Five Little Ducks

Five little ducks went swimming one day

Over the hill and far away

In the School registers for admission to RMIG were five pupils whose names all appeared on the same page and for whom the ink barely had time to dry on their names before, sadly, their deaths were being noted.

Ann Brett Ashby’s life was barely longer than her name. Born on 10th December 1823, her death is noted as being on 23rd July 1835 whilst absent from the School on account of illness. Clearly not an entirely unexpected death then but still before she was 13 years of age.

 

Surrey Lyton Hassell, the very next entry in the register as it happens, was born on 1st October 1822 but died in her mother’s care on 10th September 1834. Again, a presumed death following illness as she was at home with her mother.

To we of the modern age, it seems surprising that the pupils of RMIG, once accepted by the School, moved to the School House and stayed there until they were ready to leave school at fifteen years of age, even if their homes were nearby. Parents were allowed to visit on a Thursday afternoon only, although this severe rule might have been relaxed a little by the time the School had been established forty years or so. Nevertheless, by 1834, there were still no recognised school holidays or weekends at home for the pupils so for Surrey to be in the care of her mother when she died rather implies she had gone home ill. From the outset, the School had always taken the greatest care of the girls’ health and welfare and they possibly had access to greater care at the School than they might have at home. Medical care was, at this time, paid for by the recipient of it and there are many examples in the record books of pupils receiving extensive medical care until their health was improved, regardless of the costs involved. So it is unlikely that Surrey would have been ‘sent home’ for her family to shoulder the burden of her medical costs rather than the School but more a case of the medical practitioners attached to the School realising that there was nothing more they could do and only palliative care was left. Of course, this is all speculation as we do not have anything but the entry in the School register to go on.

Catherine Elizabeth Swendell, born on 21st October 1823, was admitted to the School on the same day as Surrey Hassell. Less than two years later, her death was noted in 1834. In her case, it was at the School.

It is not specified what kind of fever but since at least 1795, the School’s authorities had been aware of how quickly any kind of infectious disease could spread in a closed community. From 1795 onwards, applicants for places at the school were required to submit, as part of the total documentation needed, a completed medical certificate, signed by a doctor.

“I have examined X and find that she has had the small pox, has no defect in her sight or limbs and is not strumous nor afflicted with any disorder or infirmity whatsoever as witness my hand this…. day of …. 1795.”

Strumous is the adjective arising from struma, a swelling of the thyroid gland or a goitre. It is a form of tuberculosis affecting the lymph nodes. In developed countries this has been brought under control by an understanding of its cause – spread by unpasteurized milk from infected cows. Although the condition was treatable, there were probably as many quack remedies as serious medical discourse. The Wellcome Library in London has a plethora of recipe books listed in its catalogue purporting to offer cures. In the eighteenth century, any form of tuberculosis was feared as being highly infectious.

Although, apart from Catherine Swendell, no cause of death is recorded in the School register for any of the girls who died, the fact that Surrey Hassell died within two months of Catherine might suggest that the same fever had affected both girls and that Surrey, after being cared for by the School until it became clear she was not going to survive, was then taken home to be looked after by her mother. There is nothing in any other School records to suggest that there had been a serious outbreak of a contagious nature but it is not beyond reason that this was so. The School was at this time in Southwark and the plans of the house show that the girls lived in three dormitories. Any girl who was ill would have been in close proximity to other girls – the very thing the School sought to ameliorate in Rule 26: “in case of any infectious disorder, the person be forthwith removed if thought necessary by the faculty.”

Jane Gilpin arrived at the School in the cohort admitted on 19 October 1832. She was younger than the other two being born on August 14th 1824. She was an orphan when she arrived at the School. Her mother, Esther, died in 1827 leaving her father a widower for the 2nd time. It is not unreasonable to suppose that Esther may have died in childbirth although there are no records to confirm this. She died in June when Jane was almost three years old, and her father, Josiah, remarried in December of that year. In 1831, her father died leaving Jane’s half-sister, Sarah, as her guardian. Sarah had been born in 1811 and had married George Legge in 1830 although Sarah Gilpin is what appears in the School register. The home address for Jane was given as ‘Sarah Gilpin – sister, Romsey, Hants’. In 1841, Sarah & George are at Cherville Street, Horse Fair, Romsey Intra, Romsey & Whitchurch, Hampshire. Jane died on 11th September 1835 at the School but no cause is written in the register.

