Edward Balne (B:1895) An Introduction

Edward Balne’s memoir, titled ‘Autobiography of an ex-Workhouse and Poor Law Schoolboy’ was written in 1972, when Edward Balne was 77. It details his earliest memories as an orphaned toddler in Southwark workhouse, to his schooling at a Poor Law School, to his joining the regular army at the age of 14 and afterwards serving in Australia and East Africa during WWII. He was a musician and a hard worker and throughout his writings the theme of achievement through hard work shines through.

Balne finishes his writings with this statement:

I have concluded my story. Whether the reading of it would interest a modern young man or woman is a matter for conjecture. My own opinion however is that today’s generation would not only doubt the veracity of the tale, but that most of the matter could depress and bore them.

I have taken this as a challenge – I would love to prove him wrong!

I chose to write about Balne for very many reasons; firstly because his wonderfully messy handwriting in blue ink reminded me of something my grandfather might write. Secondly, I found his choice of title interesting in that he identifies himself as representative of a mass of people. He is just one of the many who went through the workhouse system, but his ‘Poor Law Schoolboy’ of the title is presented proudly. They are his origins and as such colour his future experiences. These experiences are remembered in vivid detail – the schedule of every day, the effects and first opinions of corporal punishment, the food and the teaching. I was thoroughly drawn in to these accounts as well as his observations on class divisions during the early 1900s.

Thirdly, because he officially had no first name until the age of 63. He found when applying for  had no first name given on his birth certificate. This was only rectified in 1958 in the presence of a Justice of the Peace, just in time for his national insurance pension, given at the age of 65. Being an orphan throughout his young life in Southwark workhouse and throughout in the Poor Law system he was known as Edward. He knew himself and referred to himself as Edward, but official terms his name was officially just ‘Balne’, as no other name had been given on his birth certificate. I found this so intriguing, because having a first and often a second name on birth certificates is something we in our modern day society take for granted. Although I assumed things such as proper care and certain opportunities might have been missed as regards a Poor Law schoolboy so I was expecting examples of these, but a missing first name was not something I was prepared for.

Balne was born on 1st April 1895 in the County of London to E.T Balne and D.C Balne, formerly Reeves, and was registered five days after birth in ‘the Sub-District of St. Saviour in the County of London,’ and became ‘a tiny inmate of Southwark workhouse.’ [Balne, page 1, a] From this information, I did some research and I think I can safely say he was placed in the Southwark workhouse on Mint Street.

Southwark workhouse, Mint Street circa 1910. View from the southeast.
Southwark workhouse, Mint Street circa 1910. View from the southeast.

As far as Balne was concerned his ‘“parents” were the members of staff,’ and was in general treated with ‘a deal of kindness’ until he was transferred at the ago of two and a half to a large Poor Law School in Hanwell, Middlesex. Hanwell School was also known as the ‘Cuckoo School’. Charlie Chaplin also attended this school, and both Balne and Chaplin had similar experiences at this school. Balne makes it clear it was the education he recieved at this particular school that shaped him and prepared him well for ‘a fair start in life’, [Balne, page 7, a], having been taught the three R’s as well as being manners, deportment and elocution. He was also given an education in music.

The ‘Cuckoo Schools’ – plural because it was made up of a conglomeration of schools – in Hanwell, Middlesex.

This education in music led to his being drafted as a boy musician into the regular army, and stationed at Phoenix barracks in Dublin, Ireland.

Edward Balne was so small – four feet five inches and under five stone – he had to have his uniform made for him. I hope you enjoy finding out more about Edward Balne! His life is so interesting. Please find links for more information below.

http://www.workhouses.org.uk/Southwark/ –  link to more information on Southwark workhouse of St George The Martyr.

http://www.mazefind.co.uk/cgi-bin/cms/ohra.pl?content_id=1239789009 – link for more information about The Cuckoo School at Hanwell.

http://www.workhouses.org.uk/CentralLondonSD/ – more datiled inforation giving the history of the Central London School, or Hanwell School.

Balne, Edward, ‘Autobiography of an ex-Workhouse and Poor Law School Boy’, MS, pp 175 (c.27,000 words). Brunel University Library.

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