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Workhouse Education

August 14-21, 1861 — Annual Meeting of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, Dublin, Ireland


In order to estimate aright the results and effects of workhouse life and education, we must endeavour to examine into its first beginnings, and trace out the early management and training that is bestowed upon the yet young and tender being, which so easily receives impressions, either for good or evil.

Let us, therefore, look at the different kinds of education provided by the poor law, and by those who have the practical carrying out of it through the country.

(1.) There is the plan most generally adopted for the education of pauper children, viz., workhouse schools, under the same roof as, and in direct connexion with, the workhouses. This plan has been in operation ever since the New Poor Law Act, when it was supposed to be perfected in the improved accommodation provided in the new workhouses for schools. The present views and results of workhouse education were not then known or appreciated, which is much to be regretted, because such an opportunity of inaugurating a new and improved system will never again occur.

The main objections to these workhouse schools may be briefly stated to be:

First, the keeping up of a condition of pauperism in the children, by the associations of the workhouse, and the evil influence of the adults upon the young generation.

Second, the impossibility of teaching useful knowledge to fit the children for practical life, without the contamination of the adults. Besides this, the scale on which all industrial occupations are conducted in large establishments renders them quite unsuitable as training places for the small families and households into which the girls are sent as servants.

These objections have been so frequently and strongly stated by school inspectors during several years, that it is hardly necessary to attempt to prove them here. It may perhaps suffice, if I endeavour to give some reasons why the workhouse is altogether an unfit training place for children.

From its infancy, in the workhouse nursery, the pauper child is in an unnatural and debased position; and it is deprived of all the influences and blessings of family life and healthy training, and most probably, even of motherly love. The attention of persons has within the last few years been directed to the condition and aspects of infant nurseries in workhouses, with their joyless atmosphere, and bare, blank, whitewashed walls, — the cross, aged pauper nurse, and the total absence of all toys, and brightness, and joy; and perhaps the still more dull yard as a playground, with its high walls and cold pavement. In such a room as this twenty little creatures have been seen, standing demurely in the middle of the floor, one of them holding up, with a faint smile, the limbless trunk of a doll to the admiring (or perhaps pitying) gaze of the visitor. Oh! many and many a heart amongst these visitors has ached and mourned over such joyless, stunted specimens of infant life; mockeries they seem of the free, bounding, healthful existences which God created and intended them to be. True, it may be in a great measure the sins, or the vices, or the sickness of the parents which have been entailed on their offspring, and have brought them into this position; but is it for us to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children, and doom them also to an existence of depressed and entailed pauperism, which will too surely cleave to them, as it has, in some instances, to generations before them?

The associations thus begun in infancy in the workhouse are carried on into the school life. Communications with the adults, and the influence of the low tone and morality of pauperism are inevitable. The mere learning in school is insufficient to obviate or overcome it, and the teachers strive against it in vain. When the girl’s education is considered to be complete, there is indeed no difficulty in placing her out in the world, such is the demand for servants of every age and description. But it is only the lowest class of employers who come to seek their drudges at the workhouse school, and few indeed are those children who are able to remain many months in their first places. Incapacity for useful work, or failing health, or pining for “home,” (even though in a workhouse,) probably cause the child to return ere many weeks are past; and then most likely begins her life in the adult wards or infirmary, with their miscellaneous and contaminating company. Such is too often the first result of workhouse school education, with its head learning, but its total want of heart cultivation and influence, as well as of useful, industrial knowledge.

(2.) Another and a very different system was introduced by the establishment of district schools, when several unions combined to send their children to one large and newly-built country school.  This plan was begun as long as thirty years ago, when pauper children were farmed out at Norwood, under the care of Mr. Aubin. This institution was removed to Hanwell five years ago, and was the first of those schools which now exist round London, numbering in the largest eight hundred or one thousand children; Hanwell is built to contain sixteen hundred, though it is not now more than half filled. The advantages of this plan are, the separation, to a great extent, of the children from their relations and connexions, and from the associations of the workhouse and of pauperism, — the healthy country locality, and the employment of a superior class of teachers.

Far greater facilities are offered for good industrial training in schools of large size, especially for the boys; as, for instance, in the teaching of music. When the master is paid £50 a year, this could not of course be done in a small or separate school. There are also these advantages, — the children do not probably go into places in their old parishes or neighbourhoods, which is found to be very objectionable, and they are scattered over a larger area. And besides this, the managers are selected from amongst the different boards of guardians, with some reference to their fitness for the office. I am inclined to think that if district schools were limited to five hundred or six hundred children, they would probably be the most successful of all the plans for pauper children, at least for those of large towns. In the rural districts they would not be practicable, and there smaller “Homes,” at least for the girls, would be far more desirable.

