The Ragged Schools: Beginnings

The aim of the ragged schools was simple. They wished to provide free schooling for those children who otherwise would have received no education. The reasons for providing this schooling, however, were diverse. Some ragged schools were established in the belief that all children should be taught regardless of their social background.


The Ragged School by George Cruikshank, 1846
The Ragged School by George Cruikshank, 1846

Other schools wished to provide the children of the poor with an education which would offer them the skills and training that could enhance their job prospects. There were those that wanted to give their pupils the religious training necessary to make them good citizens and as a result, to “stop crime while it is in the seed, and sin before it has broken into flower and desolated society. ”[C. J. Montague, Sixty Years in Waifdom (1 904), p. 163] And yet others wished to alleviate the children’s physical distress by offering them a place to come for food, warmth and comfort as well as providing them with a basic education.


The motives behind the formation of the ragged schools were complex. Even within the schools themselves, the individuals involved could be driven by very different beliefs as to why schooling for the children of the poor should be available. There were those who believed that by providing an education for these children, society would also benefit. Advantages of the ragged schools were believed to be wide-ranging, from helping to reduce juvenile crime to reinforcing the status quo by teaching the children their position in life, from instructing them to be good Christians to simply keeping children off the streets.


This diversity of motives is reflected in the history of the ragged schools. Although often seen as a product of Victorian philanthropy, the ragged schools began in the eighteenth century. One of the earliest references to a ragged school is to that established by Robert Raikes in Gloucester in 1783. Raikes, appalled at the children’s behaviour on the Sabbath, arranged schooling for them at his own expense. By teaching them, he hoped to show them why they should respect the Sabbath.


In 1818, in Portsmouth, John Pounds, a crippled cobbler, taught up to forty children in his shop as he worked. Like Raikes, John Pounds has often been described as one of the founding fathers of the ragged school movement, but he started teaching almost by accident. Whilst looking after a crippled nephew, Pounds invited children into his shop to play with the boy. As Pounds talked to the children, he realised how little they knew and began to teach them reading and writing. Soon thirty to forty children came to his shop each day. As well as providing them with some schooling, he also gave food and clothes to those in need. [D. H. Webster, ‘The Ragged School Movement and the Education of the Poor in the Nineteenth Century’ (PhD thesis, Leicester University, 1 973), pp. 1 5-18, 39; R. G. Bloomer, ‘The Ragged School Movement Before 1870, with Special Reference to Some Lancashire Ragged Schools’ (MEd thesis, Manchester University, 1967), p.65.]


Others acted from a mixture of motives. When Thomas Cranfield began his work amongst the slum children of Camberwell in 1798, he both preached to them and tried to help them. He went on to found a series of schools which not only instructed the pupils but also clothed them.[Bloomer, p.65] William Watson, another influential figure in the ragged school movement, started his work in Aberdeen trying to help the poor of the city in whatever way he could.


His efforts led to the establishment in 1841 of a school which taught the pupils skills such as making salmon nets, as well as giving them a basic education and three meals a day. In return, the pupils were forbidden to beg on the streets, and all children found begging by the police were brought to the school in an attempt to prevent this.[Webster, pp.25, 30-1]


Henry Blessley’s class for Poor Boys in Portsmouth, cl880s
Henry Blessley’s class for Poor Boys in Portsmouth, cl880s


These were not the only people working to give the children of the poor an education. There were those who worked on their own, teaching children in their homes, and there were others who belonged to societies which promoted popular education. Before the establishment of the Ragged School Union in 1844, there were a number of organisations that provided schools for poor children.


The foundation of the Society for the Establishment of Sunday Schools in 1775 and the Sunday School Union in 1803 did much to encourage the growth of Sunday and church schools. In London, both the City Mission and the British and Foreign School Society were active in providing education for the poor?[E. A. G. Clark, ‘The Ragged School Union and the Education of the London Poor in the Nineteenth Century’ (MA thesis, London University, 1967), pp.48-52. There were 101 British Schools in the London area in 1834 but only twenty-two of these were free. The others charged either one penny or two pennies a week.] The London City Mission, which was established in 1835, reported at its 5th annual meeting in 1840, that it had already set up five schools for ragged children which had 570 pupils.


