Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Toilers in London, by One of the Crowd [James Greenwood], [1883] - The School-Board Visitor

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IT is my opinion, sir, were it possible for there to be a general rebellion of the lower classes of this country, that in some of the more densely-populated districts of the metropolis - I can answer for my own as likely to figure prominently - one of the first acts of vengeance on the part of the disaffected would be to seek out the School Board visitors and hang them in a row on the public lamp-posts.
    "It is not so much that poor people are antagonistic to the principles of compulsory education as that they entertain a deeply rooted aversion for us on account of what they look on as our over-strict enforcement of the law. It would be quite different, if someone high in authority, and recognised as such, had to look up the backward ones and the obstinate defaulters; but, unfortunately, they - I am speaking, of course, of the more ignorant of the population - are aware of the humble nature of our appointment, and that the salary attaching to it is no more than the wage of the ordinary run of good mechanics, and think, therefore, they have a claim on us on the score of fellow-feeling and social sympathy. More especially, in cases of families where there are boys and girls as yet below the regulation age for leaving school, and who are well able, if they were permitted, to earn useful wages.
     I've had the matter put to me from this point of view scores of times. Never mind about the School Board. The swells that sit there don't know anything about the way poor people are put [-60-] to it to get a living. A man in your position, who, in a manner of speaking, works for his bread just as I do, understands things, and I put it to you, not as an official, but as between man and man, to use your own discretion and show a leniency.
    "It is little use my assuring them that the amount of discretion entrusted to me is next to nothing at all, and that unless in all cases I return a faithful report I am liable to immediate dismissal; they won't believe it, and insinuate that I might stretch a point to meet their exceptional case if I felt disposed to do so. 'Who are you, after all?' I've been asked. 'Some pound-a-week clerk made an officer, and taking Jack-in-office airs to come here and tell me what I must do and what I mustn't. I'd sooner have a policeman poking and prying into my family affairs. He has got his livery and his helmet to shew his right, and he don't stoop to your sneaking ways of stopping children in the street, to wheedle information out of 'em to be used against their fathers and mothers.' "Talk of London toilers," continued the worried-looking "Visitor," "it may not be as hard work in one sense as bricklaying or wood-sawing, but as a strain on one's temper and tact and patience, if there is any other employment as arduous, I shall be glad to learn what it is. You shall go a round with me one day, sir, and judge for yourself. "
    Under the circumstances, such an opportunity was too good to be missed, and I shortly afterwards availed myself of the good man's offer. For obvious reasons I refrain from making known the particular district which was the scene of his labours, but I will say this much for him that if abruptness of manner and an overbearing demeanour are essentials in a model School Board visitor, then this one had strangely mistaken his vocation. I think I never talked with a milder man, or one whose affectation of being something of a tyrant, so as to cover his own ever-present consciousness of being far too amiably weak-minded for his post was so transparent.
    We had not been out together more than twenty minutes on his customary round, when I was made to feel sorry on his account. He exhibited no outward or visible signs of not being quite up to his work, being a large man, with an imposing front, and of an aspect stern enough to bespeak him a collector of Queen's taxes. The individual who fearlessly attacked, and for the time being vanquished him, was an ill-conditioned and by no means nice-looking boy, whose legs had outgrown his corduroys, and who, though, as it presently transpired, was barely thirteen, stood as tall as many a man at thirty.
    It was evident to me that Mr. Visitor recognised and would willingly have avoided him had he been able to do so. Indeed, to that end he suddenly became engaged in deep conversation with me as we were passing the young gentleman in question, who, with his hands in his trowsers pockets, was lounging cross-legged against the wall at the street corner. The School Board visitor, however, found himself plucked by the coat-sleeve:-
    "Beg your pardon, mister," said the lanky youth, with a mock polite wriggle; "but were it your intentions to be on your ways to my 'ole woman's?"
    Mr. Visitor drew his black lead pencil and handled his note-book threateningly, as he sternly demanded-
    [-61-] "Why?"
    "Oh, cos you said you was a goin' to last time, and you didn't, don't you know, so I thought I'd lay wait for you, and touch up your memory. Just give my ole woman a look up this time, mister. My edgerkashun is being neglected something awful, don't you know."
    "Oh, it is you, Barklow," returned Mr. Visitor, who was brought to bay ; "what do you mean by this, sir? You have no business to be skulking about the streets."
