Thomas West – A cunning thief reformed
In 1793, Thomas West, a thirteen year old Black pauper, was caught stealing in Lord Sydney’s home, Frognal House in Sidcup, Kent. Lord Sydney quickly reacted by placing the miscreant in the care of the Royal Philanthropic School, then in Southwark, London but later relocated in Redhill.
The Royal Philanthropic Society, whose records are held in the Surrey History Centre, was founded in 1788 to reform the many London paupers who had found themselves part of London’s criminal underbelly. The records of Thomas West are important because surviving material relating to Black people living in Georgian London is rare. We not only have a record of his beginnings, but we see him put on the path of reform and begin a new, stable life outside the city and out of his poor, criminal surroundings.
Here is Thomas’ story.
In May 1793, a thirteen-year-old Black pauper called Thomas West was admitted into the Royal Philanthropic School at St. George’s Fields in Southwark. He would most likely have been one of an unfortunate number of children in central London who had to beg or steal to make a living.
Such children were housed in over a hundred ‘flash houses’ and taught their miscreant tricks by seasoned criminals. For most of them, crime was part of their family life and many would have had parents in prison, unless they were orphans. These were the exact kind of children the Royal Philanthropic School was founded to help educate and realign away from a life of unemployment, crime and begging.
This was a clear part of the Royal Philanthropic Society’s philosophy. The ethos behind the school is explained in a pamphlet (SHC ref 2271/40/2): ‘Among the calamities to which the children of indigent parents are exposed, the want of moral and religious instruction… is the most to be lamented.’
Meeting weekly at the coffee house in St. Paul’s Square, London, core members of the Society made it their mission to rescue children from their perpetually dishonest livelihoods. Their deceased or absent parents were replaced with a new household in the shape of the ‘Reform’. Here, a rope spinner, a tailor, a cobbler and a copperplate printer ran workshops, teaching their trades to young apprentices within the School’s own walls.
Founded in 1788, the school was the philanthropic project of a number of clergy and gentlemen hoping to confront the problem of crime on London’s streets to offer asylum to the unfortunate offspring of convicted criminals. From looking at the records of applications for admissions, we can see that many parents were absent. Some fathers had been ‘transported’, shipped to Australia, or even executed for their law-breaking activities.
A number of archbishops, aristocrats and wealthy gentlemen, originators of the idea, were involved at every stage of the process. They attended the school’s committee meetings and recommended or sponsored children to be admitted after undergoing an examination.
In Thomas West’s case, the Duke of Leeds recommended him. A book containing the proceedings of the Royal Philanthropic Society (SHC ref 2271/2/1) contains the minutes of each of the general committee meetings during the period 1793-6 and the minutes of 17 May 1793 mention ‘Mr Angerstein and Colonel Harnage having reported to this committee the case of a Black Boy recommended by his Grace the Duke of Leeds’ to be committed to the Reform.
It was resolved ‘that a letter be written in the Name of the Committee to his Grace requesting that his Grace may send the Boy to the Reform on Friday next in order to undergo the usual examination previous to his admission.’
The record of the meeting a week later tells us ‘The Case of Thomas West the Black Boy was reported by Mr. Baker and the Boy having by Order of the Duke of Leeds attended he was examined and it was resolved that he be immediately admitted to the reform.’
On that day, Thomas West’s name is entered into the register of the ‘Character of the Boys Admitted into the Reform’ (SHC ref 2271/10/1). It states that Thomas West was ‘Sent by Lord Sydney’; Lord Sydney (1733-1800), was born Tommy Townshend, and resided at Frognal House, Sidcup, Kent. After an extensive Parliamentary career Townshend was created Baron Sydney in 1783. The cities in Nova Scotia and Australia are named in his honour.
Thomas West was apparently a servant boy in Sydney’s house. According to the minutes for the meeting, ‘This boy stole a silver spoon from the Steward’s Room and half a guinea from one of the servants and is a very cunning artful boy.’ As a result of passing the examination for entry, Thomas was placed with the tailor.
His entry in the register continues:
- ‘October 7th 1795: Removed to the Rope Spinners. Was by order of the Committee placed with the shoemaker.
- May 7th 1796: Was by order of the Committee and at Mr. Houlston’s request placed servant with Mr. Derbyshire.
- July 26th 1796: Sent back by Mr. Houlston.’
According to the minutes of the meeting of the Royal Philanthropic Society for 25th November, 1796 (SHC ref 2271/2/2, p. 129), a Meal Man named Mr. Squires requested to the ‘Superintendant’ that Thomas West should undergo a short trial period of work as a servant for him. He duly did so, before being sent to work for Mr. Squires for yearly wages, as the register records:
- ‘November 28th 1796 – Was by the Committee’s permission placed as a servant on liking to Mr. Squires, Mealman, Hertford.
- February 19th 1798 – Apprenticed to Mr. Squires by order of the Committee.’
And the trail of records in Thomas West’s name ends there. In all likelihood, he began a new life in Hertfordshire, secluded from the mean streets of London and in the service of a professional as the Reform intended.
Plans are made for Thomas West to leave the reform school for good by the committee in their meeting on 25th November, 1796. He finally does so in 1798.
Research by Sean Canty
Revised Oct 2020
[We are grateful to Susan Snell, Archivist and Records Manager, The Library and Museum of Freemasonry, for first discovering Thomas West in the Royal Philanthropic School records].
Sources at Surrey History Centre:
Proceedings of the Philanthropic Society, 1793-6 (SHC ref 2271/2/1).
Proceedings of the Philanthropic Society, 1796-9 (SHC ref 2271/2/2).
Applications for Admission to the Royal Philanthropic School 1810-33 (SHC ref 2271/9/1).
Characters of the Boys Admitted into the Reform 1788-1806 (SHC ref 2271/10/1).
Pamphlet entitled ‘Royal Philanthropic Society, St. George’s Fields, Southwark: An Account of its Nature, Views, Laws Regulations, 1797’ (SHC ref 2271/40/2).