Given the nature of such societies, most were formed so as to give the children of the poor a religious education and to teach them to be good Christians. Similarly, the Philanthropic Society which had schools in St George’s Fields near Paddington in London, catered for a specific need, providing an education for juvenile criminals, children of convicts or those children thought likely to commit a crime, thereby hoping to keep them out of prison.[Montague, p.36; Clark, p.56]


Despite the establishment of schools for the poor, not all children were provided for. In some schools, the very poorest pupils were excluded either because they could not pay the small fee charged, or on account of their unkempt appearance and unruly behaviour. It was these children that the ragged schools aimed to help. Driven by a desire to help the poorest of the poor, the ragged schools and those individuals connected with them were united in the pursuit of one ideal; that of providing free schooling for all children. Their motives for wanting this might have been diverse but their commitment to this ideal was unwavering.


The Ragged School Union

On 11 April 1844, four men met. They were “Mr Locke, a woollen-draper; Mr Moulton, a dealer in second-hand tools; Mr Morrison, a City Missionary; and Mr Starey”, treasurer of the Field Lane Ragged School in Holborn.[Montague, p.167] They had a common interest in providing free schooling for the children of the poor and each was already connected with a ragged school or Sunday school. The purpose of the meeting was to find a means to save the “forlorn and neglected children of the great metropolis from the debasement and misery in which large numbers of them were growing up.” [Ragged School Union, Forty Years Mission Work Among the Dens of London (1884), p.2]


It was decided that the best way to achieve this was to form a union which would unite the existing ragged schools and encourage the foundation of new schools. As a result of this meeting, the Ragged School Union was formed. In November 1844, Lord Shaftesbury (then Lord Ashley) was invited to be the Union’s President.[Montague, p. 163]


The establishment of the Union helped publicise the work of the ragged schools, which in turn led to increased donations and offers of assistance. By providing a mechanism for bringing the ragged schools together, the Ragged School Union was able to act as an advisory body for those who wished to start up ragged schools of their own, offering encouragement, practical help and, wherever possible, grants of money.


Organisations like the London City Mission and then later, Barnardo’s and the Shaftesbury Society, worked closely with the Ragged School Union, bringing mutual benefits. Not all ragged schools were affiliated to the Ragged School Union but nevertheless, its formation gave a powerful voice to the movement and made many aware of the benefits of providing schooling for those children most in need.


Those who established the Ragged School Union were very clear about what they wanted to achieve. In one of its earliest reports, the Union stressed that “the great object of its existence” was to give the outcast children of London and elsewhere “some knowledge of the commonest principles of morality and religion.”[RSU.p.10]


By teaching them the Bible and the three Rs, it was believed that the poorest and most neglected children could improve their situation in life and be prevented from turning to crime or begging to support themselves.


Knowing what it wished to achieve, the Ragged School Union was also very specific about the sort of children that it wished to help. In the year of its foundation, the Union drew up a list of those children it believed would particularly benefit from a ragged schooling. They were:


1. Children of convicts who have been transported
2. Children of convicts in our prisons at home
3. Children of thieves not in custody
4. Children of the lowest mendicants and tramps
5. Children of worthless drunken parents
6. Children of stepfathers or stepmothers; often driven by neglect and cruelty to shift for themselves
7. Children of those suitable for the workhouse but living a vagrant semi-criminal life
8. Children of honest parents too poor to pay for schooling or to clothe the children so as to enable them to attend an ordinary school
9. Orphans, deserted children, and runaways, who live by begging and stealing
10. Workhouse lads who have left it and become vagrants
11. Lads of the street-trading classes, ostlers’ boys and labourers’ assistants, who otherwise would get no schooling
12. Girl-hawkers working for cruel and worthless parents
13. The children of poor Roman Catholics who do not object to their children reading the Bible.”[Montague, p.47]


This list was by no means exhaustive and, in reality, the ragged schools tried to help those children denied the chance of an education on account of their poverty. The following description of one of its pupils, given by the Ragged School Union in 1850, illustrates the kind of children that it aimed to help:


“J W (deserted by parents) has slept in the arches, on stairs, in passages, and lodging houses; has never been to any school; has worked at paper staining . . . since then been picking up bones, shelling walnuts, carrying linen, holding horses; brought to the Refuge in a state of starvation by the Missionary.”[Quoted in Clark, p. 166]


In 1861, the children attending the Bradford ragged schools were described as “the sweepings of the street”.[Reports of the Assistant Commissioners Appointed to Inquire into the State of Popular Education in England, PP 1861 XXI (part II), report of J. S. Winder, p.202. He also described them as “the children of the most depraved and vile of mankind.”] This should however be seen as a compliment to the ragged schools as these were precisely the kind of children that they most wanted to help. In instructing the Ragged School Union officers as to the type of children to recruit, Lord Shaftesbury urged them to “stick to the gutters”.[Webster, p.44] As a result, the ragged schools came into contact with and helped some of the poorest and most destitute children in the country.