    "Don't I say I didn't ought to, mister," retorted Master Barklow, in an injured tone; "jolly well I know the wrong of it. I oughter be at school. That's where I oughter be. It ain't because a cove is a big 'un for his age that he's to be done out of his edgerkashun what the law allows him. Why don't you look up my ole woman and summons her. Come, now, mister, why don't you do it? I'm willin'. You summons her up afore the board, and I'll come for'ad as a witness agin her, don't you make any error."
    And the hopeful youth emphasised his remarks with many short jerks of his head full of malicious design, Mr. Visitor gazed on him fixedly and reproachfully through his spectacles, as though he hoped thus to mesmerise him to a proper frame of mind, but Master Barklow turned his face doggedly away, still pecking the air knowingly with his snub nose.
    "This boy, sir," remarked the Visitor addressing himself to me, "is, I regret to say, the very worst boy I have to deal with in the whole of my district - a most ungrateful boy, sir, and I am afraid a wicked and undutiful son."
    "'Ow about the undutiful ole Woman," interposed Master Barklow; "you ain't very shy of summonsing in general; why don't you summons her up like you do all of 'em ?"
    "He is an idle, bad fellow, sir, and a complete dunce - "
    "I'm open to edgerkate; why don't you edgerkate me, then ?"
    "I'll tell you the facts of the case, sir. This boy has no father, and his poor mother, who has four little children to support, keeps a small greengrocery in this neighbourhood and sells coals. You see this boy, sir. He may be -  I can't say for certain - but he may be, as he says he is, under that age at which the board ceases to have control over him"-
    "Ain't that age till next Septimber," put in Master Barklow.
    "But he is as big and as strong as other lads three years older, and yet, sir, you'd hardly believe it, he allows his poor old mother to carry out quarter and half hundred weights of coal, while he will do nothing all day but prowl the streets, or abuse her for not sending him to school "-
    "I knows wot's good for me, you see," remarks the impudent rascal; "that's where it is."
    "For his parent's sake I have hesitated to report the case, sir; but I shall have to do it, and he will have to put up with the consequences."
    But Master Barklow was not in the least intimidated by this dreadful threat.
    "All right," said he, buttoning his ragged jacket and settling his peakless cap on his head; "come on, I'll stand to it. I don't care what I suffers so long as I'm edgerkated. Take me afore the board, come now! or summons my ole woman, and let all three of us go together, eh !"
    "You are an incorrigible young rascal, and shall hear of this again," [-62-] returned the discomfitted visitor, making a pretence to jot down a note in his book. After which we beat retreat, leaving Master Barklow triumphant against the wall.
    "All right, I'll lay in wait for you," was his parting observation.
    "You have not many of his sort to deal with, I trust," I remarked.
    "Thank goodness, no," replied the visitor, with a sigh of relief. "I've sent him back to school twice, and he has been turned out for smoking and swearing."
    "And do you think he really wishes to be sent again ?"
    "Not he, the cunning rascal, it's only done as an excuse for his laziness and to annoy me and his mother. No, I can't say that it is the only instance I know of a boy expressing anxiety to be sent to school and of his making a confidant of me to that end. There is a little lad at our school at the present time whose father is a dreadfully obstinate and pigheaded person, and as dead set against education as certain individuals are against vaccination. He can neither read nor write, and he says he has made his way in the world without troubling himself about such rubbish, and he ain't goin', if he can help it, to have his son 'made knowing' just to despise him. He is an indulgent father in every other respect and a hard-working man. But he gives the boy, who is really an intelligent fellow, every encouragement to neglect school, and puts every possible obstacle in his way as regards learning. He is constantly contriving some clever scheme to deceive me, and I as constantly frustrated it as soon as it is started. He can't make it out, and is inclined, I think, to ascribe it to a kind of witchcraft that is one of the attendant evils of education. He never for a moment suspects it is the boy who gives me timely warning of his 'dodges.' I am loth, of course, to countenance such an underhand proceeding, but the father himself, I hope, will be brought to excuse it one of these days."
    There were several model lodging houses in Mr. Visitor's district let out in "flats" to poor families, each one of which was reached by a successive flight of many stone stairs to the height of six or seven floors, and I could well believe him when he assured me that they represented the toughest part of his day's work. It would have been pleasanter for him had the lodgers been all as "model" as the lodgings. So much could scarcely be said for them, however.
