This medal was awarded to Ellen Delay, a pupil at St Patrick’s School, Wapping in 1900. It’s a bit different from the medals awarded by the School Board for London I wrote about here. It has no portrait of the Queen, and the metal is a bit lighter. The name of the student is engraved, but so is the year, which suggests they weren’t minted annually. And also, significantly, the name of the school is included.
The Museum has another medal, awarded two years later to Ellen’s brother Denis, also ‘For Regular Attendance’.
St. Patrick’s was a Catholic school, and therefore not controlled by the School Board. The narrow five-storey school was built in 1875 next to the new St. Patrick’s church, a Classical basilica built in 1871, marking a new Catholic parish in Wapping.
Ellen and her brother Denis were part of a tight-knit community of Irish Catholics which had grown next to the river, in between the docks and warehouses. Their grandparents, Dennis and Mary Delay, had moved to London from Cork in the 1840s and had six children; four girls went into domestic service, and the two sons, Cornelius and John, worked as general labourers. In 1876 Cornelius married Norah, and they in turn had six children. Denis (born 1891) and Ellen (born Mary Ellen in 1895) were the two youngest.
Official sources don’t record people’s lived experience, but they can be used to create a context to think more about childhood in the past. A fascinating starting point is Charles Booth’s poverty maps and notebooks. At the end of the nineteenth century, Booth walked almost every street in the city, normally accompanied by a local policeman, and recorded his observations. He then classified and colour-coded each street according to the economic state of its inhabitants.
The 1899 version of the map shows the southern reaches of Wapping as a dense mixture of light blue (poor) and dark blue (very poor) streets. St. Patrick’s church was built on the site of the old workhouse, right under the ‘J’ of St. John. This was a densely populated, cosmopolitan area. The census records lodgers from Spain, Portugal and even the Philippines. Occupations include shipwright, dockworker, merchant sailor, and plenty of licensed victuallers (a.k.a. pub landlords).
While the children grew up, the Delay family shared a series of houses, often with two other families. One house was in Red Lion Street, which runs straight past the church to the river. Ellen and Denis’s daily experience wouldn’t have been too different from the scene witnessed by journalists from The Builder magazine thirty years earlier:
On the river-side [of the High Street] are the large shipping wharfs, with their Babel of noise, their din of cranks, cranes, and hydraulic lifts. The long street is lined with hosts of jabbering carmen, grumbling cabbies, touting porters, and provoked policemen… This singular spot of London East is an artificial island, and, comprised within its space, it exhibits the two extremes of great commercial wealth and importance, and the lowest phases of human suffering and indigence.
Among these conflicting forces of wealth and poverty the two youngest Delay children made it to school often enough to receive a medal each. Ellen was only five when she got hers.
But the stories of the two Delay children end differently. Ellen died when she was ten, perhaps a victim of the smallpox that surged through the overcrowded streets of the East End, or a tragic accident in the docks. After Ellen’s death, Denis and his mother moved in with his married eldest sister, Catherine. He worked in the wharfs, and got married in 1924 to Margaret Lea. In 1927 they had a son, and named him Denis too.
This youngest Denis Delay followed his father and aunt to St. Patrick’s School, attending until he was ten. In the thirties, Wapping was subject to the ‘slum clearance’ that saw the concentrated back-to-back housing replaced with blocks of flats. Throughout this period of change, Reverend Reardon presided over the congregation of St. Patrick’s. He oversaw young Denis’s First Communion in the church that had hosted three generations of the Delay family.
At the start of the Second World War, children from St. Patrick’s were evacuated to St. Joseph’s Catholic Primary School in Guildford, and the bombs that fell in their absence created some of the open spaces used as parks in Wapping today. The Museum has the letter that was sent to parents.
Denis described Wapping in the 1930s in similar terms to observers at the turn of the century, and even in the 1870s: ‘Wapping was an island, then, surrounded by the river and dock water. Really like a village, properly-so-called, with all the advantages and disadvantages of a village – an Irish Cockney village’.
 The Board Schools established by the Education Act of 1870 were supposed to avoid ‘the religion question’. The act stated: ‘No religious catechism or religious formulary which is distinctive of any particular denomination shall be taught in the school.’ Section 14, Education Act 1870
 ‘Homes in the East of London: A visit to Wapping “island”.’ The Builder, 7 January 1871. Full article available at http://www.mernick.org.uk/thhol/wapping_island.html