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Earl of hope

Britain had a people's peer long before Tony Blair modernised the Upper House. Susan Jeffreys explores the pioneering work of Lord Shaftesbury.

Lord Shaftesbury, born 200 years ago last month, spent his life campaigning against human misery. An aluminium Angel of Christian Charity in London's Piccadilly Circus has commemorated his work since 1893; most of us know it as Eros.

Two charities set up by "the People's Earl" also survive: Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa, which works with children and young people, especially those in public care; and the Shaftesbury Society, which helps the homeless, the long-term unemployed, and the disabled.

Early emotional deprivation may have set Anthony Ashley Cooper, as he was born, on his lifelong crusade against what he called "neglect and hard treatment", especially of the young. He had one of those bleak childhoods that the British upper classes sometimes still inflict on their offspring. His parents, he wrote near the end of his life, thought that "to render a child obedient it should be kept in constant fear of its father and mother".

At seven, before Harrow, he went to the Manor House preparatory school in Chiswick, which, he wrote, "nothing could have surpassed for filth, bullying, neglect and hard treatment of every sort". The only relief from this childhood of starvation and cruelty was provided by a kind family servant, Maria Millis. When she died, not long after he arrived at the Manor House, he felt utterly alone.

His first reforms were made as a lunacy commissioner in 1828 (humane treatment of the mentally ill was another cause that fired him throughout his life); his last months, in 1885, were spent campaigning against child prostitution; the decades between were filled with work against slavery, child labour, the opium trade and slum housing. He threw himself into the Ragged Schools movement (an expansion of Sunday Schools, which started in Portsmouth in 1820), fed the poor, housed the homeless, cared for orphans and rescued chimney-sweeps' climbing boys. And that's not the half of it. The hard graft behind his achievements - weary hours in committee, visiting the slums - would have broken a lesser man, and the Earl often succumbed to depression.

Behind the major reforms, the stuff of history syllabuses, lie dozens of lesser-known, practical, common-sense gestures. Shaftesbury organised interest-free loans for girls selling flowers and watercress so they could run coffee and whelk stalls in the winter months rather than turn to prostitution. He was made a fellow "coster" by the costermongers of London and maintained a barrow, which was on permanent loan to brother costers.

The Ragged Schools Union, of which he was president for 39 years, provided free education to some 300,000 adults and children before such schools were replaced in the Earl's lifetime by board schools. Shaftesbury had firm views on education which strike a chord today: here he is in 1853, warning teachers in Ragged Schools against displays of work and knowledge "produced to attract an inspector or a wondering audience, who may give credit to the master or mistress, although that credit may have been produced by the total sacrifice of those other children, who would have been far more conspicuous for goodness of heart than acuteness of intellect".

Children attending the London Ragged Schools were living on the streets, in workhouses, in brothels, and in conditions that pulled them into a life of crime. Children as young as three, filthy, starving, sometimes without even a name, were living in the gutter. Shaftesbury saw that schools alone could not break the cycle of deprivation, and supported campaigns to house the poor.

He worked with others to put a roof over the heads of abandoned children; first in shelters and hostels in inner London, later through residential training ships and children's homes. Today's Shaftesbury Homes are family-style units housing a total of around 50 children in the care of south London boroughs.

Shaftesbury's first floating boarding school was set up in 1866 because he had heard that the naval frigate HMS Chichester had been abandoned on the Thames, and he saw an opportunity to address the housing crisis. He held a supper for 150 homeless boys and asked if any of them wanted to live on a ship and learn a trade. A sea of hands went up, but those who had dreamed of life on the ocean wave may have been disappointed - the Chichester stayed on the Thames. In 1874 he acquired another ship, the Arethusa, from the Admiralty. Arethusa (named after a nymph who changed into a stream in Greek myth) became the name for a succession of training ships over the next 100 years.

Norman Kirman looks back at his time on the Arethusa in the 1950s with fondness. "I loved it for the most part. Very few of us turned out wrong 'uns," he says. Dave Whitlam, head of the Arethusa Old Boys' Association, spent the 1960s on a training ship. He and Norman were among thousands of boys who took up careers at sea after leaving the Arethusa.

"I think it's a shame something like this doesn't exist today," says Dave. "I loved being on the river and the water, but I wasn't so keen on scrubbing decks in bare feet on an icy January morning. We lived, slept and worked on board. We used to sleep in hammocks on the mess deck - I still miss sleeping in a hammock."

