Ancestry UK

'Children of the Street'
(from 'Signals of Distress' by William Blanchard Jerrold, 1863)

At the beginning of 1863, William Blanchard Jerrold — journalist, biographer, and editor of Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper — contributed a series of articles to the Morning Post giving a number of first-hand accounts of visits to various London institutions that accommodated those who were destitute, homeless or in trouble or need. The articles were subsequently republished into a volume entitled Signals of Distress. The piece below focuses on the Wandsworth Boys' Reformatory.

The Boys' Home at Wandsworth is by far the largest and the most vigorously managed London private reformatory school for boys I have yet visited. When you halt before the handsome iron gates, at the side of the canal bridge, you might imagine you were at the entrance to some sleek alderman's suburban retreat. A zinc plate brings the imagination to a halt. Behind the evergreens at the end of the long broad walk, in the solid square brick building, are 180 boys — about 140 of whom know what a gaol is like. My ring at the bell is answered by a brisk boy, dressed in grey, corded with red — the uniform of the institution; and I am conducted to the hall-door, where I am met by the head of the establishment. It is difficult, as we walk into a well-furnished drawing-room, to understand that there is not some mistake. Through the window there is a broad lawn — and beyond — ay, just a faint suggestion that busy hands are there. The long, low buildings; the waggon passing down a lane on the left, conducted by boys, in the grey and red of the diminutive gate-keeper; the stacking of bundles of wood to the right (with which I am by this time so familiar, and know its meaning so thoroughly, that I shall never see a bundle of firewood again without remembering the unhappy little fellows whose fingers chop and tie it) set my mind at rest. This is an industrial home, a reformatory, and a refuge, certified under the 17th and 18th Vict. cap. 86. It is an industrial home for convicted or unconvicted criminals, and destitute boys, from the counties of Surrey and Middlesex. The boys are taken between the ages of ten and sixteen, and put to the usual industrial work. These Wandsworth boys appear to attain a higher degree of excellence, even in the higher branches of industry, than is usual with reformatory or industrial school lads. In the master's room there was a ship beautifully built by one of the boys, who showed a strong aptitude for engineering. The master, being himself an engineer, encouraged the lad's proclivity; and now he is a man, well placed at his favourite employment. He was found by a city missionary, begging in the streets. He had been turned out of home. A religious quarrel had divided his family, and he was left to cleave his way alone through the wide world. In this Home, being an apt scholar, he was promoted to drive a little engine in the sawmill. He was only fourteen years of age when he left. The ship he built and left behind him, as a memorial of his skill, stands upon a highly-finished marquetrie table.

"That," said the master, "was begun and finished here by three of my boys. It has been exhibited, and was much admired by the late Prince-Consort." I inspected other samples of the boys' skill — a working model of a screw propeller, a massive tool-chest of complicated design, etc.

"Here," the master said, "we really work." What I subsequently saw proved the truth of his words, else this institution were an impossibility. Who ever hears of it? It never figures in the advertising columns of the newspapers; it has no committee, no president, no honorary secretary; it cannot boast even a printed report; it has never aired a long list of fashionable subscribers. And wherefore?

There are people, as I discover daily on my way through the charitable institutions of the metropolis, who pass their lives doing daily good by stealth. This important institution is, however, a monument of private charity, so nobly and perseveringly exercised, that it is difficult to celebrate it. Rich words, "to hang trophies on," proclaim that which has been done unostentatiously from year to year, with earnest heart and open purse, by a single lady. In the Fable for Critics," the poet sings of Emerson:—

"To the men he thinks worthy he frankly accords
 The design of a white marble statue in words."

I leave it to him who hath the gift to record that holy, unregarded work which Miss Portal has been doing these many years. The power of Fortune falls at times into strange hands, but it falls occasionally into the lap of human creatures who are nobly touched. It has cost the guardian gentlewoman who has held this refuge for children together, "generally £3000 a year," according to the master. Last year the lady's outlay was over £1000. These free gifts, most heartily bestowed, are repaid to the lady by the affection with which the reformed boys write to her from all parts of the world. I looked through many of their letters in the master's office. Some of them were remarkable for sound sense and strong determination to do good; and all for a generous spirit of gratitude that pervaded them. The letters addressed to the master were signed, as a rule, "your foster son." Two letters from boys who had gone out to Canada together, were interesting. Both boys were doing well. One was earning ten dollars a month on a farm. They had both joined the Volunteers, and had sent home their photographs (taken together) in uniform.

