William Impett was born on 20 March 1860, the sixth child of Richard Impett, a labourer and his wife Phoeba Maria, a charwoman, who then lived in Lympne, where Wiliam was baptised. They later moved to Chapel Street in Hythe, which was little more than a lane behind the High Street, lined with small workmen’s dwellings. The family seem to have been respectable, except that Richard was once convicted of trespass in search of game at Sandling Park – poaching was generally regarded (except by landowners and magistrates) as an acceptable way of putting food on the family table when times were hard.
William attended the National School in Hythe for four years, but as soon as he could be useful and contribute to the family’s income, he was working with the ‘navvies’ on the construction of the railway line running down from Sandling to Hythe. His contribution was necessary because his father had become ‘crippled and unable to work’. However, the work did not last long, possibly because William was only 4 feet 7 inches tall and ‘undersized’. The Overseers of the Poor granted outdoor relief to his parents and their youngest child, but this did not extend to maintaining William once he was thirteen. He was judged to be able to go out to work and as he had no job, he was put in Elham Union Workhouse on 12 June 1873.
By now he had a reputation in Hythe of being a petty thief – though not yet convicted – and of being ‘very troublesome to the police’. Once in the workhouse, he absconded, though he was found and returned.
He managed for a while to return home – perhaps his mother or a friend had found him some temporary work – but he also returned to crime. On 23 Jan 1874, he was sent to prison for a month for stealing eighteen eggs. This was to be followed by five years detention in a reformatory. He served his prison term in Canterbury gaol, and exactly a month later, on 23 February 1874, still just thirteen years old, he was admitted to the Royal Philanthropic School at Redhill in Surrey, together with George Cloke, who was convicted of the same crime.
This institution had been established by the Philanthropic Society, a group concerned with the care of homeless children left to fend for themselves by begging or thieving. Those admitted were children of criminals or those who had been convicted of crimes themselves. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the school was classed as a reformatory, under the Reformatory Schools Act 1854, most of its pupils being committed by the magistrates and paid for by the local authorities. Farm work was the principal occupation, although carpentry, tailoring and other trades were also taught. The aim of the Committee was ‘to assimilate, so far as the diverse conditions permit, the life and administration of the school to that of the great public schools of England’. It encouraged many of its inmates to emigrate, usually to Canada or Australia, rather than face unemployment and a possible return to criminality, on their release.
The Royal Philanthropic Farm School near Redhill
William was almost immediately in trouble at the Reformatory, and weeks after his arrival was caned for ‘going dirty to chapel.’ The punishments continued through out his stay, mostly for what we might think of as horseplay or high spirits. Every three or four months, he rebelled and was noisy, or disorderly in the dormitory, or threw things around. Sometimes he was confined to the School’s cells (not a feature of most English public schools).
He was visited occasionally by his family. His mother and her sister, who lived in Lambeth and William’s older brother Harry came in November 1874. In October 1875, his father and Harry visited. This was the last time William would see his father, who died in early 1876, aged fifty-nine. His mother and aunt visited again in June that year, but that is the last recorded visit until his release on 24 February 1879.
The school kept tabs on its ex-pupils, mostly via local police reports. Perhaps this was to assess the success or otherwise of its regime. William went straight into employment as a servant in Folkestone, but the post did not last long. By May 1880 he had no regular work. However, in September he wrote to the School that he was working as a deck hand on board the brig Florence of Whitstable, sailing from London to Hull.
Sea Street in Whitstable today
Whitstable harbour in the 1880s. Most of the traffic was to Newcastle to fetch coal
He continued sporadically in this line of work and lived in Sea Street in Whitstable, though he spent time in Hythe, perhaps with family. His mother and a couple of brothers still lived locally.
It was during one of these visits, in 1889, that he he was convicted of common assault and sent to prison again, this time for two months. Then one night in 1893, returning drunk to his home in Whitstable, he tried to kill himself. The knives he sharpened for the purpose were confiscated by his landlord but he then swallowed a packet of precipitate powder. He was taken to a police station and treated with an emetic, but then charged – suicide was then still a criminal offence. When he appeared in court again, he told the magistrates he had signed the pledge never to drink again, and was let off another prison sentence.
He had, however, not many years left to live. On 2 February 1898 a huge storm ravaged the east coast of England, with many losses at sea. William was one of them, swept overboard when his boat, the smack Ranger, en route to Grimsby was hit by a huge wave. He was a month short of his thirty-eighth birthday and had never married.
William’s behaviour after leaving the School – the violence, drink and suicide attempt – may suggest that he had been traumatised by his time there. We cannot know. What we can be sure of is that in his case, the system failed him.
The information about William’s time at the Royal Philanthropic School is taken from their archive (2271/10/16 page 206) held at Surrey Archives in Woking.