24th January 2023
York waifs and strays
As part of our 19th century Poverty Project, Elaine Bradshaw has been researching the life stories of young children who could not be cared for by their families.
Ina and Nancy Dixon had been deserted by their parents in York and started their education in the York Poor Law Union Workhouse, around 1881. They were lucky in having a good teacher, Miss Emily Smith, who was praised in all her HMI annual inspections. Generally workhouse schools had great problems keeping their teachers, as the pay was poor and the duties endless, so the children’s schooling could be erratic.
However, a workhouse was a dismal place for a child to grow up in, and in 1881 the Poor Law Union started boarding out deserted children and orphans. Ina and Nancy were boarded out with William and Selina Clarkson, and moved to the Knavesmire. To find out more about their boarding out see York waifs and strays: Ina and Nancy Dixon are boarded out. They attended the Micklegate Schools until they were old enough to leave, Ina from 1881-88 at Micklegate Girls’, and Nancy from 1881-83 at Micklegate Infants and from 1883-89 at Micklegate Girls’.
Micklegate School building today, next to Micklegate Bar.
Micklegate was a National School, supported by the Church of England, and the local clergy played an admirable part in the children’s religious education. Unfortunately, the rest of the curriculum was not so good and the 3 R’s (Reading, Writing, ‘Rithmetic) were criticised in most of the annual inspections. Subjects prompted some very forthright comments by HMI Inspectors – “Grammar is absolutely worthless” .
Only needlework was consistently good, a stroke of luck for Ina, as she was good at sewing and became a dressmaker when she left school. Nancy’s favourite subject was probably poetry, which was often stirring and sentimental, such as the tragedy of Prince Llewellyn and his faithful wolfhound. It is tempting to speculate that this is why she later named one of her sons Eric Llewellyn.
A feeling for words and poetry seemed to run in the Dixon family, and two of the other sisters, Jenny and Lila, published lyrics to popular songs in later life, in spite of an even worse education than Ina and Nancy. They had frequent brushes with the School Attendance Officer and Jenny and another sister, Louie, were eventually sent to the Hull Industrial Girls’ School.
The school had a major problem with absenteeism. For example illness, unsuitable clothing for bad weather, and no money for fees were understandable reasons for children missing school. There was less excuse for children who truanted every time something exciting happened in York, from the Bishophill Flower Show to the York Races. Sunday school trips and works outings were organised during school hours, a sore point with the School Attendance Officer.
In 1887, a new Headmistress, Miss Jane Wright, pulled the school back into shape, so Ina and Nancy’s last few years were more profitable. For more about their life at Micklegate Girls’ in the 1880s, see York waifs and strays: Ina and Nancy Dixon go to Micklegate School. We have noted some entries in the school logbooks here Micklegate School logbooks, selections from the 1880s.