The London Ragged School Union by D. H. Webster

“This is the age of societies. There is scarcely one Englishman in ten viio has not belonged to some association for distributing books or for prosecuting them; for sending invalids to the hospital, or beggars to the treadmill; for giving plate to the rich, or blankets to the poor” – Thomas Babington Macaulay.


On April 11th, 1844, four men met at No. 17 Ampton Street, Grays Inn Road, to share their anxieties over the condition of children living in the ‘rookeries’. They were Mr. Moulton, a second-hand tool dealer, Mr. Morrison, a city missioner, Mr. Locke, a woollen draper and Mr. starey, a business man. After prayer and discussion, they resolved unanimously


“that to give permanence, regularity and vigour to existing Ragged Schools and to promote the formation of new ones throughout the Lletro polis it is advisable to call a raeting of Superintendents, Teachers and others interested in the schools.”  [1. The Ragged School Union, Minute Book, 1844, April 11th].


These men, already connected with ragged and Sunday schools [2. The schools were Field Lane school, Colonnade Sunday school, Smith’s Buildings nagged School and Britannia Ragged School. D. Williamson, Lord Shaftesbury’s Legacy, 1924, pp.28-29] following the energetic lead of Mr. Starey, had decided to promote collaboration among the existing ragged schools and set up a central body to co-ordinate individual and local efforts to organise such schools. Subsequent meetings made it clear that the first two problens for the group and its supporters were to define their relationship with the London City Mission and to gather much more inf or rati on about the ragged schools already functioning [3. The Ragged School Union, Minute Book, 1844, April 26th].


The City Mission gave a cordial welcome to the group, promising to assist ’insofar as sending scholars and teachers to the various schools under our directions’ [4. The Ragged School Union, Minute Book, 1844, May 24th], but politely bowed out where material aid was concerned, pointing out that their hands were ’already fully charged with the cere of the 102 Districts of the Metropolis ’ [5. Ibid].


A list of ragged schools was drawn up by Mr. Ainslie, a missioner, but found to be incomplete and additions were made by Mr. Locke [6. Ibid. July 5th]. During the summer months, interest in the group waned and at the October meeting only six people attended [7. Ibid., October 4th].  The lukewarm support for the scheme and the uncovering of the difficulties of the work proposed did not deter Mr. Carey and his friends, they assumed that people were misinformed about their aims and arranged for an explanatory circular to be printed and distributed [8. Ibid].


Support rallied and what had been a loose association began to crystallise into a more formal and permanent structure. Rules were devised by Mr. Moulton such as he has found most efficient in the management of Sunday schools and ragged schools’ [9. Ibid., June 21st]. They are important in that they put down guide lines for the initial thinking of the group and expressed their aspirations clearly and simply [10. Ibid., November 15th].


Rule 1. That the name of this association be called the Ragged school Union.

Rule 2. That the objects of this Union be to encourage and assist those who teach in ragged schools, to help such by grants of money where advisable, to collect and diffuse information respecting schools now in existence and provide for the foundation of new ones, to suggest plans for the more efficient management of such schools and for the instruction of the children of the poor in general, to visit the various schools occasionally and observe their progress, to encourage teachers’ meetings and bible classes and to assist the old as well as the young in the study of the Word of God.

Rule 3. That all Teachers and Superintendents representing Ragged Schools and all subscribers of 10/- p.a. and upwards be members of the Union and have the privilege of attending its meetings.

Rule 4. That the financial affairs be solely conducted by the Managing Committee (including the vice presidents, treasurers and secretaries) to be elected at an annual meeting of the members and whose services shall be entirely gratuitous.

Rule 5. That the Union shall not interfere with the financial concerns or the internal management of particular schools.

Rule 6. That the Union shall exclude no denomination of evangelical Christians and that all the meetings shall begin and end with prayer.


The next step taken by the infant Union was to be one of the most important in its long term effect on the direction in which it moved and on its image. A letter was sent to Lord Ashley, requesting him to become President of the Union. He agreed, and his letter of acceptance was ordered to be reproduced in the minutes [11. The Ragged School Union, Minute Book, 1844, December 6th]. It concluded with the sentence: ’I think we may do much for these poor children’.


However, his association with the Union almost ended in disaster after only a few weeks. He threatened to resign over the issue of clergy consent to the formation of ragged schools in their parishes [12. Ibid., 1845, January 3rd]. He was reluctant to act without clerical sanction. It was the farsighted and vigorous Mr. Starey who persuaded him to change his mind.


