Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - How the Poor Live, by George R. Sims, 1883 - Chapter 4

[-back to menu for this book-]



IN the remote age when I was a good little boy I remember being induced to join a Dorcas meeting. Don't imagine that I ever so far forgot the dignity of my sex as to sew or make little flannel petticoats and baby-linen for the poor of the parish. The young ladies did that, and we - myself and about ten other good little boys - were inveigled into joining on the plea, that while our sisters plied needle and thread we could stick scraps into books and colour them, make toys, and perform various other little feats of usefulness which would eventually benefit the benighted Hottentots.
    I know that when I had consented to join I was in agonies till the first day of meeting arrived, and wondered to what I had committed myself; and I remember to this day how very red I blushed when I arrived late and found fifty other good little boys and girls assembled, all of whom looked up and eyed me as though I was a natural curiosity, when the good lady who directed the society said, "This is little Master So-and-so, who has come to help us in our good work."
    How I got past all those little girls I don't know, but I kept my eyes fixed modestly on the ground, and at last found myself seated at a table with about a dozen young gentlemen of my own age.
    The elderly, good-hearted spinster who presided instantly deposited in front of me a huge l)ot of paste, an empty book, and some old illustrated papers. I guessed what she intended me to do, and I made wild efforts to do it. I was informed that this book, when I had completed it, would be sold at a bazaar for the benefit of the Heathen.
    I never ascertained what that book did fetch, but I know that it never paid expenses. The mess that I got into with that paste, the way it would get all over my fingers, and onto my coat-sleeve, and all down me and all over me - why, I wrecked a whole suit, which in my vanity I put on new, at a single sitting. That was my first introdn for; to scissors and paste, and I took an intense dislike to them.
    I quote the reminiscence because this article is to be all about a "B" meeting; and when I first heard of a "B" meeting I made sure it must be something like a Dorcas meeting, where everybody was a busy bee, and did work for the poor.
    I had not had a very long experience before I found out that it was something not half as pleasant as the scrap-book and flannel petticoat society of my youth.
    A "B" meeting is held under the auspices of the School Board, to hear the reasons parents may have to give why they should not be summoned to appear before a magistrate for neglecting to send their children to school.
    Here is an exact reproduction of the Notice B left with the parents, which brings them to the meeting I am about to describe, and my collaborator to illustrate.

[Bye-laws]                                 [Form No.13]


The Elementary Education Acts, 1870, 1873, and 1876.
Notice to attend before Divisional Committee.
......................... Division.
May 30, 1883.

To Mr. Bridge, 2, Smith's Court.
    Take Notice, that you have been guilty of a breech of the of the law in that your child Robert has not duly attended school, and you are hereby invited to attend at George Street School on Wednesday, the 6th day of June, at 2 o'clock in the afternoon precisely, to state any excuse you may have, and to show cause why you should not be summoned before a magistrate and fined.
          Dated this 31st day of May, 1883.
(Signed) .....................................................
        Officer of the School Board for London.


    Few persons who have not actual experience of the lives of the poorest classes can have any conception of the serious import to them of the Education Act. Compulsory education is a national benefit. I am one of its stoutest defenders, but it is idle to deny that it is an Act which has gravely increased the burthens of the poor earning precarious livelihoods and as self-preservation is the first law of nature, there is small wonder that every dodge that craft and cunning can suggest is practised to evade it.
    In many cases the payment of the fees is a most serious difficulty. Twopence or a penny a week for each of four children is not much,  you may say; but where the difference between the weekly income and the rent is only a couple of shillings or so, I assure you the coppers represent so many meals. The Board now allows the members to remit fees in cases of absolute inability to pay them, and the remission of fees is one of the principal items of business at a "B" meeting.
    Again, many of the children who are of school age are of a wage-earning age also, and their enforced "idleness", as their parents call it, means a very serious blow to the family exchequer. Many a lad whose thick skull keeps him from passing the standard which would leave him free to go to work, has a deft hand, strong arms and a broad back - three things which fetch a fair price in the labour market. As I will show you presently, from the actual cases which come before the "B" meeting, the hardship of making boys 


howthe-24.gif (87553 bytes)

