The Children of a Great City – I


The Children of a Great City – I


Reviews charitable societies that are aimed toward the housing, education, and training of poor and orphaned children. Societies include the Girl's Friendly Society, The Yong Woman's Christian Association, the St. Andrew's Club for Working Lads, and Gordon's Boys' Home.


Jeune, Mary


November 1888


essay (class politics)


pp. 27–31


Among the many problems which perplex and disturb the minds of those who ponder on the relative position of the rich and poor, none is more harassing, none more inexplicable, than the sufferings of the children of the poor. The lives of needy men and women may be full of misery, distress, poverty — hard to bear, harder still to struggle against; but somehow a vague belief exists that they are more or less the victims of their own actions; that drink, improvidence, and their many attendant consequences, have been the cause of the abject conditions under which they exist; and while pity is not lessened towards them, their condition forces on the minds of those who strive to alleviate the sadness of their lives the conviction, melancholy though it be, that nothing can be done, in any real degree, to repair the mischief which their own follies and weaknesses have brought on them. Their lives are made and partly over; they have settled into grooves and ways of thought and life from which no efforts can raise them to any appreciable extent; and the knowledge of this makes every one who works among the poor regard with a saddened heart the hopelessness of the task.

Knowing the difficulties that their surroundings create in the lives of the poor, we look around us for some means to help and elevate them, but slowly and surely the conviction is borne in on us that with the majority very little, if anything, can be done; that imperfect education has made the task almost impossible; and that if we are to achieve any real and permanent good we must seek to do it among those whose lives are still before them, and who with the vigour and elasticity of youth may, if properly helped, grow up into good and healthy men and women.

The great difficulty in such a task is encountered at the outset; for, in helping the victims of the faults of the parents, it is impossible to overrate the danger of depriving the parents of the sense of responsibility. It is easy, in following the natural impulse of indignation and pity at the sight of the sufferings of the children of a drunken home, to give way to the most ardent philanthropy, and to seek to find the cure for the misery and want we witness in the application of the mere elementary forms of charity, such as supplying food and clothing. The feeling which prompts us is in the highest degree laudable; and yet such indiscriminate charity would be fatal to all habits of thrift and self-respect among the poor. In the poorest and most degraded homes often the only incentive to make a lazy parent work is the cry of the children for bread; and if we were in the smallest degree to diminish that influence we should be increasing the evil we desire to destroy. We can hardly yet help the children of such parents through the natural source to which they should look for conduct and example, but we can, by external influences and practical work, raise the standard of life, and give birth to an intensely strong desire among the young for lives higher, purer, and happier than those of the people they see around them. Education is doing this work, perhaps slowly, but surely, and education must be the basis on which all true improvement is to be built up. The power that knowledge gives, the craving to know more, must inevitably bring with it a desire for improvement, and a longing for something better and nobler. Indeed, the best results of education are to be found in the aspirations which it creates, and the hopes which it fosters.

I think we can elevate the children of the poor and improve and beautify their lives to some extent, though all we can do must be limited in its scope and results. If, however, we wish more directly and immediately to raise and improve the lives of the young, we can only do it by gaining an influence and position among them, which will give us the right to counsel and instruct. This position and right can only be attained by personal work and intercourse with them.

