Birmingham Free Industrial School for Boys, Birmingham, Warwickshire

The Birmingham Free Industrial School for Boys began life in 1846 when the Reverend Grantham Munton Yorke, Rector of St Philip's parish church, founded a ragged school for necessitous children in rented premises at 19 Lichfield Street. As well as elementary education, a dinner of bread and soup or of rice and milk with bread, was provided to every child three times a week. In 1847, industrial classes were begun, with the boys learning tailoring or shoemaking, and the older girls taught needlework and knitting.

Reverend Grantham Munton Yorke. © Peter Higginbotham

At a meeting in September, 1847, plans began to be made to provide the school with a permanent building. In 1848, King Edward's School provided a piece of land on Gem Street, and money was raised for the construction of the new establishment, with a government grant being provided towards the erection of 'school-rooms, workshops, laundry, wash-house, kitchen and master's house.' Building work began in 1849, and a memorial stone placed over the main entrance on April 12th of that year. The building was far enough advanced for the School to begin using it at the start of 1850.

The establishment now comprised three departments. 1. A Day School for boys and girls above seven years of age. 2. Industrial Classes for both sexes. 3. An Asylum for deserted and orphan children. In the Day School, boys and girls were taught in separate rooms under a schoolmaster and schoolmistress. Reading, writing, and arithmetic, together with Biblical instruction and the Church Catechism, formed the basis of the instruction. The outlines of geography and English history were occasionally included for the first class of boys. Singing formed a 'frequent and happy variety' in the School curriculum. In January, 1851, the Day School had a daily attendance of 65 boys and 40 girls.

The Industrial Department was limited to 30 boys and 20 girls, the number being maintained by promoting Day Scholars to vacancies that arose. The fifty working children attended their industrial classes from two to five in the afternoon. These children spent ten hours a day in the School, and received two meals, namely, dinner at half past twelve, and supper at five. The boys' employments were tailoring and shoemaking, with most of the resulting clothing and shoes sold at nominal prices to the children, who were encouraged to put from time to time a penny or halfpenny into a clothing fund. Eventually they would have enough to purchase a jacket, pair of trousers, shoes, or underclothing (made by the girls). When the subscriber was a working boy, subscribing for his own work, he obtained the article at lower price, in consideration of his labour.

The Asylum was intended to accommodate 15 or 20 boys of 'the deserted class', and a similar number of girls. Any such children would be received upon payment in advance of £8 per annum, for which the School would lodge, board, clothe, and educate them, from the age of seven to fifteen years.

The School operated from nine in the morning until seven in the evening, and aimed to turn every moment of the day to some useful purpose. This was apparently something which did not deter the children who were, it was said, often seen waiting for the School to open, and reluctant to leave the premises at the end of the day until ordered to depart for their own homes. The superintendent and matron at this date were Mr and Mrs Thomas who remained in post until 1869.

In 1858, the School began to receive a large number of the children of soldiers killed during the Crimean War, who were paid for by the Patriotic Fund Committee. This provided a welcome source of income, but had begun to decline by the mid-1860s.

On March 26th, 1868, the establishment was accredited as a certified Industrial School, allowing it to receive children placed under detention by magistrates. The School received a government grant towards the maintenance of such children.

A report in November, 1869, recorded that Mr and Mrs Walter May had now succeeded the Thomases as superintendent and matron, while a former pupil at the School supported by the Patriotic Fund, had been appointed to the post of schoolmaster.

By the 1870s, the boys were being occupied during their work time in tailoring and shoemaking, and wood-chopping. The sale of firewood, which was in the order of 200,000 bundles a year, generated a substantial income. Twenty-four boys were now working out as 'half-timers' in local factories and shops (the other half of their time was spent in the School's classroom). Most of their earnings went to the School, but they were allowed to keep a portion themselves. The girls were employed in washing, housework, and needlework.

The School site is shown on the 1888 map below.

Birmingham Free Industrial School for Boys site, Birmingham, c.1888.

Birmingham Free Industrial School, Gem Street, Birmingham, from the north-west. © Peter Higginbotham

Birmingham Free Industrial School, Gem Street, Birmingham, from the south-west. © Peter Higginbotham

At the end of 1873, the girls were removed to a newly opened Industrial School at Sparkbrook, run by the Birmingham School Board.

An inspection of the School in 1875 found much to complain about. There was an amount of disorder and neglect, with the 'outdoor offices', washrooms etc. in an indifferent condition. The appearance of the children was unsatisfactory — many of them were under treatment for skin complaints, and the state of their person and clothing was not what it should have been. Conduct and discipline were also less than satisfactory. There had been several cases of absconding, and several serious offences mainly arising from want of attention and vigilance on the part of the staff, and defective discipline. Educational performance, though somewhat improved since the previous inspection, was not satisfactory on the whole. The schoolmaster, though competent, was hindered by the irregularity of the boys' attendance. Perhaps not surprisingly, a change of superintendence soon followed, with Mr Hinde, formerly the schoolmaster, taking charge of the institution, with Miss Oldfield as matron. Although matters improved, an unannounced inspection in 1879 found the premises neither as orderly nor as clean as they usually were. Mr Dove and Miss Reynolds were subsequently appointed as superintendent and matron but their tenure was brief. In 1881, Mr and Mrs George Wass took charge of the School, after which a general improvement was noted. Mr and Mrs S.P.T. Kirk (or Kirke) were appointed superintendent and matron in 1885 and continued the Wasses' good work.

