Educational History: John Pounds and the Ragged Schools

John Pounds was born on June 17th 1766 and died on January 1st 1839. In his time he did unfathomable amounts of work to improve the lives of many people, particularly children, in the city of Portsmouth. It is arguable that this humble man, ‘the crippled cobbler of Portsmouth’, has played one of the most significant roles in shaping the social and educational landscape of the United Kingdom, and possibly beyond. All because he gave his life over to being a teacher when there were none, and acting true to a selflessness and an altruism which was to go on to inspire people such as Charles Dickens and the Reverend Thomas Guthrie.

John Pound's Workshop with children


Born into a family which was not in any way privileged financially, he was to follow his father to the Naval Dockyard to become an apprentice shipwright. Portsmouth is famous for its Navy and much of the industry revolved around the military purposes. Just before his fifteenth birthday, he tragically fell into a dry dock and was almost killed. He was to make a miraculous recovery, considering the medicine of the time and lack of any kind of compensatory or social support system at the time.


He was left with permanent and crippling injuries and eventually found his way into the craft of a cobbler, making and mending boots. This provided him with a small income for the rest of his life. At the time the trade of cobbling made provisions for those who were not able bodied in certain respects.


John Pounds had many other skills though, and amongst them was the ability to communicate with people – especially destitute children who were reputed to be difficult and unruly from being left to fend for themselves on the streets. He would talk to and befriend the children of poor families and was known to have sewn extra pockets on the inside of his overcoat, whereupon he would go out walking at night to find the homeless children sleeping in the docks. In his pockets he would pack hot baked potatoes and throw them out to the children telling them to come along to his shop as there was more food where that came from. In this way he befriended people who had been abandoned by any other opportunity.


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In a tiny room which was his workshop, not much more than fourteen by eighteen feet, he would mend and make shoes whilst teaching the children what he knew. Giving quite impressive instruction on education and how to live, he inspired them to have a hunger for knowledge and skills which otherwise would not have emerged. His small workshop was often packed out with as many as forty children at any a time where you would find him teaching them reading, writing and arithmetic skills.


The life of John Pounds has been written about many times, far and wide. Possibly the most articulate and brilliant account is given by the Minister Henry Hawkes in his “Recollections of John Pounds”. Hawkes had personally known John Pounds for the last six years of his life and been very powerfully captured by the effect that he had on the surrounding community.


The Reverend Henry Hawkes completed the book towards the end of his life and the descriptions of life in 1830’s Portsmouth communicate his shock at the poverty and squalor that many faced on a day to day basis. Today, the Reverend Martin N Whitell, who maintains the community at the John Pounds Memorial Church has reprinted the book in its original form (ISBN: 978-0-9573951-0-7).


Blue Plaque of John Pounds

The book starts with (Page 1):

“A few days after I came to reside at Portsmouth, in the spring of 1833, a lady said to me laughingly, ‘have you been introduced to the old cobbler yet?’. Seeing that I was at a loss to know whom she referred to; ‘O you must go and see the old cobbler;’ she said in a somewhat more serious tone; but mingled with pleasantry, ‘He’s a remarkable man; quite a character! And does a great deal of good, in his own quiet, humble way. Besides, he is to be one of your new Flock; and a very constant one: – in an evening; but he is never there in the morning.


They say he stays at home in the morning to cook his Nephew his dinner. He has adopted his Nephew; and the young man lives with him. But he is always there in an evening; nobody ever knew him absent, or late. He’s always one of the first, the early comers are sure to see John Pounds in his place. He sits in the left gallery going in, at the farther end, near the pulpit; and has commonly a cluster of little children about him. For he has taken a fancy to keeping a school: if, school we may call it! Such a crowd of children, all huddled together, in his very little shop; and he teaches them while he goes on with his cobbling!


Many of the poorest of them he partly feeds and clothes. His shop is full of them. Oh such a little bit of a shop! One wonders how he gets them all in. And yet in that poor little place he has commonly thirty or forty children at once; sometimes more; all happy about him. On a fine day you may see a row of them sitting outside in the street, on a little form, just under hiss little tumbledown window.”


“What are his terms?”


“Terms!” and she laughed heartily. “He has no terms! He won’t receive any thing for it. He gets about him the poorest and most destitute; he seeks out them that can’t pay. Friends would gladly give him something occasionally in the way of remuneration; but he always refuses it. No one has ever been able to induce him to accept any thing for it”


“What has he to live upon?”


