Forest Gate Industrial school - The 1890 inquest and background to its 1906 closure

Monday 2 January 2017

We have written previously about one of the earliest significant institutions to built in Forest Gate: the Industrial School, on Forest Lane. See here for a general history of the school, here for an account of the devastating fire that suffocated 26 boys under the age of 12 on New Year's day, 1890, and here for an account of conditions in the school on Christmas Day, 1897.

This post provides more detail on two key aspects of its history: a brief account and sketch of the early stages of the inquest into the 1890 fire, and a detailed account of the circumstances resulting in its closure - largely through the efforts of some very effective Guardians, who themselves had experienced Industrial School life, and wanted better for future generations.

Site of the former Forest Gate
Industrial School, Forest Lane
The institution was established on former Samuel Gurney land in the mid 1850's, as a school for the children of paupers kept in the Whitechapel workhouse. It later also took in children from Hackney and Poplar workhouses; and at its peak accommodated 600 children, as boarders.

It closed in 1906, became an extension of the Poplar workhouse for a few years, then a general infirmary and ended its public service life as Forest Gate Maternity hospital, from 1930 - 1986.  It is now the Gladys Dimson housing development.

The inquest

We have provided harrowing and graphic contemporary accounts of the 1890 fire in previous posts - see above.

Artist impression of fire at the school, January 1890

We have recently come across a copy of The Graphic, an illustrated weekly newspaper, dated 11 January 1890 offering more details to our understanding of the inquest of the fire - complete with a sketch composed at it.

The Graphic - 11 Jan 1890 'The disastrous
 fire at Forest Gate district school,
 the relatives of the victims at the inquest'
Below is the coverage the paper gave to the inquest, of particular interest is the section that reads:

It seems clear that an over-heated stove pipe was the origin of the mischief. The tragedy is rendered more affecting by the fact that the children, who in such an institution unavoidably lead such monotonous lives, had on the 31st been taken to see the pantomime at the Stratford Theatre, and were looking forward to New Year's Day as an occasion of great festivity.
Our sketch represents the scene at the inquest, which opened on January 2nd by Mr CC Lewis, Coroner of South Essex, in one of the girls' school rooms at the institution. Among the persons present, besides the officials connected with the schools, were twenty or thirty relatives of deceased children.
The principal witness examined on the first day was Mr Charles Duncan, the superintendent of the institution. He endeavoured to put out the flames with a "Fire Queen" (a chemical extinguisher), and partially succeeded. Indeed to his courage and promptitude the preservation of the other parts of the building is due, but he was eventually driven back and almost suffocated by the dense smoke.

Excerpt from The Graphic, 11 Jan 1890

Circumstances and context around its closure

The school survived the fire and continued in service for a further decade and a half.

A good understanding of the reasons for its closure, and relocation to Hutton, Essex, can be gleaned from the memoirs of the chairman of the Board of Guardians at the time of its closure - Will Crooks (From Workhouse to Westminster - the life story of Will Crooks MP, by George Haw 1907).

Crooks was born into poverty in Poplar in 1852. His father was disabled (or "a cripple" as the biography states in the language of the time), unable to work, following an industrial accident and forced onto parish relief.

The family of eight were paid two or three shillings a week (10p - 15p) outdoor relief, by the time Will was eight years old (1860), which barely kept them from starvation. The Poplar Board of Guardians then determined that the family should be sent to the workhouse, down by the Millwall docks for a period.

According to Haw: 
The lad was ravenously hungry all the time he spent in the workhouse. He often felt at times as though he could eat leather; yet every morning when the "skilly" (ed: a very watery porridge/gruel) was served for breakfast, he could not touch it.
For two or three weeks the Crooks children were kept in the workhouse before being taken away in an omnibus with other boys to the Poor Law school at Sutton. Then came the most agonising experience of all to Will. They parted him from his younger brother.
In the great hall of the school he would strain his eyes, hoping to get a glimpse of the lone little fellow among the other lads, but he never set eyes on him again until the afternoon, when they went home together."
The Crooks family, about the time they
 were sent to the workhouse.  Young
 Will is second from the right,
leaning on his father's shoulder
Every day I spent in that school is burned on my soul", he has often declared since.
It was from this house that he saw a bread riot in the winter of 1860, when he got the first of many impressions he was to receive of what a winter of bad trade means to a district of casual labour like Poplar."
Sights like these of his childhood, with the shuddering memories of his own dark days in the workhouse school made him register a vow, little chap though he was at the time, that when he grew up to be a man he would do all he could to make better and brighter the lot of the inmates, especially that of the boys and girls.
This traumatic experience and lasting memory was later to have a profound effect on the future of the Forest Gate Industrial school, on Forest Lane.

