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Social History: George Olliffe – Victorian Pauper, Brentford Union

April 10, 2012 1 comment

Just 100 years ago in 1912, my Grandfather was one year away from the end of 12 years with the Colours and his discharge from 1st Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment (The Tigers)

This is Part 1 of his story …

In 1885, William Gladstone was Prime Minister for the second time, General Gordon had been killed by the Muslim Mahdi in Egypt and Imperial Britain was at the very height of its colonial power. Queen Victoria then ruled over the largest Empire the world has ever known. Yet whole sections of the British population were desperately poor and, unbelievably, were considered by the ‘Poor Laws’ as being responsible for their own plight.

This hugely unjust and unequal society was held together by the thin veneer of deference and Victorian Christianity. Mrs Alexander’s well known hymn, ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ summed up the social dogma of the time: The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly and orders their estate’. That particular stanza is always omitted now!

In either 1883 or 1885 (depending on the record), my Grandfather was born to his father, William. From what we know, he appears not to have known his mother. At age 6, because it ‘all became too much for his father’ (my own father’s words), he was one of many thousands incarcerated in that terrible human dumping-ground for the Victorian poor; the Union Workhouse. In Grandads’ case, he lived at Percy House, Isleworth, the school attached to the Brentford Workhouse, now the site of West Middlesex University Hospital.

The Brentford Poor Law Union included 10 Middlesex parishes of which Acton was one. 

The threat of the Union workhouse was intended to act as a deterrent to the able-bodied pauper. This was a principle enshrined in the revival of the “workhouse test” — poor relief would only be granted to those desperate enough to face entering the repugnant conditions of the workhouse. If an able-bodied man entered the workhouse, his whole family had to enter with him. Life inside the workhouse was intended to be as off-putting as possible. Men, women, children, the infirm, and the able-bodied were housed separately and given very basic and monotonous food such as watery porridge called gruel, or bread and cheese. (Source: www.workhouses.org.uk

When Grandad joined the British army on 3rd February 1901, my Great-Grandfather, William Olliffe’s address was listed as Brentford Union, so he was obviously an inmate of the Victorian Poor House.  When William eventually died, the question arises: did he actually pass away in the workhouse?

I’m told William was buried in Acton Cemetery, Grave no. 82.

The Percy House Schools, lent by the Brentford Board of Guardians, were located to the west of the Brentford Union workhouse. Opened in 1883 by the politician Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke (1843-1911), the Brentford workhouse school had been enlarged in 1901 and renamed Percy House after a local landowner, the Duke of Northumberland. The two-storey central administration block fronted onto Twickenham Road and contained offices, a chapel, a dining hall, the kitchens and storerooms. Flanking it were 3-storey wings containing accommodation for 280 children (boys in the north wing and girls in the south). The Building was demolished in 1978. (Source: www.workhouses.org.uk )

Grandad stayed there for at least 10 years and I can’t think it did him much good other than possibly keeping him alive. He left just before his 16th birthday to join The Leicesters; he was only 5 ft tall, weighed less than 7 stones (95 lbs) and his army medical lists a horrifying catalogue of scars all over his body. I couldn’t help but wonder just how these injuries were inflicted?

I have studied the 1891 UK Census documents and these confirm that my Grandfather was indeed a resident at Percy House.

On the night of Sunday April 5th 1891, Grandad is listed (Pg 8, Line 14) at Percy House (part of the Brentford Union Workhouse); Male, age 6, ‘Scholar’ (or more likely today, Pauper), born Acton, Middlesex. His name is spelt: George Olliff.  The census is headed ‘Return of all persons who slept in the Institution on night of etc’ and Page 1 is clearly marked, Percy House. Sadly, there is no mistake!

I suspect that Grandad remained at Percy House School from 1891 until 1901 when he joined the army, as many poorhouse boys then did.

Many District Schools had a school band through which, for boys with a musical aptitude, could lead to a career in the army as a military bandsman. 