"Most of them," said the master, "write every month, and send me papers. They are pretty well all over the world. One who has just written to me is a clerk on a railway. He was sent here from a prison."

Another letter was from a boy in Canada, who was training for a schoolmaster. He was a bright, quick lad. He had made up his mind, at an early age, to devote his life to teaching. When he reached Canada he worked only to save, and go to college. When his money was spent he was going to work again to obtain means for the completion of his training, when a kind neighbour, who had noticed his self-devotion to the object of his life, stepped forward and offered to lend him the money he required to qualify himself as a teacher. The offer was accepted. The loan has been repaid long ago; and the brave fellow is now at the head of a school, with a first-class certificate. His gratitude to the Home, and to the beneficent lady who supports it, he has lately expressed in a long, affecting letter. It is addressed, "Unto thee who hast been the chief of all my friends," Here is a lad rescued from crime. He was not on the brink of crime when the doors of the home were opened to him. He had been committed to prison for robbery five times; and had been described, in all probability, by some police-court reporter, as "an incorrigible young vagabond." I opened another boy's letter, from Canada West. He was doing well.

"He," said the master, "was one of the gang of young roughs who pitched into the master at Pye Street, Westminster. They were sad young savages. I was asked if I would take the risk of them. I accepted them at once, and never had any trouble with them. This boy, now in Canada West, had a sweet disposition."

The master pointed to a group of flowers, in water-colours, framed and glazed, and hanging over the mantelpiece. "That picture was painted by one of the stupidest boys I ever had in my life. I couldn't make anything of him at first. I used to see him always scribbling on his slate. I looked over once or twice, and saw that he had some idea; his rough sketches were better than any I could have managed. So I gave him some bits of colours, and he did that."

"That" was a cluster of flowers skilfully grouped and delicately manipulated. Near it were some smaller works, by the boy's pupils.

"He's all right now," the master continued; "he's a chemist's assistant, and he is about to be married."

In this way we discussed the careers of many of the boys, and found by their letters, and other evidence, that nearly all of them were doing well About 50 are in Canada, and not four of this number have done badly. There are also 47 boys from this Home, serving in the navy. These facts will show the public the good that may be done with "incorrigible rascals" who have been committed to prison five times, or more. Of the 185 lads now under the care of the master, not more than 40 have been admitted without payment; and for these 40 the beneficent patroness of the Home provides, as she provided for all until the Home was certified: as she still pays apprenticeships, guarantees rent — in short, everything that it is necessary for her to pay, in order to secure the continued prosperity of the Home. Many of the boys are from Lancashire; some are sent by the Surrey Society (a benevolent society of Surrey magistrates who make a fund together), who pay 5s. a week for every boy they send; some are brought by the city missionaries; and some are sent by benevolent people round about — who often recommend when they decline to pay. The boys brought by private individuals are free to go when they choose; but the rest are strictly prisoners under the Reformatory Act. For the convicted boys, Mr. Leyland receives 6s. weekly per head; the allowance was 7s. The lesser sum is enough, if not more than enough, as I shall endeavour to show.

