Updated: Sep 22, 2021
Family History Researchers may come across ancestors who were recorded in Census returns as residing in Industrial Schools. You may wonder what these schools were and why children were sent to live there.
By the middle of the 1800’s there was a widespread belief that something had to be done about the number of street children in Britain’s towns and cities. It was believed that these were the criminals of the future and it was hoped that by intercepting these youngsters early and providing them with an education and a strong moral compass, society would be saved with dealing with them as adults. The result was the Industrial Schools Act of 1857 which allowed Magistrates to remove homeless children, between the ages of 7 and 14, from their harmful ‘home’ environment and place them in a residential Industrial School or Naughty Children’s Schools’ as they were inevitable known as locally.
A further Act of 1861 extended the scheme so that not only vagrant children but those in need of ‘moral guidance’ could be sent to a School. Reformatories had been established in 1854 to provide an alternative to prison for those children convicted of crimes. There was an element of punishment in their routine, but their main purpose was to reform. Children sent to Industrial Schools had not been convicted of any crimes, but rather showed behaviour that it was felt might lead to a later life of crime. This included persistent truancy, associating with known criminals, or what would today be termed ‘anti-social behaviour’.
The routine of each in a School was rigidly laid out, with a tightly-controlled timetable running from 6am to 7pm. There was a heavy emphasis on religion and moral guidance, but also some practical lessons which it was hoped to lead to children securing gainful employment as adults. Boys learned such skills as gardening, tailoring and shoemaking, while girls learned cookery and housework as well as knitting and sewing.
As with most initiatives at the time, the establishment and running cost of the new Schools was left to charity or philanthropy. In Gateshead, the first such establishment was the Abbot Memorial Industrial School. This was founded in 1867 by Mrs. Catherine Abbot, the widow of a wealthy industrialist. The School was dedicated to both her late husband, John Abbot, and her father-in-law, John Abbot senior, hence the ‘Memorial’ element to its name. It was built on a 2-and-a-half acre site on Durham Road and began receiving children in January,1869. Mr George Higginbottom was appointed Superintendent with his wife, Frances, as Matron and additional Staff were brought in as Warden, Cook, Schoolmaster, Workmistress, Shoemaker and Tailoress.
The School was designed to accommodate 100 boys and 50 girls, the two sexes each having their own sleeping, working and playing areas.
From 1870, responsibility for the Industrial schools passed to the local Committees of Education.
An Act of 1876 made provision for non-residential Day Schools of a similar nature.
At their peak, there were 224 certified Industrial Schools operating in England and Wales, and 50 in Scotland. Others seem to have operated without official certification or after certification had been removed. The situation is confused by frequent name-changing of the establishments.
In 1882, a Miss Anderson replaced Mrs Higginbottom as Matron of the Abbot Memorial School. The following year Mr Higginbottom was succeeded as Superintendent by Mr Charles Nicholls.
There had been some criticism of the facilities at Abbot Memorial and in 1905 it was re-certified as an all-boys establishment. However, the Industrial School system was in decline by the end of the First World War and by 1933 there were only 55 such Schools still in service; the Abbot Memorial School closed in 1929 though the building was converted to other uses and was not demolished until 1968.
The Industrial Schools and Reformatories were merged in 1933 to become Approved Schools.