On page 1 of the census the staff of Percy House are listed as ‘Officers’: George and Sarah Williams, age 33 & 34 from Esher, Surrey (respectively Superintendent / Headmaster and Matron of the School), followed by 7 single officers of the school and 14 servants including cooks and housemaids, aged from 16 to 51 (Jane White, a widow and infants attendant). Of these 23 officers and servants, only 5 were male including the Head, two schoolmasters and two stokers.

Kay proposed a grandiose scheme for establishing a hundred similar “District” schools across England and Wales each accommodating around 500 children who would be separated from what he saw as the polluting association with the adult workhouse inmates. In such institutions, he claimed, poor law children “would not be daily taught the daily lesson of dependence, of which the whole apparatus of a workhouse is the symbol… the district school would assume a character of hopefulness and enterprise better fitted to prepare the children for conflict with the perils and difficulties of a struggle for independence than anything which their present situation affords.”  (Source: www.workhouses.org.uk

I’ve pieced together the main events of Grandfather’s life but was hampered throughout by the various official spellings of his surname, a difficulty that persists even to this day for the rest of us!

George Olliffe

Born: Acton, Middlesex, 4th March 1885  (but a Birth Certificate records his actual birth date as 11th November 1883)

Died: Stow-on-the-Wold, Glos, October 1969

Pauper / Scholar, Percy House School, Brentford Union, age 6 – 15

(At least 10 years in this institution)

British Army Bandsman (clarinetist), 1st Bn, Leicestershire Regiment, age 16 – 28

(12 years ‘with the Colours’ – his clarinet remains in the family)

Time-expired Soldier during the Great War.

There is confusion over George Olliffe’s second name. His entire army record notes it as William whereas by the time of his marriage and on my own parents marriage certificate, George’s second name is recorded as James. I suspect that it always was James but that at his enlistment he gave his Father’s name as his second name, either out of confusion or ignorance?

On leaving the army, George played in a Dance Band and got a job as a high level crane driver at the London Power Company (then a private company) at Acton Lane Power Station. He had a head for heights and got the job as it involved walking along a girder to the cab of the crane. He fell once. My Father remembers walking to the Power Station with his mother at the week-ends with his father’s lunch. My eldest brother remembers being taken by his Grandad there at two years old and riding on the foot-plate of the steam engine whilst it shunted backwards and forwards with the coal!

Grandad was originally dead set against Christianity but turned to Christ during this period, influenced by the prayer and Gospel meetings of the Early Plymouth Brethren and by the Christian witness of his Parents-in-Law, Samuel and Julia Kerry.  

Grandad had married Ethel J. King, nee Kerry in 1918 following the wartime death of her first husband, Alfred King. They lived at 54 Denbigh Road, Church Road, (Taylors Lane), Willesden, NW10. Grandad became a father at the age of 35. My Father was born in September 1920 during the final years of the last British Liberal PM, David Lloyd George.

54 Denbigh Road, Willesden was an upstairs flat. In 1920, the weekly rent was 11 shillings (60p). The Downstairs neighbours were the Hortins. My Grandmother and Mrs Hortin were pregnant at the same time. The midwife suggested the babies’ names (Douglas and Ronald) and so my father – who came along first – was actually named by the midwife! Ronnie Hortin went to Malaysia and died under the Japanese. He never came home.

My own parents were bombed out of London in the late 1940’s, courtesy of one of Hitler’s ‘Doodlebug’ rockets. They moved in with my Grandparents who by then had moved to 258, North Circular Road. Eventually they all moved to the Cotswold town of Stow on the Wold in the 1950’s.  Grandad died in East View Old People’s home (a previous Union Workhouse) in Back Walls in October 1969. By then he was completely blind.

To me it feels somewhat sad that Grandad started and ended his life in two Union Workhouse buildings.

In part 2 of Grandad’s life, we shall take an in-depth look at his life in the British Victorian Army.

I am most grateful to www.workhouses.org.uk (Mr Peter Higginbotham) and the staff of the National Archive at Kew for such helpful information.

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