It is most important, since the number of children confined, convicted under the Reformatory and Industrial Schools Acts, is yearly on the increase, to discover the just price due to the masters of reformatory homes like this admirably administered one in which I find myself. In 1854, there were only-eight reformatories in England and Scotland; in 1861, there were 64. In the year 1854, just 29 boys and girls were sent to these eight reformatories; in 1861, no less than 1743 children were rescued from the streets and prisons — the total number of inmates of English and Scotch reformatories being 4337. While the reformatories have increased, the commitments of juvenile offenders have decreased 48 per cent. The decrease was, according to Mr. Sidney Turner, greater in 1860. The late increase of juvenile crime is fairly attributable to the prevailing distress, which has promoted tramping in search of work, and has so produced begging and crime. Mr. Turner believes that the increase is also due to the temptations the reformatories offer to parents, to get their children committed to them, and to the difficulty of making parents contribute to their maintenance when the State has once got hold of them. It is with infinite regret that every man who has thought this question over will learn that very little money is got out of the parents of children in reformatories. Take this Wandsworth Home for Boys as an example. Of 83 boys admitted in 1861, 57 were received on first conviction. There were 119 boys in the home; their cost was £17, 12s. 5d. per head; and the parents' payments were £69, 18s. 11d.! If Miss Portal were not at hand — and if the Government refused here the grant of 6s. a week for each boy — these boys would, with one or two exceptions, starve or steal They are here in comfort; and many a working man who has his children huddled in a garret, would be glad to see one or two of them enjoying the comforts and the education these juvenile criminals are enjoying. The temptation is strong; and it is dangerous to society, since it would make the cost of juvenile reformatories and industrial schools an intolerable burden. I believe that the present most excellent and experienced Inspector of Reformatories and Industrial Schools has looked sharply after the parents of children in the institutions under his control; yet he collected only £2439 in 1861. He recommends that children shall not be sent to a reformatory after a first commitment; holding that this rule would decrease the parents' temptation to get rid of their children. I believe such a rule would have no good effect; since children once committed to prison, and sent forth at the expiration of their sentence into the streets, start at once on the round of wrong. K their parents desire their removal to a reformatory, they will carefully incite them to the commission of the second felony. The twice convicted are more expensive, it must be remembered, than the once convicted. Again, if by this rule Mr. Turner suggests within reformatory wards, we shall crowd our houses of correction; and the reformatory costs less than the gaol. I would venture to ask Mr. Turner whether the law might not be made more stringent against parents?

When a father abandons his child; when, by his neglect or evil teaching, he brings it to the felons' dock before it can see over the bar; and when he commits it to the care of the State in its tender years, he shows himself a bad member of society, or, at the least, an incapable one. The child he calls incorrigible, is found to have a sweet disposition in a reformatory; the boy he thrust out of his door is now a school professor in Canada! He owes the public the cost of this duty done for him, and he should be made to pay it. If every defaulting parent were severely punished, registered, forced to keep the reformatory in which his child was living informed of his whereabouts; and, if they who could not pay-in coin were compelled to work out the debt, Mr. Turner would soon find a difference in "parents' payments." This payment to the reformatory is a sacred debt. It is only a poor atonement to the outraged State at the best. Put the defaulting parent in the stoneyard, or at oakum-picking, or, if possible, at more remunerative employment, and he would not hang back a second time. The sick, and lame, and crazy should be excused; but every man and woman who can pay in work or money should be compelled to pay.

The admirable organization of the Wandsworth Home for Boys, where "they really do work, "will most forcibly fix in the mind of any visitor this pregnant question, — Should these boys cost six shillings a week each? Their labour is great and various. All the work in the house is done by themselves. They wash their own linen, make and repair their own clothes, and cook their own victuals. In addition, they raise their own vegetables, or enough for a part of the year, and actually build their own workshops and dormitories. They tear rags for the paper-maker; and a party of them — builders — are building some Little villas for the master hard by. Yet I find in Mr. Turner's last report that the industrial profits derived from the industry of 119 boys throughout the year 1861 were only £66, 19s. 11d. — say 10s. per boy per annum! Now, many of these boys are verging on manhood. They cannot be committed to a reformatory when more than sixteen years of age. Many, however, who are nearly eighteen, declare to the magistrate they are not sixteen. Surely such boys can earn more than 10s. per annum. In the Warwickshire Reformatory for Boys, at Weston, near Leamington, 29 boys earned £118, Is. 4d.

