The Benefits of the Ragged Schools Movement

One of the important successes claimed by the ragged schools was that they helped to reduce juvenile crime. Schools often quoted figures to show how the number of child criminals had declined since their establishment. The Edinburgh Ragged School claimed that, in the first five years of its existence, the percentage of children under fourteen in prison had dropped from 5.6% to 0.9%.


Without the school’s influence, Thomas Guthrie believed that “at least two-thirds” of its pupils would have “developed into full-blown criminals.” Such benefits were also seen in financial as well as social terms. Writing twelve years after its establishment, Thomas Guthrie claimed that the Edinburgh Ragged School had saved the government £72,000 in keeping large numbers of children out of prison.[Montague, p.61]


Whilst the ragged schools were, in general, optimistic about their positive contribution in reducing juvenile crime, there were others who were less convinced of their effect in this area. In the 1861 Report into Education in England, one of the commissioners, Patrick Cumin, reported that whilst juvenile crime had decreased in Bristol, in Plymouth, “where the ragged school system is more fully developed, it has largely increased.”[1861 Report, part III, p.53] Given the conflicting reports, it is difficult to say how effective the ragged schools were in the fight against juvenile crime.


The ragged schools did help to keep a number of children off the streets during the day and evening, thus perhaps preventing some of them from begging or turning to crime to make a living. The provision of food also freed some children from the burden of having to support themselves, whether by honest or dishonest means. And for those children who stayed long enough to gain some educational or industrial skills, their chance of finding suitable work was increased.


Wherever possible, the schools and teachers were active in helping their pupils to find work, sometimes providing them with clothes so they could take up situations. The Shoeblack Brigade which was started by John MacGregor in London in 1851 was one of the Ragged School Union’s initiatives to help pupils. As MacGregor was interested in juvenile reform, many of the early shoeblacks were young criminals given a chance of a belter life. Each boy was provided with a coloured cap and jersey and a black apron and some were offered accommodation in the refuges run by the Shoeblack Society. Attendance at morning prayers and at a ragged school in the evenings and on Sundays was compulsory.


By 1873 the number of brigades in London had grown to eight, each marked by its own distinctive uniform. [Clark, pp.224-5. The brigades and their dale of formation were: East London, 1851; South London, 1854; North-Western, 1857; Western, 1857; Islington, 1857; Union Jack, 1858; Notting Hill, 1869; Tower Hamlets, 1873.]


In 1862, the Ragged School Union began its Rag Brigade, which eventually grew to thirty-four boys and seven trucks. In one year alone they collected over eighty tons of rags, waste paper, bones and carpet, which were then sold for profit. [Williamson, p.55] The Ragged School Union was also involved with the establishment of two training ships, Chichester and Arethusa.


Here poor boys of good character who belonged to the National Refuges for Destitute Children were given the training that would enable them to enter either the merchant or the royal navy.99 Other schemes such as Thomas Barnardo’s City Messengers and Wood-Chopping Brigade flourished in London and spread to other parts of the country, offering further employment for former ragged school pupils.[Montague, p.244]


Dinner time at the Clare Market Ragged School
Dinner time at the Clare Market Ragged School


As well as helping pupils to find work, many ragged schools recorded with interest the number of children who found positions on leaving school. Of the 543 boys who attended the St Giles Ragged School in London between 1860 and 1861, 99 were recorded as having emigrated, 55 went into the royal or merchant navy, 1 13 were in situations or were apprenticed, 104 were at school and the remaining 172 had run away.” [Clark, p.223]

Dinner time at the Clare-Market Ragged School

In order to encourage former ragged school pupils to keep their positions for a minimum of a year, a scheme was started in 1853 by the Ragged School Union which awarded prizes every year for ‘faithful service’. On completion of a year’s service, a Bible was given; for three years’ service girls received work-boxes and boys received writing-desks; and for five years’ service, a silver watch was presented. By 1903, it was estimated that some 36,000 prizes had been distributed. [Stuart, p.74]


The change in the children themselves was often remarked upon. Quintin Hogg was not alone in noticing the improvement in behaviour and manner in some of the children who attended his school. Four years after he began his work, Hogg was aware that the contrast between his ‘old’ pupils and the newer, ragged pupils was so great that he was prompted to set up an evening institute for the boys who had so benefited from their ragged school education. Thirty-five boys enrolled immediately for the class, and in doing so, marked the beginning of the Regent Street Polytechnic in London. [Wood, pp.39-40. Some of the boys who enrolled at the Polytechnic also volunteered to teach at the ragged school.]