After a few months, when the Union had finished searching for its identity, it was able to increase its activities. Members of the committee visited many ragged schools [13. Ibid., 1844, November 15th]; grants were made to help them to continue their work [14. Ibid., 1845, January 3rd]; advice and encouragement were given to those proposing to start new schools [15. Ibid., January 17th]; the Union received annual reports and accounts of progress from existing schools [16. Ibid., March 7th]; and it was tireless in the invention of rules, byelaws and regulations for Itself and in the production of circulars for its members and supporters [17. The Ragged School Union, Minute Book, 1845, April 4th].


The following two years saw the rise of all of the problems which were to tax the energies of the Union the quality and supply of teachers, evening school work and secular instruction, emigration, voluntary and salaried staff, buildings, discipline, relations with other similar groups out side. London and a host of internal problems relating to the affairs of individual schools as well as the vexed question of associated industrial schools.


The Sunday schools had demonstrated the existence of a reservoir of enthusiastic evangelicals drilling to work voluntarily in schools and the R.S.U. offered them further opportunities. The Sunday School Movement had also shown what some of the problems were in using these men and woman [18. R.T. Newman, George Hamilton Archibald and the Beginning of the Graded Sunday School Movement, 1956, p.12. ‘It might be well for the cause of Sunday school instruction if there could be what are termed normal schools in this department of labour -schools in which teachers having zeal and Christian love might themselves be trained to teach others also’,. (Report of the South Bucks. Sunday School Union, no date].


They were repeated and magnified by the activities of the ragged schools. The twin difficulties were the quality and the supply of teachers. Sincerity and dedication could be taken for granted in most of them, knowledge of method and organisation could not. The very best were brilliant and coherent, the worst were hesitant and remote. Proposals were made at the meetings of the R.S.U. to encourage lectures on methods ’generally adopted to instruct the young’ [19. The Ragged School Union, Minute Book, 1845, April 4th].


Offers were made to the Union by Mr. Olver, a teacher [20. Ibid., May 2nd], and by the British and Foreign School Society to allow: “Anyone we nay introduce as wishing to become a teacher to attend gratuitously for 9 months to learn the system and they would provide dinner free of cost” [21. Ibid., June 6th]. Haphazard and local efforts were Hide to help the voluntary workers aid dozens of articles were written for them on method and organisation, but these measures were only palliatives and could not replace sound training. The result was that the reputation of the ragged school teacher from the professional point of view was very low.  He was placed below the workhouse teacher.


The difficulty was exacerbated by the growing feeling that the week-day evening work of the schools should be increased. Lord Ashley asked the committee to: “have a paid teacher on one or two evenings a week at each school to give some secular instruction such as reading, writing and arithmetic as an encouragement” [22. The Ragged School Union, Minute Book, 1845, May 9th].


It was sympathetic and a month later considered closely the financial aspects of the proposal [23. Ibid., June 10th]. Increasing financial support meant that it could offer to subsidise schools engaging paid workers [24. Ibid., November 20th]. The following meetings abound with entries like:


£5 paid to Mr. Playford, teacher at Vine Court for 6 months’ service
£2. 10s. paid to the teacher at Union Mews School for 3 months’ service. [25. Ibid., 1846, September 4th]


Finally, the Union began to recognise that the expansion of the activities of the schools and the stability of each institution required full-time salaried staff. It discussed appropriate salaries and decided that £75 p.a. was reasonable. Lord Ashley challenged this, pointing out that an efficient man would want more. He won the issue and the Union agreed that £100 p.a. would be offered to a person who was found to be competent after the first six months’ services’ [26. Ibid., November 23rd].


However, the majority of the teachers were voluntary workers and the fate of many schools was directly related to their enthusiasm. The schools were in the habit of commenting to the Union about the availability of staff.’ The quarterly Meeting of Delegates in 1846 had a series of reports from schools which underlined this aspect [27. Ibid., September 18th].


Somerset Place School, Hammersmith, was fortunate: “The supply of teachers is good and comes from the Wesleyan, Baptist and Independent Congregations in the town.”; Old Pye Street School had teachers “whose attendance is regular, consequently the order of the school is improving.”


Yet, St. Anne’s School was ’shut up for want of teachers’ [28. The Ragged School Union, Minute Book, 1845, September Sth Ibid., November 7th], and Fulwood Rents ’could enlarge the school if they had more teachers’ [29. Ibid., September 18th]. The attendance of the girls at New Pye Street was drastically affected by the ’illness of the governess’ [30. Ibid., 1845, November 7th].