So much work is now being done among all classes of the poor, that it is very difficult to signal out any special undertaking as possessing higher claims than another. There are a few, however, that we may discuss, and these can be divided into two classes: those for the older boys and girls, or rather young men and women, and those that deal exclusively with children. Among the former there are some societies that come at once to one's mind, and that, within the last twenty-five years, have altered and improved the condition of the young women of the working classes. They hardly come within the scope of our paper, so that we need do little more than mention the Girls' Friendly Society, instituted in 1875 with 24 branches, now numbering 903 branches, with 109,223 members and 25,435 associates. It has its branches all over the kingdom and in the colonies, and is so comprehensive in its work and objects, that no really respectable girl need ever find herself in any part of the kingdom far removed from active and practical help, should she require it. The Young Women's Christian Association is more purely religious in its aims and operations, while, at the same time, it does not lose sight of the material wants of its members. Its life is a longer one than that of the Girls' Friendly Society, and it has steadily increased in numbers every year since its birth. The Young Women's Help Society — the outcome of a difficulty that presented itself to the Girls' Friendly Society in its earlier years — has grown in a corresponding manner, and, from its peculiar constitution, may be said to be somewhat more comprehensive in its scope than its parent society. Perhaps the more recent development of work of this class has been the numerous clubs for working girls, and young women engaged in business, which have increased with great rapidity during the last ten years, especially those combined with lodging-houses, where board and lodging are provided at a cost within the earnings of the inmates. Charitable people long ago realised the difficulties and temptations that beset the life of a young and inexperienced girl engaged in business in London, as well as the fact that merely to provide a room, where she could spend her evenings profitably and pleasantly, was not grappling with the whole difficulty. It was not enough to give a girl such a place alone, for unless she could also be lodged and fed at a price within her means, she would be under strong temptation to eke out her living by immorality. And thus the lodging-house, with its tidy, clean cubicle and its bright club-room, has grown out of the original intention of the founders. Twenty years ago such a work was not thought of; ten years ago it was in its infancy; and now there are thirty girls' clubs in London and the large provincial towns, and more being organised rapidly. It is difficult to realise the labour and anxiety, to say nothing of the personal responsibility, such a work has entailed, and, but for the untiring energy of those who founded it, and at whose heart the welfare and well-doing of these girls lay very near, it would never have attained the position of permanence and influence it now possesses. In this work, above all others, the mainspring has been the strong personal influence brought to bear on each inmate, the result of which has been the preservation and rescue of many a friendless girl from the snares and temptations which crowd round the path of every unprotected young woman in London. There is hardly any parish in London now that does not possess some organisation for helping working girls, either as a club or as a branch affiliated to the Girls' Friendly Society or the Young Women's Help Society, where the members receive lessons in cooking, needle-work, singing, and many other subjects that enable them to improve their education and brighten their lives. The success or failure of these, as well as of other kindred institutions, depends almost entirely on the personal influence and work of some one, or perhaps of two or three persons. As with children, so with older boys and girls, their love and confidence must be won and retained, and this can never be accomplished by the work of a committee alone. It must be the personal work of individuals, who, by taking definite subjects on a particular day, or for a given time, make acquaintance with the girls, who know they can reckon with perfect confidence on finding them at the club at the time they have promised to attend. No duty needs more constant attendance than this. The motives that impel a woman to work among girls may be the most noble, her enthusiasm may be unbounded, her generosity unlimited, but if her efforts are spasmodic and irregular they are almost worthless. No girls, no children, will continue to go to a club or Home if they have a constant change of visitors, and find — when they arrive tired out at night from a hard day's work, perhaps with their heart full of some little sorrow or confidence they may wish to make, or longing for some counsel they stand much in need of — that a strange face meets them, and the voice they hoped to hear is silent for that night at least. Such a reproach, however, cannot, I think, be made against those who have hitherto attempted such work, for the manner in which the confidence, and aflection, of the girls in the clubs is won and maintained is a perfect proof of the devoted way in which it is carried out.

With regard to clubs and institutions for working lads and young men, the same principle is carried out, with much the same results. Lads and boys do not require the same assistance and help as girls, and the Bands of Hope, Templars, and Blue Ribbon Army are doing a glorious work in combating with the greatest enemy and temptation a boy has. If a lad is sober and can be started in a good trade, or in some way enabled to earn his living, he will get on; and when his home is a decent one, however poor, he is best living at home, provided he has some place to spend his evenings other than the public-house. We should endeavour as much as possible to keep up the love of home, and to encourage the feeling of reverence to parents, for the two sentiments are heavily handicapped in the life of the poor. It would be worse than a crime to diminish the strong feeling almost all boys have, that they must bring the greater part of their earnings home to their mothers, and very few people can realise how, during the past few years of bad trade, many thousands of poor families would have drifted into the workhouse but for that help. There are many boys, however, to whom the word "home" has never conveyed any meaning but that of a hell on earth — a place where the drunken father and mother, lost to all sense of shame and self-respect, have forced him into the streets for even the rest and food he could not get in his wretched home; where no decency, no moral sense of any kind, remained, and where even the kinder instincts of the animals were dead. To such a boy the club or Home, where after his day's work he can spend his evenings in quiet comfort, is like a heaven, a harbour of rest after all the storms he has passed through. The St. Andrew's Club for Working Lads, in Soho, was one of the earliest institutions which had for their object the providing of decent lodging and wholesome food for lads engaged in work all day. The club owed its existence in 1886 to some young men employed in an architect's office in London, who formed themselves into a society for visiting the poor alter their work for the day was finished. In one of their evening expeditions in Soho they came across a poor lad asleep on a sack in an empty shed, his only companion a little dog, that slept at his feet and kept them warm. The circumstance suggested some scheme of action to help such lads, of whom many existed in London, and a house was found and opened soon afterwards in Market Street, Soho, the first inmates being the boy and his dog. The first intention of the founders of the Home was to provide food and lodging for homeless working boys of good character, who were engaged in daily work in shops and warehouses, earning on an average little over five shillings a week. This sum was quite insufficient to do more than provide the bare necessaries of life, and the boys being left to themselves were exposed to all the temptations which surround cheap lodging-houses and places of amusement. But, as is usually the case in work of this kind, it was found impossible to keep within the limits of the original plan, and a nightly club for respectable boys, other than inmates of the Home, was opened soon after. An entrance fee of one shilling and a weekly fee of twopence were required, and the small old-fashioned house in Dean Street, Soho, became the centre of a work that has increased and brought untold blessings in its train.

