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One morning in May 1876 there was a hammering on the door of Ellen Murray’s lodging house in Shargool’s Yard, Foregate Street, Stafford. When she opened up she found, not an Irish labourer looking for a night’s lodging, but the stern figure of James Mullins. He was the School Board’s Attendance Officer and he was there to ‘caution’ – or threaten – Ellen with prosecution if she didn’t make sure her son Patrick went to school. Ellen was having none of it. She ’indulged in a stream of foul language’ and belted Mullins in the face with a dirty cloth, for which assault she was fined 5s and costs.[1]  The Attendance Officer was not a welcome figure in the courts and back streets of Stafford.

My last post exposed violence and poor teaching at St Patrick’s Boys School in Stafford in the 1870s. This post continues the education theme during the same decade by looking at James Mullins’s role as School Attendance Officer (SAO) in the early years of the Forster Education Act. In 1861 the Newcastle Commission had revealed the patchy and poor state of elementary schooling for working class children. Ruling class concern was not just about lack of educational provision but was also motivated by fear of the thousands of effectively feral children marauding the streets of towns and cities. They were seen to form the next generation of the dangerously alienated lumpen poor.  As a result, the state finally established structures for the elementary education of all children between 5 and 13 under the Elementary Education Act of 1870 – the so-called ‘Forster Act’.[2]

The Act required immediate returns on the extent of school provision in all local areas and if these revealed insufficient accommodation the government Education Department would cause a local School Board to be set up. Stafford Borough was one such area. In March 1871 the Stafford School Board was established and its nine members elected on religious lines, the lone Catholic being Francis Whitgreave, a leading figure in the local laity.[3] It was estimated that there were 2,245 children of school age in the town but only about 1,244 (or 55%) were actually attending school, a miserable total. The Board therefore decided to adopt the clauses of the Act requiring compulsory school attendance.[4]

Requiring compulsory attendance and actually achieving it were, however, two different things. Stafford’s ruling elite was perennially reluctant and niggardly when it came to spending money on public services and this proved to be the case with education as well. The Act (para. 36) permitted boards to appoint one or more school attendance officers to enforce attendance but it took the Stafford board over a year to actually appoint one. Even then the post was only part-time. The man who got the job was, as we have seen, James Mullins.

Mullins was a middle-aged Catholic Irishman and pretty typical of the sort of men who became SAOs. He was born around 1826-9 in Kilfarboy parish near Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare.[5] The only family with that name in the Griffiths Valuation of the 1840s was that of Darby Mullens (sic) who occupied just a house in Leagard South townland valued at 15s a year. James Mullins’s background was, therefore, very modest and in the 1840s he escaped the area and probably the Famine by joining the British Army. Little is known of his active service except that he was with the 39th (Dorsetshire) Regiment of Foot which in 1851 was serving in Newry, Co. Down, and in 1861 at Templemore, Co. Tipperary [6] In 1861 Mullins was not, however, in Ireland but in Walsall in the Black Country. He was living in Peal Street with his wife and six children and acting as a recruiting officer for the regiment. He had been in the town since at least 1854 since five of his children had been born there, and he had perhaps got this sinecure through being wounded on active service, though we have no evidence of this. James’s wife was Mary née Campbell and was also Irish. They married in Ireland around 1852, though the date and place have not been traced.[7]

Mullins reached the rank of sergeant in the 39th Regiment but left its ranks during the 1860s. Like many other soldiers nearing retirement his route out of the army was through the 2nd Staffordshire Militia. He was posted as a staff sergeant to the barracks in Stafford and was certainly there by 1866.[8]  In 1871 the family was living at Queensville about a mile out of town. Mullins was, however, looking for another job to supplement his pension income and the newly created post of School Attendance Officer fitted the bill. He in turn offered the School Board experience of exercising authority over awkward and potentially combative working class people. He immediately asked to be allowed to ‘enforce cleanliness of children attending school when needful’, something the Board was only too happy to agree.[9] The Board offered him a salary of £35 a year, a miserable sum that was typical of the poor pay many Irish would accept just to have a secure job in England.

Mullins set to work vigorously and within a month of his appointment the Board claimed his ‘efforts so far were not fruitless.’ The proportion of school age pupils actually attending in May 1872 had risen to 68%, a figure that was maintained in November of the same year.[10]  The improved results led the Board to increase Mullins’s salary to £45. By July 1874 there were nearly one hundred extra pupils on the books but the attendance rate remained stubbornly at just under 69%.[11] Nearly a third of children were still regularly absent from school.

