William Swainston: a tale of a juvenile wanderer

Hannah Salisbury, Engagement and Events Manager

Archives are packed with thousands upon thousands of life stories. And individual life stories are not only interesting in themselves, but can tell us about the society that individual lived in, and even human nature itself.

You will not, however, find someone’s life story all in one place. Records of our lives are scattered piecemeal through innumerable different records; the fragments that can be gleaned from various records can pinpoint people in time – when and where they were born, married and died, where they lived, what job they did. Sometimes, we are lucky enough to find records which give us more detail of what somebody looked like, or of their particular life experiences, which help us to imagine the world from their point-of-view.

When we run training courses on archival research, one of the things we say is that you will likely have to use several different sources to piece together the jigsaw. This work is, of course, immeasurably aided by the availability of key source material online, much of it accompanied by searchable indexes. A piece of research which would have once taken months or years or even been impossible can now sometimes be accomplished in a matter of hours.

The detective work which goes in to piecing together someone’s life story from archival records can be addictive. So it has been the case with William Swainston, a Victorian orphan who was admitted to the Essex Industrial School in 1876, aged 11, having been found sleeping rough in an outhouse at Parson’s Heath near Colchester. We have written previously about the Essex Industrial School, and its records have proved too tempting to resist further investigation.

William Swainston, who joined the school in 1876, aged 11, having run been orphaned and run away from his half-brother. Photo by Edouard Nickels (D/Q 40/153)

William is one of the school’s pupils of whom we have a named picture. This picture can then be tied up with his school records, so we can put a face to the boy described in the written records, and discover the story of the small boy looking out at us from this 140-year-old photograph. It has then been possible to pick up his story in other records, including newspapers, which have provided incredible detail of William’s turbulent life story.

William had had a difficult start in life. He was born in 1865 in Leicestershire, to parents Henry Thrussell Swainston and his wife Mary (his birth was tricky to track down, having been registered as William Thrussell). Henry’s occupation was described variously as a ‘chemist’, a ‘druggist’, and a ‘medical practitioner’. Henry was over 35 years older than Mary, and had had children from two previous relationships. Before William was born, the couple had had two other sons who both died in infancy. In 1871, when William was 6, his mother died. His father committed suicide 12 months later.

When William was orphaned, he went to live with his much older half-brother Charles Swainston in Colchester. Charles had himself had a difficult start in life; his mother had died young and his father seems to have disappeared.He was a former military man (indeed, it was the army which brought him to Colchester), and then became a Police Constable. Judging by newspaper articles, Charles seems to have been a respected figure in Colchester. When he died in 1906, a short article in the Essex Newsman noted:

The funeral has taken place at Colchester of Mr. Swainston, for many years caretaker of Colchester Castle. The deceased served as a soldier both in the Crimea and Indian Mutiny, and was greatly esteemed by all who knew him.

Yet William’s life with Charles’s family was not a happy one. In March 1876, William was arrested under the Vagrancy Act for sleeping rough in a cart on Parson’s Green near Colchester. The officer who arrested him said that William was ‘in a filthy condition’. According to a newspaper article affixed to his school records, William said that ‘he had nowhere else to sleep, being afraid to go home’ because of his half-brother.

The newspaper article affixed to William’s school records. The uncle mentioned was really William’s half-brother. (D/Q 40/1)

A hearing was held in Colchester Town Hall in front of the Mayor, at which William’s half-brother Charles also appeared. The Essex Standard of 31 Marcy 1876 reported that Charles denied William’s claims of ill treatment, and said that the boy ‘had been a source of great trouble and anxiety to his foster parents’. The Mayor admonished William for his unfeeling treatment of his benefactors, and suggested he be detained in an Industrial School as he was ‘evidently just entering on the path of crime’.

The next place where we pick up William’s story is in his school records. He arrived at the Essex Industrial School in Chelmsford on 6 April 1876. He was 4’2” tall, his figure ‘slight’, complexion ‘fair’, his hair ‘light brown’, his eyes ‘grey’ and his nose ‘straight’. Unusually among the boys, he could read and write ‘pretty well’. He had attended school regularly for five years, but received no schooling for the previous four. His report on 1 July said that he ‘seems to be a quick boy’ and described him as intelligent.

