The varied fortunes of three Victorian boys who found help at the Essex Industrial School

PUBLISHED: 11:41 29 May 2018 | UPDATED: 16:10 01 June 2018

Boys learn to make shoes - Photo by Fred Spalding

Boys learn to make shoes - Photo by Fred Spalding


Hannah Salisbury from the Essex Record Office picks out the stories of three young boys who fell on tough times during Victorian England, but found help at the Essex Industrial School

There was little in the way of a safety net for those who fell on hard times in Victorian England. For destitute boys in Essex, one place they might end up that could potentially give them a chance in life was the Essex Industrial School.

Established in 1872 by local businessman Joseph Brittain Pash, the school started life in two converted houses in Great Baddow, supported entirely by donations. It provided accommodation, clothing, education and practical training for destitute boys, especially orphans or those at risk of falling into crime.

The school obviously met a social need and by 1876 had grown to fill three houses and four cottages. In 1877 it was granted £5,000 by the Essex county authorities and £2,000 by the West Ham School board for a new building. Land was purchased in Rainsford End, Chelmsford, and a new building with space for up to 150 pupils was opened in 1879.

Working the strawberry patch - Photo by Fred SpaldingWorking the strawberry patch - Photo by Fred Spalding

Alongside a basic education, the boys received training in shoemaking, tailoring, gardening, building, carpentry, painting and decorating, and engineering. The school also had a theatre, a swimming pool, and a fife and drum band. When boys left, attempts were made to find them employment, sometimes in Australia, New Zealand or Canada.

The pupil records each read like miniature Charles Dickens novels. Charles Hart, for example, was admitted to the school in 1872 aged 10, having been “previously on the streets in a neglected and destitute condition”.

He could neither read nor write and had received no previous schooling. When he first arrived, his school records describe him as “lazy and untidy”, but he became more attentive and learnt to read and write. In May 1875 he was sent to Canada and, despite being shipwrecked, reached his destination.

The school dining room - Photo by Fred SpaldingThe school dining room - Photo by Fred Spalding

He found work at first, but then wrote to the school “in distress”. Money was sent to him, but by then Charles had arrived home. The school seems to have worked hard to stay in touch with him and recorded that he had been apprenticed on a fishing boat in Grimsby which was in the Iceland fishing trade.

A visitor in 1880 described him as a “smart young man” and said the boat’s captain told him Charles was his best apprentice.

George Newman was admitted in 1874 aged 10, having been “wandering around with his mother until she became insane”. His father was dead and his mother was placed in the Essex Lunatic Asylum in May 1874.

William Swainston - Photo by Fred SpaldingWilliam Swainston - Photo by Fred Spalding

He stayed at the school until 1880 and wrote in December that year that he had got a job at one of the very first Sainsbury’s shops in London.

Sadly when he visited the school in August 1881 he was out of work and nothing further is reported of him.

William Swainston was admitted in 1876, aged 11, having been found sleeping rough in an outhouse at Parson’s Heath near Colchester.

In the workshop - Photo by Fred SpaldingIn the workshop - Photo by Fred Spalding

He was an orphan and had been living with his uncle, but stated he had run away from his uncle because he was afraid of him. A newspaper article fixed to his school record says that, “He had been wondering about the locality for a fortnight previously and a witness [a local policeman] had received several complaints respecting him…

“The witness added that when found the boy was in a filthy condition, and Mr. Charles Harvey, the gaoler, said he had never before in his life had a boy in such a dirty state in custody”.

He was described on arrival at the school as “a quick boy” and “intelligent”, and unusually he could read and write. In 1881 a position was found for him in Canada and he wrote to the school to tell them he was doing well. Canadian records show that he married an Irishwoman and settled in Toronto.

Working in the school laundry - Photo by Fred SpaldingWorking in the school laundry - Photo by Fred Spalding

The school was later known as the Essex Home School and continued in various forms until 1980. The buildings have since been demolished and the site redeveloped.


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