Coming soon - a book for all fans of this blog!

Saturday 14 August 2021

I've written a few stories on this blog about the old "workhouse school" on Forest Lane, and in particular about the dreadful fire that killed 26 of the resident boys on New Year's Eve, 1890.

I've also posted about its later life as a maternity hospital for most of the twentieth century and the buildings' subsequent times as a housing scheme - Gladys Dimson House - Forest Lane Park and some other housing initiatives, in and around Magpie Close, over the years.

An estimated 50,000 East End children were brought up in the institution in the nineteenth century, and a further 50,000 were born there in the twentieth century.

Over lockdown I've written a book telling the intruiging story of the buildings and institution and subsequent fates of the children who lived there, from the 1850s. It is called Out of Sight, Out of Mind - Abuse, Neglect and Fire in a London Children's Workhouse, 1854-1907 It will be published on 26 August, priced £12.99.

I think its a great story - told for the first time.

There is real insight into the daily lives of the up to 900 children who lived there at any one time, in prison-like conditions, from the age of two, over a fifty year period. They were overwhelmingly shipped there from workhouses in Whitechapel, Hackney and Poplar and left until they were sent into the world aged 14 or so, having had minimal contact with parents, siblings or the outside world  over those years.

Previously unknown heroes and villians emerge. Britain's first female civil servant (Jane Senior) and first female workhouse school governor (Henrietta Barnett) stand out as key reformers of what was truly an appalling establishment from the 1870s - 1890s. They were trail blazers for two working class men who cut their public service teeth as governors of the school at the end of the nineteenth century and replacing it in the early twentieth century, en route to becoming Labour MPs Will Crooks and George Lansbury.


The barbaric instituion sired a surprisingly successful training ship - The Goliath - in Grays, Essex, which became a short-lived beacon for naval training. Its story is told in some detail, until a dreadful fire destroyed it, with a loss of 22 lives in 1875.

The lessons learned from Forest Gate in the second half of the nineteenth century played key roles in shaping and building a new and reformed framework policy for the care of looked-after children for the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, for the whole of Britain. 

A chapter of the book is devoted to examining how those various experiments, overwhelmingly in Essex, evolved, after the institutional barrenness of the Forest Gate "school" was gradually replaced by more humane and child-centric institutions and more latterly homes.

The fascinating story of the Forest Gate District school, as it was usually known, is set within a historic and geographic context of the history of state, charity and church efforts to deal with pauper children in Britain and elsewhere in Europe since the Norman Conquest.

The book will be available, from 26 August (although can be pre-ordered) from Newham Bookshop and all other good booksellers.

I'll be launching it at an event hosted by the Newham Bookshop on Thursday 26 August, between 5.30 and 7pm. The totally informal occasion will consist of some drinks, a few nibbles and some words from me, and, of course, a chance to be the the first to buy the book, hot off the presses!

You are cordially invited to the event at Newham Bookshop. All I ask is that you contact the bookshop (details on the invitation) or me, if you intend coming, so that we can plan the refreshments for the event.

Look foward to seeing you there!


There has been a spate of non-fiction books written by Forest Gate authors over the last two years, which are featured in the right hand column of this blog. They are:

E7-NowAndThen contributor Peter Williams' well illustrated book on the history of the West Ham fire brigade.

Fellow E7-NowandThen writer and @Flatshistorian Twitter account holder, Mark Gorman, has recently published an account of how Wanstead Flats was saved for public use in the Victorian era.

Yet another 'Forest Gate History Boy' Robert Nurden last year published a fascinating account of his controversial grandfather. Who in an event-packed life was a Nonconformist minister, hobo, journalist, cowboy, mercenary soldier, pacifist during WW1 and early feminist, who later converted to Catholicism, for which he became a noted theologian and writer. Oh - he was also a bit of a Lothario.

Owen Walker was born and brought up in Forest Gate and is now a Walthamstow-based, award winning Financial Times journalist. He led the news pack on the story and subsequently published an account of the rise and fall of Neil Woodford, once the pin-up boy of British financial advisors. His fall from grace has cost literally millions of people, directly and indirectly through pension funds etc, to regret their lack of due diligence in dealing with him and his empire.

All books are available from the wonderful Newham Bookshop.

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