Thomas Yarrow – A Forward Thinking Man?

There are people, who over time, have strived to make life better for others. Some people do this in different ways, charity work, volunteering, protesting and campaigning.

In some small way, my husband’s 2x great-grandfather wanted England and Wales to make some changes. His name was Thomas Yarrow, born in 1854 in Guilden Morden in Cambridgeshire the son of Thomas Yarrow and Mary Ann Salt he had rather humble beginnings. His father at the time of the 1851 census (the year he and Mary Ann got married) he was a Shoe Maker but in later censuses he was a simple agricultural labourer. Thomas junior first appeared on the 1861 census in Guilden Morden on Church Street and was attending school – as one might at 7 years old.


An old photo of Church Street, Guilden Morden from

By 1871 he was working as a Footman at Bookham Lodge House, Great Bookham, Surrey. This was the property of William Frederick Waldegrave – Viscount Chewton, who died during the Crimean War in 1854 leaving his widow Viscountess Chewton – Frances Waldegrave and their two sons. In a wealthy household such as Bookham Lodge Thomas was one of seven servants enumerated there that night. He was one of two footmen, and there was also a Cook, two Housemaids, a Kitchen Maid and a Domestic Maid. In the world of service there was a hierarchy of servants, often a Butler was at the top, followed by footmen – who in larger households might have a head footman who would cover the duties of the butler if he was ill. Footmen would do all manner of jobs, such as serving meals, moving heavy items, attending doors and other general tasks much like a valet.


Bookham Lodge – rather nice!

It is unclear how long Thomas worked at Bookham Lodge House but by 1879 he was in London where he married Elizabeth Sarah Olif Girling in Islington. Their marriage was reported in the Pall Mall Gazette no doubt due to Elizabeth’s father being a fairly prominent man involved in the Hackney Road Mission – a Printer by trade but heavily involved with the mission as a Lay Preacher.


At that time Thomas was living at 42a Cleveland Road and Elizabeth was at 44 Mildmay Street (oddly on the marriage certificate the street names have their endings switched around so down as Cleveland Street and Mildmay Road – but we can confirm the correct address by using maps and of course the above marriage notice.) They were about half a mile from each other. His occupation looks like Gate Porter but by the 1881 census he had become a School Attendance Officer and he and Elizabeth were living at 1 Grosvenor Road, Edmonton with their one month old daughter Lillie Emily.

In 1876 acts were passed compelling parents to ensure their children received efficient instruction; penalties were imposed upon the parents whose children of 10 and up to 13, did not hold a certificate of proficiency in the “three R’s” (Reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetic) or a certificate of due attendance at a certified efficient school. Where there was no School Board a School Attendance Committee was to be appointed to carry out the provisions of this act.

In 1878 the system of “half-timers” was introduced. Children under ten were excluded from employment in factories and those under thirteen who were employed were under an obligation to attend school either one session per day (i.e. half-time) throughout the week or one full day on alternate days. The 1876 Act had not however forced the School Boards and Attendance Committees to take action if children did not attend school. Then Mundella’s Act of 1880 came into force and changed this as permissive compulsion was ended immediately. A short 3 Clause Act informed the school boards and school attendance committees who had not made by-laws enforcing this compulsion, that they must do so immediately. If they did not comply by the end of the year the Education Department would do so for them. It made the employer of any child between the ages of 10 and 13 liable to a penalty if that child had not got a certificate of education. With some exceptions of School Boards etc. who still had not complied, by 1881 the entire population of England was obliged to send its children to school until they were ten years old, when they could obtain an educational certificate entitling them to leave. The Act also made it impossible for children to leave school at the age of ten on the strength of 250 attendances, known generally as the ‘dunces certificate’. This was now restricted to children of thirteen, with the added obligation that such a child was required to attend as a half-timer until the age of fourteen. With this act came the role of School Attendance Officers so Thomas must have been one of the first School Attendance Officers employed under this act.

In 1891 he was at the same address – although then known as 1 Brixham Cottages, Grosvenor Road and had the same occupation. His family was growing as they now had three other children besides Lillie Emily, Jasper Thomas John born 1883, Elizabeth Sarah Olif born 1885 and Frederick Charles Victor born 1887.


1 Grosvenor Road, Edmonton from Google StreetView – a fairly modest terraced house.

According to the London Electoral Registers on Ancestry, Thomas and his family were at Grosvenor Road until 1893 and they then lived just over half a mile away at 9 Queens Road, Edmonton – but by 1901 they were living at 13 Queens Road. It was by living here that caused Thomas’s daughter Lillie to meet her future husband who had lived at number 10 in 1891 and number 14 in 1901. (It may be that the houses were renumbered as it seems interesting that both families house numbers moved up by 4 so it could be that four houses were added to the street between 1893 and 1901.) By 1901 Thomas’s occupation was described as Superintendent Board School. By 1909 they had moved up the road to 30 Queens Road which is where we find them in 1911 where his occupation is much more clearly detailed as Superindendent of Attendance Office Edmonton Education Committee.