 

Emma Sheffield, admitted on the same day as Jane, was almost a year younger. Her birthdate is given as 20th April 1825. She died under the care of her mother four years after arriving at the School, almost to the day. The register indicates that her home address was ‘Mrs Sheffield, Durham’. In fact, we know from newspaper reports that her father Thomas, an ironmonger, ran his business in Silver St, Durham and that he had died in 1828.

It is worth noting that Durham is 260 miles from London which takes about five hours by car today. At the time, the journey from London to Durham would have been by stagecoach travelling at an average speed of about five miles per hour and covering perhaps 70 miles on a good day with good weather. Not only did Emma make this journey but so did her sister Fanny who also became a pupil at the School. Furthermore, it appears that Emma died in London at City Terrace, St Luke which presumably means that her mother travelled to London to take care of her. It is recorded that Emma –

In 1834, Mrs Dorothy Sheffield is recorded in Pigot’s Directory as residing in New Elvet, Durham but many of the later references to her children are found in London which possibly suggests there might have been a second home there. It is not known whether Emma’s mother, Dorothy, returned to Durham or whether she entrusted the business to her eldest son Thomas. In 1851, she was living in London with her daughter Fanny, by then married and with two children. In both the 1861 and 1871 census returns, Dorothy was still in London and she died there in 1873 so perhaps by then she had left Durham completely.

Of Dorothy’s many children, it was not only Emma who died young. In Durham St Mary the Lesser is a memorial to Emma’s grandparents:

“In memory of Elizabeth the affectionate wife of Thomas SHEFFIELD of the City of Durham ironmonger who died October 11th 1798 aged 56 years Also the above named Thomas SHEFFIELD who died May 4th 1805 aged 64 years Also George grandson of the above and son of Thomas and Dorothy SHEFFIELD who died Sept 21 1809 aged 6 months Also Edward son of Thomas and Dorothy SHEFFIELD died Jany 4th 1823 aged 3 weeks”

This chapel lies within the grounds of Durham Cathedral otherwise St Mary the Greater. In its cemetery “There is a badly worn grave to the Sheffield family, which proudly gives their occupation as Ironmongers.” https://community.dur.ac.uk/parish.stmary/the_church/burials.htm

In 1818, The Book of Governors printed for the School made the proud boast that of the 272 girls committed to the care of the Charity by 1818, only five had died whilst at school, which was less than 2%. This could be compared very favourably with the national average for child mortality to the age of 10 at the time which was reckoned at 50%. The admissions page in the register for 1831/2 somewhat blemished this record with five deaths out of 18 pupils between 1834 and 1836. It must have been a difficult time all round. The nursery rhyme Five little ducks ends on a happy note when all the little ducks come back. Sadly, in this case, none of the little ducks went home again. If these girls have gravestones, it is not known where they are. This image represents them all.

Sunday service

Religious services have been a part of the School’s history since its inception.

Rule 20: That the Matron attend the children to Church every Sunday morning and afternoon, and on Good Friday, Christmas Day, and the Anniversary, that they learn the Collect for the Day, and such as are capable to read a portion of Scripture every Sunday Evening … and on every Friday the children be taught the Catechism.

(The mention of Good Friday and Christmas Day are reminders that for a considerable period of the School’s history, there were no school holidays. At all.)

But this posting is less about religion and more about the participants in it; less spiritual and more about practicalities. It’s about getting there and sitting still during. The first three school sites did not have a place of worship attached to them. The girls were taken to a local church – twice – on Sundays. To begin with, they had their own pew. To save the mental gymnastics of trying to work out how huge numbers (current school roll 900+) fitted into one pew, in the early days the numbers were significantly fewer. In 1788, fifteen little girls and a Matron might fit fairly comfortably into a large pew, which cost £3 per annum. This cost, incidentally, can be compared with the £24 pa for ‘Books, Sope, Mops, Brooms &c’.

The first church they attended was the Bethel Chapel initially in a pew donated by Jacob Leroux. The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1813 referring to Seymour Street in Somers Town said

“In this street was formerly a chapel of ease to St. Pancras. It was a gloomy building, erected in 1787, and called Bethel Chapel; it afterwards belonged to the Baptists.”

Cited in Edward Walford, ‘Somers Town and Euston Square’, in Old and New London: Volume 5 (London, 1878), pp. 340-355. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol5/pp340-355 [accessed 16 November 2016].