For the pupils themselves, the opportunities offered by the ragged schools could be rewarding. In 1865 when Mrs Layton was ten years old and working as a servant in Bethnal Green, she was offered an extra 3d a week to give up her twice weekly evening school. As she was so keen to learn and had made good progress, she declined the additional money. When her employer forbade her to attend the classes, Mrs Layton chose to sacrifice her job so that she could continue her education. [Layton, pp. 20-1]


Similarly, in 1861, J. S. Winder, an Assistant Commissioner appointed to report into the state of popular education in England, was pleased to note that, at one of the ragged schools in Bradford, the pupils showed an anxiety to learn and that as a result, the “progress made is frequently extraordinarily great.” [1861 Report, part II, pp.236-7]


The ragged schools themselves often recorded with pride the success of some of their pupils. One boy who attended the Plymouth Ragged School was described as having been “reclaimed from a state of sheer vagrancy, his parents being unknown” and who went on to find a position as an “occasional day servant in a respectable family.” [1861 Report, part III, p.207]


A DAY IN THE COUNTRY (as seen by Punch, 1887)Little Tommy(who has never been outside of Whitechapel before) “OH! OH! OH!” Kind Lady “WHAT’S THE MATTER, TOMMY?" Little Tommy “WHY, WHAT A LOT OF SKY THEY’VE GOT ’ERE, MISS!”
A DAY IN THE COUNTRY (as seen by Punch, 1887): Little Tommy(who has never been outside of Whitechapel before); “OH! OH! OH!” Kind Lady “WHAT’S THE MATTER, TOMMY?”; Little Tommy “WHY, WHAT A LOT OF SKY THEY’VE GOT ’ERE, MISS!”


Yet some benefits offered by the ragged schools were available only to those pupils who were able to attend regularly or for any length of lime. For those children who drifted in and out of school or who attended only on a few occasions, the ragged schools could do very little apart from seeing to their immediate needs.


The proportion of these ‘casual scholars’ as they were known was usually high. At the Gun Street Ragged School in Manchester, of the 265 children who attended between 1 864 and 1865, two-thirds stayed less than a month and some of these stayed for only a few days. [8th Annual Report, quoted in Bloomer, p. 151.]


Even for those who attended only a few times, there was something to be gained in the form of warmth, shelter, security and perhaps even food and clothing. In this sense, the ragged schools acted as refuges, offering more than just a basic education to the destitute and neglected children of the local area.


Reaching the Wider Community

As well as providing a free education for those children most in need of it, the ragged schools often became the focus for helping the poor of the surrounding area. As already mentioned, children were often provided with food and clothing. By 1868 there were eighty-two clothing clubs associated with the London ragged schools alone.


The clothes made during industrial classes, often with material donated to the schools, were usually sold to raise funds or else were given to needy pupils. Societies like the Poor Children’s Aid Society and the Barefoot Mission were established to distribute footwear and clothing to the pupils. Clubs which distributed coals and blankets to the poor were also set up. [Clark, p.236; J. Reid Howatt, Then and Now (1894), p.28.] Shelter and accommodation was provided for some homeless children.


The Ragged School Union opened its first Juvenile Refuge and Home of Industry at Old Pye Street, Westminster in 1847.
The Ragged School Union opened its first Juvenile Refuge and Home of Industry at Old Pye Street, Westminster in 1847.


The number of homes and refuges continued to grow throughout the nineteenth century. By 18 56 there were sixteen refuges in London which were affiliated to the Ragged School Union. In the same year, the Reformatory and Refuge Union was formed. Societies like this, along with the efforts of individuals like Thomas Barnardo, ensured that accommodation was available for those most in need of it. [Montague, p.200; Webster, p.93]


As well as benefiting from clubs which distributed food, clothing or fuel to their children, adults were able to attend special classes in the evenings or on Sundays. Mothers’ clubs were formed by some ragged schools and day nurseries were set up so that mothers could go out to work, secure in the knowledge that their children were being properly cared for. In 1884, the Ragged School Union described the procedure of its day nurseries as follows:


“Children are received between two months and three years of age at a charge of threepence or fourpence per day, an exception being made in favour of widows, who are charged twopence . . . Every child is bathed, clothed, fed and cared for, while each has a separate cot, towel, brush and comb.” [RSU, p.26]


Other activities connected with the ragged schools included libraries, lectures and talks, Bible classes, Band of Hope clubs, singing classes, cricket clubs, Drum and Fife bands, maternal societies (for unmarried mothers) and penny banks. Pails and brushes were lent and cleaning materials given so that the poor could improve their homes, and home visits were made to the sick and the dying. [RSU, pp.25-7]


The kind of dubs and activities offered by the Field Lane Ragged School in Holborn illustrates the role that the ragged schools could play in helping the whole community. Within ten years of its establishment, the school was able to provide:


“…[a] free day school for infants, evening school for youths, men and women, industrial classes to teach youths tailoring and shoe-making, a home for boys, a night refuge for the destitute, the distribution of bread and clothing to the needy, Bible classes, prayer-meetings and a Ragged Church.”


In 1856, the school began to provide light meals for its scholars. A year later a creche was set up for working mothers and, in 1871, a home for girls and two industrial schools were founded. [Bloomer, p. 102:’The distinction between ragged schools and industrial schools was not always clear and there were those ragged schools which preferred to call themselves industrial schools. Industrial schools concentrated more on giving children occupational skills and often took children who were referred to them by the courts as an alternative to imprisoning them.]