The lads at this institution are older than the average of boys in reformatories; but I would undertake to pick out 29 from among Mr. Leyland's colony as old as the eldest of the Warwickshire boys. The Redhill boys are credited with about £4 per annum each against their cost. When I said that six shillings per week was enough for the Government to pay for every boy sent to a refuge, I did not go far enough; since I am confident that these boys could be maintained with profit to reformatory keepers or managers for a much less sum. A manager pointed out to me the absurdity of limiting a criminal boy's labour, more than the labour of a free boy's labour is limited. What is a fair day's work for a boy outside a reformatory is a fair day's work for one in a reformatory. Now, six hours of every day must be set apart for instruction; whereas three hours would be ample time. We are not seeking to rear Admirable Crichtons, but skilled working men, who shall have the best of all education for a child of the working class, viz., that which will enable him to earn his daily bread. If the cost of the reformatory and industrial school systems could be lessened, they might be extended. The less the cost of each boy, the more boys the State will be able to maintain. But this is not all. Why should boys be set free directly their labour becomes valuable? Why should the elder ones not help to keep the younger? They owe this to the State, which has been a father to them. By the adoption of this principle, reformatories might be made almost, if not quite, self-supporting, and reformatory lads would not be sent out into the world until they were fully able to earn their living, and were thoroughly habituated to a regular, industrious, and moral life. The present reformatory system includes that which has become so odious in the sight of the public viz, the ticket-of-leave. Boys are sent to a reformatory for not less than two nor more than five years. If a boy's conduct is good, he is let out with a license at the expiration of one-half of his term. The aim of the Government is to get rid of the cost of his keep as soon as possible. He is kept while his labour is of little or no value comparatively, and is parted with directly he is able to support him- self. That he is not thoroughly reformed, then, is proved by the license which is given to him: he must still be guarded; he must report himself personally at his reformatory once a month; or, if at a distance, he must send a certificate from his clergyman and his employer. Agents from the reformatory visit him at his work. In short, he is not deemed strong enough to run alone. I believe that if the evidence of all masters of reformatories were taken, it would point to the expediency of keeping boys until they had returned to the State, by the proceeds of their industry, the money the State had spent on their reformation and tuition.

I made a minute inspection of the Boys' Home, at Bridge House, Wandsworth. The apartment or hall (for it was as spacious and ornamental as many an assembly-room in a second-rate provincial town), which is school-room, chapel, and dining-room, is filled with transverse rows of desks and forms. Tin mugs were placed at numbered intervals upon the desks, and under the desks were recesses for books, etc. Leading from this comfortable apartment, where one or two boys are engaged drying linen at a roaring fire, was a long, broad workshop. On each side the boys were ranged at workstands behind great upright knives, tearing rags for Messrs. McMurray, whose paper-mills are at hand. They were all hard at their work: some were sharpening the knives, others were carrying the torn rags to be weighed, and others, again, were sorting the rags. They are allowed 1d. or 1½d. per diem for their work, according to the skill and energy displayed. Every boy has a sack marked with his number, so that the overlookers know who has been adroit and who has been negligent or lazy. Two boys were literally employed jumping in sacks, to press the rags into them. This is the probationary room, where the new-comers begin their industrial education, and remain six or nine months. Behind is a large garden and orchard. Twelve boys, under two head boys or directors, are digging or clearing parsnips, and sifting ashes for the garden walks. In this garden is a covered bath, where the young fellows disport themselves once a week, having tepid water from the engine-boiler in the winter. These garden boys are being thoroughly educated as gardeners. While I was walking in the grounds, watching the workers, the master told me some anecdotes about them.

" I had one boy here," he said, "who was about nineteen years of age when he came. Of course he had sworn that he was not sixteen; and how are the magistrates to tell? One day he lifted the poker at one of the masters, and swore he would strike the first person, on the head, who approached him. I heard of this, and went into the room with a stick. I desired him to put down the poker at once.. He still threatened; but a sharp rap over the knuckles knocked it from his hand; and now there cannot be a better fellow. He was a desperate customer from Cold bath Fields, but now he is as tractable as a child, and can be trusted away alone, a mile off, to dig in the gravel-pits. I have always eight boys outside taking the vans about with firewood, or fetching rags from the paper-mills. They go as far as Richmond. Sometimes they bring £5 or £6 a day in. In five years only two boys have kept back part of the money. One made off, but I caught him in the pit of the Victoria Theatre. I punished him with three days of bread and water. He is all right now; in a good situation; doing well. The other young defaulter is now trustworthy, and is overseer, with about fourteen men under him, in a bedstead manufactory."

