The number of children on the School roll was now nearly 300. The non-resident schoolmaster of the boys' school was Mr Nightingale.

The boys under detention received industrial instruction in wire sieve making and shoemaking. A married superintendent looked after them in the play hours and at meals, and also supervised the dormitories.

In 1867, an adjoining piece of land in Allcock Street was acquired, on which an additional dormitory, workroom etc. were built. The master and matron of the Industrial School were now Mr and Mrs May. Miss Nightingale taught the girls and infants.

Mr and Mrs May left Penn Street in the autumn of 1869 to take charge of the Gem Street Industrial School. They were succeeded by Mr and Mrs Shaw, an appointment which did not impress the School's inspector who reported that Mr Shaw had 'no experience fitting him for the duties he has undertaken, and did not appear to me at all calculated to obtain the moral influence over the boys so necessary for their successful management.' Perhaps not surprisingly, the Shaws were quickly replaced by Mr Alexander Miller and his wife, Eliza.

In 1873, the day school section of the establishment was discontinued. A report in August of that year recorded 42 inmates in residence. Ten of the boys were working out as 'half-timers' (their day split between school and industrial employment) and were employed as house-boys, cleaning knives, boots, etc., or as errand boys in factories. The School suffered a blow when five of these boys absconded, apparently tempted to desert by the prospect of work and better wages elsewhere. Shoemaking had now been added to the industrial training.

Mr Miller died in December, 1874, and Mr and Mrs Rudnick were appointed as superintendent and matron. They were succeeded in 1876 by Mr and Mrs Frederick Horth. The following year, Mr Fox replaced Mr Nightingale as schoolmaster.

A report in 1878 described the School premises as small and cramped, and the playground was also far too small. Following a change in schoolmaster, classroom performance was reported as not being entirely satisfactory. This was also due in part, it was suggested, by some of the 'half-timers' being kept at work the whole day.

Mr and Mrs Pengelley took charge on the School in 1881. The old schoolroom was turned into workshops and the old workshops replaced by new schoolroom. Mr William Savage was now schoolmaster.

The School site is shown on the 1889 map below.

Industrial School for Boys site, Birmingham, c.1889.

In 1883, Mr and Mrs Henry Francis became superintendent and matron, with Mr Ruthers as schoolmaster. A fife and drum band had now been started. A mark system was introduced, by which the boys could earn from 3d. to 1s. a month for good conduct, according to the division they were in. The money was banked and paid 12 months after discharge by instalments, subject to a good report.

On 27th August, 1885, two of the boys, Joseph Curry and Harold Pownall, both aged 14, tried to set fire to the School by applying a match to some coconut fibre in an attic store-room. The two boys were committed for trial at the Assizes, where they were each sentenced to a fortnight in prison followed by three years at a Reformatory School.

In 1888, it was noted that case the boys had been taken for ten days' holiday at Aberystwyth. A class of boys now worked at mat-making, and a class of junior boys were occupied as knitters and darners under the matron.

According to the 1891 census, the superintendent of the School was now Mr Edward A Francis, with his wife Mary as matron. This change was not recorded in the School's annual reports until 1894 so perhaps was initially a temporary arrangement. By 1894, the School had a resident carpenter who occupied 7 or 8 boys in general woodwork. There were now ten boys working with the tailoress and making all the School's shirts and clothing.

A report in 1897, described the School as being situated 'in the heart of a crowded, low-lying, and smoky neighbourhood of the city.' The buildings were cramped, the workshops too small, and the whole premises were said to be dangerously exposed to risk from fire from the surrounding factories, which had engines at work while wood was stacked on the School premises. The boys' classroom performance was generally satisfactory with singing (tonic sol-fa), recitation, geography and mental arithmetic mostly rated as 'very fair'. There were now 8 boys working as carpenters, 8 shoemakers, 16 tailors (including darners and knitters), and 10 chopping firewood. The rest were occupied in the house and laundry. There was occasional physical drill and the boys went for weekly football or cricket sessions in a field at Small Heath, about half an hour's walk away. Short walks were also taken on fine Sundays and sometimes on weekdays. The fife and drum band now had 22 players, and now and then had engagements to play at School treats. The doctor called about once a month and when required, but no quarterly report was made by him either on the health of the School or its sanitary condition. Prizes of books were given for good behaviour and school work once a year, as well as for proficiency in knowledge of the scriptures.

The continuing criticism of the School's premises and location eventually led to a move to new premises out of the city. This took place in the summer of 1902, when the School relocated to Witton, about four miles to the north of Birmingham.

The Penn Street buildings no longer survive and the site is now occupied by factory and warehouse premises.


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  • Birmingham Archives and Heritage Service, Library of Birmingham, Centenary Square, Broad Street, Birmingham B1 2ND. Holdings (for both Penn Street and Witton) comprise: Admission register (1882-1905); Discharge register (1899-1905); Agreement for admission of boys committed from Worcestershire (1901).


  • None noted at present.