I’ve just got back from a walk in my home town of Portsmouth – and I’ve learned how one person really can change the whole world.
I was walking past a little brick-built church on Old Portsmouth’s High Street, called the John Pounds Church, when I suddenly remembered reading that there was something special about it – a little museum dedicated to Mr John Pounds himself. So, on that sunny winter afternoon with some time to spare, I decided to take a look at exactly what that museum comprised.
At the back, in a neat courtyard, a small wooden hut is built on to the side of the church. It is a modest little museum. If you look in through the barn door you will see a mannikin of a cobbler looking over the shoulder of a boy reading from a bible, while around him are other figures of little children in Victorian clothing, ragged and poor, sitting and reading from a book or scribbling on slates.
It is the image of a makeshift Victorian schoolhouse, which John Pounds’s house and cobbler’s shop became. Pounds had only two rooms in his house: one downstairs and one above. And in the room downstairs, he taught the poor to read.
Pounds himself was self taught. In 1778 at the age of 12 years old, he was indentured into the dockyard in Portsea. And at the age of 15, just a few days after his father died, the teenaged Pounds fell into a dry dock and was crippled for life.
He was carried out of the dockyard, and that, as far as his employers were concerned, was the end of their responsibility for him. He stayed with relatives in Portsmouth, and over the coming months he slowly recuperated. Illiterate but with an enquiring mind, in that period of recovery he taught himself to read. Then, as his vitality returned, he trained as a cobbler and set up his little shop on the main thoroughfare between the fortified town of Portsea and the High Street in Old Portsmouth.
The poverty in that part of Portsmouth at the turn of the 19th Century was smothering. A report from several decades later describes, for example, a tiny close called Messum’s Court that butted up against the garrison town’s fortifications and was approached via a two foot wide tunnel called Squeeze Gut Alley. Here 116 people lived below sea level in a damp, dismal courtyard supplied with water from a single standpipe that ran for just 10 minutes a day, and with one privy between them. An open dunghill stood in the middle of the courtyard, through which also ran an open drain. The denizens of this court, some of whom lived in cellars, dug their own wells outside their front doors, down which their small children were in constant danger of falling, while the water drawn up was often contaminated by seepage from the open sewers and cess pools nearby. Children growing up in this poverty with no hope of an education were condemned by default to a future of yet more grinding poverty, and of crime.
Children were criminalised easily back then. Again, a few decades later, by the mid-1800s, it is recorded that the offences of hopscotch, flying kites or playing marbles were, among many other offences, punishable by hard labour and a mandatory whipping. But since those children were turned out on to the streets by their parents who didn’t want them at home, what else were they to do except loiter and get into trouble with the law or be recruited into criminal gangs?
It was in this milieu that Pounds took to teaching children to read and write in his cobbler’s shop. To draw the kids in, he kept injured birds that he was nursing back to health in little cages hung from the ceiling, and little pets. With his stooped walk that was a result of his dockyard fall, he would go out on winter days with hot jacket potatoes in his coat pockets (it is said that he had sewn in extra pockets to hold more of them) and hand them out to the children who were shivering among the timber stacked near Spice Island, or huddling in little crannies by the sea, out of the wind. “There are plenty more where that one came from,” he would tell them, and the children would follow him to his shop.
Inside, it was cramped, but it was warm, and the kids learned to read under Pounds’s tutelage. Often, 40 children at a time would be squeezed into the tiny little shed where he worked. It is thought that in his lifetime he taught hundreds of children to read and write in that little room.
The fact was, there was no money in this for him at all. If he got an inkling that your parents were able to pay for schooling, then you would be replaced with someone more needy. As John Pounds put it: “I wants they as nobody cares for. They’s they for me.”
When Pounds died at the age of 72, after dedicating a lifetime to teaching children to read, his cobbler’s shop had only a few items inside. There were the tools of his trade, and a handful of personal effects. He had lived and died in poverty, but had given hundreds the opportunity to work as shopworkers, join the Navy or get some form of employment other than manual labour – and had shown them possibilities other than crime.
Soon after his death in 1839, as people realised what an amazing thing he had done, the Reverend Thomas Guthrie was inspired by his story to set up the “Ragged Schools” movement, which provided free education for the poor across the country. Portsmouth’s first “Ragged School” was opened just 10 years after Pounds’s death.
By 1852, the movement was so powerful that Parliament set up an inquiry into the condition of “criminal and destitute juveniles in this country and what changes are desirable in their present treatment, in order to supply industrial training and to combine reformation with the due correction of juvenile crime.”
This was a milestone in the development of something that would change the English speaking world forever. That something was Universal Free Education in the form of a State Education.
If you are reading this and you are from Britain or one of its old colonies, it is likely that you received your education precisely because of the acts of kindness of a cobbler in Portsmouth, who 200 years ago walked out into the cold with hot jacket potatoes in his pockets, and set in train a course of events that would lead to the liberation from poverty of literally hundreds of millions of people across the globe. He lived half a mile from where I live, and I could not have written this blog without him.
And you, wherever you are on this planet, would not be reading it.