"Some of them are the most cunning rogues on the face of the earth. One, a bit of a boy, wanted to have a little time out, and he proceeded in this way. He fell down in one of the dormitories, clasped his elbow, and set up a howl that soon attracted me to the spot. He had, he said, hurt his arm. Every touch gave him excruciating pain. I took him next morning to the doctor, who examined the elbow, which was very red. He said no bone was broken, but the arm was injured. It was suggested that he had better go to St. Thomas's Hospital. He returned with his arm neatly bound in splints (which it was afterwards discovered the artful scamp had cut out of two lesson boards), and an order, duly drawn up, that he was to go on the morrow. This continued for a day or two; and at last he brought an order in which the arm was described as in a state of mortification. This aroused my suspicions; but there was the order on the printed hospital form. I went to the hospital, and had a sharp interview with the young dressers. They knew nothing of the case. I returned to the boy, and told him to take his jacket off. He pretended that it was impossible to move his arm; however, I stood over him with a rope, and he took it off as well as I could. There was nothing the matter with his arm. He had contrived this plot in order to spend a day or two with some friends of his — publicans. He obtained the order by going to the hospital, getting his blank ticket, and leaving with it before he reached the surgeon's room. He had been in prison many times, although he was only fourteen years of age. He is now in America, preparing to be a schoolmaster.

"Then we had a boy who shammed fits. In his feigned delirium he called out, 'I'm to be hanged to-morrow morning!' I sent for the doctor, who laughed, and said, 'You can cure him better than I can.' He suggested a shower-bath. We carried him to it; and he kept up the deceit all the time. He was stripped and put in the bath. The instant the water fell upon him he leapt up. I was at hand with a rod, and gave him one cut, and he was off, running as fast as his legs could carry him, to his bed. I asked him his reason for the sham, and he said the boys told him I had released a boy who had fits, so he thought he would try. He is now in the army, and as good a boy as ever broke the world's bread."

Gossiping in this way, we passed back through the cotton-tearing department, to the playground. It was a cheerful place enough. There were pigeons flying about; there was a swing for the boys, and two vans were being loaded or unloaded. I watched a group of boys counting and stacking firewood. There was one distinguishable at a glance from the rest. He was a merchant's son, sent here for having committed some crime in his family. The master said he had a boy who could speak three languages.

We visited the tailors' and shoemakers' shops, which led the master to observe that the boys had made everything he stood upright in, except his hat and overcoat. It was as we were mounting the steps that lead to the firewood department, that the master called to my mind Squire Baker's Reformatory in Gloucestershire, where the boys' industry pays all their expenses. The firewood department is carried on in an airy and lofty gallery. The wood is cut with circular saws, into blocks. Along the gallery are compartments or berths; three boys work in each. One chops the wood, one sorts it, and one presses and ties it into bundles. Each party must do at least 600 bundles per diem. This done they may off to play, having earned one penny each. In a corner berth were two boys, one was chopping and one was tying bundles. A window behind him was broken. The master inquired how it was done. A boy had pitched a block of wood at it. "He was not at work, of course," said the master. The boy replied in the negative, and we passed on. The master told us a tragic story.

"That boy," said he, "who was tying up the bundles, had a narrow escape of his life a little time ago. He had offended another boy in the course of the day, a boy who had been with us about three months. This boy secreted a chopper when he went to bed at night; and about three or four in the morning, when everybody was asleep, the little fellow — for he was a very small boy — crept out of his bed, and went from sleeper to sleeper until he had found his victim. He then pulled back the clothes, and before he could be reached had given four frightful chops on the sleeper's head. The boy you saw has a bit cut out of his skull now. It was found in the blood on the bed-clothes afterwards. The teacher rushed into the room. I was called up, and found the boy lying, I thought dead, in the school-room. All his ferocious assailant said was — 'I've done the deed.' He was tried, and coolly pleaded guilty, but was prevailed upon to withdraw the plea. He was in the end condemned to fifteen years' penal servitude."

This revengeful young monster came from Nottingham, where he had already committed violence on a companion, a fact that was not sent with him.

There are three dormitories in the Home; one for unconvicted boys, one for boys who have been convicted once, and one — a fine gallery with top-lights, like a South Kensington picture-gallery — for boys who have been convicted more than once. I will conclude by a reference to Mr. Sidney Turner's last report on this Home. He complained that it was too crowded — considering the little out-of-door work it offers and its position — when there were 119 boys in it: now the numbers are 185; but I confess I saw ample accommodation and employment for the present number. I protest, with him, however, against boys being sent hither from Lancashire because they are admitted without immediate payment. However, it generates general income not bearing on the homes at Manchester.

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