Lucy’s education is a section of her memoir that provides insight into the elements of school life that are not directly linked to learning. Instead of lessons and teaching Lucy talks about the meals she ate at school, particularly the school’s provision of the infamous gruel. Although gruel has become synonymous with starving child of the workhouse Oliver Twist, Lucy’s memoir is reflective of the cruelty that the New Poor Law of 1834 promoted. Lucy’s commentary on the provision of gruel paints a dreary picture of workhouse school children’s diets. Gruel was distributed throughout all workhouses across the country, in an effort to quell food waste. Each workhouse was provided with a workhouse cookbook which included the recipe for gruel and recipes for other meals that were to be cooked for workhouse paupers. Lucy’s account is a realistic representation of the workhouse school diet as Ian Miller highlights how the diet in the workhouse was often used as a deterrent “In the 1830s, nutritional well-being was not a prime goal of the New Poor Law; it was instead subordinated to driving principles of discipline and deterrence, and closely intertwined with the behavioural policing and governing of paupers (Miller,2013).” Although it is not a pleasant memory Lucy does incorporate an element humour as she describes as often being reminded of gruel when she sees “paperhangers paste.” Lucy’s ability to convey how certain elements of school life trigger painful memories is a theme throughout her memoir.
Lucy’s description of her time in school is often marred by painful events that happened outside of her school building. A particularly heart wrenching moment is when Lucy is faced with the harsh reality of her situation through her inability to buy food “Do you want any buns? and I said, “Yes, please, She then asked me for the money, I said, “I have not got any,” and she answered, “Then you can’t have any buns. How disappointed I was.” This encounter is something that Lucy has not forgotten in her life and her inclusion of the memory in her memoir reflects how it has impacted her more than any learning did during her time at school. Lucy’s memories from school are ones that when reading from a modern perspective are reflective of how Lucy’s time in education was impacted and overshadowed by adult situations and worries. As Lucy’s own school building was the same place that her mother cried on the steps of, upon their entry into the workhouse. Lucy’s schooling years are her formative years in terms of realising her family’s financial situation and the impact her father’s abandonment had on her family.
“I cannot tell you how many times I have thought of that Good Friday”
Lucy does describe activities that she did as a child at school, particularly at Christmas time “weeks before Christmas we would cut pieces of paper in fancy shapes to put our Christmas pudding on when we got it.” She presents an alternate and rare moment of her time in the union school that is pleasant. It is her memory of the crafting that provides an alternate view of the workhouse system, one that presents a less harsh side than one that is presented in literature of the time. Lucy also includes how Lady’s would often visit the school and give “threepenny pieces” to the children, once again she does not shy away from highlighting moments in the union school that were positive and not what we would expect.
The positive experience that Lucy had at the Tring union school may be to do with her gender, as experiences at union schools are much more brutal when reading union boys accounts. Samantha Shaves article ‘Great inhumanity’: scandal, child punishment and policymaking in the early years of the New Poor Law workhouse system, displays the cruelty and abuse endured by boys in the union: “Crouch also whipped Withers, and possibly Cooke too, with what she described as a ‘twig birch’; she also heard the girl in charge of Cooke, Susan Axford, ‘slap him’ (Shave,2018,344).” This account from Fareham workhouse union is in stark contrast to Lucy’s own experience, the abuse suffered by the boys indicates how experiences of the workhouse varied based on gender. Lucy’s experience during her time in education may well have been very different if she were a boy, or even if she attended a different workhouse. A very important issue to remember when reading Lucy’s memoir.
When writing about her education Lucy often discusses her inability to remember much about her time at school as she states that she can remember only “one or two childish things.” Lucy’s inability to remember much of her education is reflective of how little time she spent at school. As she quickly left school to start work in the silk mills of Tring at just 9 years of age. It was not unusual for children to leave school at a young age in the Victorian era, especially those who were in the workhouse. Particularly, in Lucy’s schooling life the leaving age of children was raised to 11 but did not come into effect until after Lucy had left school in 1893. Once her working life started Lucy’s time at school lessens until eventually, she spends all of her time working.
Although Lucy’s description of her schooling life is brief, she does highlight issues with the Victorian education and New Poor Law system. Lucy’s memoir solidifies and reinforces some preconceptions modern readers may have about workhouse schooling whilst simultaneously presenting glimmers of happiness in the workhouse school.
Luck, Lucy. Lucy Luck: A Little of My Life. The London Mercury. Vol. XIII No.76 (1926)
Miller, Ian. Feeding in the Workhouse: The Institutional and Ideological Functions of Food in Britain, ca. 1834–70. Cambridge University Press. 11 November (2013).
SHAVE, S.A. ‘Great inhumanity’: scandal, child punishment and policymaking in the early years of the New Poor Law workhouse system. Continuity and Change, (2018) pp. 339-363.
Victorian Children. Victorian Schools Facts for Children. (2021)
Workhouse.org Workhouse food. (2021)
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