There is a whole lost world of London entertainment: its pleasure grounds, panoramas and private museums. One eighteenth-century attraction which now survives only as a street name was John Castle’s shell grotto, a wonderland of constructions in shells, housed in an acre of the open land which then characterised Marylebone.
The grotto didn’t long survive Castle’s death in 1757, and in the nineteenth century the area was no longer one of fields. Instead, a ragged and industrial school was built in Grotto Passage– but its elaborate lettering perhaps suggests a hint of whimsy lingering about the spot.
However, there was probably little that was whimsical about the lives of impoverished children educated there. A parliamentary report of 1854 states:
This institution was opened in 1846, in a small room in the above locality, at first as an evening school for boys of the ragged class.
In 1849 a refuge and reformatory for boys was opened, accommodation having been made for 25. 209 have been admitted; of these, 62 have been sent to Australia; 34 to Canada; 55 have entered the royal navy; 36 the merchant service; and 10 various kinds of service at home. Total, 197.
Why such an emphasis on emigration? Apparently it was difficult to find work for these children in London; that must have been all the more true for the Grotto School. According to evidence heard in 1852, it was one ‘where children, who were found unmanageable in the workhouse on account of bad behaviour, have been taken in, and reformed and emigrated.’
I discovered this intriguing alley on a tour of Marylebone with Jo of Westminster Walking
which I’d recommend highly. Alternatively, if all this talk of grottos has put you in a festive mood, she offers a tour of London’s Christmas lights
which ends in a pub with a fire and mulled wine.