Growth and Decline

The precise number of ragged schools can never be known. This is because not all of them were recorded, some went out of existence almost before they were noticed and others were not described as ragged schools. The term ‘ragged school’ was used for the first time in print on 18 February 1843 when the Field Lane School in Holborn advertised itself in The Times.[D. Williamson, Lord Shaftesbury’s Legacy ( 1924), p. 13]


The formation of the Ragged School Union a year later, helped to publicise the term, and its usage quickly spread. Despite the difficulties knowing exact numbers, some figures are known. Rather than being an accurate reflection of the number of ragged schools, they are an indication of how the ragged schools grew, spread throughout the country and then declined.


In 1844 the existing nineteen ragged schools in London united to form the Ragged School Union. Some of these schools were founded by individuals. Others were founded by organisations like the London City Mission which, by 1844, was already active in providing schools for the London poor. With the formation of the Ragged School Union, the number of ragged schools that were known about increased. This was because a number of schools were set up as a result of the Ragged School Union but also because a number of existing schools became known to those connected with the Union.


In 1847, at the third annual meeting of the Ragged School Union, Lord Shaftesbury gave details of eighty different schools which were affiliated to the Ragged School Union. Between them, the schools had an average attendance of 4,776 pupils and 450 teachers. The schools were organised according to when they were open although they were similar in every other respect: there were sixteen day schools, thirty-one evening schools which held classes from three to five times a week and thirty-three Sunday schools.


As these three types of school were held at different times of the day, many of them shared premises: Lord Shaftesbury recorded that the eighty schools were accommodated in forty-four separate buildings.[Webster, p. 111. Twenty-two of these schools received help from the Ragged School Union] Between 1844 and 1870, the number of ragged schools continued to grow steadily. The movement reached its peak in 1869, when there were 195 day schools, 209 evening schools and 272 Sunday schools affiliated to the Ragged School Union. This figure does not include those schools which were not part of the Union. During this period two other unions were established.


In April 1847, the Liverpool Ragged School Union was formed. This was followed eleven years later in April 1858 by the Manchester and Salford Ragged School Union, which joined together twelve existing schools.[Webster, pp. 1 16, 149. The twelve schools had 447 teachers and just under 5,000 pupils] These two unions were established as the Ragged School Union confined its activities mostly to the capital, and it was felt that separate unions, run by local people, would be more effective.


With the passing of the 1870 Education Act and those subsequent to it, the situation became increasingly difficult for the ragged schools although it was ultimately beneficial for the children that they wished to help. The 1870 Act required that all children should have access to schooling between the ages of five and thirteen. School Boards were established to set and maintain standards, build schools, train teachers and ensure that parents sent their children to school. Successive Acts abolished the payment of school fees and made attendance at school compulsory.



Snow’s Fields Ragged School, Bermondsey from The Illustrated London News, 1894
Snow’s Fields Ragged School, Bermondsey from The Illustrated London News, 1894


Along with the government provision of schools came an increasing number of regulations which seriously hampered the work of the ragged schools. In 1871, the Privy Council Code forbade teachers with a third class certificate from supervising schools of more than fifty-nine pupils. Two years later, it was laid down that no evening school could open without at least forty names on the register.


Regulations regarding the buildings in which the schools were held also meant that some premises used by the ragged schools were deemed unfit for use.[Clark, p.245] Such standards were in the children’s best interests but until the abolition of school fees in 1891, the government legislation often neglected the poorest children by closing the free schools to which they had access.


The increasing competition from the Board Schools, the lack of funding and the imposition of government standards on the ragged schools meant that many were forced to close. In 1874, the Ragged School Union reported sadly that twenty-six schools with a total of 3,000 pupils had collapsed through lack of support, six schools had converted to ‘pay schools’ and a further thirty-nine (with nearly 9,000 pupils) had transferred to the School Board.[Webster, p. 108]


The evening schools fared a little better than the day schools for they attracted a slightly different type of pupil; usually those who were older and who worked during the day. Despite the restriction that their pupils had to be over thirteen years of age and not already attending a day school, the number of night schools rose from 131 in 1876 to 176 in 1879. This figure was however below what it had been at its peak in 1869. Even though the night schools showed an increase following the 1870 Education Act, their numbers began to decline from the 1880s onwards as the effects of the School Boards began to take hold and school fees were abolished.[Clark, pp.262, 269-270]


As more Board schools were established the number of ragged schools shrank. In 1910, some sixty-six years after the foundation of the Ragged School Union, the last ragged school in London closed.[T. S. Ridge, Dr Barnardo and the Copperfield Road Ragged Schools (1993), p.20] In a sense, by showing the government that all children ought to be provided with a free education whatever their background, the ragged schools were the victims of their own success.