“We don’t know. But he can’t have much, if any thing, besides what he earns by his cobbling; and he can’t earn much by that; for his work, though they say it is strong and serviceable, is but of a rough sort. Every thing about him, and his manner of living seems very bare and scanty; and would look wretched, but for his own happy contented spirit, and his host of happy little faces. And he has his shop crowded with bird-cages, and baskets for his cat and kittens, and young birds, and other animals; any thing he can help to make happy!


The place is fully of life and cheerfulness. But you must go and see him; and he will tell you all about it himself; for he dearly loves to talk about his doings, to anyone that will listen. He has a very independent spirit, and a most benevolent heart; indefatigable in doing good; but all in the humblest way; most unpretending and obscure. Mrs. E—, of A—, calls him a philanthropist! She says, he’s an honour to mankind!” – with a smile “ We took her to see him once, in the midst of his busy little school; cobbling, and teaching his scholars! And she was highly delighted. She calls him – a public benefactor! She has repeatedly sent a bundle of their children’s cast-off clothes for his poorest scholars; which he has always received very gratefully, and made the best use of them. He will accept anything for the poor children; but nothing for himself”


“Has he kept this school long?”


“Yes, many years. But you must not expect to find it much like a school. It is more of a gathering together as many children as his shop will hold; with nothing like system or classification. His crowd of little boys and girls cluster about him like a swarm of bees! – and with very much the same sort of constant hum and buzz! – all at their ease ! It is a pleasant sight to see them; they all look so happy together.”


John Pounds Workshop c 1930s

The Reverend Thomas Guthrie is often credited with the creation of Ragged Schools. He wrote the Plea for Ragged Schools to champion the idea of free education and social care to reduce poverty and improve people’s means to take a positive role in society. Thomas Guthrie proclaimed John Pounds as the originator of the idea, though free education and the power of its ability to generate a better world has been known in all cultures and at all times.


With attachment to the name, John Pounds is possibly the man most responsible for the creation of the concept of Ragged schools. Again here we return to the text of ‘Recollections of John Pounds’ by Henry Hawkes (Page 137):


“When Dr Guthrie, in 1847, threw himself with all his ardour and energy into what came to be called ‘The Ragged School Movement’, this generous Movement went on with increased vigour and expansiveness. Kindred spirits gathered to him. Powerful speakers, strong minded writers, large-hearted philanthropists, hastened to help forward the great work.


In the spring of that year, Dr Guthrie published a ‘Plea for Ragged Schools’ – so powerful, that, though only a sixpenny pamphlet, it was reviewed in the Edinburgh Review, with high esteem and admiration; and letters of congratulations and encouragement, and gifts of money for carrying on the good work, both from his own friends, and from persons unknown to him, came pouring in far beyond anything he had dared to hope; even to his astonishment. And he and his friends in the summer commenced their Ragged School in Edinburgh, and brought it into excellent and permanent effectiveness.


Rather more than two years after publishing his first ‘Plea for Ragged Schools’ Dr Guthrie published a second; full of the same grieving benevolence; setting forth, – as in a long gallery of dark pictures, – the neglect, the want, and miseries, steeping such large numbers of children in wretchedness and crime:- and then, in bright contrast, a succession of cheerful pictures, from their own Ragged School; showing beautiful results already achieved in many of their scholars; – their wretchedness, crime, starvation, – changed into comfort, and virtue, and happiness.


Towards the close, he enlarges on the vast amount of ignorance and crime in the lowest orders; – dangerous to society; undermining the social fabric; fearfully on the increase; threatening a terrible wreck, if not checked ‘To attempt to avert such a fate’, he says, ‘is every man’s duty’; and, more than he dreams of, is within every man’s doing. This is no idle saying. Were we to make a pilgrimage; – as soon as to the lonely heath where martyrs repose, we would direct out steps to the busy streets of Portsmouth; and would turn from the proud array of Old England’s floating bulwarks to seek the humble shop where John Pounds achieved works of mercy, and earned an imperishable fame. There is no poetry in his name, and none in his profession; but there was more than poetry in his life, – the noblest benevolence.


Within the shop where he cobbled shoes, he might be seen surrounded by some score or two or ragged urchins, whom he was educating and converting into valuable members of society. Honour to the memory of him, beneath whose leathern apron there beat the kindest heart, – there glowed a bosom fired with the noblest ambition.