A good gymnasium was provided, while fencing and drill were taught by a sergeant. In the little room made into a chapel prayers were held twice a day; and the small brass tablet on the wall, in memory of one of the boys who died in the Home, served to keep the solemn warning of the shortness and uncertainty of life before the boys' minds. All kinds of harmless and innocent amusements were allowed and encouraged, such as acting, recitations, concerts, &c. The most cherished possession of the club was an old ship's jolly-boat, which was purchased by one of the committee and rigged up for the use of the boys. We can fancy the pleasure and delight of the sails on the river, and the Saturday afternoon and Sunday away from the never-ceasing noises of London. Who could but be glad, that the boys' Sunday should be spent away among the endless delights of the river, and far from the countless temptations a Sunday offers to boys in London? And so the work has gone on, increased, and prospered; and a new Home is now building not far from the site of the present one. It will be larger, more commodious, and more comfortable, but it can never do a more blessed or a more successful work than that done by the old club, and by the young men who found the poor boy and his dog in Soho, and in consequence opened the shelter which raised many a poor child from despair and enabled him to grow up an honest, happy man.

We must always remember that while the clubs and Homes for lads and young girls, of which we have been writing, do assist the very poorest and neediest among the working classes, they must not be classed among reformatories, and institutions of such nature, where young persons, who have been convicted of crime, are trained and rescued. The principle of these clubs and Homes is to maintain and create that spirit of true independence which alone enables boys and girls engaged in daily work, and without homes of their own to return to, to live honestly and respectably.

Apart, however, from the criminal class of children in England, there is the other and by no means the smaller class of children, who are not bad enough to come under the jurisdiction of reformatories, and are too young for the protection of Homes, such as we have been describing. The history of this class of children is told most eloquently and feelingly in the life and work of the late Lord Shaftesbury, whose ceaseless care and affection for the poor little ragged children, the waifs and strays of humanity, will never be forgotten while English men and women live. The desire of his heart, and the unending work of his life, was that every destitute child should be taught and trained. Long before the passing of the Elementary Education Act of 1870, many excellent institutions were founded, mainly through his instrumentality, to succour and rescue these little waifs. These children may be classed broadly under two heads — those who, from loss of parents, have no home; and those whose parents, by deserting them, or by treating them with cruelty, have been deprived of their custody.

There are many Homes and institutions that endeavour to assist the first class of children, and to prevent their being educated in the workhouse school, which is much too large to enable the superintendent or matron to gain the love and confidence of their charge. In many large Homes the cottage system has been adopted, with signal success. It is much better in all ways, when possible, that ten or fifteen children should live in a house small enough to enable the home feeling to be retained, than be herded in large schools of 400 or 500, or even more, where each child represents only a number, and where all individuality is stamped out. In Dr. Barnardo's Homes, and in the Homes of the Ragged and Reformatory Union, and the Church of England Homes for Waifs and Strays, this plan has been carried out. The first object of Homes where children are received too young for the evil influences of their former life to have impressed them permanently, should be to create emigration centres, where the technical education and training the children receive will enable them to start with a knowledge which in their new life will make them practically independent. Many of the existing Homes do make emigration the object in a great measure of their work, but I think it might be more developed. We are all crying out at the evils of over-population, and trying emigration as a remedy for it; but we find, when we try to carry out our theories, how very difficult, nay, almost impossible, it is to persuade the poor to leave England. They are, in many cases, too old, with rooted habits of life and character, very often drunken, seldom thrifty, and they prefer the misery and uncertainty of employment of their life here to the fresh start they would have to make in a new world, with surroundings entirely strange to them. And, quite apart from the difficulty of persuading them to make the effort to go, we are not justified in sending to our colonies those whose lives here have been failures. But a lad of eighteen going to Canada, or Queensland, with the knowledge of a trade is in an entirely different position. The Old World is behind him, his new life before him, his trade is his capital, and, with health, he should never know what want is.