and girls stop at school who might be earning good money towards their support, is terrible. Often these children are the sole bread-winners, and then the position is indeed a hard nut for the kind-hearted official to crack.
    After the children have passed a certain standard the officials have the power of granting "half-time"; that is to say, the boys and girls can earn money so many days a week, and come to school for the remainder. "The half-time grant" is another feature of the "B" meeting.
    The worst duty of the official who presides is to authorise the summoning before a magistrate of the parents who cannot or will not send their children regularly. The law leaves him no option. All children must come unless illness or some equally potent excuse can be urged, and if they don't the parent must appear before a magistrate, who, if the case is made out, is bound by the law to impose a fine. I will endeavour to show you, as the meeting progresses, a few of the parents who thoroughly deserve the penalty.
    A "B" meeting is held in the up-stairs room of one of the Board Schools. Here is a sketch of one in full swing. The summoned parents are waiting in a huge crowd outside. They come in one by one to be disposed of. You will easily recognise the president of the meeting, with the book before him, in which the cases to be heard are fully entered up. Beside him sits the Board official, the inspector of officers, who advises him on little points of School Board law, and who marks the papers which are to be returned to the School Board officer "in charge of the case" to be acted upon.
    The gentlemen standing round the room are the School Board officers of the different divisions in the district. They are familiar with the history and circumstances of every one who will come into the little room, and they will supply confirmation or contradiction as the necessity arises.
    Somewhere or other in the scene the artist has, I perceive, depicted "us." Where, I leave the reader to discover. We are accepted by the parents who come and go as part and parcel of the "Inquisition," and some care is necessary in executing our task, for this class is very great on the rights of property; and more than one energetic dame, if she knew her face was being "scratched" by an unauthorised interloper, would literally return the compliment.
    "The short and simple annals of the poor," here related in their own words, will induct the reader into the mysteries of "How they live" far more thoroughly than I could do did I fill pages with my own composition; so, silence, pray, and let the "B" meeting commence.
    Here is a lady who very much objects to being summoned.
    "What bizerness 'as he to summings me," she says, pointing to the officer, "just cus my boy ain't bin fur a week? He's 'arsh and harbitury, that's what he is. 'Arsh and harbitury. D'ye think I ain't got anything to do without a-trapesin' down here a-losin' my work. I tell ye what it is-"
    The chairman mildly interposes- "My good lady-"
    "Don't good lady me. I ain't a lady. If I was you daren't treat me like it, you daren't ; it's only because I'm-"
    "My good woman, will you allow me to say one word?"
    "Oh-yes-certainly-if you've got anything to say- go on."
    Thus encouraged the chairman points out to the voluble lady that her son has not been to school for a fortnight.
    "Well, it's all through the boots."
"Boots! " says the chairman; "why, that was what you said last time, and we gave you an order on a shoemaker for a pair."
    The woman acknowledges this is so. Some charitable people have started a fund to let a few bad cases have boots and this truant has been one of the first recipients.
    "I know you was kind enough to do that," says the mother, "but they 'urt him and he can't wear 'em."

    Here the officer who has brought the lady up before the Board tells his story.
    "The boy had a decent pair of boots supplied him, sir; but Mrs. Dash went back to the shop with him, and said they weren't good enough - she wanted a pair of the best the man had in stock, and made such a noise she had to be put out."
"Which, beggin' your pardon," strikes in the angry lady, "it's like your imperence to say so. They 'urt the boy, they did, and he haves tender feet, through his father, as is dead, being a shoemaker hisself."
    The officer chimes in again, "If he can play about the streets all day in the boots, Mrs. Dash, they can't hurt him very much."
    "My boy play about the streets! Well, of all the oudacious things as ever I 'erd! And as to his comin' to school [-22-] he's a beautiful little scholard now, and he ain't got no more to learn."
    Eventually the "beautiful little scholard,'' who was waiting outside, was sent for. Here he is.

    He confessed that the boots didn't hurt him, and Mrs. Dash was informed that if he didn't forthwith attend she would be summoned.
    With much difficulty Mrs. Dash was induced to retire,

