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School Life in London in the early 1870s

John Simkin

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I have just come across this fascinating account of schooling in London in the early 1870s. It comes from the trade union leader, Harry Gosling's autobiography, Up and Down Stream (1927):

I went to school at Marlborough Street, now known as Grey Street in the New Cut, Waterloo Road. The school was under the British and Foreign School Society, but when the Education Act of 1870 was passed it was taken over by the School Board and rebuilt, and for the first time in his life the head master had an assistant. When I went to school at the age of five he was in sole command of two hundred and fifty boys of all ages. He appears to me now as a kind of chairman of a permanent mass meeting.

I wish I could get a plan of the old building; it would surprise people nowadays. It was just a long, narrow hall with no classrooms or partitions even. At one end there was a raised platform running the whole width of the hall with about eight steps on each side leading up to it and a long rail in front. In the middle of the platform stood a desk at which the master sat, and always with his cane under his arm. The forms at which we sat were fixed to the floor and had no backs. They had little desks in front of them, about half the width of the slates we wrote on. The seats were very narrow, and if one did not sit well forward it was easy to catch a crab. No paper was used in my time. Boys cleaned their slates by spitting on them and rubbing them with their caps or sleeves. There was no other way of doing it. A few of the scholars from particularly respectable homes had a little sponge tied on to their slates, but their parents must have been well in advance of the times; also, the sponges never lasted long. A gangway ran down each side of the building. Right in the centre was a closed-in stove for heating purposes. There was no other source of heat. When we stayed for dinner, as we sometimes did, we used to get a beer can and boil chestnuts in it when they were in season.

Across one corner of the school building ran a gallery for the accommodation of the very small boys. I have often wondered since what those very small boys ever learned on that gallery. My only recollection is of a big boy looking after them. Every Friday afternoon, year in year out, the master used to place a chair in front of the stove and one of the best readers would stand up on it and read. One-half of the boys turned round to lean against their desks and the selected boy read aloud from some standard book. When he had done his bit, he passed the book to another good reader, and so on, for the boys did not have a copy each as they have now. In the meantime the master walked round with his cane. Naturally the dilatory and ignorant boys were not very interested in the reading, and especially on hot days were inclined to fall asleep. When this happened the master would get a glass of water, dip his cane into it, and let the water drip into the boy's ear. Not a single boy dared to laugh at this quaint form of punishment.

The master was a very keen sportsman and taught the boys cricket. As there was no playground, and, by the way, no playtime either, we practised before and after school hours in one of the five-foot gangways that ran down the hall, with a soft ball and three stumps fixed in a block of wood.

He also taught us to read the Bible, this being practically the only religious instruction given. It was his boast that he never had a difficulty with parents on religious matters, though this was a frequent problem in those days.When I was monitor I sometimes took charge of the gallery and in this way avoided the necessity of doing home lessons. The fees for attending the school were twopence per week for ordinary classes and fourpence for the first class. If a pupil did not bring the fee with him he was sent home for it. The curriculum consisted of reading, writing, arithmetic, history, and geography. There was also a voluntary singing class to which we contributed a halfpenny per week.

Every Guy Fawkes Day the master rigged up a little toy cannon on his desk and fired it off. The boys gave three cheers and sang the National Anthem after he had related the story. There was what would now be called a thoroughly good tone in the school, for the great thing Mr. Strong taught us was to "play the game," and sneaking was not thought of. Before dispersing on Friday afternoons the scholars always sang:

"Childhood years are passing over us, youthful days will soon be gone. Cares and sorrows lie before us, hidden dangers, snares unknown."

A solemn peep into an adventurous yet gloomy future!


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