In 1894, there were 24 boys working as tailors, 16 shoemakers, 40 woodchoppers, and 11 out-workers, mostly in brass-casting works. Some were employed in house, laundry, and kitchen. There boys were taught to sing, and there was a brass and reed band of 24 members. Physical training now included dumb-bell drill. A mark system was in use, with rewards and privileges being dependent for good conduct. The previous year, the boys had been taken in two parties to Aberystwyth for a week each. In 1895, year they were all going-for 10 days or a fortnight to Llandilo. Bad conduct would cause a boy to be left behind.

Inspection reports increasingly now commented on the shortcomings of the School's buildings, which were described as neither convenient nor well arranged, and the School's location. In 1896, the premises were described as a 'dingy institutional building, standing close to the pavement of a gloomy but fairly respectable street in the thick of the city' and 'hemmed in by factories and other buildings'. There was an absence of proper accommodation for the sick, and the sewing room had to serve as a sick-room. The shoemaker's shop and the schoolmaster's rooms were also described as very inferior. In the classroom, Singing (sol-fa), composition, recitation and mental arithmetic were all rated 'very fair', and geography 'good'. In drawing, the boys had done well in the annual Science and Art Department examination. There were now 24 tailors, 16 shoemakers (doing institutional work only), 12 juniors doing sewing and darning, 6 working in the house and kitchen, and 9 in the laundry. Wood-chopping, in the afternoons only, occupied 20 boys. There were 9 full-time out-workers going to local factories, where they were generally kept on after leaving the School. It was noted that bicycle factories in Coventry were now providing a good outlet for boys. Physical drill was well attended to. There were two yards enclosed by brick walls and buildings, a horizontal bar, and a small shed. The School had no playing-field, but the boys went once a week to a public park a mile off for cricket and football, where an occasional match was organised with outside teams. All the boys were allowed out on Bank Holidays, and every boy had at least 11 days at the seaside. There was a library of 300 books, with periodicals and indoor games being also supplied. Entertainments were got up in the winter. The recreation room was remarked as being rather small, but the schoolroom is used for library and other purposes. There was some gymnastic apparatus, but no special instruction. The public baths had not been made use of in recent times. The doctor visited almost daily, and examined all the boys quarterly (stripped).

The problems with the School building were added to in 1900, with an increase in the number of health problems affecting the boys. In particular, there many cases of septic diarrhoea, from which two boys died, and numerous cases abscesses. An inspection report that year suggested that if the problems continued, the School's accommodation would need to be reduced to 100 places, and its entire future might be in jeopardy. The inspector also noted that the School had a significant amount of money in its 'reserve fund', whose purpose was somewhat unclear. The pressure to move the School to a new site was now irresistible and plans were made to erect a new building at Harborne, about four miles to the west of Birmingham.

The boys and staff transferred to the new premises on December 20th, 1902. The Gem Street building was sold to the Birmingham School Board and was subsequently used as a school for 'mentally deficient' children. The premises no longer exists and the area now lies under the buildings of Aston University.


Note: many repositories impose a closure period of up to 100 years for records identifying individuals.

  • Birmingham Archives and Heritage Service, Library of Birmingham, Centenary Square, Broad Street, Birmingham B1 2ND. Has extensive holdings covering both Gem Street and Harborne sites including: Annual reports (1870-1916); General Committee and Annual Meeting minute book (1847-1902); Governors' Meetings minute books (1903-74, plus index); Registers of inmates (1868-1939); Initial register (1940-53); Admission and progress register (1953-71); Discharge book (1882-1933); After-care records (1933-44); Records of discharges (1944-62); Discharge and after-care records (1962-74); Discharge and after-care register (1976-82); Register of voluntary inmates (1904-33); Monthly record of admissions and discharges (1938-47); Record of admissions, licences, discharges etc. (1961-68); Tennal Assessment Centre daily records of admissions and discharges (1971-79); Quarterly record of boys on licence or under supervision who have committed offences (1944-58); Approved Schools Licensing Registers (1944-70); Daily record of absconders (1964-73); Absconders books (1971-79); Punishment report book (1910-33); Schoolroom punishment record (1934-69); Record of additional measures of control (1976-83); Mark book (1931-44); Schoolroom admission book (1912-43); Medical record register (1915-30, plus index); Log books (1897-1915, 1935-1936); School camp records (1923-64); Staff records; Photographs; Plans; Rules and regulations; Tennal School magazine; Visitors' book (1892-1984); etc.



  • None noted at present.