In October 1881 a 14-year-old London schoolboy called Ernest Baker started keeping a diary. ‘In this little book I intend to give a full and faithful account of the remarkable events of my life,’ he announced, ‘although of course my life is no more remarkable than anyone else’s life but however I hope it may interest some one.’
What I want from a diary is not necessarily remarkable events, but a vivid sense of the author’s character and of the times in which he or she lived. Though it covers a mere four months, Ernest Baker’s diary more than satisfies this requirement, providing a marvellous picture of everyday life in Shoreditch in the early 1880s filtered through the consciousness of a lively and irreverent adolescent.
Ernest had been given the diary by ‘his dear Papa’, the Reverend Henry Baker, who as Chaplain to the Ironmonger’s Company had charge of the Geffrye Almshouses in London’s East End. The almshouses were home to some fifty or so women pensioners with connections to the Ironmonger’s Company – or, as Ernest characteristically put it, ‘old biddies, who are resting the remains of their shattered lives in these grounds’. The Chaplain lived with his large family on the premises, took services in the chapel, supervised the staff and attended to both the spiritual and physical welfare of the pensioners. The almshouses are now the home of the Geffrye Museum, to which the diary was left by one of Ernest’s nieces in 1988 and by which it was published the following year as A Victorian Schoolboy in London.
Ernest Edward Baker was born on 9 November 1866, the sixth of the Reverend Baker’s nine children. At the time he was writing his diary, he was attending a crammer in Cannon Street run by a Dr Julius Klein. ‘I having a strong desire to go into the army am sent there to be prepared for the Sandhurst military college examination,’ Ernest explains in the first entry in his diary, dated 10 October 1881. Al
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