The objections may be thus stated. First, their large size, in consequence of which the children in masses are apt to become like machines; and the industrial work, conducted on so vast a scale, is very different from what it is in families and small households. In some schools these defects are obviated more than in others, but they cannot be entirely overcome. The effect of the large numbers on the minds and hearts of the children is, I believe, as injurious as to their industrial education. And what I am now saying is especially applicable to the girls. There can be no individuality amongst them, and no possibility of individual treatment, and adaption of means to individual characters. A truly conscientious teacher once said to us, “We may know their faces, but what can we know of their individual minds and characters?” For girls to be thus lost in masses is fatal to the development of their moral being. The affections, so all-important in a woman’s character, can have but little play here. There must be indeed a wonderful amount of love and devotion in the hearts of the paid teachers to expand itself over hnndreds of uninteresting pauper children, many of whom are only temporarily under their care. The amount of learning that is imparted is indeed often astonishing, but we have yet to find that hearts are reached by this system; and however successful it may appear to have proved for the boys, I have grave doubts whether it can ever be carried out for girls, whose spheres of usefulness in life are widely different, and where the home should ever be considered as the end and object of their training.

The results of district school training might probably be more successful if the orphan or permanent children could be entirely separated from the rest. An attempt is made to ensure this separation, but in no case is it completely carried out, and the children entering the school for short periods cannot fail to do much mischief to the others.

(3.) Another kind of school is the separate, but not district school, one parish or union sending its children out into the country. These are, of course, much smaller, numbering perhaps not more than two hundred or three hundred children, and for this reason they appear to offer a more hopeful prospect of success. There are several of these in the neighbourhood of London; and, with proper management, there is every reason to hope that the children thus educated would be well placed out in service, and effectually emancipated from pauperism. The great evil in all these schools is the sending out the girls too young, and to places for which they are unfitted by age and inexperience, owing to the present demand for servants of all ages. Children of ten or twelve years old are sometimes sent to service, with what amount of training can be imagined by those who know what the material is to begin with and to be worked upon during the short space of time allotted to education; and the consequence is most probably a speedy return to the school or to the workhouse.

(4.) Then there is the last invention, or shall I call it innovation, of modern times, the “Home” for workhouse girls. The efforts are at present too recent, as well as too few and scattered, for us to speak fully of anything like results. But we cannot express too strongly our faith and hope and confidence in the soundness of the principle which is developed in these experiments.

It has been objected to the smaller schools, of which we have spoken, that they have been less efficient, because they have less expensive teachers, and an altogether inferior staff to that of the larger schools. Here, however, in the Homes, we have a new element introduced, viz., the voluntary principle, which has been, I believe, the main source of the success of the reformatory movement. The hearts and natures of pauper children are not less accessible to influences of this kind than those of criminal children, and the lesson should not be thrown away upon us, seeing how many failures we have hitherto had to deplore. In the “Home” there is the possibility of teaching on a small scale those things which the girls will have to do in after life, so that not only does this institution offer the best chance for their industrial teaching, but for their moral training as well, upon which alone future success must depend. When we consider how many of these children have never known a home or a parent’s care, we can surely estimate the blank that must exist in their moral being; and how to fill it and supply the want must be our first consideration. In all the different kinds of schools I have mentioned, we might endeavour to remedy this defect more than we have hitherto done, by admitting a voluntary interest and sympathy from without, which has hitherto been repelled and checked, rather than invited and encouraged. It is only quite recently that toys and games have been introduced into some of these schools, that demand of the moral nature of children not having been taken into account by gentlemen managers or certificated masters and mistresses, who were supplied ungrudgingly.

We are bound to confess that the results of all these efforts are still far from being satisfactory. The utter helplessness and incapacity of workhouse children has become almost proverbial, and needs no fresh proof. Their acquaintance with life is bounded by the four blank walls of their school and dormitory, and their dreary yard called a playground. They are sent out into the world in utter ignorance of home life, knowing nothing of the value of money, or of management of any kind; washing has in some instances been lately added to the list of their acquirements, but of cooking or common household work they can still learn nothing in a workhouse. When we add to this their frequent hereditary defects and weakness of body and mind, we can well comprehend the complaints so often made by their employers, and their too frequent return to the workhouse in consequence of failure.

