North Surrey District School at the Franco-British Exhibition.



Bill Tonkin


            The North Surrey District School was asked to represent Poor Law Schools at the Franco-British Exhibition in 1908, by sending in photographs illustrating various phases of life in the institution, together with exhibits of work done in the various technical education departments. Arising from this the Board of Management decided the time was ripe to write a history of the school, and to illustrate it by using the photographs shown in the exhibition. The Superintendent Mr J. F. Thrower undertook to take on the task assisted by the Chairman Mr W. J. Hewett.

            At this time the school had been going for sixty years, and was then the largest District School in existence. Now what was a District School ?, and to answer this we have to go back to 1837 to a report of the Committee appointed to enquire into the working of “The New Poor Law”. This Committee recommended “that the Poor Law Commissioners be empowered with the consent of The Guardians, to combine parishes for the support and arrangement of District Schools.



North Surrey District School at the time of the Franco-British Exhibition in 1908.


            This was supported by Dr J. Kay later to become Sir J. Kay-Shuttleworth, a Poor Law Commissioner, in a report on “The Training of Pauper Children”. He claimed “the contaminating influence of adult paupers was baneful to the extreme to those children who lived in the workhouse, and whose education, such as it was, was conducted therein.”

            For many years the efforts to promote District Schools had been unsuccessful, by an Act of 1845 provision was made for the establishment of these schools, but two clauses nullified the good intentions,

            1.         The amount to be raised for school buildings was not to exceed one fifth of the annual expenditure for the relief of the poor, and

            2.         No Parish could combine outside a limit of 15 miles.

            Both these objections were removed by a further Act of 1848. Even then there appeared to be no great effort to do anything in the way of building, until the trial of Druet in 1894 for manslaughter. This effectively lifted the lid off the can of worms.

            At this time children from the workhouse who were permanently chargeable to the Poor Law Authorities, were farmed out in their hundreds to contractors. Obviously, the lower the price charged by the contractor for ridding the ratepayers of their burden, the more likely the acceptance of the tender. The contractor on his part made sure that by supplying cheap food in starvation quantities to his little protégés he could make a substantial profit on the deal.

            One is able to appreciate the feelings of Charles Dickens who held up for public sympathy the piteous plight of little Oliver, and for scorn the character of “Bumble”. Dickens incidentally was invited and attended the opening ceremony of the North Surrey District School.

            To such a depth did this evil develop that at the trial of Druet it was proved that mainly owing to starvation and neglect, as many as 150 children died in a few days of cholera, at his farming establishment at Tooting. The disclosure of such dreadful facts at the searching investigation which followed the trial, gave the death knell once and for all to this much abused system of farming out.

            Five Unions in an area south west of the Thames combined for the purpose of forming a District School, they were.

                                                            Wandsworth and Clapham,



                                                            Lewisham and


            The first meeting was held in the Workhouse of the Wandsworth and Clapham Union, and it was agreed that Wimbledon Common would be a suitable site to build the new school. Lord Spencer the Lord of the Manor was approached with a request to dispose of sufficient land for this purpose. However objections from several influential residents in Wimbledon proved insurmountable, and Wimbledon Common was out.



Royal Welsh Fusiliers.

This group of Bandsmen were all from the North Surrey District School. They had this photograph taken to send back to their old school. In 1908 the school band was 50 strong and by then 400 lads had been enlisted into various Army Bands.


            At a meeting on July 18th a letter was read from the Vicar of Battersea, offering 55 acres of land at Penge for £3,000, this was accepted, and by September 12th the Poor Law Board agreed the

plans by architect Mr Charles Lee for the erection of a school to accommodate 600 children. Early Board of Management meetings were held in a tavern near Anerley Station, and on 20th November 1850 the school was opened.

            It was a curious fact that the Chairman of the Board was not allowed a casting vote as is usually the case in public bodies. At the election of the first Chaplain the voting was equal for the two candidates and the Chairman gave a casting vote for one of them, and to clear up the position enquired of the Poor Law Board if his action was valid. The Secretary Lord Ebrington replied that under their regulations if there was an equal number of votes cast on any question “that question shall be deemed to have been lost”. This necessitated re-advertising the vacancy and at the next meeting a chaplain was elected.

            From the fact that the first children came from workhouses, “trained by degraded parents or professional thieves to look upon the world as a place to exercise the viler instincts of nature”, it can be imagined they were of “a very undesirable type”, and from the records of the times such was the case. The Chaplain in a report to the Inspector of Metropolitan Schools states “Very few of the boys could give an account of the simplest facts of the Bible, only five out of the whole number could read the Irish Third Reader without hesitation, and only ten could do a sum in compound division with two figures in the divisor, and none could write a single sentence from dictation, mis-spelling almost every word of two or more syllables. Of geography, grammar and history the ignorance was universal and entire. The slightest restraint exercised over them was immediately revenged by destruction of property, a trait particularly workhouse. The girls, were, if possible, in a lower condition than the boys. The number of children at this time was 636.



Navigation Class.

A class for the Mercantile Service and the Training Ship “Exmouth”


            There was a determination to better the lot of these unfortunate children, and in the Managers first report it states “The objects of the managers, in providing skilled workmen for teaching trades, is not profit from the output of the children’s labour, but the inoculation of good habits and proper mental training, not present gain, but a more effectual means of depauperising them, by enabling them to gain their own livelihood hereafter.”

            Further on we read of “the eradication of the pauper taint” “to that class from which our prisons and hulks have hitherto received their greatest importation’s”. What a terrible picture this

paints of the conditions of young orphans and unwanted children, at a time when the country was preparing for the opening of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park.

            It is interesting to note that in 1854 the opening of the Crystal Palace at Penge had such an effect on the neighbourhood that land values had increased to such an extent that a reserve price of £40,000 was decided on, should the land be offered for sale. This did not happen, although later in 1877 the Overseers and Vestry of the Hamlet of Penge did purchase about a third of an acre for £800. This was nearly as much as they had paid for the whole 55 acre site 28 years previously. At that time it was also decided that no more land should be sold.



Apart from static displays of photographs and manufactured items at the exhibition, the children gave live performances of drill, band music, singing and dancing.


            As early as 1883 Mr Henry Moxon a dentist was employed to examine and report on the teeth of the children at least once a quarter, he was paid £60 per annum. He was the first dentist to be appointed at any District, Separate or Workhouse School. It was to be 25 years before some day schools followed this practice. In 1886 a Convalescent Institute to hold 25-30 children was built at Broadstairs, it was named the “Wainwright Home” after J. G. Wainwright JP the Chairman of the Board of Management from 1876-1902.

            On December 17th 1888 the Superintendent reported receiving 500 new sixpence’s from an anonymous donator. To many of the children this was the first sixpence’s they had ever seen, certainly the first they could call their own. This continued every Christmas until 1902 when on his death it became known that Sir Francis Barry had donated 10,000 sixpence’s annually to hospitals and institutions.

            At the time of the Franco British Exhibition in 1908, the North Surrey District School was one of the finest in the country, which no doubt accounted for its being chosen to take part in the exhibition. 40 acres of its grounds was taken up by a farm with a herd of cows supplying nearly all the fresh milk consumed by the school (about 80 gallons a day). The children were taught trades to prepare them for the outside world. In the many reports on the condition of the school, by the turn of the century one point comes through time and time again, “Its cleanliness and happy look of the children” a far cry from its early days.