Crook's career projectory was dramatic, given his humble origins. As a dock worker, he was a prominent figure in the famous 1889 London Dock Strike (known for its demand to get "The Dockers' Tanner" - an hourly rate of 2.5d per hour).

Crooks, on the way up the social
 scale - from workhouse, to Parliament

In the days before the establishment of the Labour Party, Crooks was elected, under the Progressive banner, as a member of the then London County Council, in 1892.

Within three years, he was elected the first working class member of the Poplar Board of Guardians, where he was soon joined by fellow local progressive politician, George Lansbury. Crooks was appointed chairman of the Guardians in 1897 and set upon a series of dramatic reforms.

He dwelt on his own memorable experiences as a workhouse child to introduce significant changes in the Poplar Union, and at the Forest Gate Industrial school, in particular.

We draw heavily on the Haw biography to explain what Crooks did to change conditions at the Forest Gate - including abolishing uniforms and improving food - and how this eventually lead to its closure and transit to Hutton, in Essex.
The Guardian's school at Forest Gate lay four miles from the Union buildings in Poplar .. with five or six hundred children always under training in the school.
He helped banish all the suggested pauperism from the Forest Gate school. The children were educated and grew up, not like workhouse children, as before, but like the children of working class parents. With what result?
Marked out in their childhood as being "from the workhouse", they often bore the stamp all of their life and ended up as workhouse inmates in their manhood and womanhood.
Under the new system they were made to feel like ordinary working class children. They grew up like them, becoming ordinary working-men and working-women themselves; so the Poor Law knew them no longer.
If I cant appeal to your moral sense, let me appeal to your pocket", Crook once remarked in a Guildhall Poor Law Conference. "Surely it is far cheaper to be generous in training Poor Law children to take their place in life as useful citizens than it is to give the children a niggardly training and a branded career.
This latter way soon leads them to the workhouse again, to be kept out of the rates for the rest of their lives."
How far the principle was carried out at Forest  Gate may be judged from the (undated) report made by Mr Diggard, HM Inspector of Schools, after one visit.  Thus:
"There is very little (if any) of the institution's mark among the children ... Both boys and girls are in a highly satisfactory state, showing increased efficiency with increased intelligence on the part of the children ... They compare very favourably with the best elementary schools."
In all that related to games and healthful recreation Crooks agreed in giving the scholars the fullest facilities. The lads were encouraged to send their football and cricket teams to play other schools. The girls developed under drill and gymnastic training, and became proficient swimmers.
In fact, the scholars at Forest Gate began to count for something. They learned to trust each other and to rely upon themselves. They grew up with hope and courage. The learned to walk honourably before all men. In consequence thousands of them have emerged in the great working world outside, self-respecting men and women.
 I met Crooks looking elated one evening and he told me that he had just come from the Poor Law schools' swimming competition at Westminster Baths.
There were three trophies" he said "The first, the London Shield was for boys. Poplar (i.e. the Forest Gate school) won with 85 marks ... The second was the Portsmouth Shield.. our girls won that with 65 marks. The third was the Whitehall Shield, for the school as a whole with the highest number of marks also won. I feel as pleased as though I had done it myself.
The best administration in an out-of-date building is always hampered. Forest Gate belonged to the old order of Poor Law schools known as barrack buildings. Although the Guardians made the very best of the school, there structural defects that hindered the work seriously.
It was therefore decided to build cottage houses at Shenfield in Essex (the Hutton school), where special effort is being made to train girls as well as boys in rural pursuits in order to keep them out of the over-crowded cities.

This transfer took place in 1906, and lead to the closure of the Forest Lane establishment as a school and transformation to an annexe for the Poplar workhouse.
The new "extrvagently
 designed" school, at Shenfield
By this time, Crooks had become the first working class mayor of Poplar, in 1901, and elected as MP for Woolwich in 1903.

Will Crooks, MP for Woolwich

The improved conditions that Crooks and the other Guardians brought for workhouse children did not go unopposed. They were accused of extravagance and squandering public money - for providing decent food and living conditions at Hutton. Crooks, himself, as an MP, had to face a Parliamentary Committee in 1906 to explain these "extravagances".  He and the Guardians were largely exonerated.

He remained an MP for Woolwich until his death, on 5 June 1921. Unlike other early Labour MP's, he was a jingoistic supported of World War 1.

His legacy, however, will be more defined by the transformation of the lives of workhouse children - many from Forest Gate, that he enabled.  Also, for laying the foundations for the kind of radical defiance that his former colleagues on Poplar council exercised to get major changes to Poor Law funding, from almost the moment of his death, from 1922.

Will Crooks' tombstone,
Tower Hamlets cemetery

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