Review of The Whitechapel Society Meeting of August 2022. 

With attendance approaching that of pre-pandemic meetings, the mood was good at the August meeting of the Whitechapel Society; just one complication – Sue, known for her parish notices had succumbed to covid so carried out this role via zoom. 

It was good to have Tony back (he had covid in June) and in his own imitable style, he introduced the evening’s speaker, John Walker. 

As Tony pointed out, for students of JtR, it is well known that the shadow of the workhouse loomed large over the residents of Whitechapel in the late 1800s. In fact, Polly Nichols’ body was taken to the mortuary which was part of the workhouse in Old Montague Street. So that begged the question – what was life in a Whitechapel workhouse like, especially for children? To answer that question, Tony introduced John Walker, local historian, East End resident of over 40 years and author of “Out of Sight out of Mind: Abuse, Neglect and Fire in a London Children’s Workhouse 1854 – 1907”. 

John set the scene by saying that if you should travel by train from Essex into Liverpool Street, about halfway between Forest Gate and Maryland Stations lies a formidable looking building, which for 50 years was home to 50,000 East End children who were aged 2 to 14 years.  

The agricultural revolution coupled with advances in transport saw huge numbers of unemployed rural people making their way to cities in the hope of employment and a better life. The industrial revolution was underway and that was focussed on the large cities. As a result, the population of cities exploded in a very short period of time, but the infrastructure was simply not there to cope with the demands. The population of London alone went from 2 million in 1851 to 7 million in 1901, and the streets, far from being paved with gold, were in places not paved at all. For the East End of London, the populations of Whitechapel, Hackney and Poplar mushroomed with many people chasing poorly paid intermittent work and living in slum accommodation, or indeed on the streets. 

The government response was the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act which at its centre saw the creation of “local guardians” who would tax the local population according to property values and with this revenue, they could build workhouses to accommodate those people who fell on hard times. The underlying principle was that life in a workhouse should be less attractive than life outside, so that the workhouse was a last resort. In reality this meant that families were separated, inmates wore degrading uniforms, they had to undertake back breaking degrading work and food at best was inadequate and at worst a danger to health. 

The population of the Whitechapel workhouse grew so large that the decision was taken to create an additional establishment. This would be solely for children, which would reduce the numbers in the adult workhouse and have the added perceived benefit of removing the influence of the “idle and feckless” parents! 

The Whitechapel guardians bought a large plot of land in rural Forest Gate, some 7 miles from Whitechapel. The new workhouse was built to accommodate 900 children and places were sold to the Hackney and Poplar guardians. These three sets of guardians combined to form the Forest Gate District School, but despite the title “school”, the conditions were the same as those of an adult workhouse. The children were divided into three groups, the under 7s, girls aged 7 to 14 and boys aged 7 to 14 with no interaction between them and as a result siblings lost contact with each other. Parents were allowed to visit their children for 2 hours once every three months, but demand was so great, this was soon stopped. Food was inadequate for growing children and outbreaks of food poisoning were common. The children were taught by untrained teachers in classes of approximately 90 pupils and instances of brutality were frequent. Their lives were governed by the ringing of bells and much of the day was spent in silence. Far from being a “school”, vocational training consisted of little more than the girls scrubbing floors and the boys working the grounds to grow food. The average age of the children in this institution was 10 years! The children had no experience of life outside the “school” so for many, when they left at the age of 14, they were so vulnerable, being devoid of life skills, they simply went straight back into the (adult) workhouse system.  

However, for a small number of the male residents, there was a route to a worthwhile and potentially fulfilling adulthood. Forest Gate got funding to set up a training vessel to prepare young boys for careers in the Navy or on merchant ships. The first ship was The Goliath, later to be replaced by the Exmouth and the scheme was run by a hardworking and dedicated ex naval officer, William Sutherland Bourchier. The scheme, which turned out well trained sailors was highly praised from all quarters, but almost unbelievably the Forest Gate management never seemed to be able, or willing, to apply any of Bourchier’s successful methodology to the much criticised Industrial School.  

In the 1870s however, two women were to have a significant impact on this failing organisation. 

The first was Jane Senior who was the country’s first ever female civil servant. She produced a report on Industrial Schools from a female perspective. She questioned how girls in these institutions, cut off from any sort of loving, nurturing family life could ever become the successful mothers of the next generation. At the time of the report, this was dismissed as sentimental nonsense, but Jane’s thinking was to return a little later. 