There are difficulties often in persuading widows to allow their boys, when admitted to these Homes, to sign the paper which gives the Home the power of emigrating them; but in cases of orphan children, where no such obstacle can arise, a boy should be distinctly trained and brought up there, with the avowed object and understanding that he is to go to the Colonies. And the same arrangement should be made in girls' Homes. The demand in the Colonies for good domestic servants is very great, and the training and education here should be of a nature to fit them to be such when they arrive. The probability is, however, that any time of service with any well-trained young women would be of short duration, as the demand for wives is even larger than that for cooks and housemaids. There is one society well known, perhaps better known than any other, because associated so nearly with the life and work of Lord Shaftesbury, which deserves some notice, though it must be a short one. For more than thirty years he took the warmest personal interest in an enterprise that was the fulfilment of the desire of his life. The National Refuge for Homeless and Destitute Children began its operations in a very humble way, fifty-four years ago, in a hay-loft over a cow-shed in what was then known as the St. Giles' Kookery, a place well known for the miserable and wretched condition of the people who lived in the locality, as well as being one of the harbours for the vicious and criminal classes. A small Home for the reception of homeless and destitute children was opened, though at first the means of the Committee only allowed of nine children being received; but before a very long time had elapsed, the efforts of the Committee to raise means to rescue these poor children from a life of wretchedness and degradation were rewarded. The public appreciation of the good work they were attempting to carry out increased rapidly, funds came in largely for the support of the scheme, larger premises were soon secured, and the undertaking rapidly developed, and is now one of the most powerful and useful institutions of the kind. The various Homes of the Society, both for boys and girls, now contain 1,000 children. The aims of the Society are large and varied. It has six Homes and two training-ships, and since its opening it has admitted 10,000 children, 9,000 of whom have been started in life. The only qualification for admittance to the Home is that a boy or girl must be destitute and homeless. The central office and Home in Great Queen Street is the point from which all the organisation is carried out, and the work done at the various Homes is made to suit the requirements and ultimate object that Home has in view.

Thus, in the training-ships Arethusa and Chichester, the boys are trained for a seafaring life, and many good sailor’s have gone from them. The ships could take many more boys now, but that the shipping business is so dull, and the openings to get boys off to sea are not as numerous as formerly. In the Farm, and Shaftesbury Schools at Bisley, 300 boys are being trained and educated to go principally to the Colonies, and 32 boys were sent to Canada last year. The training at this Home has been so successful that the superintendent of the Home in Canada was able to place most of the lads in situations at once where they could earn wages, according to the rate paid in the district. There are 300 girls also being trained for domestic service in the two Homes at Ealing and Sudbury, and no less than 1,000 girls have been trained, and sent to service, since the Society began its labours. A Working Boys' Home, on the same principle as the St. Andrew's Home for Working Boys, is also in existence in Great Queen Street; and in connection with the work of the Union, are the winter's dinners for destitute children, and the summer holidays when funds allow of them.

Any notice of Homes for children would be quite imperfect without some mention of the Gordon Boys' Home, the offspring of a great wave of national affection and reverence for the memory of the brave English soldier. It was founded to carry out a scheme he had always keenly at heart, namely, to supply a refuge for lads between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, which no other institution had yet provided, although many lads at that age are unable to earn their own living from their forlorn and destitute condition. The discipline of the Home is, owing to the age of the inmates, necessarily very strict, and a military system of management has been adopted. There are 100 boys now in the Home, and the large building which it will ultimately occupy is approaching completion. The age at which the boys are taken is a difficult one, as they are inclined to be very insubordinate; but there is no time in a boy's life so critical, or when control is more important, than from fourteen to sixteen years of age. Most boys leave school at fourteen, and they get employment while their character is unformed, and they have not acquired any habits of self-restraint. Knowing the dangers to a boy at such a time, Gordon's great desire was to found an institution where boys could be put, as nearly as possible, under some military control, to train them for the profession they would eventually enter upon. The ultimate work of the Gordon Boys' Home will probably be to train most of the inmates as soldiers. But the course of instruction they pursue qualifies them to make a good start in life as civilians, soldiers, or sailors. The Government has presented the Home with fifty acres of land at Bagshot, and the Home will move from its temporary quarters on Portsdown Hill as soon as the buildings are completed. These buildings will give accommodation for 160 boys, and will contain gymnasiums, kitchens, and workshops. The Home has been too short a time in existence for us to judge of the success of the work. It ought to succeed if anything of such a nature can. It supplies a much-needed want, and it appeals in a special manner to the people of England. Every age has had its heroes, and every age has endeavoured to honour them. The hero of our time is Gordon, and his memory will never fade from the hearts and memories of the English people. His life, and example, were the embodiment of everything that was good and chivalrous in man. Deep and earnest in his convictions, temperate in his life, simple and trusting as a child in his God, loving his country and caring for her honour with all the passion of his nature, he laid his life down in her service, and asked for no reward but the knowledge that he had done his duty. Can we have a nobler tale to tell the young men who are training up in the national memorial a sorrowing nation has erected to his memory?