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. Her first experience of schooling was probably when she entered the workhouse, aged 4 in 1852, along with her siblings and mother following their desertion by Lucy’s father. The Berkhamsted workhouse did not have its own school so children were sent to the town’s National School, set up to give working-class children religious instruction and train them in the 3Rs–or basic literacy and numeracy.
However, instead of lessons and teaching Lucy’s memoir focuses on the meals she ate at school, particularly the school’s provision of the infamous workhouse gruel, that through Oliver Twist, had become synonymous with the starving child of the workhouse. Lucy’s commentary on the provision of gruel paints a dreary picture of workhouse school children’s diets, prescribed by the 1834 New Poor Law. 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 incorporates humour into her account, describing how she is often reminded of workhouse 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. Once a girl approached her there, saying ‘“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. 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 poverty 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 describes, nevertheless, some surprisingly child-centred activities 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.” Her memory of the crafting that provides an alternate view of the workhouse system, one that presents a less harsh side than that presented in literature of the time. Lucy remembers, for example, how ‘Ladies’ 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 experiences of this school may have had something to do with her gender and the fact this was a National School rather than a workhouse school. Boys could be treated especially brutally in workhouses. The historian Samantha Shaves writes about harsh corporal punishment endured by boys at Fareham Union Workhouse: “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).” 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. She 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. The leaving age of children was raised to 11 in 1893 but did not come into effect until after Lucy had left school. Although she was supposed to attend school part time once she began silk-weaving, her employers kept her at work most of the time.
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.
456 LUCK, Lucy, ‘A Little of My Life’, edited by J. C. Squire, London Mercury, Vol. xiii, No.76, Nov 1925-Apr 1926, pp.354-73. Extract in J. Burnett (ed.), Useful Toil. Autobiographies of working people from the 1820s to the 1920s (Allen Lane, London, 1974), pp.68-77.
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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