Here Thomas is named as the Superindendent on a report by the Medical Officers for Edmonton.


Image from the Wellcome Library.

So what did I mean earlier about him wanting to make changes? Initially I didn’t really think too much about his role in the realms of education, of course I thought it was great that he had risen through the ranks in his chosen occupation from his early days in the world of work, waiting on a widowed viscountess, but it wasn’t until I came across a newspaper article about him that I began to sit up straight and pay more attention.

Thomas is mentioned in an article from the Newcastle Journal of 11th April 1914 as being the president of the School Attendance Officers Association. He and the other members were attending their annual conference in Durham and were given a tour of the old city of Newcastle. There was a long follow-up article on the conference a few days later where a motion was raised in favour of increasing the school-leaving age to 15 and to stop half-time schooling – where often children worked from 6am to 12pm and then went to school in the afternoons and picture palaces in the evenings. At that time the motion was defeated. They also discussed poor children’s living conditions and how their homes should be cleaned. Also discussed was Industrial Schools and how attendance officers should take over the role of ensuring children were brought back and forth to these schools rather than police officers.


In these days it is hard to imagine how life was for children in the Victorian and Edwardian era, how before the 1880s many young children were often plunged into the world of work under 10 and expected to work just as hard as their adult counterparts. Often families were struggling financially, especially if the breadwinner had died, and children were another means of earning money to keep putting food on the table. However this was often the cause of many premature deaths in some very dangerous industries such as mining and even in the cotton mills where respiratory diseases were rife with the dust and fibres floating around – not to mention the possibility of losing fingers or worse in machinery or being hit in the head by a flying shuttle from a weaving loom. Thomas was perhaps someone who wanted children to have a better life, to get a proper education to hopefully one day further themselves, to perhaps become the next greatest mind of the age, but mainly to give all children the same opportunity of education, regardless of their home life. It was sad to see that the motion was denied, probably because many industries still relied on child labour and no doubt would mean further costs to education boards and schools to maintain the classes beyond 13 and to cope with more children if half-time working was abolished. In fact one member had said it would be ‘an absolute and positive injustice’ to keep children in some districts at school until the age of 15. At that point in time around 60% of the children in half-time work were employed in the cotton industry and that if they were to make changes they needed to abolish the half-time system before they could raise the school-leaving age.

I was also interested in the discussions about allowing attendance officers to escort children to Industrial Schools, it might have been better for their morale to be taken by someone who was less of a scary authoritative figure like a policeman. Often children were in these schools due to having committed crime or from compulsive truancy, but most of them came from destitute homes, orphans and had underlying issues that perhaps the firm hand of the law wasn’t what they needed. This motion was passed – so at least some positive steps were made!

He was also mentioned briefly in the Hull Daily Mail on 15th August 1925 – “That he never asked for an increase of salary during his 45 years’ services is the record of Mr Thomas Yarrow, who has just retired from his post as Superintendent School Attendance Officer at Edmonton.”

Thomas’s wife Elizabeth died in 1930 and Thomas died in 1932. Amazingly the decision to raise the school-leaving age to 15 did not come into force until the Education Act of 1944 was passed – some 30 years after it had been discussed at the meeting in Durham. This was then raised to 16 in 1972. This has recently been upped to 17 last year with plans to raise it to 18 in 2015. Originally there were plans to raise the leaving age to 18 with the Education Act of 1918 but due to cuts in costs from the First World War this wasn’t possible and again in 1944 – it wasn’t financially feasible after the Second World War.


4 thoughts on “Thomas Yarrow – A Forward Thinking Man?

  1. What an interesting post. My degree is in Elementary Education. I taught Kindergarten at a school that had a lot of poverty and a large population of immigrants with little to no English. I had several students that were eligible for attendance court because of large numbers of absences. These kiddos were often absent because of situations that arose due to transportation and work schedule issues for their parents. While in general things are much better now for school aged children, some of the issues he was trying to address still exist in a slightly different form. I’m glad he was involved in trying to improve things.

    • Thank you! I think that while certain circumstances in the western world have changed in terms of child workers, there are still a lot of underlying issues that remain, with poverty and the other problems that often come hand in hand with that.
      It seems like once we ‘sort out’ one problem, others come along to take their places.

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