Monthly Archives: March 2012

At School No.5: Truancy and Criminality

The Story of… Victoria Law Courts

The Victoria Law Courts. BAH: WK/B11/4300.

Reading through some of the logbook entries might give the impression that there were many children running unchecked around Birmingham. The intention of a Logbook to predominantly record unusual or notable events in the school’s life meant that normal behaviour would not be recorded. There were sometimes incidents which led to the offenders appearing at Birmingham’s Magistrates Court, the Victoria Law Courts.

“… the old complaint of truancy cropped up + several boys under the leadership of Welch have been shoplifting rather extensively. I appeared at the Victoria Courts with Welch + Brookes who were charged as being the ringleaders in several robberies. They were remanded to the workhouse for a week.” [S68/2/1 17.11.1893]

The boy Welch seems to have often been in trouble with the courts, being locked up again a few weeks later for smashing shop windows and stealing. [S68/2/1 24.11.1893] Whilst truanting alone could sometimes permit corporal punishment, it was the criminal activities during this time which most often took children to court. Yet these children were sentenced in the same court room as adults, receiving no special care as would be expected for their ages.

In April 1905 Birmingham was groundbreaking in introducing the first Children’s Court in Europe, largely by the efforts of Mr J. Courtnenay Lord and the State Children’s Association. The SCA, formed in 1896, was a pressure group for children’s wellbeing and their campaign led to Birmingham Council setting up a sub-committee with Mr Lord as chair. A 1908 Daily Mail article tells much about the running of Birmingham’s Court.

This Daily Mail article was kept in a book of cuttings by the School Board. BAH: SB B/1/11 p.9

This special Juvenile Court for under 16’s, which was set up to meet on Thursdays at 10 o’clock, saw 25 names in its first session. A Mail article made note that these were all boys, and that the court’s aims were to be “a correctional court, more than a penal court.” [13.4.05 The Mail] For the first time there was an attempt to distinguish the juvenile offender in court from those more serious criminal cases, and to keep the court separate with a degree of anonymity between the children. Birmingham’s example led to a wider adoption of such approaches to child offenders in the UK, and indeed in Europe. These changes came too late for the miscreant Welch.

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At School No.4: Truancy and Criminality

Extract from the School Board Report received at Floodgate Street School 30th June 1892:

“This new school is situated in the midst of one of the roughest and most irregular populations of the town, and presents more than ordinary difficulties in many ways, which have been met with energy and satisfactory success.” [S68/2/1]

 If the attendance was hard to keep up because of the weather, then truancy and criminality made this job even more difficult. The School Board Reports, which

School Board Truancy Figures. BAH: SB/B/1/1/13 p.13.

had to be copied into the Logbooks (See An Introduction to Logbooks), often made reference to the challenging area that Floodgate Street School was in. The Birmingham School Board Appeals Committee dealt with Truancy, and its figures were recorded by the School Board.

Truancy was often linked to poverty and the living conditions of the child at home. Sometimes the children were employed selling goods, such as in 1891 where they were selling “Xmas novelties” [S68/2/1 18.12.1891] Sometimes these children would “Sleep out” at night, often around the market place [S68/2/1 8.4.1892]. There are repeated entries for boys stealing in the market place and being punished for it:

“I have had to recommence my visits to the market as the truant season shews signs of beginning again. I brought in seven on Wednesday afternoon.” [S68/2/1 26.3.1897]

Perhaps due to Floodgate Street School’s close city location, truanting and stealing around the marketplace were evidently a regular part of the school year.

Yet criminality didn’t just take place outside of school. One girl stole a half sovereign from the purse of a teacher after the purse was left on a classroom desk. [S68/2/1 24.10.1902] In this instance the punishment seems to have been a word with the mother. Some crimes also went unpunished, with a regular attack on the toilets:

“Have been unable up to the present to catch the thief who robs the girls’ lavatory.” [S68/2/1 15.5.95]

 On one Christmas the headmaster had to confront two children at the Christmas party:

“I refused to accept Kathleen Coleman at the party as, while under an attendance order, she has not appeared since dec 9thWilliam Griffiths (who has truanted 31 times this term up to date) also arrived on party day after a week of truancy. I put him in my room with some work to do and he escaped through the window.” [S199/1/1 22.12.1942]

Occasionally these misdemeanours were serious enough for a child to end up in front of a judge, and Birmingham’s groundbreaking law courts will be looked at next.

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At School No.3: The Weather and Attendance

Floodgate Street Infant Department’s yearly report for 1983 listed attendance as a major issue for obtaining good work [S68/1/1]. There are obvious reasons for the absence of children from school: illness and truancy. These will be looked into later in this series. Outside of these, one of the biggest factors for school attendance seems to have been the weather and the school building’s inability to adapt to this. A warm summer brought with it unusable classrooms. Classes were dismissed early at Floodgate Street School Infants as the fastened windows and broken fan made the air bad. [S68/1/1 19.10.97] The Coal strike of 1921 also caused problems, the lack of fuel causing the Mixed Department’s Ventilation System to break down by the afternoon. [S68/3/1 25.5.1921]

Children building a snowman, Bissell Street, Quinton, 1962. BAH: WK/Q1/110.

