This is for anyone who thinks kids of today are out of control. They are nothing to the kids of the 19th century. Not sure why there were so many homeless kids in the mid century – possibly many were orphans in the wake of the cholera outbreaks which had raged from 1832, combined with urbanisation, lots of social disruption.
Anyhow, one of the largely unsung heroes was Mary Carpenter, daughter of Dr Land Carpenter, a Unitarian minister and teacher, in Bristol. She had a reputation for being a tough old bird, but after reading the following, she clearly had to be. Unitarians were known for their no-nonsense work in improving conditions for the poor, especially in cleaning up the gaols, and in the United States they were the people runaway slaves turned to when Quakers were not available, so their contribution to human rights is immense.
I often get tired of people saying that devout Christians only did good to spread the religion. I sort of don’t care. There were easier ways of spreading religion, and what Mary achieved was incredible. At the time, nobody was responsible for the orphans who slept on the streets, running riot and with no future.
She got laws passed to ensure someone took responsibility for them, and also changed the laws so they were not tried as adults. She is responsible for what is called ‘The Magna Carta for the homeless child’. This was at a time when women had virtually no rights, so she could have spent her time campaigning for women. We are all still in her debt.
“Persons who have grown up since the creation of educational machinery embracing all classes of society can with difficulty realize the ignorance prevailing amongst the poor [in 1846]. a year or two earlier, a committee had been formed in the city to promote unsectarian education; but, as the Roman Catholic priests and the Unitarian ministers were forthwith excluded from the work, the chief effect of the movement was to demonstrate the prejudices of its leaders.
In the summer of 1846, Miss Mary Carpenter and a few kindred spirits, taking compassion on the “gutter children” or “street Arabs” which prowled about in great numbers, resolved upon opening a room in Lewin’s Mead, then notorious for the degraded character of its inhabitants, and offering free instruction to the waifs who would attend. On the first morning (Sunday August 2nd), three boys presented themselves, and in the afternoon the attendance exceeded a dozen. A short extract from the master’s diary will afford an idea of the difficulties of the enterprise in which he had engaged : “That afternoon I shall never forget. Only 13 or 14 boys present; some swearing, some fighting, some crying. One boy struck another’s head through the window. I tried to offer up a short prayer, but found it was impossible. The boys, instead of kneeling, began to tumble over one another, and to sing ‘Jim Crow’.” From one of the promoters of the school we further learn that “none of the lads had shoes or stockings; some had no shirt and no home, sleeping in casks on the quay or on steps, and living by petty depredations.” By untiring patience and kindliness, however, the teacher obtained such influence over many of his reckless pupils as to secure the regular and orderly attendance of thirty boys, several of whom made good progress, and some, after being reclaimed from moral degradation, were enabled to earn an honest livelihood. A visible improvement was effected in Lewin’s Mead, which had previously been the scene of almost constant disorder. Gratified with the results of this experiment, the promoters of the “Ragged School” hired the historic old chapel in St James’ Back to which the institution was removed in December. A night school was then added, bringing in “a swarm of young men and women, whose habits and character almost caused even the stout heart of Mary Carpenter to quail. Early in 1847 the numbers one Sunday evening amounted to 200; the attempt to close the school with prayer was baffled by mockery, and the court beneath resounded with screams and blows. Nevertheless, through the devotion of Miss Carpenter, the institution gradually became a centre of enlightenment and civilisation, and it is difficult to overrate its effects on the miserable district in which it was situated. The experience gained in it by its foundress led her, a few years later, to widen her aims in reference to the youthful semi-criminal population, and the result was the establishment in 1852 of a Reformatory school at Kingswood -in the house once hired by John Wesley. This was followed two years later, by the creation of a second institution of this class for girls, in the Red Lodge, Park Row, which was purchased for the purpose by Lady Byron and placed under Miss Carpenter’s sole control…..In October 1877 four months after her death, a meeting, notable for the total absence of sectarian spirit displayed by its promoters, was held in the Guildhall for the purpose of taking measures to found a suitable memorial of her philanthropic exertions. … It was resolved to extend the operation of the Home for boys… to establish a Home for girls, and to erect a monument to her memory in the Cathedral. the subscription for these objects amounted to about £2,700