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Cockermouth Post Article August 2012 – Life at the Cockermouth Industrial School

By the time you read this our exhibition at the Kirkgate Centre will be well under way. One of the topics we are looking at is the Industrial School, which opened in 1881 on the Strawberry How site. Industrial Schools were set up across the country, to provide board and lodging for potentially wayward boys, providing them with basic education, training for a trade, and lots of discipline.

We have a first-hand account of a gentleman called Kylie Gay who came to the Cockermouth Industrial School at the age of 7, early in the 20th century. He was brought all the way from London to Cockermouth by train, after his mother was put in prison and he was perceived by the courts to be in need of care and protection. He had been found by a policeman late at night, sleeping under a market stall, waiting for his mother to come out of the pub. When he arrived at the School he was happy enough because he was presented with tea and a huge lump of cake. He remembers dingy and dark stonework and gaslight. There were several dormitories with 25 boys in each and he was asked whether he was a ‘wet bed’ - he discovered that the ‘wet’ beds had rubber the length of the mattress, with a hole in the middle and a bucket under it. There was a concrete slab and bucket in the middle of the dormitory:

“The master used to come out after a couple of hours, say at midnight, ‘Come out, come on out of bed, urinate’. They got out of bed and they’d all stand around in a ring. And sometimes they’d do it all over me. Cos they were asleep, they didn’t know what they were doing. And you got smacked round the ears if you didn’t do as you were told. They treated you very roughly.”

The boys were kitted out with clothes, and there were two pairs of shoes and two pairs of socks. One pair of shoes was kept highly polished and were worn to church. Kylie recalls that when he arrived he was given the number 84. He had inherited the number from a boy who had died and had been laid to rest in the Cemetery opposite. The teachers he describes as vicious, two men who had been discharged from the Navy after being wounded. The headmaster was apparently not always drunk, but ‘very often’ so. Meals had very little meat and large quantities of vegetables. Breakfast was porridge oats with salt:

“You could ask for more but you’d never get more because it would be passed to the boy in front and as they passed it along each would tip some out…”

Kylie survived his time at the School and eventually returned to London. His memories were recorded when Kylie was 90 years old.

Gloria Edwards

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