Guardians are often reproached with a want of liberality and a grudging economy, especially with regard to education, but no amount of expenditure on their part could render a workhouse training desirable for childhood. In the district schools money has not been spared ; but, perhaps, a reckless and large expenditure is not after all the most desirable example to set before those who ought in after life to practise a careful and strict economy, both in the households where they serve and in their own homes.

I cannot conclude this brief review of the various means of training provided for our pauper children without alluding to the condition of those who leave the schools and go out to service. This time may be said to be the turning point of the whole life, and, if careful attention is not paid to it, the previous expenditure will probably be entirely thrown away. To emancipate a girl at the age of fourteen or fifteen from the strict rules and discipline and restraint of school, and launch her into a totally new and untried world, standing alone, as she probably does, without friends or relations, is, as we can easily imagine, a most perilous risk; and we cease to wonder at the results which are but too often reported as the consequence.

The protection given to these children, sent from the workhouse schools, is a visit from the relieving officer of the parish or union once in six months perhaps, if the child is placed within a distance of five miles. In the case of district schools an improvement is made upon this plan, by a system of visitation by the chaplain to all those who go to service, for two years after they leave school.

But here again a great addition might be most advantageously made by an introduction of the voluntary principle, as has been proved at Bristol, by the ladies who have undertaken to visit and superintend the children who leave the workhouse schools. It is obvious how much they are able to do in the way of prevention which cannot be done otherwise, and how many may be saved by such simple measures from a return to the work house, or a life of sin and misery outside.

I have lately seen the results of pauper education estimated by the numbers of those who actually return to their workhouses, either from vice or incapacity. But this is far from being a satisfactory proof of the question. Statistics furnished by prisons, penitentiaries, and reformatories, would give a more correct insight into this matter, and would, I fear, present a very fearful and awful picture of the condition of the girls and young women who have, during some period of their lives, been supported by the public money. And besides those who can be accounted for, we may surely reckon a large number who are lost sight of in that abyss of sin and vice for which recruits are furnished chiefly from the ranks of the orphan and the destitute.

A voluntary interest in, and inspection of, the schools by those who would afterwards carry on this interest, would be an immense gain, and it is almost the only hope that I can see for those poor girls who are now launched so helplessly into the world.

It seems to have been overlooked by those who have in a great measure provided so carefully for the education of a portion of o r pauper children in separate establishments, that even the best of them must be occasionally leaving their places, and thus be temporarily, at least, without a home. To bring these, as at present, into the London workhouses, where no fit accommodation is provided for them, is to undo all that has been previously done for them. There is no ward in such institutions for decent girls; destitution being the test and the cause of their admission, they are classed with others, no matter of what character, or age, or previous condition and habits. The usual employment for such is oakum picking — I say usual, but in some few workhouses the occupation is objected to, and other work provided; scrubbing and cleaning is, however, the only alternative, and rarely have I found an attempt made to teach even the common rudiments of sewing, which, being a womanly occupation, might be supposed to fit girls in some measure for domestic service.

Till, therefore, better classification, supervision, and industrial employment can be provided in workhouses for those who have not yet lost their character, there seems to be no hope for them but to provide outside the walls that protection which is so necessary. There must be times when even the girls best brought up in district schools will be changing their places, and the poor wages they receive will not enable them to provide themselves with decent and respectable lodgings. If two-thirds of these pauper girls are orphans and homeless, what can we suppose becomes of them when they leave their situations? Rarely are they able to pass directly from one to another, for few mistresses will allow their servants to go out and search for a place before leaving them, and frequently the want of proper clothes obliges them to return to the only home and friends they know in the workhouse.

To force these, then, at once into the company of the reckless and depraved, seems to be as short-sighted as it is cruel and expensive, and I would urge the consideration of further plans like that commenced by the Workhouse Visiting Society in their Industrial Home for Young Women, in order to save these girls from inevitable ruin.

There are surely bad ones enough amongst the already depraved and fallen, who baffle all efforts for their restoration, without our adding to the number by wilfully placing those who are yet comparatively uncontaminated in positions of danger, where their fall is almost inevitable.

Let the improved district and country schools be supplemented by homes, where those who are out of place may find a safe refuge; let such homes be sanctioned by the Poor Law authorities, and partly, if not entirely supported by the poor rates, and let private charity and interest do the rest, and have a share in the management, and we shall then have provided, humanly speaking, as far as we can in justice and mercy, for the protection of those who are under the care and guardianship of the State, and for whose welfare, temporal, moral, and spiritual, we shall therefore be held accountable.



Source: Transactions of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, 1861, ed. George W. Hastings (London: John W. Parker, Son), 1862, pp. 331-338.