Coach-Factories and Distilleries

Before the work of teaching the children could begin, rooms to serve as classrooms had to be found. Not only were the schools to be free but they had to be within easy reach of the children. W. Weldon Champreys, who established several ragged schools in London, explained in 1871 that “Schools are nets to catch small fishes and they ought to be let down in the places where the fish abound”.[W. Weldon Champreys, The Power of Resurrection (1 87 1), p.3 1]


As a result, ragged schools grew up in some of the poorest areas and in a variety of buildings. Champreys opened his first ragged school in a deserted coach-factory which consisted of “the very dry bones and simple skeleton of itself, having nothing but the bare walls, floors and ladders.” His second school, opened in the Whitechapel Road, was “a large old room, with a kind of carpenter’s work room over head”.[Champreys, pp.32-3] Other ragged schools opened in similar circumstances.


The Coventry Ragged School started in 1847 in the back room of a leather-seller; the George Yard Ragged School in Whitechapel began in part of a distillery; Thomas Barnardo opened his Copperfield Ragged Schools in warehouses on the banks of the Regent’s Canal and the Jersey Ragged School opened in a disused granary where it remained for the forty-four years of its existence.[Montague, pp.223, 226; John Hollingshead, Ragged London in 1861 (1861), p.41]


If permanent accommodation could not be found, church halls and rooms were hired. Many of the sites used by the ragged schools were temporary as schools moved for a number of reasons. Complaints by neighbours, expiration of leases, the need to move to bigger or smaller premises depending on the success or failure of the school, meant that some schools moved a number of times during the course of their existence.


The conditions in the schools could be basic. In 1853, when the Coombe Ragged School in Dublin was established in what had been the Weavers’ Hall, it was provided with only the bare essentials, “some strong forms and desks, a few maps and diagrams on the walls”.[Sarah Davies, St Patrick’s Armour (1880), pp. 1 1-2] Space could also be limited. In a review of its forty years’ work in London, the Ragged School Union noted that “A room fifteen feet square often accommodated fifty to sixty children, and some eight to ten teachers.”[RSU, p. 12]


Such conditions could make teaching difficult. Recalling his time as a teacher at the Ernest Street Ragged School in Mile End, London, Thomas Barnardo wrote that “crowding upwards of a hundred persons in a low, narrow and badly ventilated room which contains sittings for only eighty-six becomes, especially in summer, very unpleasant if not impossible.”[Gillian Wagner, Barnardo (1980), p.25]


Despite the sometimes cramped conditions and lack of equipment, the schools were usually in demand and were forced, on occasions, to turn away scholars. The ragged school in Dolphin Court in London, which consisted of one room measuring nine foot square and which could accommodate forty children, found that it had to refuse admission to the additional 120 children who presented themselves one winter’s day.[Clark, p. 128] For the children of the streets, or those who lived in slum conditions, what the ragged schools offered above all else was the warmth and shelter that was often lacking in their lives.


The above research was produced by Claire Seymour first produced in the book ‘Ragged Schools, Ragged Children’ for the Ragged School Museum which on the back page had the following:


Started in the late eighteenth century the ragged schools aimed to provide an education for the poorest and most destitute children in the country. Such was the need for the ragged schools that, in 1844, the Ragged School Union was formed to encourage the establishment of new schools. As a result, numerous schools throughout the country were founded.


These schools gave thousands of children not only a basic education but much more besides, from food and shelter, to arranging clubs, treats and outings for them. Claire Seymour, who researches social history and is a member of the Ragged School Museum Trust, recounts the history of the ragged schools and tells the story of the children who attended them.


She describes the kind of lives that the children led, their often unruly behaviour and shows how the ragged schools helped them and their families. Also examined are some of the many individuals, such as Dr Thomas Barnardo, whose determination and dedication enabled the ragged schools to succeed.