In 1793 the guillotining of Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette took place in France and war broke out between France and Britain. Education as such barely existed in this country: only one child in twenty-one received any education at all and England was described as the worst educated country in Europe.
Peel’s Factory Act of 1802 reduced the hours of apprentices to twelve in any one day. It also stipulated that reading, writing and arithmetic were to be taught to children in the factories by a suitable teacher, but this clause was largely ignored by factory owners.
In London the living conditions were appalling. Disease and plague were common visitors, finding access by way of open sewers and cesspools. Polluted drinking water was often drawn from wells into which adjacent sewers had seeped, or flowed directly from the Thames: “the biggest sewer of all.” If the unfortunate Londoners escaped these causes of death, the rats helped to spread the cholera, typhoid and scarlet fever. Press gangs still roamed the riverbanks, and many children joined their elders at sea with a little push from the gangs.
Into this London, “certain benevolent persons” – chiefly William Robert Henry Brown – established the school.
The Royal Charter of the Incorporated Society of Licensed Victuallers, granted in I836, describes the formation of the Society: “In Seventeen Hundred and Ninety-three, certain benevolent persons of the trade of Licensed Victuallers, with a view to relieve their sick, infirm and distressed brethren in trade, and for the purpose, as far as in their power lay, of mitigating the evils of poverty and the ills consequent on age, did form themselves into an association or society called the Friendly Society of Licensed Victuallers“.
On February 8, 1794, the first copy of the Morning Advertiser was published, and its profits granted to the Society. (This makes it the oldest continuously published paper, although it was specifically targeted at publicans and those in the drinks trade).
The Charter goes on: “It was then determined to found and maintain a school, and a school was accordingly founded and established in Kennington Lane, in the County of Surrey, for the clothing, educating and putting out in the world of the children of such deceased, decayed and distressed Licensed Victuallers as should need the aid and claim the support of the said society.”
Thus came the foundation of the Licensed Victuallers’ School in 1803.
A site in Kennington Lane was leased from Sir Joseph Mawbey. Sir Joseph was a baronet and Member of Parliament for the County of Surrey from 1780 until 1789. He inherited a large fortune from his uncle, Joseph Pratt, who owned a large distillery in Vauxhall. So large was this distillery that in one year it paid £600,000 in revenue; this at a time when pints of brandy, rum and beer cost l/6d (7 ½ p), 3/6d (17 ½ p), 2/-(10p) and 2d (1p) respectively.
Sir Joseph Mawbey invested some of his money in copyhold estates belonging to the Duke of Cornwall, in Kennington, and it was one of these estates that was leased to the Society.
The original copyhold premises in which the school began in 1803.
(From an oil painting at the school)
The initial meeting of the School Committee took place in the Fleet Street offices of the Society on January 19th, 1803, and it was decided then to appoint a school mistress, preferably someone on the ‘benevolent fund’ of the Society. By the 13th of the month Mrs Sarah Wilkinson had been appointed the first schoolmistress at a salary of 20 guineas (£21) per annum. On January 18th,1803 the first twenty children were “elected” to the school.
The ‘election’ to the school must have been one of the most unique methods of choosing pupils of any school, but for all that, it remained until quite recent times.
Application was made by people on the benevolent fund, and their names and conditions circulated to all members of the society for election. The votes of the members depended on how much money they had subscribed. A considerable amount of soliciting and canvassing went on and of course, members of the Committee each had their ‘pet’ candidates whose names were freely advertised.
The conditions for entry of a child into the school were: that the parent should have been a member of the Friendly Society for a full three years, that the child should have been born in wedlock and be between eight and twelve years old. Full enquiry was made into the financial situation of the parent(s). No child could be admitted without a certificate, signed by a ‘medical man’ that the child was free from ‘every contagious disorder’, and enquiry was made of the way of life and character of their parents and relatives.
On February 3rd, 1803, the first children attended to be examined medically, and they were all found to be in good health. The Rules of the School were read to their parents and relatives. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday were set aside for visitors from 12noon to 2pm and 5pm until 6pm. These liberal hours must have created some problems and were later reduced at regular intervals. February 7th, 1803, saw the first lessons in the school.