Without fee or reward from man, while he toiled for his hard-earned bread with the sweat of his brow, this poor cobbler educated not less than five hundred outcasts, before they laid him in his lowly grave! Honour, we say again, to the memory of this illustrious patriot! Nor is there any sight we would have travelled so far to see, as that self same man, when he followed some ragged boy along the quays of Portsmouth, keeping his kind, keen eye upon him, and tempting the young savage to his school with the bribe of a smoking potato. Princes and peers, judges and divines, might have stood uncovered in his presence; and marble monuments might be removed from the venerable walls of Westminster to make room for his.


“His history proves what a single-handed but right-hearted man may do; what – would the reader address himself in earnest to the work, – he himself might do. Animated by his example, and encouraged by his success, we entreat you to turn an eye of piety an pity on these unhappy children. These are the children of our Common Father. Man, they are they brothers and sisters.”


Reverend Thomas Guthrie of Greyfriars Kirk
Reverend Thomas Guthrie

The Ragged School Movement had now grown into large dimensions. The whole nation seems to have wakened up to the wants and claims of the most destitute and neglected children; left a prey to every vilest corruption from the cradle; too commonly outcast, till in the hands of the police; the prison their home.


The duty, the sacred, the alarming responsibility, seemed more and more felt among the better educated, and those with ample means, to do their utmost for the gathering up these lost ones: – to rescue them while little children, and the most easily influenced to better things; to take them into their cherishing care; and provide for their comfort; and train them to virtue and happiness; and let them grow up valuable members of society, – blessings to their fellow creatures.


Hundreds of Ragged Schools rapidly sprung up in our large towns; and were fast increasing in numbers. The Movement was spreading with growing strength and power throughout the length and breadth of the land; commanding the esteem of all ranks of society. Leading statesmen, illustrious noblemen, deemed themselves honoured in taking part in public meetings, pleading for these poor children.


Something had been done; but far more remained to do. From the platform, not only in Edinburgh, but in London, in Birmingham, and other great centres of philanthropic co-operation, Dr Guthrie, addressing large and influential meetings, called aloud, with all his vehemence and power of appeal, for all possible help for the rescuing these thousands upon thousands of poor neglected children, swarming in our large towns, ready to perish.


Considering the magnitude of the work, and what they considered the inadequacy of voluntary means to cope with it; Dr Guthrie and his friends determined to apply to government for State aid. And in 1852, a committee of the House of commons was appointed, to inquire into the condition of ‘criminal and destitute juveniles in this country, and what changes are desirable in their present treatment, in order to supply industrial training, and to combine reformation with due correction of juvenile crime’.


So this is a small glimpse into how John Pounds came to inspire a nation and beyond, by deeds and actions – the basis of which was kindness and care. By sharing what he had, resources, knowledge and company; generations of children went out into the world on changed trajectories – ones which fruited into constructive lives. Here we return to more of Hawkes’ recollections of John Pounds to get a more detailed feel of the life of the man:


“Passing the next day, at noon; all was still in the little shop; except the birds singing. No little crowd of scholars; his little tumble-down window was open, and the upper-half of the street door was open; but his bench was vacant. The old man was asleep in his old arm-chair; his cat sitting on his knee, comfortably tucked up, seemly asleep too. Two very little children were amusing themselves on the floor; very quietly, as if careful not to make any noise to wake him. They had probably shared his dinner with him. The bit of fire was out; as if it had done its work till tea-time. Near the grate were some potato-peelings, and a sauce-pan.


Passing again on my return, just after two-o’clock, all was changed. No stillness now! The little shop was full to overflowing of children; some with slates, or bits of slates; some with books; some with only a single leaf out of some old worn-out book, learning their lessons; some with flowers; some amusing themselves with play things. And the old cobbler was sitting on his bench at work, at the open window, mending a boot; all life and authority! The governing spirit of that busy, happy group! Loving and loved ! His cat was sitting on his shoulder, looking about, interested in everything. The birds were singing loud, enjoying the lively scene.


John pounds in his workshop with children


‘Johnny, when’s you bring me you’s boot to mend, with the big hole in it?’ ‘Any when, Mr Pounds.’ ‘Any when? Now, ye rascal! Off with you!’ And the little fellow ran out, laughing an full of glee; and was soon back with his old boot; and gave it to the kind old man, with love and respect. The old man took it from the child with a tender seriousness; and turned it about and about, and looked at it with such searching care; – all the children were hushed to stillness, and loving respect. He had probably done the like for some of them. ‘I’se make a good job of it for you, Johnny’ ‘Thank you, Mr Pounds’.


