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Victorian borstal brought to life in Dalston poetry archive project

PUBLISHED: 15:51 16 September 2014 | UPDATED: 16:13 16 September 2014

Girls in the washhouse, a photo published in a leaflet called “Refuge for the Destitute Centenary Appeal”  which was published around 1904.

Girls in the washhouse, a photo published in a leaflet called “Refuge for the Destitute Centenary Appeal” which was published around 1904.

Archant

Imagine living in the 19th century equivalent of a probation centre, where destitute teenage girls caught “finger smithing” and cat fighting were sent to live like nuns.

A group of girls from the refuge, in a photo published in a leaflet called “Refuge for the Destitute Centenary Appeal”  which was published around 1904.A group of girls from the refuge, in a photo published in a leaflet called “Refuge for the Destitute Centenary Appeal” which was published around 1904.

Poet Simon Jenner did exactly that after poring through archive material, and will be reading the nine poems he wrote bringing the girls vividly back to life at the Hackney Archives next Wednesday (September 17).

Mr Jenner researched board minutes and ledgers about the pioneering Refuge for the Destitute, founded in Hackney Road in 1804 for both boys and girls.

In 1849 the male refuge closed following government cuts, and the female refuge moved to the Manor House in Dalston Lane, on the site of the present day Samuel Lewis Housing.

Confined

The dining room at the refuge, pictured in a photo published in a leaflet called “Refuge for the Destitute Centenary Appeal”  which was published around 1904.The dining room at the refuge, pictured in a photo published in a leaflet called “Refuge for the Destitute Centenary Appeal” which was published around 1904.

Considered better than a workhouse, parish vicars made applications on behalf of the girls to the board for them to be given a “second chance”.

“It’s a refuge people wanted to come to, it’s rather like the Oxbridge of jails for girls,” explained Mr Jenner, one of seven poets – including Sir Andrew Motion – commissioned to uncover stories in London’s archives by Poet in the City and Archives for London for the Through the Door project.

“The way the girls lived was limited, what their lives consisted of was an attempt to wipe the slate clean and start afresh.”

Girls were given the chance to learn a trade such as needlework or service and some were given the option to emigrate to Australia.

Mr Jenner said: “They had to attend church, they weren’t allowed to have much fun, rather like a colony of nuns.

“I identified with them in a sense. I had an early military background in the RAF, before a doctorate at Cambridge, so I have an understanding of what it’s like to be regimented, and confined, but mainly the feeling of striving and fighting.

“These girls would have come with fairly anarchic backgrounds. The paradox is this place would have been a great opportunity, but it doesn’t necessarily make you grateful for it.”

The documents gave him “a detailed and harrowing account” about the regime the girls lived under, down to how food should be distributed and how many grams of pig fat everyone should get.

The poems Mr Jenner wrote focus on such things as a soup recipe and a woman he imagines escapes.

Mr Jenner will read his poems at 6.30pm on Wednesday September 17 at the Hackney Archives, in Dalston CLR James Library, Dalston Square.


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