George was born in Saltwood in 1858, the second child of William and Julia Ann (or Juliana) Cloke. His father was an agricultural labourer and later a quarry labourer. George never attended school and by the time he was thirteen, he was at work as a ‘farm boy’, which mostly involved bird-scaring, and he also got some work helping the ‘navvies’ who were building the railway line from Sandling to Hythe. His mother died in 1871.
William Cloke then moved his family to Albion Cottage in Stade Street in Hythe where he set up home with a Mrs Tanton, or, in the words of the authorities at the Royal Philanthropic School, where they ‘lived in fornication’. William’s decision is understandable: he had only one daughter, Jane, aged nine when her mother died and too young to keep house for her father and two older brothers.
The arrangement did not work out well. George’s older brother, John, left to go into service in Kentish Town. Little Jane, at eleven, was sent to work in service in Sandgate. George was simply turned out of the house. He resorted to stealing and was found guilty, with William Impett, of stealing eighteen eggs from a shed in a field. On 23 Jan 1874 he was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment in Canterbury followed by five years at the Royal Philanthropic Reform School in Redhill. In the magistrate’s opinion, he was ‘utterly neglected’.
Official protection of vulnerable children was a long way in the future, and there was nothing else the magistrates could have done to safeguard George. Unfortunately, admission to a Reformatory was dependant on having served a prison sentence first.
He was described when he arrived at the School as being 4 feet 10 inches tall with dark hair and a ’round, chubby, rustic face’. His father, who earned about £1 a week in the quarry was ordered to pay one shilling and sixpence a week towards his keep, though the Town Council also contributed.
Boys working on the School farm
George did not get off to a good start at Redhill. Barely seven months after his admission he was punished by being isolated in the school’s cells for three days for breaking into a cottage on the site. Thereafter however, he mostly kept out of trouble, apart from a few minor infringements of the rules.
The only people to visit him during his stay were his brother and sister. In 1878, George was given permission to spend Christmas with John, at his invitation. By then, George had been allowed out on licence to work in service.
He was discharged from the School in February 1879 and went to live in Chalk Farm, near his brother. In September that year, he went back to the School on a visit and said he was doing well. He survived a period of unemployment the next year, but then got a job making new flowerbeds in Regent’s Park.
All subsequent reports back to the School suggest that he that he had settled down and was in good work, including labouring at Cannon Street on the Metropolitan Line extension. He married in 1881 and he and Matilda (or Mary as she was known), his wife, went on to have three sons and two daughters (though three other children died young). They lived in Napier Road, East Ham, near to the Central Park.
From about 1897, for nine years, he was employed by the Beckton Gas Light and Coke Company, but in January 1906 he was told his services were no longer required and was given one hour’s notice. He had the confidence to take the company to court, claiming that as he was paid weekly, he should have been given a week’s notice. His erstwhile employers contended that he was employed by the hour, but paid weekly for convenience and the magistrates upheld their claim. Fair employment law was also a long way in the future.
He soon found other employment and moved house to Telham Road, a five-roomed house which he shared with his son, another George, and his family. We know this from the 1911 census which George completed in a firm, clear script. Thirty-seven years earlier he had been homeless, illiterate and ‘utterly neglected’. If the Royal Philanthropic School gave him nothing else, it gave him literacy.
Information about George’s time at the Royal Philanthropic School is taken from their admission registers at Surrey Archive in Woking: 2271/10/16 page 205