In his early days on the job Mullins probably adopted the technique of getting to know the suspect areas of town and the ‘problem families’ within them, and mostly using verbal threats to cajole parents into sending their children to school. The limits of that policy were seen by 1874 and the evidence suggests Mullins and the Board then moved to more prosecutions of recalcitrant parents and publicly naming and shaming them. A review of press reports shows a sudden burst of prosecutions in 1875 and others in the second half of the decade.[12] The apparatus of the state was being used coercively against those determined to resist compulsion. This working class resistance reflected widespread antipathy to state compulsory schooling as an irrelevant and alien system designed to enforce deference and middle class value systems.  Most of the defaulters were poor families who had financial reasons for truancy – they needed the money their children earned from work and they could not or would not pay the school fees that were still demanded in the Forster Act system. School Boards were empowered to pay the fees of those too poor to pay but Stafford’s Board avoided such payments as far as possible and required needy parents to suffer the time-wasting and demeaning process of pleading for relief in person. In 1874 a ‘burly Irishman’ was forced to wait for two and a half hours to address the Board, meaning he lost a quarter of a day’s pay. He blamed Mullins for the delay but was patronisingly told that as he had ‘come to ask a favour, he could scarcely in justice think himself aggrieved.’[13]


There is no photo of James Mullins. This is Samuel Goodwin (1820-1907), SAO at Wivenhoe, Essex. He was roughly contemporary with Mullins, though this photo was clearly taken later in his life. Photo from the Wivenhoe Heritage web-site, Wivenhoe Memories Collection. www://wivenhoeheritage.blogspot.co.uk/2014_03_01_archive.html

Mullins had to report defaulting parents and children to the Board and initiate court proceedings on the Board’s behalf. The limited evidence suggests Irish Catholic families were disproportionately targeted for prosecution though it must be emphasised that English families still formed the majority of cases.[14] The Irish families were uniformly poor and some – the Kearns, Devlin, Lyons, Ruhall and Mannion families for example – were stigmatised people often in trouble with the law in other ways. James Mullins classically represented the ‘respectable’ Irish Catholics who sought to distinguish themselves from their problematic compatriots and he was in a position to exercise social control over them. More specifically, in his job as SAO he stood on the fault lines between such families, the niggardly School Board and the Catholic schools that often treated poor children with contempt and resisted taking poor pupils unless their fees were paid by the Board.[15] As we saw in the last post, St Patrick’s boys’ school had major problems and it held little attraction for many poor children and their parents.  Even so, in 1873 the Catholic representative Canon Edward Acton stated that the average attendance at St Patrick’s was 98 out of 136 pupils on the books, a proportion (72%) slightly above the Stafford average. St Austin’s girls’ school got 72 out of 137, a much worse performance (53%) that probably reflected the lower priority many parents gave to girls’ schooling and conversely their imposed role as helpers at home.[16]

In 1872 James Mullins had taken on a grinding and ill-paid task that was hard and sometimes stressful work for a man moving into his fifties. He probably faced many other confrontations like that with Ellen Murray. In May 1877 he petitioned the Board for a salary increase because of his increased duties but their response was initially defer the issue.[17]  Six weeks later they decided to appoint a Poor Law relieving officer, John Whadcoat, on a six month contract, although a week later they appeared to change their mind and proposed to raise Mullins’s salary to £75 as soon as he got (and presumably paid for) ‘an office in the district.’[18] It seems that he was still only working part time and doing the job from his home in Queensville. This squabble over pay and accommodation was the final straw. In July 1877 Mullins resigned. It was noted that he had been the SAO for over five years but there is no record of any expressed appreciation for the work he had done. The Board merely went on to advertise the post as full time with a salary of £85.[19]

The Mullins family soon left Stafford and in 1881 they were living at 72 Mortimer Street near Oxford Circus in London. James was described as an ‘army pensioner’ but the enumerator noted that the address was that of the ‘Young Men’s Catholic Association’. Mullins may, therefore, have taken on another part-time job, but nothing more is known about it at this stage. Things did not run smoothly, however. It seems that James died sometime in the early 1880s.[20] In 1885 his son John Campbell Mullins, ‘who was well-known in Stafford’, was arrested with two others and charged with uttering forged cheques. Whilst in Stafford John had begun work as a clerk at a solicitor’s office (W. Hand). Like the rest of his family he had clearly been part of the aspiring Catholic laity: his ‘conduct before leaving Stafford appears to have been very good.’ Having moved with his family to London, by 1881 he was described as a clerk at the Inland Revenue. He subsequently found work with a London solicitor and it was there that the cheques were forged. Having cashed his share of the proceeds, Mullins ‘started on a pleasure trip to Ireland’ but he got no farther than his previous home base, Stafford. One of his co-conspirators then ran out of his ill-gotten gains and confessed to the deception which led to John being arrested at the Elephant and Castle pub in Gaol Square. He appeared at the Old Bailey, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years penal servitude.[21]