William Swainston’s record page in the Essex Industrial School admission register (D/Q 40/1)

William’s school records are not as detailed as some of the others, but they do tell us that in April 1881 he set out for Canada, aged 16. In 1881 it was noted that they had heard from him ‘several times he seems doing well’.

William also appears in the school’s discharge registers (D/Q 40/12), which gives more detail of the contact the school had with him after he left. The notes include in 1884 that ‘his brother’ in the school said that his mother had received a letter from William – this must be Francis Bulwer Swainston, who was actually William’s nephew, of whom more below.

Seven years later, in 1888, William was back in England with a consignment of cattle, and during this trip visited his old school to give a talk about his life farming in Canada. A short report on the talk appeared in the Essex Standard of 16 June:

Essex Industrial School – On the evening of the 7th inst. an interesting address was delivered at this Institution by Mr. Wm. Swainston, of Lowville, Canada, who was at one time an inmate of the School, and has been for seven years in Canada. – Mr. Frederick Wells presided, and was supported by Mr. J. Brittain Pash [the founder of the school], the Rev. R.E. Bartlett, and the Rev. D. Green. There was a crowded attendance of friends of the school, many of whom previously made an inspection of the buildings. – Mr. Swainston, who was most cordially received, began by describing his life on a Canadian farm, after which he spoke generally of the way in which agriculture was carried on there. In answer to questions, which were invited, Mr. Swainston stated that an industrious young man could save a hundred dollars a-year; he himself had saved that amount in a single summer. He mentioned that the knowledge he had acquired of various trades at the School had been most useful to him. He had come over to England with a consignment of cattle… A charge of 3d. was made for admission to the lecture, and the sum obtained will go towards sending a boy to Canada.

William seems to have made a good go of life in Canada. In March 1892 in Peel, Ontario, he married Helen or Ellen Quinn, who originated from Ireland. Both were aged 24, and William was described as a farmer. The last record it has been possible to trace so far for William is the 1901 Canadian census, in which he is recorded in Toronto along with Ellen, and three children – E. Mary, Annie, and William.

As a footnote, William was not the only member of his family to end up in the Essex Industrial School. Somewhat embarassingly for William’s half-brother Charles Swainston, one of his own sons, Francis, was in trouble throughout his childhood for a series of petty crimes, and in 1884, being deemed ‘uncontrollable’, was sentenced to be detained at the Essex Industrial School until he was 16. In the week before he was sent there he was kept at the Colchester workhouse, and three times escaped, once with no clothes on. His time at the school doesn’t seem to have deterred Francis from a life of crime, and as a young man there are further reports of him getting in trouble with the law for running confidence tricks. His crimes seem to have petered out, however, and he went on to work as a painter/decorator and as a tailor, and married and had 10 children.

If there are any living descendants of William’s out there, then I hope this post finds them.


If you would like to research further life stories of the boys in the Essex Industrial School admission books, you can find and order the books through our online catalogue (search for ‘Essex Industrial School admission register’, and use sources such as the census (available online for free in our Searchroom) and newspapers (again, available in our Searchroom) to find out more.

Document of the Month, May 2018: Down and out in Victorian Essex

Hannah Salisbury, Engagement and Events Manager

Our Document of the Month for May 2018 is an admissions register from the Essex Industrial School for Neglected and Destitute Boys (D/Q 40/1). The volume contains records of boys admitted to the school between 1872 and 1883, giving the reason for their admission and following their school career. For some boys it also records what happened to them after they left the school. Each page reads like a miniature Dickens novel, and the book is full of stories of boys who have been wandering the streets or arrested for petty crimes before being sent to the school.

Established in 1872 by local businessman Joseph Brittain Pash, the school started life in two converted houses in Great Baddow, supported entirely by donations. It provided accommodation, clothing, education and practical training for destitute boys, especially orphans or those at risk of falling into crime.

Buildings in Great Baddow used by the school in its early days

The school obviously met a social need, and by 1876 had grown to fill three houses and four cottages. In 1877 it was granted £5,000 by the Essex county authorities and £2,000 by the West Ham School board for a new building. Land was purchased in Rainsford End, Chelmsford, and a new building with space for up to 150 pupils was opened in 1879.

The new school building which opened in Rainsford End, Chelmsford, in 1879

The Essex Industrial School, in the north west quadrant of this map, was built in what was at the time open countryside outside Chelmsford town centre. The building survived until the 1980s when it was demolished and replaced with housing.