    "There is a woman lives on the fifth floor here," he remarked, as he paused in the lobby, already panting from previous exertions, "who is an unceasing source of trouble to me. I have been compelled to summon her, and she has been fined ten shillings. It is nearly a year ago, but she hasn't forgiven me. She is not so abusive as some of them. She adopts the witheringly sarcastic vein."
    We made our way up the sixty stone steps and tapped at the door, which was immediately opened by the female in question.
    "Good morning, Mrs. B-, good morning," began the visitor, in a conciliatory tone. "I've called to make inquiries respecting Amelia, Jane and Thomas who-"
    "Oh, pray sir, don't spend any more of your waluable breath, which is already suffering from five flights, on such poor hobjeks as my children," she interrupted him, with a mock reverential bending of her body. "The observation you was about to make, sir, [-63-] is, 'Why don't my Amelia, Jane and my Tommy attend school?' You'll excuse my hignorance, sir, but I should have thought you'd have knowed the reason."
    "It is the old reason, I suppose; they have no boots?"
    "Precisely so, sir," returned Mrs. B-, blandly. "You see, sir- leastways you may have heerd, that boots costs money, and when one is robbed - Oh, I beg your pardon, sir, when one is legally fined ten shillings, it may go to our 'art, but the consequence is our children are obliged to go barefoot, which is not a fit state to send little children to school, sir, unless you particularly wish it, and then, when of course-"
    "But, as I told you before, if your husband is really unable to buy the children shoes, I can give you a note."
    "Oh, thank you, sir. You'll excuse me not going down on my knees, having a touch of rheumatism, but we're not quite come to pauper boots. Very nearly, sir, thanks to you, but not while we've got a bed or any little harticle like that to dispose of, sir."
    "Well, well, it's no use talking," said Mr. Visitor, firmly; "it is my duty to tell you that the children must be sent to school. You know what will happen again if you are obstinate."
    "Oh, pray don't trouble to remind me of what'll happen. They shall come, sir. But might I ask, sir, is measles any objection?"
    "What do you mean? Who has measles?"
    "I beg your pardon, sir, but if you'll kindly not jump down my throat it will be a convenience. It is the baby, sir, who, thank goodness, is too young to be dragged from home, with shoes or without, that is sickening for 'em."
    "Is that the child you are speaking of," Mr. Visitor inquired, alluding to a perfectly healthy looking baby she held in her arms.
    "Unless you can see another anywhere about, sir, this is the one."
    "But what makes you think it is sickening for the measles?" asks Mr. Visitor, dubiously.
    "I must once more beg your pardon, sir," returned the polite lady. "If you was a female and a mother, I could give my reasons, but being one of the other sex I decline. I may be wrong. Owing to my not having ten shillings which by rights I should have I can't afford to call in a doctor, you see, sir, and therefore we must wait for a week or so and let nature work 'em out in the regler way, sir-that is, if you and the Board have no objections."
    "I shall call this day week, ma'm, and unless you are provided with a doctor's certificate showing that there really is measles in the family, you will certainly be summoned."
    "Thank you, sir," responded Mrs. B-, with as grateful a curtsey as though Mr. Visitor had made her a handsome present. "I'll mark the date in the halmanack, in case I should forget it."
    "What's your opinion as regards the measles?" I asked him, as we descended the five stone flights.
    "Fudge, of course," he replied. "This is the fifth time one or other of them has been 'sickening' for something or other. It is just such cases as this over which we get called over the coals and reprimanded for neglecting our duty; but what on earth is a visitor to do with a woman like that?"
    It was a very poor neighbourhood, composed mainly of streets [-64-] of small houses, and swarming, as such neighbourhoods proverbially are, with children. Mr. Visitor's list of the defaulters was heavy and his calls numerous, and I am bound to say that in most instances he was received with scant civility. The husbands being from home, the duty of making excuse or explanation devolved on the wife or daughter. In many cases the last mentioned member of the family was found in charge of the house or rooms, acting the parts of housekeeper and nurse, while mother was out at work, washing or charing.
    "Mother says she can't help it, sir; father's got nothing to do again, and mother says we shan't go hungry while she can earn a shilling for us, and as she can't do that without I stay at home to mind baby and look after the others, you must do your best or do your worst, mother says, and she must abide by it."