‘Dick, hears a sum for you;’ handing a slate to one of the bigger boys. He was one of the three I had questioned in the multiplication table the day before. ‘What rule’s in it?’ ‘Rule of three, Mr Pounds’ ‘Right. What sort?’ ‘Double rule of three’ ‘Right again. Now, quick, lad. But, mind, no blunders. Slow, and sure. But, quickest best; so long as there’s no blundering,’ At once the boy was leaning with his back against the wall, intent on doing his sum.


‘Sandy, come here lad’ And a quiet looking little boy, with chubby cheeks, came to him. ‘What’s this Sandy?’ touching the boy’s nose with his finger. ‘My nose, Mr Pounds’ ‘Spell nose, Sandy’ And the boy spelt nose. ‘What’s this?’ laying his broad hand on the child’s head. ‘My head, Mr Pounds.’ ‘What’s it good for?’ ‘Doesn’t know, Mr Pounds’ ‘No nor nobody else. Fill it full o’ larning Sandy! Then it’s be good for something. Here, go and larn this.’ And he gave him a torn leaf with some verses on. ‘I knows you like ‘em; they’s very pretty verses; ‘Birds in their little nests agree.’ And you’s all agree, and be good friends together, like the little birds in they’s nests.’ ‘Yes Mr Pounds;’ several little voices’ ‘we’s all be good friends together.’ ‘That’s it lads’.


And so it came to pass that on new years day 1839 John Pounds died. He was known to have said ‘One day I too will fall off my perch’, a man who looked after dogs, cats and birds as well as children. Would he have known or imagined the impact he would have on people’s lives should we have been able to ask him ? What would he have said if he were to project how what he did would reach out into the world.


Memorial to John Pounds

Today he is buried at John Pounds Memorial Church (High Street, Old Portsmouth, Hampshire, PO1 2HW) where you can see an exact replica made of his workshop. There is a small stone monument with the following inscription on it:


Inscription on the South Front

“Underneath this monument rest the mortal remains of John Pounds the philanthropic shoemaker of St Mary’s Street Portsmouth who while working at his trade in a very small room gratuitously instructed in a useful education and partly fed some hundreds of girls and boys. He died suddenly on new years day MDCCCXXXIX while in his active beneficence aged LXXII years”


Inscription on the East Side

“This monument has been erected by means of penny subscriptions not only from the Christian brotherhood with whom John Pounds habitually worshipped in the adjoining chapel but from persons of widely differing religious opinion throughout Great Britain and from the most distant parts of the world. In connection with this monument has also been found in like manner within these precincts a library to his memory designed to extend to an indefinite futurity the solid mental and moral usefulness to which the philanthropic shoemaker was so earnestly devoted to the last day of his life”


To finish this potted history, again we draw from the memoirs of Reverend Hawkes (Page 171):

Power Station Plaque

“One beautiful Sunday evening, as I turned round the corner of the Chapel to go to the vestry, I saw Mr Lemmon standing before the monument of his friend. He stood with his back to me. As I touched him gently on the shoulder, – ‘Ah, Sir,’ he said, with deep feeling, his eyes glistening with tears; ‘I was reading these inscriptions again.


Johnny never thought it would come to this. Who’d have thought it? – The Founder of the Ragged Schools! – And now they’re springing up in all parts of the country! – And lords and ladies are proud to help! – Johnny never thought of all this ! – But I think – they should have put on, – he was Founder of Ragged Schools.’ He said this with a tone and look of dissatisfaction and regret.


‘That thought occurred to me, Mr Lemmon, as I was writing the inscriptions. And I hesitated some time. He is so commonly spoken of as the Founder of Ragged Schools, that it was not till I had given it my best and lengthened consideration, that I could decide to leave it out. But I felt it would not be in character with his quiet way of doing good. He never thought be being the Founder of Ragged Schools; – or of any schools. He only thought of his own little school – in his own little shop; – and doing all the good he could among his poor neighbours.’


‘Yes! – You’re right, Sir! – You’re right!’ – he said, with hearty concurrence. And a generous glow brightened his old cheek. My approaching duties now required me to bid him Good evening for the present.


Here are reproductions of a series of recollections of John Pounds written by the Reverend Henry Hawkes of Portsmouth:


Further Reading: