Christmas day in the Forest Gate Workhouse

Tuesday 24 December 2013

Forest Gate Industrial School was located on site of Woodgrange manor, which was purchased in 1847 by Samuel Gurney , Quaker banker and brother of Elizabeth Fry.  It was located in buildings that largely survive today on Forest Lane, opposite the Forest Gate - Stratford railway line.
The school buildings in the 1970's,
by now a maternity hospital
 In 1852 Gurney gave the land to Whitechapel Board of Guardians who built the Forest Gate School for poor children there in 1854. It was residential, and essentially an outpost of the Whitechapel workhouse, away from the choked inner district from which the children sprang.

The Institution was transferred in March, 1869, to the Board of Management of the Forest Gate School District, which comprises Hackney, Poplar and Whitechapel Unions; and remained as a residential unit for children of the workhouse poor.

It was the scene of a tragedy in 1890, which caused the deaths of 26 children (this will be covered in the future, on this site). It remained a school  until 1906, and was for a short period (1908 - 1911) the site of the Poplar Workhouse, itself.

The site subsequently became the location of Forest Gate Sick Home (1913 - 1930), and more recently  a maternity hospital (1930 - 1986).  It suffered serious bomb damage in 1940.

After the hospital was closed, the buildings were turned into flats and their grounds were turned into Forest Lane Park in 1994.  Several of the original Industrial school buildings survive.

Inspired by Dickens, and popular late nineteenth century poems and tales of Christmas day in the workhouse, the short-lived Forest Gate Weekly News paid the institution a series of visits over the Christmas period 1896.

We reproduce, below, their slightly wordy account of what they saw.  It provides a fascinating insight of life for many of Forest Gate's poor children, 117 years ago.

Meanwhile, Happy Christmas to you all, in 2013!

A world within a world; my visits to the Forest Gate District Schools

Front page of Forest Gate Weekly News,
featuring the article reproduced here
1 January 1897
Most Forest Gate residents are familiar with the large building in Forest Lane. But probably few of such residents are aware of the extent of the complementary buildings which stand to the west and rear of the main block, or of the "world within a world" which is living out its life and acting out its daily scenes on some part or other of those thirteen acres which the great rectangular site covers.
The place is altogether too vast to be grasped or understood at a visit. I have made three separate visits during the past week or so and have finally come away pretty fully informed and greatly interested.
Blacksmith workshop at the St Pancras Industrial
School, 1896. Same time, similar project,
to Forest Gate establishment
My first visit was made prior to Christmas, when Mr. Duncan (who has been Superintendent for eighteen years and an official of the Institution for thirty) received me very pleasantly; explained what was projected in the way of Christmas festivity; and gave me a few peeps at the different departments.
 I saw the scores of plum puddings coming out of the coppers in the great kitchen; I saw boys, fresh from the tailors' or bootmakers' shops having their evening spray bath in the large lavatory; and I ascended stairs and looked with strange interest into the bedroom which was the scene of the deplorably fatal fire of several years ago.
 My second visit was on Christmas Day at noon. The sun was shining brightly as the little fellow at the gates let me in and pioneered me to the entrance hall once more; and in the fine dining hall beyond there was a sight such as does not often greet the eyes of the average man - or even journalist. At forty long tables sat over 500 boys and girls. 
Dining hall in central London Industrial School
at the time of publication of Forest Gate article
The roast beef stage was over and the plum pudding stage had begun. Long strings of the youngsters, indeed, were coming up to the serving tables for "another plateful, please", and presently it was evident that, as with the Cratchits - the poor family of an under-paid clerk in Charles Dickens 'A Christmas Carol' - so with these, "everybody had had enough".
Christmas day in the Whitechapel workhouse,
"parental body" of Forest Gate school, in 1874
 At last a gong sounded, and this produced another spectacle that was pleasant to look upon. Every child rose - from the lad of fourteen, ready for the bigger world outside, to the mites of four or five with, probably, many more years of workhouse life ahead of them. The gong sounded again, and now five hundred pairs of hands were reverently folded. A third time the gong sounded; the notes of a harmonium were also heard; and grace was strongly and clearly chanted by all the children, many of whom closed their eyes and moved their heads as if greatly enjoying.
 The only manager present at this Christmas dinner was Mr. W. Crooks, L.C.C., with whom I had a chat and who seemed to take an intense, and yet keenly practical, interest in the proceedings. Asked by Mr. Duncan to say a few words he responded to the invitation in robust and incisive style. He wished the youngsters every enjoyment; said he was sure the big girls would look after the little ones; and expressed the half-dubious hope that the big boys would be equally thoughtful.
 Next came the distribution of fruit and nuts. At the end of each table was a clothes-basket piled high with paper bags, each containing two oranges and a double handful of crack-nuts and chestnuts. As the children files away from the tables, each was enriched with its modicum of dessert, and to see the tiny ones, especially, hugging those bags against their pinafores as they passed out was to understand quite clearly how much difference every one-pennyworth of fruit administered once in twelve months may make, in a pauper child's life.
 But there was still rarer joy beyond. For had not the editor of "Truth" sent full five hundred toys - although not, as one little girl lamented, one single doll amongst them - and were not new sixpences, from the same bountiful source, to presently become as plentiful almost, as blackberries in September.
 Moving about among the children on this joy-producing Christmas Day there were, besides Mr. and Mrs. Duncan and Miss Kemp, the matron, several ladies and gentlemen who seemed no strangers either to the place or the young inmates. These, I learnt, were Sunday School teachers, who, headed by Mr. A.W. Webster, as superintendent, have done, and are doing, excellent Sabbath afternoon work in the large dining hall, where some 50 or 60 classes of boys and girls assemble. 
Postcard from early 20th century,
illustrating a scene from Christmas
Day in the Workhouse
My third and principal visit was made on Tuesday morning last. A dense fog everywhere prevailed and I was glad that I had seen the place under the more cheerful weather conditions of Christmas Day. Mr. Duncan again kindly pioneered me through, and I cannot speak too highly of the courteous attention paid to me by this gentleman. I recognised from the first that it was not, strictly speaking, a local institution that I was visiting, but if it had been one maintained strictly by and for Forest Gate inhabitants I could not have been accorded a better reception.
There may be readers who would like to know exactly what purpose the Forest Gate District Schools serve, by whom and when they were erected, and by whom they are maintained. In a sense their history is to be found cut in marble on the walls of the large entrance hall. Over the fireplace is a sculptured tablet which states that "this Industrial School was erected in 1854 by the Guardians of the Poor of the Whitechapel Union". But it is an Industrial School no longer; for on an opposite tablet one reads: "This Institution was transferred in March, 1869, to the Board of Management of the Forest Gate School District, which comprises Hackney, Poplar and Whitechapel Unions."
Below are set forth the names of the first managers and officers - nineteen in all - and Mr. Duncan, as he stands beside me says: "That tablet is really a gravestone. Of the nineteen whose names are on it only three are now living. Such are the changes that less than thirty years brings about."
I note that of the managers of 1869 the two survivors are Mr. E.N. Buxton and Sir (then Mr.) Edmund Hay Currie.
As managers have changed so have circumstances. First Whitechapel alone held sway; then Hackney and Poplar joined; next Hackney seceded; and now, so it is whispered, Whitechapel itself may soon withdraw, leaving Poplar in sole possession. But what are these schools? you ask. 
Inmates of Lambeth workhouse school, undated
 They are simply workhouse schools carried on, for reasons of convenience, away from the workhouse. A man tires of the battle of life and goes into the Poplar or the Whitechapel Workhouse, taking his children with him. The latter are sent to Forest Gate. The man tires of workhouse routine and desires to try the battle of life once more. His children are sent to meet him and from the workhouse gates they emerge together.
Out by way of the front doors and away in the fog towards the detached building lying eastwards in the grounds. This is the Infirmary and it has about forty occupants, very few of whom, however, are in bed. When anything is the matter with a child, from a cut or bruise upwards, it is sent off to the infirmary forthwith, and seen by the doctor (Mr. Bell, of Leytonstone) at his next daily round.
The Infirmary is divided into boys' and girls' sides and has its night and day wards like the bigger Institutions of the kind elsewhere for bigger people. There are a few little chaps in bed and they all seem glad of a cheery word from Mr. Duncan. They appear to expect this as he walks around and they are not disappointed. In the playrooms, too, where all the "Truth" toys are still in evidence, the little folk are left all the more cheerful for the visit.
To the rear of the Infirmary - and also - detached - is the Infant School building, which possesses almost as imposing an elevation as that of the main structure seen from Forest Lane. All the rooms, corridors, and staircases here, as elsewhere, are delightfully clean and fresh.
Girls dancing around maypole in
Ongar Industrial School c 1906
It is true that, a few months back (during a fortnight's absence of the entire colony of boys and girls under the Country Holidays Fund scheme) a wholesale renovation of walls, ceilings, and so forth took place, but spotless cleanliness is the absolute rule of the place and no deviation therefrom is, under any circumstances, permitted.
As Mr. Duncan passes round he occasionally stoops and draws his finger across some portion of the polished flooring but fails to bring away with it any trace of dust. His daily pilgrimage through all rooms is a matter of some hours and the irregularity that escapes his eye must be of microscopical dimensions.
An interesting portion of the Infant Department is the Kindergarten School. In the centre a may-pole stands, from which long coloured streamers hang, and the plaiting of these in the dance is an occasional popular interlude with the young scholars. There are well-furnished dolls' houses and numerous cases and cupboards, the contents of which indicate that many clever little fingers have been at work.
More substantial trophies of juvenile skill are the dolls' houses themselves and some of the forms and desks, the handiwork of boys in the carpenters' shop. We visit this place presently and see some good specimens of joining and cabinet making. Near at hand are the bootmakers' and tailors' shops where all the repairing for the Institution is done by the boys.
Boys boot making workshop in Kensington
Industrial School, 1902
Here, however, a point comes in, which Mr. Duncan raises and which I feel bound to emphasise. Children must pass the Fourth Standard in the school before being put to any kind of work. The consequence is that the vast proportion passes out into the world utterly untrained in any sort of handicraft. Education is undoubtedly a good thing, but wage-earning power is surely better.
Dressmaking class at St Pancras Industrial School 1896
Other interesting departments are the wardrobe rooms, where everything is carefully sorted, numbered and "receptacled" - "a place for every child's clothes and every child's clothes in their place" seeming to be the motto that here prevails; and the laundries where machinery and deft handling combine to produce that pleasing effect of snowy whiteness which table and bed linen throughout the Institution display wherever encountered. A smooth-running steam engine works the laundry machinery and in the engine room the mechanic who keeps things generally in order has his work bench and pursues his useful labours.
At the northernmost boundary of the grounds are the playing fields and there are also asphalted playgrounds both covered and open. The boys - in humble imitation of those of the Charterhouse - do not wear caps out of doors and are healthy and hardy in spite of - and, perhaps, by reason of - the exposure. Mr. Duncan has almost a passion in this direction, and he has hit upon an extremely clever device for furthering his ideal.
Finding that it is utterly futile to expect a number of children using ordinary lavatory basins to empty the water after each ablution he has caused rose-nozzles to be fixed at the bottom of each basin, the result of which is a constantly-fresh supply of water in the form of fine spray in which the hands and face can be washed under the most pleasant and effectual conditions.
There is a swimming bath 40 feet by 30 feet and 3 feet deep hard by the laundry, and this is freely used by both boys and girls. The water was so clear on my visit that I almost walked into it. Of course certain times are set apart for the boys to bathe and other times for the girls, and they all enjoy the health-giving exercise immensely.
Swimming bath at Kensington Industrial School 1902
- probably similar to one at Forest Gate
It is sometimes alleged of the lower section of the poor that they have a natural antipathy to water and its resultant cleanliness. If this be true it is gratifying to know that from the Forest Gate District Schools there is constantly issuing a wholesome leaven which may presently work a desirable and beneficial change in matters ablutionary.
I asked a question of Mr. Duncan which, he says, almost every visitor asks. It was whether the massing of children together does not lead to hurtful moral results. His reply was interesting and instructive. "In all my experience here the matter has not once arisen. I believe these children to be perfectly innocent and that there is even less likelihood of mutual contamination than in a large public school where children of the better classes congregate.
Once or twice a new boy has been caught writing objectionable words upon a wall and he has been brought to me by the other boys. I have said: 'What shall I do to him?' and they have said: 'Flog him, sir.' I have replied: 'No, I will leave him to you, only don't hit him.' "
"But," added Mr. Duncan with a twinkle, "I don't think that boy has been caught writing on walls again."

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