    Although of course not the exact words this was the explanation vouchsafed to Mr. Visitor in at least half a dozen instances.
    "And to tell you the truth, sir," remarked Mr. Visitor, "it comes very hard on a man who is not altogether without pity, and who has youngsters of his own, to deal as his duty dictates in such cases. With frivolous excuse or glaring imposture a man need feel no compunction in putting the screw on, but where you are brought face to face with hard fact it is a different thing. It won't do for me to say a word against the compulsory system, but I can't help being aware, in my extensive experience, that it is possible for it to bear cruelly hard on some people. The next two or three cases on my list are, I am sorry to say, of the kind."
    We entered a house in a back street, and proceeding upstairs - the front door was kept open by means of a brick placed against it, and the awfully dirty passage served as a playground for half-a-dozen half naked little children - discovered the object of the "visit" in a back room. The place was as dirty almost as the passage, and contained, besides the father and mother, four children of the same pattern, in regard of rags and nakedness, as we had tumbled over below. There was a bedstead in the room, and the father was in bed-not idly so, however. He was mending old boots and shoes. Sitting up, and propped behind with a doubled-up bolster, he had a board before him on which were spread the implements of his trade, and he was painfully engaged on one of a pair of heavy boots, seemingly the property of a "navvy." The wife, a poor half-starved, woefully-tattered creature, was busy at the table before a pile of men's trouser- braces.
    "Good morning, R-," said Mr. Visitor; "you are not glad to see me, I am afraid."
    "I'd as soon see the devil-" growled the cobler, glaring fiercely on the civil School Board official; "I'd sooner. He would make short work of us, and not starve us by inches like you do."
    "Don't talk about the devil, Dave," put in his wife, with a pitiful laugh, "he's sure to appear if you do. Not but what he'll get his own day, there's no doubt that," and she glanced at Mr. Visitor even more vindictively than her husband had. But the unwelcome guest took no offence at these uncomplimentary allusions.
    "How is your rheumatism today R-? he inquired.
    "A bustin' lot you care, or them that sent you, about my rheuma-[-65-]tics, returned the cobbler; "you ought to have a touch of it as to take away the use of your legs like I have, and be compelled to drive hob-nails into the heel of a boot all the same. It would soften your heart a little, I warrant. Talk about grinding your bones to make your bread, you'd better have 'em ground than gnawed."
    "Yes, and he might take his rest like another poor creetur, sir," added the woman, addressing me, "if he'd only let our two willin' boys alone to keep their places and bring home their bit of wages."
    "Where are the boys?" asked Mr. Visitor.
    "Lord on'y knows," replied the cobbler, with malicious relish- "wagging it, I s'pose. I don't blame em. Why didn't you let 'em alone?"
    "Why don't you talk reasonably?" retorted Mr. Visitor. "You must know that I did leave them alone as long as I dared. I got them both put on half-time as soon as possible. I have my orders and I must obey them, whatever my feelings in the matter may be. You must know, sir," he continued, turning to me, " that this poor man's sons are but little fellows - one nine and the other eleven - and they used to come regularly to school before their father was taken with rheumatism "-
    "Twelve months ago come Whitsun," said the woman.
    "Just so, and then, affairs going very bad, the two boys got errand places at small wages."
    (" One half-a-crown and the other four shillings - more than I can earn working sixteen hours a day at brace-making." )
    "Well, well, I am not blaming them or you, but the laws must be obeyed, don't you see; and after at least half-a-dozen notices I was compelled to make a report, and the little fellows had to leave their employment and return to school. They are both young to be half-timers, but I get them that privilege and I could do no more. But I wish to know the reason why they haven't been for the past fortnight."
    "I don't know, and I don't care," returned the bed-ridden cobbler, fiercely. "P'raps you'd like me, who's bliged to work in bed for the sake of the bit of warmth to my limbs, to get up and go and look for 'em. You cut 'em adrift - you find 'em."
    "You see, sir," remarked Mr. Visitor, dolefully, as we reached the street after this unsatisfactory interview, "its not all honey to be a School-Board official in a poverty-stricken district."
    I had seen and heard sufficient to be well convinced of the truth of this, and sympathisingly bade him good day and left him to his task.