Ancestry UK

St Paul's Industrial School for Boys, Limehouse, London

St Paul's Industrial School for Boys, a Industrial School was opened in 1873 at 199 Burdett Road, Limehouse, London E3. On February 28th, 1873, the premises were certified to accommodate 100 boys. The superintendent and matron were Mr and Mrs John Hinchcliffe. The other staff included an assistant schoolmaster, tailor, shoemaker and printer, reflecting the industrial training provided for the boys.

The annual inspection reports for the School were generally satisfactory. However, all was not well at the establishment. The first indication of this came on Thursday, September 8th, 1881, when eight of the inmates were remanded in court on a charge of setting fire to the School. The boys (Charles Whitehead, Edward Light, William Taylor, William Pitfield, Henry Moss, William Lyers, Frederick Wittick, and John Martin) were aged from eleven to fifteen years. It was said that on the previous day, shortly before 5 a.m., Mr. Francis, the schoolmaster, had been informed that that place was on fire. He at once got the boys out of their beds and marched them down into the yard. He then proceeded to the kitchen, which he found to be full of smoke, He discovered that the floorboards had been taken up and three separate fires made between the joists. Two of these were still alight but the third had gone out. There was a plentiful supply of water, and the flames were extinguished before any great damage had been done. Afterwards, Whitehead had made a statement to the superintendent, Mr Hinchcliffe, to the effect that he and the other prisoners had all been involved in starting the fires.

The case might have received little further publicity, had it not been for a letter in the London Evening Standard on September 28th.

SIR,—Straying into the Thames Police-court tho other day I observed in the prisoners' dock eight little boys, whose ages appeared to range from ten to fourteen, charged, I was informed, with attempting to set fire to St. Paul's Industrial School, Burdett-road, Bow.

Now, a few words which fell from tho Magistrate's lips induced me to think that it would not be amiss if, through the medium of your columns, the attention of the Home Secretary were drawn to this School. The words were as follows: "The offence of these children would be palliated if their treatment in the School were such as to make life intolerable."

Various allusions to handcuffs, foot-manacles, bread and water punishments for lengthened periods, and the severe reprimand administered by the Magistrate to the Governor of the School for castigating the children before charging them, suggested to my mind that an inquiry into its management be useful. The name of a member of the School Board for Tower Hamlets was mentioned in court as a Manager, and the charge, though of so serious a nature, was dismissed as far as six of the eight children were concerned.

Now, as there seemed to be a strong desire on the part of the Governor to hush up the affair altogether, it is to be hoped that the Home Secretary will see the whole matter fully investigated.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant, OBSERVER.

A number of members of the London School Board added their backing for a committee of inquiry to be set up. In the meantime, it was reported that a number of lads had absconded from the School. Charges were subsequently dropped against six of the boys, while the other two, Whitehead and Light, both aged fourteen, were found guilty and sentenced a month in Newgate prison followed by three years at a reformatory.

At the end of October, the Board's own committee of inquiry began its proceedings. One of the Board members, Mrs Surr, presented a list of allegations that had been made against the management of the School:

  • That the managers of the school had not been summoned to meet for years.
  • That food supplied to the children was not good in quality, and through frequent short allowance was deficient in quantity.
  • That excessive punishments were given — namely, eighteen, twenty-four, or twenty-seven strokes with birch or cane.
  • That handcuffs were used for hands and feet.
  • That boys were locked in a room for days and nights, where the cold was so intense that their cocoa froze.
  • That weak children carried their beds on their heads for long periods, and had to stand in the yard at attention, even in winter, until their blood is chilled, thus contracting illness.
  • That the whole school was placed on short allowance of food for one child's offence.
  • That children suffering from physical infirmity were compelled to wash their sheets in cold water even in winter in the open air, standing without shoes or stockings on the bare stones.
  • That the children's loaves were changed for cakes which they did not taste, and large joints of meat were purchased and set down to "boys' account " which are not consumed by the boys.
  • That such false information has been supplied to the Government inspectors as to cause their annual reports to be inaccurate.
  • That theft of food, and stratagem and falsehood to conceal theft, were of such frequent occurrence that the School was little better than a criminal manufactory.
  • That afflicted children in one of the dormitories had been left to sleep on the door without beds during the interval of burning old beds and making new ones.

Just over a week into its work, the inquiry came to an abrupt conclusion when the committee, after a private meeting, produced a proposal that a new twelve-strong board of management be formed for the School, two of whom would be nominated by the London School Board and three by Mrs Surr. At the next meeting of the full Board, this scheme was not accepted and it was decided that the matter be left in the hands of the Home Secretary. The Home Secretary quickly decided that the School's certificate should be withdrawn and it ceased operation. The inmates then under detention were either discharged or transferred to other Industrial Schools.

In 1883, the premises became a Barnardo's Home known Leopold House. The building no longer survives.

Leopold House, c.1903. © Peter Higginbotham


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