28 March 2013

The Meanings of Charity: Blue Coat School

The Blue Coat School and the railed graveyard of St. Philip's, circa 1845.
The school had originally been built in 1724, but altered and enlarged
by John Rawstorne between 1792 and 1794.

The Blue Coat school was founded by the Rector of St. Philip's church at the time; the Reverend William Higgs. In 1722 it was decided to open an establishment for the education of poor children due to the 'profaneness and debauchery [...] greatly owing to a gross ignorance of the Christian religion, especially among the poorer sort; and that nothing is more likely to promote the practice of Christianity than an early and pious education of youth'.* The school, as well as giving religious guidance, would teach the children reading and writing, arithmetic, geography, science, needlework, and housework, some of these were gendered. It opened in the July of 1724 and took on 22 boys and 10 girls to be 'clothed, maintained and educated', and another 10 of each sex to be clothed and educated only, but the latter method was short-lived.***

The children remained at the school full time, being allowed to visit their parents five times in the year, varying from a couple of days to a couple of weeks; at Mid-Lent, Christmas, Easter, Whitsuntide and for the Michaelmas Fair. On Sundays though, apart from one at Mid-Lent, the children were always to be at school so as to attend church. Parents were not allowed to see their children apart from in these holidays, as in September 1760 it was decreed that 'no child after they are admitted into the Charity School shall be suffered to speak to their parents or next friends',** and parents had no say in the treatment of the children. Punishments for the severest disobedience could be a week's imprisonment or being 'severely whipt, stript and expelled from the school'.** These were, of course, harsh and sometimes humiliating, but acceptable punishments for the time.

In 1831 those involved in the school looked back at how the establishment had been 'an asylum for [the children] in those years which most require superintendence and protection, a careful discipline in their minds in a system of virtuous and obedient habits, and daily instruction in the principals and duties of the religion of the Church of England'.* Once education was complete at fourteen, the children were placed in apprenticeships, the boys with manufacturers as so to learn 'some useful trade', and the girls as domestic servants. With regards to the girls education, they were trained in all manner of domestic duties throughout their school life, which included making the boys beds and sweeping and mopping the boys rooms, and even after this changed in 1815, the girls still received a lesser academic education.** The children were basically handed over by their parents 'to the sole management of the subscribers [...] and the disposal of him (or her) to such masters or mistresses';* if the parent(s) wanted their children back or did not wish their child to be sent into the roles that were laid out for them they had to pay £10, which for the very poorest could be six months wages.* So this was not wholly an education that was meant to serve the children in their chosen paths in life, but generally to serve those that gave money to the charity (by subscription), by producing obedient and well mannered servants.

Those that subscribed to the school were often those who received apprentices, such as Matthew Boulton, who was a subscriber, and was treasurer at one point, and who received a number of apprentices including a George Craven in 1766. The school did not abandon their children when they were sent out as apprentices though, if they had a complaint about how their master or mistress was treating them they could ask the school for assistance. The school would often threaten legal action if the claims seemed to be founded, though most employers would promise to amend their ways and the charges would be dropped. They took this part of their role in the children's lives after they left the school very seriously.

The charity of the Blue Coat School was of a very different kind to charity as we understand it today; it was money for something, that something being, hopefully, an obedient and diligent apprentice or servant. Many of the children, though, would have had a better quality of life than if they had not attended the school, and many showed their gratitude. A group of former pupils came together and formed the Grateful Society (which later became the True Blue Society) and helped to raise money for the school. Many former pupils did well in business too, and, after subscribing to the charity, took on apprentices in their turn.** Children tried to run away as well though, and there are several instances of runaways being fetched back to the school; once returned punishment would be severe and three such boys were not only lashed, they were made to lash each other.** Although of benefit to many of the children attending, the school was a subtle form of ownership, parents literally handed over their children, perhaps in the hope of a better life for them, but for many parents the relief of the burden of feeding and clothing one of probably several children would have been a strong driving force.

ALSO SEE: The Blue Coat Children

* References on request
** John D. Myhill, Blue Coat: A History of the Blue Coat School, Birmingham, 1722-1990. Meridian Books, 1991.
*** In 1829 the school educated 181 boys and 72 girls.*
There was actually, a small group of nineteen children who wore green uniforms, these children were supported by donations from Fentham's Charity.

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