After James’s death and John’s disgrace the remaining Mullins family seems to have broken up and it has proved impossible to reconstruct their later lives. James’s daughter Ellen (b. 1856) was a teacher in 1881 and by 1891 had become a nun teaching at St Mary’s Industrial School in Croydon. In 1901 she was at the Convent of Mercy in Macklin Street, Bloomsbury, but after that her trail goes cold. The same is true of the rest of the family, though it is possible Mary Mullins died in Wandsworth in 1909.[22]

What of school attendance in Stafford after James Mullins’s departure? The School Board was increasingly riven by religious disputes but the task of whipping truanting families into line continued and achieved reasonable success in terms of attendance. In March 1886 it was reported that in the previous three years 799 parents had received threatening notices about their children’s irregular attendance. 162 parents were actually convicted in court proceedings. In the same period average attendance had reached nearly 80%, a clear improvement over the position in the 1870s.[23] That still meant, however, that a fifth of children were likely to be absent from school at any one time and the education received by those who did attend still left much to be desired.

[1] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 20 May 1876.

[2] D. Gillard, Education in England: a Brief History, (2011)( on-line version at www.educationengland.org.uk/ accessed 18 November 2016; N. Sheldon, ‘School Attendance, 1880-1939: a study of policy and practice in response to the problem of truancy’, D. Phil. Thesis, Harris Manchester College, Oxford, 2007.

[3] SA, 4 March 1871 and 25 March 1871. In March 1877 Whitgreave was replaced by Edward Acton, the priest at St Austin’s. At that time there was one Catholic, two Presbyterian, five C. of E. and one ‘working man’s’ representative on the Board.

[4] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 3 June 1871.

[5] WO 116, Royal Hospital Chelsea: Pensioner Admissions and Discharges, 1715-1925, James Mullins, Sergeant, No. 2803, pension admission or examination date 2 June 1868. Ancestry database accessed 21 November 2016.

[6] Mullins’s full army record has not been traced. Location details from transcripts of the British Army Worldwide Index, 1851 and 1861, WO12/5284 and WO12/5294, Find My Past database accessed 21 November 2016 and Ancestry WO116 data.

[7] Her surname has been gleaned from the St Austin’s registers where it was specified at the baptism of her daughter Sarah on 26 August 1866. Archdiocese of Birmingham Archives, P255/5/1/3, St Austin’s Stafford, Register of Baptisms.

[8] His daughter Sarah was christened at St Austin’s in that year; see reference 7. above.

[9] SA, 4 May 1872.

[10] SA, 8 June 1872 and 7 December 1872. The figures exclude St Paul’s School which was outside the Borough boundary.

[11] SA, 11 July 1874. The proportionate attendance in Stafford lay roughly midway between those found by Sheldon in Oxford (75%) and Bradford (60%). Sheldon, ‘School Attendance’, Chart 6 (p. 79), though she cautions that records of attendance are suspect (p. 35).

[12] E.g. SA 17 April, 1 May, 5 June, 18 September, 20 November and 11 December 1875.

[13] SA, 18 April 1874.

[14] No full analysis of the cases brought has been yet been undertaken but in those noted in the 1870s Irish Catholic families formed around a fifth of the defendants at a time when the Irish and Irish-descended Catholic population of Stafford was 4.4%.

[15] In February 1875 the managers of the Catholic schools refused to supply financial statements to the School Board because of the Board’s ‘refusal to pay the fees of poor children’. SA 6 February 1875. It is not known how long the stand-off continued.

[16] Archdiocese of Birmingham Archives, P255, St Austin’s Stafford, Mission Book, return ordered by the Bishop, 31 May 1873.

[17] SA, 12 May 1877.

[18] SA, 30 June and 7 July 1877.

[19] SA, 21 July 1877.

[20] Though no record of his death has so far been traced. It was mentioned in the Staffordshire Advertiser report of 29 August 1885.

[21] SA, 29 August and 19 September 1885. Proceedings of the Old Bailey, Ref. No. T18850914-814, 14 or 15 September 1885, on www.oldbaileyonline.org accessed 21 November 2016.

[22] Deaths, Wandsworth RD, October-December 1909, 1d/357. Without obtaining the certificate it is impossible to say this was Mary Mullins née Campbell’s death but it seems plausible.

[23] SA, 13 March 1886. It was stated that the average attendance in England as a whole during the same period was 75%.