Educational History: Thomas Guthrie and the Ragged Schools

Thomas Guthrie was born in Brechin on 12th July, 1803, was to be a famous champion of the Ragged Schools movement that introduced free education in Britain.  His ancestors had been farmers in the county of Angus.  The 12th child and 6th son of David Guthrie and Clementina Cay, his father was a merchant and banker in Arbroath and would become Provost of that city.

Reverend Thomas Guthrie of Greyfriars Kirk
Reverend Thomas Guthrie


The first school Thomas attended was in a weaver’s shop where Jamie Stewart, the weaver, taught him and some half dozen other boys their letter, all the while industriously plying the shuttle.  He later moved on to a school where he was taught by Dr Thomas McCrie, leader of the Original Secession Church where the young Thomas undoubtedly absorbed early impression of the seceder movement.


At the age of 12 he went to Edinburgh University where, as part of his studies, he attended classes in Surgery and Anatomy under the infamous Dr Knox.  He completed the entire 8 year curriculum for a divinity student by 1825 two years before he was old enough to be granted a license.  He filled those two years with travel on the Continent and further studies in Edinburgh and at the Sorbonne in Paris.


When he returned to Arbroath he joined a large group of spirited young ministers, among the Robert Lee who was also to go as minister to Old Greyfriars in Edinburgh.  While Lee remained with the Moderates, Guthrie was unwilling to commit himself to them: he joined the Evangelicals.  He was among the leaders of this group who would part with their livings rather than allow any interference with what they perceived to be the rights of congregations or the democratic government of the church.  Guthrie did not immediately get a charge but filled in by helping a younger cousin in the family banking business.


In 1829 he was appointed to the charge of the parish of Arbirlot, near Forfar.  He early on showed his great zeal for change and for helping the young introducing a special church service for young people every Sunday afternoon.  Perceiving that he made little impression by his sermons, he changed his mode of address becoming a pictorial preacher drawing illustrations from the events of common life and from scenes familiar to the people.  His fame and popularity spread throughout the district.  Once description of him at this time was that he had great vigor, ready wit and moving eloquence.


His experience of business in the banking world led him to open a savings bank for his parishioners and he also established a library in the village.  In 1834 he gave his parishioners the right to choose their own elders the practice of church elections having fallen into disuse in the past.  Guthrie was very active in the politics of the Church, pressing for the abolition of Patronage and keen for Church Extension.


In June 1837 Dr James McCosh, minister of Abbey Church, Arbroath, and later president of Princeton College, New Jersey, was asked to preach to the congregation of Old Greyfriars.  He declined to take the post of minister but he recommended Guthrie to the congregation.  Guthrie also declined the post but a deputation traveled all the way from Edinburgh to hear him preach in his own church.  When he was duly elected, he felt that a move to the capital would help him to engage in a greater work than he could do in a country parish.


At the start of his ministry in Edinburgh he was urged to alter his style of preaching to suit a more sophisticated Edinburgh audience; he refused but nevertheless gained many followers at Old Greyfriars.  Working with the minister of the first charge, Dr Sym, Guthrie’s task was to devote himself to the work of Evangelisation.  He was 3 years joint minister at Old Greyfriars.


Having been transferred form Arbirlot in Angus a parish of rural respectability, he was appalled at the housing conditions of the Old Town in Edinburgh, and the plight of the ragged children, compelled by their circumstances to beg or steal, worried him greatly.  Seeing the poverty, squalor, misery and vice in the Old Town he threw himself into the work of reclamation.


Looking down upon the Cowgate from Greyfriars he saw the foul house, the patched windows stuffed with rags, the wretched objects creeping along the street.  There were hordes of screaming children arrayed in flying drapery, their tiny faces telling how ill they are fed, their fearful oaths telling how ill they are raised.  In the Grassmarket Guthrie saw closemouths… filled with loungers worse than any Neapolitan lazzaroni  brutal figures, ragged and wretched old men, bold and fierce women, and many a half-clad mother shivering with her naked feet on a frozen pavement and a skeleton infant in her arms.


Guthrie moved to St John’s Church in Victoria Street which had been opened as an extension to Greyfriars in November 1840.  Three years later Guthrie joined in the Disruption and had to leave St John’s but a new church Free St John’s in the West Bow (now St Columba’s Free Church in Johnston Terrace) was built for him.  In the meantime he was heavily involved with the care of Free Church families who had been affected by the schism between the churches.  The disruption seriously affected education in Scotland as members of the new Free churches chose to establish their own schools partly to avoid the parish schools controlled by the Moderate establishment and partly to provide work for the many teachers who had seceded.


By 1851 the Free Church had built 712 schools.  Matters where still unsatisfactory, however, in the slum areas of the cities.  Ragged Schools had been set up as early as 1820 in England and Guthrie had undoubtedly heard of them when he published his Plea for Ragged Schools in 1847.