The second woman, a name familiar to WS members, was the redoubtable Henrietta Barnett, described by John as “one of Whitechapel’s most significant historical figures”.  Her husband Samuel, at the time of their marriage, was the Church of England vicar of an affluent west London parish, but upon their marriage in 1873, the couple applied to the Bishop of London and asked to be moved to somewhere they could “make a difference”. The parish of St Judes in Whitechapel had been without a clergyman for three years and the Bishop was to describe St Judes as “the worst parish in my dioceses, inhabited largely by criminals”! (1)  

Not to be deterred, the Barnetts accepted the post and set about an enormous campaign of social reform, almost too long to list, but included the establishment of Toynbee Hall, the establishment of the Whitechapel Art Gallery, slum clearance and the building of new model dwellings.  

Samuel became a Whitechapel guardian and he was instrumental in getting Henrietta onto the board of the Forest Gate school so she could build on the work of Jane Senior. At that time Henrietta was the first female workhouse school governor in the country and she remained in that post for over 20 years. 

From her very first meeting at the school Henrietta was appalled by the conditions but by frequent visits and sheer perseverance she slowly but surely brought about changes. She insisted that the girls were called by their names, and not the numbers sewn on the backs of their clothes, she introduced trips outside the school, set up a library, brought in toys and organised that paintings should be put up on the walls. In all of this Henrietta was supported, both morally and financially by a significant coterie of wealthy friends. Henrietta and Samuel had been left a significant property in Hampstead and Henrietta turned this into a domestic training school for girls looking to go into domestic service when they left Forest Gate. Groups of 12 girls, under the guidance of the Barnett’s housekeeper undertook 6 months of domestic training which equipped then with the necessary skills for a future career.  

Henrietta set up an after-care service, the “Metropolitan Association for the Befriending of Young Servants” to follow up on girls once they left the school. She also set up a charity called the “Children’s Country Holiday Fund” to pay for camping holidays for Industrial School pupils. 

But despite all of these forward-thinking initiatives, Henrietta knew she was only tinkering at the edges of what was a dehumanising and wicked system. 

However, two catastrophic events in close succession were to bring about major reform. The first was a fire at Forest Gate Industrial school on News Year eve 1890. The children had been locked in their dormitories to allow the staff to partake in New Year festivities, a fire broke out and 26 boys died. Less than three years later, in 1893 there was a major outbreak of food poisoning at the school, and coming so soon after the fire, serious questions were asked at a national level.  

Henrietta again drew upon her circle of wealthy friends, this time her brother-in-law, Ernest Abraham Hart, who was the editor of the British Medical Journal, who ran a campaign in this periodical which lasted 2 years. Simultaneously she persuaded the Liberal MP Anthony Mundella to set up a parliamentary committee to look at “barrack” schools. His report, produced in 1896, conclude that these schools must end. 

Her work, almost done, Henrietta left the Forest Gate board in the same year and the mantel was taken up by two newly appointed guardians, who each later became MPs, Will Crook and George Lansbury (later Mayor of Poplar and one-time leader of the Labour party).  

The Forest Gate Industrial School was closed, and much of the land sold for a handsome profit as this area of London was now prime commuter-belt. Poplar and Whitechapel went their separate ways with Poplar building Hutton Poplars in Brentwood which was to set the standard for 2oth century children’s homes.  

Whitechapel’s approach was a little different. They used the proceeds of the sale to build “scattered homes” in Grays. Initially, this was four pairs of semi-detached houses, each accommodating 10 children. These small units consisted of mixed age and mixed gender children and were run by a couple with the wife in charge as a superintendent. The children did not wear uniforms, they moved freely in the community, attended local schools and parental visits were actively encouraged. All of this, light years away from the Forest Gate regime and at 80% of the cost! Other children were fostered, usually by families in Essex and received small maintenance allowances for the children.  

This was an extraordinary story very well received by both the attendees and those that had joined by zoom. John happily answered questions which ranged from Octavia Hill, the difference between a workhouse and a poor house and workhouse museums around the country. Our very grateful thanks to John Walker for this fascinating talk and as always to Tony and Steve for their hard work. 

John’s talk is available by going to “Speaker Podcast” on the Whitechapel Society website and John’s book “Out of Sight Out of Mind” is available on Amazon. 



  1. St Judes church was at the end of Commercial Street, the site now occupied by Canon Barnet Primary School.