Author examines 'dreadful' school in Forest Gate where 26 boys died in fire

fgds children

'Killing individuality by too much discipline' - Dame Henrietta Barnett wrote in her book Matters that Matter published in 1935. - Credit: Dame Henrietta Barnett

In the early hours of New Year's Day 1890, a fire broke out at a school in Forest Gate and 26 children were killed.

The pupils had been trapped inside dormitories at what was then Forest Gate District School by staff who had locked the doors and then gone out to welcome in the year.

Started by sparks from a stove pipe in a ground floor needlework room, the blaze spread to two upper floors where 84 boys were sleeping.

Firefighters rushed to put out the flames, raising ladders to help the children escape, but not all made it. Twenty-five boys were trapped, suffocating to death. 


Forest Gate District School as it appeared in the 19th Century. - Credit: Newham Archives and Local Studies Library

A newspaper report from the time described the dead being carried down ladders wrapped in blankets with expressions on their faces as if "caught in sleep".

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One boy's body was burned so badly identifying him was "a matter of great difficulty", according to the report.

The fire triggered an outpouring of public sympathy, with the school's governors receiving condolences from Queen Victoria and King Leopold of Belgium.

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A granite memorial was raised six months later, which still stands today in West Ham Cemetery.

Despite the fact the boys had been locked in and staff absent, an inquest jury returned a verdict of accidental death.

School superintendent Charles Duncan - who allowed the dormitory doors to be locked from the outside - received a testimonial for his role, which included calling the brigade and working a fire hydrant.

John Walker

John wrote the book in order to add to people's understanding of the lives of the children who were housed there. - Credit: John Walker

The blaze is one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of a school which is the focus of a new book written by John Walker, who lives in Forest Gate.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Abuse, Neglect and Fire in a London Children's Workhouse 1854-1907 tells the story of an institution which - if open now - would most probably cause a national scandal.

It details a history of corruption, cruelty and miserable living conditions for the children.

John scoured documents in the National Archives and London Metropolitan Archives to research the school for children from the East End, many of whose parents were forced into workhouses.

"[Forest Gate District School] was a children's workhouse. Children were taken from their parents and shoved in there, separated from siblings. 

"If they were lucky they would see their parents for two hours every three months. It was like a prison. Their only crime was that they were born into poverty.

"This was systematic abuse. 50,000 children went through that school," John said.

Run by ex-members of the military, the site was backed by boards of guardians - an early form of local government - from Whitechapel, Poplar and Hackney.

But, as John explained, the motive was to save money rather than offer children a brighter future.

Instead of being given toys to play with, the pupils were handed scrubbing brushes and spades to clean the floors or dig up potatoes. Ordered to stay silent, the children wore the same clothes all year.

"The people who had the vote [at that time] - therefore the only ones able to influence the place - were middle-class people who were more interested in saving on taxation. The result was that dreadful place," John said.

Social reformer Dame Henrietta Barnett was one of the few who tried to change things. This included persuading a matron to call the children by their names rather than "child".

Among the improvements she oversaw as a governor, Dame Henrietta worked with civil servant Jane Senior to set up an organisation to provide after-care for girl leavers, many of whom ended up as domestic servants.

Fellow reformers Will Crooks, who had experienced the workhouse as a child, and George Lansbury, recognised the need for "rapid transformation".

Duncan retired in 1899 - possibly pushed out as the book notes - after presiding over the fire, an outbreak of food poisoning and bouts of ophthalmia. 

Rather than school governors spending money on "lavish" meals, the cash was diverted to improving the children's food.

FGDS building

The building used to house Newham Maternity Hospital and is now full of flats. - Credit: John Walker

Eventually, the school closed after Hackney, Whitechapel and Poplar pulled out. Its building has since undergone various uses, including as Newham Maternity Hospital. 

The site is also now home to The Magpie Project, a charity which supports mums and toddlers in temporary accommodation in the borough.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind is now on the shelves, including in Newham Bookshop.

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