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THE "EXCKLSIOR CLASSES" IN AUSTRALIA., Issue 7982, 10 August 1889, Supplement
THE "EXCKLSIOR CLASSES" IN AUSTRALIA.
About five or six years ago Mr William Groom, a young workman in a silk hat t factory in Melbourne, used to observe with | great distress the large number of boys who . were drinking in the saloons of Hie city, I especially on Saturday night?. The sight at last "troubled him so much that he j resolved to attempt some method cf diminishing the evil. So one evening he accosted a group of boys in a saloon, and asked them whether they really found any enjoyment in that mode of spending time, 1 hey answered that perhaps, after all, there was not much fun iu it. Mr Groom then invited them to come the next Saturday evening to his lodgings, and said that he would try to furnish them with better amusement. Some of the boys came, and Mr Groom, though feeling awkwaid and embarrassed, did his beat to entertain them with games, reading, and a little personal talk. By degrees his unique power of influencing hoys became manifest; numbers began to gather round him, and his work become known to a few persons of wealth and position, who, recognising Mr Groom’s peculiar gifts, agreed to guarantee a sufficient sum annually to enable him to devote his whole time to work among the boys. It may be mentioned, in passing, that Mr Groom’s most enthusiastic supporter is a young artist, belonging to a family of high standing and influence in A ietovia, who is himself carrying on an interesting and valuable work in tho Melbourne Hospital. Owing to impaired vision, lie is able to work at his profession only during the morning hour?. He therefore devotes three afternoons in the week to visiting the patients in the surgical wards of the hospital—those in tho medical wards having comparative! v little superfluous energy—reading and "talking to them, keeping them supplied with hooks, and teaching them netting, macraine work, the construction of picture frames, and a variety of other artistic and useful objects. The various materials required lie brings at each visit. In this way tho wearisome hours of tee patients are lightened, Eome_ useful minor industries are learned, anu tne calc of too products gives the patients in many cases a substantial sum of money to make a iroah start when they arc discharged from the hospital. To return to Mr Groom’s special work. When ho was enabled to give his whole time to it, the movement spread rapidly. Six or seven large classes, each consistiug of several hundreds of boys, were formed in various parts of the city. Mr Groom s earnest endeavor throughout was to establish them on a self-governing ami self-sup-porting basis, and to avoid all showy display of the work for the sake cf obtaining “patronage ” and contributions. The weekly meetings of the classes arc held primarily for tl-.e sake of mutual entertainment. A large room is cither lent or rented, and a varied performance fakes place songs, recitations, an occasional farce, and a few words of advice, admonition, or encourage - ment from the loader of the da.??. ihe chairman of the meeting is elected by tiie boys, as also tire tiie secretary, treasurer, and doorkeepers, Mr Groom, when he is present, is always elected as leader. The small dues of the class, usually about 3d, arc collected weekly'. In connection with the classes, 100, arc penny banks and lending libraries. A remarkable work Ims been carried on by sonic of the bigger boys, who were formerly leaders in mischief and outrage among the vicious “larrikins” who nightly haunt the streets of the Australian cities and cause sore perplexity to those who study social problems in those colcnie?. A few of these reclaimed “ hoodlums ” sally forth together on Saturday nights, go from one saloon to another, and, if they see boys drinking there, bid them come out and join them. The boys instinctively obey their former leaders, meekly follow them, and aro brought within the circle of influence of the Excelsior Classes. From Melbourne the movement has already spread to Sydney'. A young clerk in ono of tho Government offices of New South Wales, while on a visit to Melbourne, heard of Mr Groom’s w'ork, and was so deeply impressed by what he saw of it that he determined to devote his to a similar work in his own city. An admirable class is now organised in the midst of a very poor district, it was at Sydney that I first came into contact with the work. I well remember the striking character of the scene. Passing between two vigilant boy doorkeepers, I entered a large bare schoolroom, lighted with flaming gas-jet?. More than a hundred boys of ill sorts and sizes, many ragged and with bare feet, were sitting absolutely quiet and orderly, with eager intelligent faces, listening to a few words from their elected leader or “ critic,” as he is here styled, the Government clerk whom I have mentioned. The chairman, secretary, and treasurer, each adorned wilh a broad crimson scarf, as of sonic knightly order, were at their post?. Then the entertainment fbegan, consistiug almost entirely of recitations and songs chosen by the boys themselves. No trace of anything coarse or