The current Arethusa, a ketch which took part in the Tall Ships Race 2000, is now in a boatyard in Hampshire. With refits costing pound;50,000 a year before it is able to go anywhere, it's becoming an unaffordable luxury and its future is uncertain.

The Arethusa Venture Centre, also owned by the charity, is in better fettle. It's a bright, well-kept residential activity centre on the River Medway in Kent that accommodates more than 6,000 children and young people a year. School groups are among those who enjoy the gym, swimming pool, climbing wall and curriculum-linked activities.

Fees from these trips help to fund the centre's work with excluded students, and those with low self-esteem or physical disabilities. The climbing wall has wheelchair access, and the fearsome-looking high ropes quickly instil self-discipline and group support among students who would be pushed to concentrate for two consecutive minutes in a classroom.

As well as being open to schools, the centre takes in youth groups and young people in housing and support projects from Kent and south London. Recently, a group of Muslim girls and women took a women-only climbing course at the centre. It is also available to children living in Shaftesbury Homes but they, sadly, are rarely able to use it.

"The idea of a coachload of happy children on a trip isn't really applicable," says Christine Eccles, assistant director of education for Shaftesbury Homes. Its young residents come from troubled backgrounds, she says, and many have emotional scars that need more specialist care than the venture centre can provide.

Many have had childhoods destroyed by the alcohol, drug or mental health problems of their parents, and many have suffered physical, psychological or sexual abuse. Shaftesbury, himself a doting father of nine, may have had this sort of human wreckage in mind when he said: "It would often be better if children had no parents at all."

Christine Eccles says that many struggle at school, even with the support and fresh start the homes try to offer. Kosovan refugee children, who have lost everything and seen things no child should ever see, are among the least disturbed of those cared for by the organisation - they have at some point experienced life in a stable family.

"Many have terrible broken nights," adds Tracey Smith, a home manager. "Some get as little as an hour to an hour and a half's sleep a night, and even then they have nightmares. Just getting to school is a major task for them."

Shaftesbury Homes has rethought its approach to education in recent years. "The whole routine and ethos of our children's homes," wrote chief executive Alison Chesney in a report this year, has refocused on "the importance of attending school and encouraging children to learn".

As a result, the number of Shaftesbury Homes children in school has rocketed. Eighty-six per cent were in full-time education in the period 1999-2000, compared with 51 per cent in 1997-1998; and 49 per cent were in mainstream schools, compared with just 3 per cent in the earlier period.

This achievement predates last year's government guidelines on the education of children in public care, says external relations director Edward Hardman: "We're well ahead. It's been our guiding principle since the Ragged Schools began that education is the way to break the cycle of deprivation."

Staff are quick to inform schools when pupils have suffered distress. "If there's been bad news or some problem the night before, we'll phone the school to let them know," says Tracey Smith.

Children threatened with exclusion (exclusions due to behavioural difficulties are disproportionately high among children in public care) are represented by advocates (pro bono solicitors or specialist community workers). While local authorities meet basic costs, the charity funds its own education service manager and a team of tutors who run homework clubs and offer learning support to individuals. This is paid for by European Social Fund cash matched by funding from Support and Help in Education and the Worshipful Company of Inn-Keepers, plus grants, legacies and donations.

In exam season, the homes are supplementing straightforward revision support with strategies to help children who already have low self-esteem deal with the fear of failure. Besides anger management sessions and head massages, there's breakfast in bed on exam day and a bit of bribery - students get pound;20 for each GCSE they attempt. Just the sort of treats and rewards that their classmates in happier circumstances get to coax them through the trial of exams.

"The poor educational attainment of children looked after in care is a national disgrace," says Alison Chesney. Like their founder, staff at the homes not only keep the big picture in mind but remember the small, common-sense actions.

Thousands lined the Earl's funeral route in 1885: children from the Shaftesbury Homes and the training ships, flower girls, factory workers, bootblacks and costermongers. On his deathbed, he fretted: "I cannot bear to leave the world with all the misery in it." Without him the toll of worldly despair would have been immeasurably higher.

Arethusa Venture Centre, Lower Upnor, Rochester, Kent ME2 4XB. Tel: 01634 719933

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