Alongside a basic education the boys received training in shoemaking, tailoring, gardening, building, carpentry, painting and decorating, and engineering. The school also had a theatre, a swimming pool, and a fife and drum band. When boys left, attempts were made to find them employment, sometimes in Australia, New Zealand, or Canada.

View more photographs from the school on our Historypin page

The school admission register and photographs of the school’s buildings, classrooms and workshops are wonderful enough, but we also have some further photographs which make the whole collection even more special.

The school sometimes commissioned individual portrait photographs of their pupils, and a little bundle of these survived today at ERO, most of which are named. These names can then be looked up in the admissions registers, and the photographs of the boys can be tied up with their stories told in the school records. Some of the photographs were taken after the boys had been at the school for a while, but others were taken when the boys first arrived. Often they were unshod and wearing rags, and had clearly suffered extreme deprivation.

Photograph of 11-year-old Charles Tungate, who was admitted to the school in 1873, along with his page in the admission register.

Charles Tungate was admitted to the school in October 1873, aged 11. His attendance at the school had been ordered by Greenwich Police Court, following his arrest for stealing a bolt, nails and screws which belonged to his father (his mother had reported this crime). He was sentenced to be detained at the school until he was 16 years of age.

The admission register gives a remarkable amount of detail about Charles’s situation. His parents were Robert and Emma Tungate of Deptford. Robert was a carpenter, but is also described as a drunkard. Charles was one of their eight children; three older children were out at work, but four children younger than Charles were at home. Clearly the family was struggling. Charles had been ‘wandering the streets’, and when admitted, his hair was ‘matted together & full of vermin’ and his body was ‘pale & thin, and almost naked’, and he had sores on his ankles and feet. He had never been to school, but his sister had managed to teach him to read a little.

After 11 months at the school, Charles was described as ‘Rather inattentive, somewhat disobedient, but much improved since admission’. Charles’s school reports are something of a mixed bag – he is described as being ‘deceitful’ and ‘untidy’, but also as ‘persevering’ and ‘diligent’. He left the school in 1878 and was apprenticed to a Chelmsford baker, Mr Hicks, ‘to be taught the trade of a Fancy Bread & Biscuit Baker’. Charles lasted two of his three years as an apprentice, before absconding in August 1880. In 1881, however, he had found another position in London as a baker. Baking seems ultimately to have proved not to be for Charles, and in 1884 he joined the army. He served in India and in South Africa, where he suffered a gunshot wound to both legs during the Boer War. By the time of the 1911 census, Charles was living in Warley, and was an army pensioner and grocer. He was married with four children. He died in 1940, aged 75.

There are two photographs which are labelled ‘G Newman’; the jury is out on whether they are before and after photographs of the same boy or if more than one G Newman attended the school.

George Newman was admitted in 1874 aged 10, having been ‘wandering around with his mother until she became insane’. His father was dead, and his mother was placed in the Essex Lunatic Asylum in May 1874. He stayed at the school until 1880, and wrote in December that year that he had got a job at one of the very first Sainsbury’s shops in London. Sadly when he visited the school in August 1881 he was out of work, and nothing further is reported of him.

William Swainston, who joined the school in 1876, aged 11, having run been orphaned and run away from his uncle. Photo by Edouard Nickels (D/Q 40/153)

William Swainston was admitted in 1876, aged 11, having been found sleeping rough in an outhouse at Parson’s Heath near Colchester. He was an orphan, and had been living with his uncle, but stated he had run away from his uncle because he was afraid of him. A newspaper article fixed to his school record says that ‘He had been wondering about the locality for a fortnight previously, and witness [a local policeman] had received several complaints respecting him… The witness added that when found the boy was in a filthy condition, and Mr. Charles Harvey, the gaoler, said he had never before in his life had a boy in such a dirty state in custody’. He was described on arrival at the school as ‘a quick boy’ and ‘intelligent’, and unusually he could read and write. In 1881 a position was found for him in Canada, and he wrote to the school to tell them he was doing well. Canadian records show that he married an Irishwoman, and settled in Toronto.

The school was later known as the Essex Home School, and continued in various forms until 1980. The buildings have since been demolished and the site redeveloped.

The admission register, along with photographs of some of the pupils of the school, will be on display in the ERO Searchroom throughout May 2018.