low appeared. The tendency', oddly enough, was to pieces of a profoundly melancholy and sentimental order. The choruses of the more lively songs _ were taken up by the whole body of boys with an energy which seemed almost great enough to break the windows and blow off the roof. But throughout Ihe meeting the order and discipline maintained for themselves by these rough street boys wss simply perfect. After the entertainment was, over, the treasurer collected the weekly dues, and then the business of a penny bank was transacted. I left the meeting, feeling that I had seen the finest sight in all Australia. . Some weeks later 1 had the privilege or meeting Mr Groom himself at his little house near Melbourne, At this time he was in a very shattered state of health, and only just recovering from the effects of a terrible railroad accident. He had been compelled for six months to withdraw entirely from the supervision of tho Excelsior Classes, but ho was still able to attend to a deeply interesting branch of his work at home—the rescue of boys of the most depraved and degraded class, whom he had found lying about the wharves at night, or had intercepted on their discharge from prison. He showed me in his baok,garden a long low barrack of six little chambers, separated | from each other by solid vfalla, so that no | communication should be possible by night among the inmates. Each room was simply but prettily furnished. On tho wall hung an illuminated and framed copy of the Lord’s Prayer; and in another frame a stanza of some hymn or poem. During the day tho boys are sent to the public school; the rest of their time is filled up with work of various kinds—carpentry, digging, gardening, and household duties. They take their meals with Mr and Mrs Groom, and thus learn decent manners at table. Mr Groom has gone with great care and thoroughness into the subject of the various forms of vice to which these poor boys are specially prone, and uses every effort to ascertain and apply the surest and most appropriate remedies and preventives, When the boys have been
thoroughly reclaimed they are drafted off to places in the country. The demand for the boys is far greater than Mr Groom can supply. This is a department of his work which Mr Groom guards with the greatest care from ostentatious publicity, rightly deeming that the subject is far too grave and awful to be made a matter of advertising and promiscuous patronage. The necessary funds are, I believe, supplied by a few attached friends and by a single largo business linn. It is by no means easy —experlo credile—iov others to obtain the privilege of contributing to the work.
lb was exceedingly interesting to observe the effect upon the Excelsior Classes of Mr Groom’s disablement. Four or five of the classes, it must be confessed, had at the time of my visit lapsed into a state of suspended animation, although there was every reason to hope that they would revive at Mr Groom’s tone!'. One class which I visited was still in operation, but it was evidently on the point of breaking down. The temporary leader—a good and really heroic young fellow—was evidently not quite fitted for his post. On the evening of ray visit the meeting was a very large one, and a numocr of turbulent youths had made their way in. The leader, as I could tell from my former scholastic experience, was at fault in every appeal which he made to the audience, and naturally excited some derision. However, the performance was creditably gone through, in spite of some interruptions. I was struck by the genuine courtesy of the boys, who, although I was the only visitor present in the unruly assembly, never by word or act made my position in the slightest degree uncomfortable, although considerable ingenuity was shown in worrying their “leader.” I was not surprised to learn that the subsequent meeting broke up in confusion, and the class was suspended.
In tho next class which 1 visited all was cheering and hopeful. About a hundred boys, with many of their friends and relations, were present, in a cheerful, well-lighted schoolroom. An admirable entertainment was provided songs, recitations, a short farce, and, if I remember rightly, some gymnastic exercise?. A few wholesome words were addressed to the boys by their elected leader, a young, fresh-looking boy, who is employed asaclerk in abusinesshouss. Although the class had for six mouths been deprived of Mr Groom’s supervision, the order and discipline of tho meeting left nothing to be desired, The genial bonhomie and courtesy of the boys deeply impressed me. I rcmained for some time after tho meeting, talking with tho boys and examining their library and savings bank. My favorable impression was continually deepened. Here, I thought, was a sight even grander than I had witnessed in Sydney, as proving what democratic government, free from all suspicion of being qualified, may do among boys.
Some further details of this interesting work maybe derived from ‘ The Excelsior,’ a monthly paper which was, and not improbably is still, published for the classes.
THE "EXCKLSIOR CLASSES" IN AUSTRALIA., Issue 7982, 10 August 1889, Supplement
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