Equally, the colder weather left those in the Mixed Department unequipped to attend:

“The snow and cold has kept a large number of children – who are unfortunately very poor + badly clothed – at home” [S68/2/1 22.1.92]

The failure of heating equipment made winter a problem at Tinker’s Farm Road School too:

“Heat is circulating through the school today but the highest temperature is 48 F + the lowest 46 F.” [S199/1 9.2.1940]

Yet clearly truancy and lack of motivation were issues too, and a little incentive went a long way:

“Had an invitation for children to attend the grand Pantomime on Monday next. I promised to take all the regular children. The improvement in the attendance this week is most marked.” [S68/2/1 21.2.96]

“Took 250 children who had made 40+39 attendances to see the skeleton of a whale…” [S68/2/1 16.12.1892]

Those that didn’t get to see the Pantomime or visit the skeleton of a Whale were often off doing things they shouldn’t have been instead, and these will be looked at next week.

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At School No.2: The Curriculum and Learning

“I scarcely know how to describe. 26 girls had all their sums wrong, 10 had one correct, 7 did two correctly + 1 girl only had 3 right. The sums were not difficult ones, + I was greatly surprised at the utter failure of the girls to do them. The spelling in this class although very weak was certainly better than math.” [S68/2/1 4.5.1900]

Whilst the logbooks do not often record in detail the subjects studied at school, what they sometimes record are anomalies, successes and failures. Floodgate Street School was in a deprived area of Birmingham and often the academic work of the children reflected this. Reading was as big an issue as maths, with over 20 children in one class unable to manage any word more than three letters. [S68/3/1 25.8.26] The examinations are occasionally recorded, such as the words used for spelling tests (Leather, Cotton, Monkey, Snake, Squirrel, Mole…), and often covered broad skills:

Children at their desks, Floodgate Street Board School. BAH: Floodgate Street Board School misc photos.

“Term Examinations in Reading, Composition, Dictation, Arithmetic, + Drawing are being taken in all classes this week.” [S68/3/1 26.4.1921]

Yet what the logbooks also record are those additional activities that were part of a child’s education. Needle work is often recorded as interrupting the normal pattern of lessons at Floodgate Street Infant’s [S68/1/1 6.5.92], and Class IA of the Mixed Seniors even went on a geographical observation to Lickey Hills [S68/3/1 8.6.1932]. In 1896 the Birmingham School Board received a report from the Special Inquiry Committee which calculated that teachers had 22 ½ hours, or 1350 minutes, of teaching hours per week. [SB/B 1/1/13 p.282] They were investigating whether there were too many subjects for the teachers to cover, although ultimately nothing was changed. However, The Board did feel it necessary to issue an 1895 report on handwriting in schools. This report detailed everything from the style of teaching to the shapes of the individual letters. [SB/B 1/1/13 p.137]

The children at Tinkers Farm grew plants as a project. BAH: Tinkers Farm Road School misc photos.

On one occasion the headmaster found it necessary to record a lengthy report on teaching techniques, which emphasised the correction of common mistakes on the blackboard as well as encouraging maths problems that challenged the child to work out not just the answer but also what operations to use [S68/2/1 3.4.1896]. Other staff would also “criticise” subject lessons of training teachers at the schools, providing feedback to help improve lessons. Clearly the adults as well as the children were learning whilst at school.

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At School No.1: An Introduction to Logbooks

As part of the Children’s Lives project blog we will be blogging a series of posts “from the logbooks”. The logbook entries are selected from two Birmingham schools, Floodgate Street School and Tinker’s Farm Road School. These records are now part of the School Records Collection held at Birmingham Archives and Heritage.

A class photograph at Floodgate Street Board School. BAH: Floodgate Street Board School misc Photos

Floodgate Street Board School was built in 1890 and opened on the 9th November 1891, coinciding with the year that elementary education became free. It accommodated some 1,115 children. Originally comprised of an infants and mixed department, in 1931 the school was reorganised into an infants and senior mixed department.

Tinkers Farm Road School. BAH: misc photos, schools, Tinkers Farm

Tinker’s Farm Road Council School opened in 1930 in temporary accommodation for 384 infants. Permanent buildings were opened a year later for 432 junior and infant children, with a senior mixed department opening in the temporary buildings. New senior accommodation was built in 1933 and a new infant block was opened on April 5th 1937.

It was the responsibility of the head teacher to keep a logbook of notable school events. The exact rules and regulations were part of the first pages of Floodgate Street School Infants logbook, S68/1/1.

Instructions for Keeping a Logbook. BAH: S68/1/1

Over the coming weeks the logbooks will give an insight into the lives of those children who studied at these schools, albeit through the eyes of those teachers who taught them. Their entries tell stories of attendance and truancy, criminality and punishment, poverty and disease and of schooling during the World Wars. Some of these tell the story of a whole school and some of those individuals involved, but they all help to further our understanding of Children’s Lives and what it was to study as a child in these schools.

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