The scale of activities and help offered by the ragged schools could be tremendous. In a report of 1903 it was noted that the poor children of Newcastle had been helped in the following ways over the last year:


“. . 3,196 taken for seaside trips; 244 sent for periods between three and six weeks to country homes; 640 assisted with clothing and boots; 2,500 entertained at Christmas; 340 helped in various ways. Night shelter for 866, given 3,388 times; 345 admitted to the boys’ home; 734 visited in their homes and on the streets; 41 girls trained at the girls’ home.” [Montague, pp.233-4]


By going beyond their original aim of providing the poorest children with an education, and acting almost as social centres, the ragged schools benefited not only their pupils but also the adults of the local area.



As well as helping former scholars find employment, the ragged schools helped a number of pupils to emigrate to Australia, New Zealand, America and Canada. The Ragged School Union’s scheme began in 1848 after Lord Shaftesbury raised the subject in the Commons. He suggested that a thousand ragged school children should be sent to South Australia to help fill some of the many positions that were currently vacant.

Mothers’ tea meeting, 'One Tun' Ragged School, Old Pye Street, Westminster, 1858 Union and the Emigration Committee. [Clark, pp.23 1-2]
Mothers’ tea meeting, ‘One Tun’ Ragged School, Old Pye Street, Westminster, 1858. [Clark, pp.23 1-2]

The Government agreed to provide uniforms and fund the passages for 150 children. In order to qualify, the pupils were examined by both the Ragged School Union and the Emigration Committee. The following was required of them:


“…sound health; regular attendance at school for six months; ability to write a sentence from dictation; to work the four simple rules of arithmetic; to read fluently; to repeat the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments; a certificate for four months’ attendance at an industrial class or proof of knowledge of a practical occupation.” [Montague, p.204. In the first year, 150 children (134 boys and 16 girls) were chosen out of 276 applicants.]


The following year, as the government did not make funds available for the emigration scheme, the Ragged School Union established its own Emigration Fund. During the year the Union succeeded in raising £1,229 which enabled it to send twenty-seven boys to Australia. In 1850, a further eleven boys were sent to Australia, followed in 1851 by three girls and eighty-one boys who went out to Australia and America. The number of ragged school children who were helped to emigrate declined during the late 1850s and 1860s as the Emigration Fund struggled to raise sufficient money for the purpose. [Webster, pp.86-8]


Other organisations connected with the ragged schools, like Barnardo’s, were also keen on emigration and continued to send children overseas despite the decline in the activities of the Ragged School Union. The ragged schools and those associated with them were in no doubt as to the benefits of emigration. The colonies were seen as places of opportunity, able to offer the work that was not always so readily available in Britain. Former scholars were recorded as having “become farmers, or are married, or in respectable employment.””[John Weylland, These Fifty Years (1 884), pp. 1 03-4.]


There must have been those who, for one reason or another, were not able to make a success of it but there were others who were given the chance to improve their situation. In 1904, one former pupil wrote from Australia saying that “he and his family of nine children were prospering. He was President of the Trades Union and busy in the Co-operative movement.” [Williamson, p. 119]


Emigration was a somewhat drastic measure to take to combat the problems of nineteenth century poverty and for the children involved, it could be a daunting process. Despite this, the potential advantages to be gained from starting afresh in a new country were great and were, for the most part, seized upon by the ragged school children.


The Legacy

The aim of the ragged schools was straightforward: to provide poor children with the education that they would otherwise have been denied. They achieved this, first individually and then collectively, through the three Ragged School Unions that were established. But in doing so the ragged schools went beyond their original aim and gave rise to a number of initiatives that were to improve the quality of life for their scholars.


In showing what could be achieved by a largely volunteer work-force, the ragged schools helped to make the government aware of the need to provide schooling for all children and not just for those who could afford to pay for the privilege. The educational reforms at the end of the nineteenth century grew out of the voluntary school movement, of which the ragged schools played an important part, and have insured that today, every child in this country, no matter his/her background, has a right to be educated.


The ragged schools were also involved in the industrial school movement and the reformatory school movement. Both were concerned with the more humane treatment of child criminals and suggested that children be sent to special schools where they could learn a skill rather than being sent to prison. Through the many schemes like the Shoeblack and Wood-Chopping Brigades, the ragged schools also demonstrated the benefits of providing children with a means of earning their own living.


Organisations concerned with rescue work amongst children were connected with the ragged school movement. Both Barnardo’s and the Shaftesbury Society provided homes and shelter for children in need and continue to do so today. Other charitable organisations, covering many diverse functions such as providing clothes, food, holidays or other forms of comfort, were associated with the ragged schools. The schools themselves became the focus for charitable efforts within certain areas and, as a result, were able to offer a range of services and activities to the local community from mothers’ meetings to Drum and Fife bands, from circulating libraries to home visits.


That some of the many organisations who were proud to be connected with the ragged schools have survived to this present time is testimony to the ragged schools’ remarkable achievement and enduring legacy. Yet for all this, the story of the ragged schools is little known. This is a shame, because they deserve more than this.


Frontispiece of The Ragged School Union Magazine
Frontispiece of The Ragged School Union Magazine


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.