How to Get Sent to a Victorian Reform School



Lavender Hill. Postcard c.1900.

In April 1899 a police constable of the W or Clapham Division, who is known to us only by his warrant number, which was 390, was walking the beat in North Street, a thoroughfare running from Wandsworth Road to Old Town Clapham. He spotted a stationary ‘van’ — a covered wagon used for transporting goods and people — which he thought had something odd about it.

Taking a closer look inside the van, PC 390 W found three young boys curled up and fast asleep. Alongside them was an empty wicker basket and the remains of a feast. When the constable shook them awake, the boys admitted with no dissembling that they had been on a shoplifting spree and had made their way into the van to eat their ill-gotten gains.

Justice was quickly dispensed, and the trio found themselves appearing in the juvenile division of the South Western Magistrates Court on a charge of being in unlawful possession of a quantity of eatables. They were lucky: before the 1847 Juvenile Offences Act children under fourteen would have been tried in an adult court, punished as adults and even sent to adult prisons. Asked by the magistrate if they had anything to say, the boys sang like the proverbial canaries and admitted to stealing from a shop on nearby Lavender Hill.

A costly bar of soap

Eight-year-old Gussie Fitzgerald proudly told the court how he had taken three bottles of lemon squash, a jar of jam, a loaf of bread and three oranges. The newspaper reports described Gussie, who sounds like a forerunner of the William of Just William, as speaking ‘laconically’! To the amusement of the court his older brother, nine-year-old John, admitted ‘shrilly’ that he had stolen a bar of soap, which was perhaps a strange thing for a child to take, as it did not fall under the definition of an ‘eatable’ and was obviously not intended for the feast. The third boy, eleven-year-old James Stothard, said that he had taken a single egg.

So was little Gussie the ringleader, or had it been agreed that he would take the rap? Although children from the age of eight could be held criminally responsible, the boys might have thought that Gussie would get into less trouble. And things worked out well for the Fitzgerald brothers, for they were let off with an admonition, although one suspects that they got a beating at home.

Advertisement for Pears’ soap. c.19th century. Wellcome Collection.

Away from the bad eggs

But James Stothard — he of the egg — was not so lucky. He was remanded into the care of the workhouse and sent to an industrial school in Feltham in Middlesex. But why did he receive a more severe punishment than the Fitzgeralds? Was he thought to be the mastermind on account of his age? Had he previously been in trouble? Was he sent to Feltham to remove him from the bad influence of his friends and family?

He entered the school in 1899 and was there for at least two years and possibly for longer. A lengthy absence from home was thought to give boys the opportunity to turn their lives around, and on release many went into the navy, or were sent to work as farm labourers far from the temptations of the city.

The Feltham Industrial School, which had been founded in 1854, could house up to seven hundred boys. Facilities included an infirmary, workshops, a gas factory and a chapel. Divided into groups of about fifty, the inmates shared common sleeping areas, school rooms, washing facilities and punishment cells. They were described as juvenile offenders, and could be made to stay until they were sixteen. And their crimes? Well, Gilliam Carol Gear noted in her doctoral thesis Industrial schools in England,1857-1933 that

of the 75 boys admitted in 1901 just two had been sent for begging, six for wandering, two were uncontrollable and the majority, 65, had been charged with offences punishable by imprisonment.

Proposed design for the Middlesex Industrial School at Feltham. The Builder volume 15 1857.

Off to war

So what do we know about James before and after his brush with the law? Born on 4 September 1887 he was one of six children of George Stothard, a bricklayer, and his wife Sarah. George was a native of Lincolnshire and Sarah a local Battersea lass. The family lived at various addresses in and around Battersea: 14 Wickersley Road, Arliss Road, St James Grove and elsewhere.

At the age of three James was baptised along with two of his siblings at St Bartholomew’s Church in Wickersley Road. At the age of six he started at Sleaford Street School and, as we have seen, at the age of eleven he found himself in that other institution, the correctional facility in Feltham. At some stage after leaving Feltham, James moved to Andover to work as a house painter. Possibly he had no reason to return to Battersea — by 1909 both his parents had died — and in 1916 he was conscripted into the Labour Corps of the Devonshire Regiment.

The website of the Western Front Association, which has as one of its aims to ‘commemorate the Labour Corps for the unremembered’, tells us that these men

cooked, cleaned, carried and cared for the soldiers on the front line and behind the lines. They built roads and railways, carried the wounded and buried the dead.

They were those who were not ‘A1’ fit. To be ‘A1’ they needed to be able to march, to see clearly enough to shoot, to hear well and to stand active service conditions.

Playful children making a nuisance of themselves. Punch volume 36 1859.

Badly damaged

After a month of home training James was sent to France for the duration of the war, only being discharged in March 1919. But on his return, severely damaged by his military service, he was declared thirty percent disabled as a consequence of ‘neurasthenia’ and a ‘disordered action of the heart’ — shell shock and stress syndrome respectively. He was awarded a pension of 8s. 3d. and, like many of the men ruined by war, he was sent back to an ordinary civilian life.

In 1939 James was still working as a painter and living in Andover at 88 South Street, lodging with Albert and Phoebe Shrimpton. He died unmarried in 1952 at the age of sixty-four. Perhaps James would always have lived what sounds like a lonely life, with no family of his own or even as part of his wider family. But I cannot help wondering what his life would have been like if he had just received a caution — as did Gussie and John Fitzgerald — and had then been returned to his family.

Victim of shell shock. 1916. Wikimedia.

What about Gussie?

And what of the Fitzgerald brothers? Gussie — Michael Augustine or Augustine Michael — and John were two of six children born to Michael, who was a machinist from Barnstaple in Devon, and his wife Sarah, who was from Norfolk. Like the Stothards they also moved around a lot.

Gussie has been hard to find. At the time of the 1901 census he was not living with his family. Then at the time of the 1911 census two of the seven Fitzgerald children were dead, and, as a sister died in 1908, and as I have been able to trace all the other siblings, I must conclude that Gussie was also dead.

And John?

John Thomas Fitzgerald did not stay in the bosom of his family for long after his caution for shoplifting: he was sent to St Vincent’s Industrial School for Roman Catholic Boys in Dartford in Kent in November 1904. Was this because he was trouble, or did it have something to do with the fact that his parents had separated after more than twenty years of marriage?

His later career suggests that he was a troubled young man. In 1905, aged fourteen and measuring five feet with brown hair and grey eyes and a fresh complexion, he enlisted as an army bandsman with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. By September 1909 he had deserted, only to re-join two months later. At the beginning of 1912 he deserted yet again, and was only found several months later when he was apprehended for a civilian theft. This time the army had had enough and he was discharged.

British and Indian troops serving in the Mesopotamian Campaign. 1917. Wikimedia.

A long way from Battersea

At the very start of the First World War John joined up yet again, this time with the East Kent Regiment, which was known as the Buffs. He was twenty-five years and seven months old and he had grown to five feet four inches, but his army career yet again hit the rocks when after only two weeks he was discharged as not likely to be a good soldier.

In 1915 he joined up again. Within days he had absconded en route to his first posting. Perhaps he was reluctant to embrace the military life because he had a presentiment of things to come, for he was soon found, and less than a year later, having been sent abroad with the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, he died. The date was 1 August 1916, and the place was Mesopotamia — now Iraq — and there in the war cemetery in Basra he was laid to rest.

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