It was widely read and eventually led to the establishment of many such schools.  But the written word was not his only weapon, for if Dr Guthrie was persuasive in print, he was irresistible in person, being a very tall man, 6 foot plus his familiar stove-pipe hat.  (See his monument in Princes Street at the foot of Castle Street).


In order to get his own scheme off the ground Dr Guthrie asked his new congregation if it would be possible to raise £70, but while they were willing to help, this sum could not be found.  So it was decided to raise subscriptions from the general public: in one year £2,062 was raised and the money continued to come in.


So seven destitute boys became the first pupils of the Ragged School in Free St John’s, Castlehill, in March 1847.  The schools were originally named (with a combination of sympathy and insensitivity) Edinburgh Original Ragged Industrial Schools.  As the demand for places increased Dr Guthrie expanded the operation by opening another room in a building opposite, in Ramsay Lane.  The building can still be seen today a carved Bible above the door displays the text, Search the Scriptures.  Soon girls were admitted to the Ragged School and eventually there were a number of extensions to the scheme in South Grey’s Close, The Vennel and in Leith.  The combined effect of these schools was to clear the streets of juvenile beggars and reduce the number of children in the city’s prisons by seventy-five percent.


In his early pleas for funds Dr Guthrie explained that his enterprise was founded on the complementary principles of two eminent philanthropists Dr Alison and Dr Chalmers.  The meet, wrote Dr Guthrie, in our schoolroom.  Dr Alison comes with his bread and Dr Chalmers with his Bible.  Her is food for the body there is food for the soul.  Guthrie insisted on Protestant religious instruction, although many of the children were Irish Catholics.  On this point he differed in attitude from Robert Lee who supported the United Industrial Schools which were founded around the same time but where religious instruction was carried out by visitors from different churches.


The Schools had a formal Constitution the first rule being to reclaim the destitute and train them to earn an honest living.  The pupils led a well fed life of lessons and industry.  Cleanliness, Godliness, Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic were taught as well as skills including Cobbling, Tailoring, cooking, Laundry, Knitting and Sewing.  Orders were fulfilled for local retailers and a small wage was paid to instill the value of a penny earned.  Five hundred children passed through the school in the first year.  As many as 16 died from rickets or tuberculosis: 173 were discharged who could not be educated but they were still destitute and were accommodated at Gilmerton.  It was not all work and no play, for in addition to feeding, clothing and educating, the directors provided for a pipe band of 12/14 boys playing pipes, drums and bugles.


The first Annual General Meeting of the Ragged Schools was held in the Music Hall on 14th April 1848, His Grace the Duke of Argyle presiding.  There was a General Committee of 50 and an Acting Committee of 26 comprising Professors, Lawyers, Doctors, Bankers, etc.  The list of subscribers totaled around 1200 165 donors contributed clothing and there were gifts of butcher meat, cheeses, a barrel of Indian meal, a carload of turnips and other vegetables, also books, Bibles and Testaments.


In the Annual Report of 1851 it was stated that 216 children had been sent out into the world who were known to be earning an honest living having therefore achieved what Dr Guthrie considered to be the real worth of the schools – that wretched ragged outcasts could become honest men, virtuous mothers and useful citizens.


Guthrie had never confined his interests to the Ragged Schools alone.  He was a member of the Board of Management of the Royal Infirmary and there took an interest in its Home for Fallen Women.  Other institutions which commanded his attention were the Blind asylum and the House of Refuge and the Night Refuge.  In 1853 he was involved in the passing of the Forbes-Mackenzie Act which curtailed the hours of public house opening and closed them completely on Sundays.  In 1862 he was honoured by being elected Moderator of the General Assembly of the Free Church.


Guthrie retired in 1864 form active pastoral work but looking back over his years with the Ragged Schools, he could still see little change in the Old Town.  The slums were still there, the Edinburgh Improvement Act of 1867 (the clearing of the slums) was still to come and compulsory education did not come into force until 1872.


But the slums no longer echoed to the cries of idle children or offered shelter to the rowdy bands of tiny thieves.  In The Scotsman of May 1, 1867, Lord Provost Watt paid homage to Dr Guthrie and the work of the Ragged Schools…..if parents did their duty towards their children such institutions would not be necessary.  The greater number of the parents of the children attending Ragged Schools were completely given over to habits of interference which made them utterly indifferent to the spiritual and temporal well-being of their offspring.


Thomas Guthrie died on 23 February 1873 at St Leonard’s on Sea near Hastings.  With him at his death were his wife and eight of his ten children amid whom, he wrote, I have enjoyed an amount of happiness that seldom falls to the lot of man.


The Ragged Schools remained in the city centre until 1887 when they were moved to buildings at Liberton and Gilmerton.  They came to be referred to as Dr Guthrie’s Schools and were classified as approved School and then later, List D schools.  They were closed down in the mid 1980s when Government funding was withdrawn and the Edinburgh City council changed their policy concerning children in need, feeling that they were better off in the community than being segregated in special schools.  The Dr Guthrie Foundation is still providing financial assistance to needy young people in the community.