There was also St. Mary’s Episcopal Chapel in the same street which may have been used too as may have the old church of St Pancras (the new one was not built until 1819 by which time the School was south of the river.)

mary Pancras
St Mary, Somers Town & Old St Pancras

Image of St Mary’s by Steve F, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11433686

Image of Old St Pancras by Stephen McKay, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13429363

 

In 1795, the School moved to St George’s Fields, Southwark and the girls would have attended the church of St George the Martyr.

George Southwark
St George the Martyr, Southwark

Image of St George by Carlos Delgado, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17840016

The School had its home in Southwark from 1795 to 1852 when it moved to Clapham. St John’s, St Mary’s, St Peter’s and St Paul’s were all used at different times by the School.

Battersea churches
St Paul, Battersea & St Mary, Battersea

Image of St Mary by Derek Harper, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6088418

Image of St Paul from http://www.southwark.anglican.org/find-a-church/battersea/battersea-st-peter-and-st-paul/battersea-st-paul

St Mary’s is the oldest church of these being finished in 1777; St John’s (there is no extant image) was described, rather unflatteringly, as “ ‘A cheap brick church erected for the workers of the factory district of York Road’ according to J.G. Taylor (Our Lady of Batersey, 1925).” www.southwark.anglican.org/downloads/lostchurches/BAT11.pdf It was consecrated in 1863 so was only marginally newer than the 3rd school site. Later amalgamated with St Paul’s, it was badly damaged during WWII and demolished in about 1950. St Peter’s was built in 1875 and St Paul’s, originally a chapel of ease for St John’s, was amalgamated with St Peter’s in 1939.

By the time the School was in Clapham (or Battersea, or Wandsworth or Putney – take your pick: all can arguably claim to be the geographical place of the School’s third site), it had a considerably enlarged school roll. Now, walking to church was not just a marshalling of 20-50 girls in a relatively straight line but manoeuvring nearly 400 girls, in twos, in Sunday best. Pity the tram driver and the hapless motorist who stopped to allow the girls to cross the road!

cartoon
Crossing the road to church

Mention of Sunday best raises that other set of items known variously by the euphemisms unmentionables, unwhisperables, indescribables and underpinnings: the underwear, usually in the form of combinations comprising bodice, drawers and slip. These garments were generally regarded with loathing. Summer ones were made of cotton but winter ones were made of wool which one former pupil recalled “had the consistency of steel wool” and which “itched and prickled” in a most uncomfortable fashion. Being forced to sit still and attend the sermon was made much more difficult by these garments, issued fresh on a Sunday morning – and therefore at their most like a coarse hair shirt – presumably on a basis of cleanliness is next to Godliness. Clearly the constant fidgeting of the girls reached the attention of the Chaplain and ultimately he came to speak to Miss Mason, the Matron, about the matter. Quite what was said, in what sort of language (given the deemed delicacy of ever mentioning such things) and with what degree of mutual embarrassment is lost to history as the conversation was, literally, behind closed doors. The outcome, however, is known. From then on, the fresh ‘linen’ was distributed on a Monday rather than Sunday so it had become slightly more comfortable by the time it was necessary to attend to the sermon again. Modern girls are at this point dissolving into horrified hysteria at the realisation that only one set of underwear was issued per week … Victorian sensibilities were indeed different!

Once the School moved to Rickmansworth in 1934, the walks to and from the local churches were no longer part of Sunday life. Services, as today, took place in the Chapel.

Chapel
The Chapel exterior & interior

The Junior girls, still at this stage in Weybridge, continued to perambulate to their local church, St James.

Weybridge church
St James, Weybridge

Image from http://www.stjamesweybridge.org.uk/

After the service, the girls would write little essays about the sermon and the vicar would award gold and silver stars for the best. Before they departed the School to reach the Church, the girls would be given a penny to put in the collection. One week, a girl put her coat button in instead so that she could put her penny in the bubble gum machine they passed en route. Something went wrong with the mechanism and her sin was rewarded not with one but several – perhaps a case of the wages of sin being not death but illicit chewing gum. Of course, her behaviour did not go unpunished but the vicar’s essays may have been a little odd that week! Even without bubble gum, attention was not always focused on the service. Although girls recall different things about their church visits – such as the choir processional, the occasional use of incense and the bell ringers – one former pupil, under the mistaken view that the memorial plaques on the walls were vertical gravestones, spent a considerable part of her time trying to puzzle out where the bodies were.

A requirement for religious services throughout the School’s history there may have been, but it is probably fair to say that it did not always guarantee the girls’ focus. Although the steel wool underwear is no longer a reason for a lack of attention …