and her place was taken by a burly man covered with grime from a forge, or something of the sort, who hooked the personification of fierceness and stoney-heartedness. His daughter had not been to school lately, and he was asked to account for her absence.
    There was a moment's pause. We expected an oath, or a volley of abuse. Instead of that the man's lips trembled a moment, then his eyes filled with tears, and one rolled slowly down each grimy cheek.
    In a choking voice he gasped out, "I am very sorry, sir, but I've had a little trouble."
    "Dear me!" says the chairman, slightly staggered at the unusual display of emotion ; "I am sorry for that. What sort of trouble ?"
    "Well, sir, it ain't a pleasant thing to talk about, -sob- but my wife, -sob- she's left me, sir, -sob-'' gone away with another man."
    Here the poor fellow broke down utterly and sobbed like a child. Then he drew a dirty rag from his pocket, and rubbed and rubbed it round his eyes till there was a white ring about them that looked like a pair of spectacles.
    The effect was ludicrous, but no one smiled. The audience, as they say in theatrical notices, was visibly affected.
    The man stammered out his tale bit by bit. His wife had left him with four little children. He had to go out to work, and his daughter he had to keep away from school to look after them. She had to be "little mother " in the deserted home.
    I wondered what the woman was like, and if she had any idea of the genuine love for her that welled up in this honest fellow's heart. As I watched the tears flow down his grimy face, I couldn't help thinking how many a noble dame would like to know that her absence from the domestic hearth would cause grief as genuine as this.
    Under the painful circumstances the excuse was accepted; the "little mother" was allowed a short holiday till the betrayed husband had time to make other arrangements, and he left the room murmuring his thanks and mopping his eyes.
    "Mrs. Smith," calls out the Board official, taking the next case down on the list for hearing, and a young girl of about fifteen, with a baby in her arms and a child of five clinging to her skirts, enters the room and seats herself nervously on the extreme edge of the chair.
    "You're not Mrs. Smith, my dear," says the chairman, with a smile.
    "No, sir; that's mother."
    "Oh, you've come for her, eh? These boys, Thomas and Charles, who have been absent for three weeks, are your brothers, I suppose?"
    "Yes, sir."
    "Well, my dear, they ought to come, you know. What's the reason?"
    "Please, sir, they're at work."
    "But they've not passed the Fourth Standard."
    "I know, sir; but they've got a job, and it's four shillings week each, and that's all I've got to keep us."
    "All you've got, my dear? Where's your father?"
    The girl colours a little and hesitates. The School Board officer steps forward to the table and helps her.
    "It's a very painful case, sir," he says. "The father's been living with another woman - left his family. A fortnight ago the mother met him and asked him for some money.  He knocked her down, and she fell and cut her head open. [-23-] She's in St. Thomas's Hospital - not expected to live. The man was taken up, and he's under remand now, and this girl has to look after the entire family."
    "I see," says the chairman ; "and Thomas and Charles are giving you their money, eh? and that's all you've got ?"
    "Yes, sir. I can't work myself, because I've got the baby and the others to look after."

    "Well, my dear," says the chairman, " I am very sorry for you, but your brothers can only have half-time or come back to school."
    The girl says nothing, she is only fifteen, and can't argue it out with the gentleman-so she curtseys and is ushered out. I wonder, if the mother dies and the father gets a long term of imprisonment, what the fate of the family will be?
    I have said that the hardships entailed upon the poor by the Education Act are numerous. Let me quote a few statistics gleaned from the papers which I turn over on the chairman's desk by his kind permission.
    They are cases in which the parents apply to have the fees remitted because they cannot afford to pay them.

    1. Mrs. Walker. 7 children of school age, fee 2d. a week each. Total earnings of entire family 10s. Rent 5s. 6d. Husband once good mechanic, host employment through illness and deafness. Parish relief none. Character good. Is now a hawker - sells oranges and fish. Children  half-starved. When an orange is too bad to sell they have it for breakfast, with a piece of bread.
    2. Mr. Thompson. 5 children of school age. Out of work. No income but pawning clothes and goods. Rent 4s. Wife drinks surreptitiously. Husband, good character.
    3. Mr  -----  5 children of school age; widow. Earnings 6s. Rent 3s. Her husband when alive was a Drury Lane clown. Respectable woman; feels her poverty very keenly.
    4. Mr. Garrard. 8 children of school age; two always under doctor. No income. Pawning last rags. Rent 5s. 6d. No parish relief. Starving. Declines to go into workhouse.

    I could multiply such instances by hundreds. These, however, will suffice to show how serious a burden is added to the lives of the very poor by the enforced payment of school fees. As a rule they are remitted for very good and sufficient reasons.
    How these people live is a mystery. It is a wonder that they are not found dead in their wretched dens, for which they pay a rent out of all proportion to their value, by dozens daily. But they live on, and the starving children come day after day to school with feeble frames and bloodless bodies, and the law expects them to learn as readily as well-fed, healthy children, to attain the same standard of proficiency in a given time.
    It is these starving children who are not allowed to earn money towards their support until they are thirteen, and in many cases fourteen. Less necessitous children, as a rule, pass out of school earlier, for reasons which will be obvious to any one who reflects for a moment upon the relationship of a healthy brain to a healthy body.
    In another Chapter we shall hear a few more personal narrations at a "B" meeting. I will conclude this one

with a picture of a young gentleman whose excuse for non-attendance is at least dramatic. He has been absent for six weeks, and his mother explains, "It's all along of is aven a reglar engagement at the Surrey Pantermine, and there hev been so many matynees."
    [-24-] "He's on the Surrey, is he?" says the chairman. "Perhaps that's the reason he can't pass the Standard!"
    We see the joke and chuckle, but the boy doesn't.
Evidently his pantomime training has been thrown away upon him.