The figures given in the R.S.U. minutes refer to the number of teachers who might cone along for one evening only within a specified number of weeks. Thus it is deceptive at first to read that Fulwood Rents had five teachers for twenty children [31. Ibid., November 7th] that the Lamb and Flag Court School had eleven teachers for eighty children [32. Ibid., November 7th], that Grey’s Yard School had sixteen teachers for fifty children [33. Ibid., November 7th].



St. Pancras Ragged School,
Grays Inn Road, 1859
Source: County Hall, London.


King’s Cross School had ’twelve to seventeen teachers’ [34. Ibid., 1845, November 7th] but the paid teacher, Mr. Jeffcote, reported that “He has seldom anyone to render him any assistance and is therefore of necessity obliged to adopt the collective method of instruction” [35. Ibid., 1846, September 18th]. The voluntary teaching system offered a simple solution to a complex set of problems but it failed for it proved too costly even for a perfervid evangelicalism.


A second group of problems to emerge in this early growth of the R.S.U. was focused on the internal problems of the schools. The Union was pledged not to interfere but, as many of these difficulties were common, it felt free to discuss the principles involved. Complaints about the indiscipline of the children were numerous. Lord Ashley had stressed the fact that the ragged schools dealt with a class of children ’of peculiar habits and manners’ who could not be offered the “advantages of your National Schools, your British and Foreign Schools or any other of your educational establishments” [36. The Ragged School Union, Minute Book, 1847, May 18th].


This was based on careful knowledge of the working of the schools. The Management Committee of the Union was so anxious about the safety of teachers that it obtained information relating to the cost of having a policeman on duty at each school [37. Ibid., 1845, November 20th]. However, at 3s. 6d. a day, this was thought to be prohibitive, though the Union was assured that there would be police protection where a breach of the-peace was threatened [38. Ibid., December 5th].


Except for a few notorious occasions, the teachers managed to cope within the classroom, but children outside of the school frequently made grave difficulties. Typical of many early entries is the one reporting on the conduct of Agar Town School: “In consequence of the violent conduct of the boys outside the building, It is again necessary to rake another application to the police for assistance” [39. Ibid., 1846, September. 18th].


Some of the problems within, the class can be seen from the description of the master of King’s Cross School: “Attendance varies in consequence of a plan that. he finds prevails among the boys following their leader or, as he is called, Captain. When he is present, the attendance is always good but the disorder great, such as putting out the lights, fighting the teacher, etc. When he is absent, the number present is usually small and of a more  docile class [40. Ibid. , September I8th]. Certainly, many of the pupils in the early ragged schools were known to the police [41. Ibid., June 2nd].


Inadequate buildings and lack of equipment meant further problems for local management committees, thought he R.S.U. was able to give some help. Most schools took place in cheap rooms, improvised and adapted as far as available funds would allow. The ephemeral nature of. the ragged schools, particularly in the early years, discouraged policy of constructing special schools. It is clear from the minutes that local committees took what they could afford.


The Flood Street Sunday Evening Ragged School Committee converted one of the arches of the‘ Greenwich railway bridge for £35 into a school [42. Ragged School Union, Minute Book, 1845, April 4th] and the Bermondsey Railway Arch School was held in a tunnel. The New Cut Ragged School had been ’formerly used for a penny theatre’ [43. Ibid., 1846, September 18th] and the premises of the Golden Lane School ’had been used for stabling cart horses’ [44. Ibid., January 2nd].


The R.S.U. gave considerable help to schools which were unable-to equip themselves. Just over a year after its foundation it was anxious about the lack of washing facilities in the schools and it asked its supporters for increased funds to deal with this matter [45. Ibid., 1845, June 10th]. It offered assistance with books. When the school at Broadway,’Westminster, opened for fifty children it had ten books. The R.S.U. made a grant for the purchase of ‘100 elementary reading books and 1 doz. testaments’ [46. Ibid., November 20th].


This is one of many examples. Sometimes it bought large numbers of books for general distribution, as, for example, when it ordered 1,000 copies of Gall’s Sacred Songs [47. Ibid., 1847, February 5th]. Small monetary grants were made for alterations to interiors in order to make rooms usable. The following are details of grants made in February, 1847 [48. The Ragged School Union, Minute Book, 1847, February 5th].


Hammersmith £13, King Edward Street £12,

Deptford £12, Field Lane £20, Hopkin Street £24,

George Street £20, Old Pye Street £12.


It was hardly eighteen months after its inception that the R.S.U. debated the idea of Industrial classes in ragged schools and even of the formation of a school of industry. There was much enthusiasm for the idea within the management committee of the Union and no realisation that they were adopting a scheme which had a history of lamentable failure.


The R.S.U. was dazzled by successes in Scotland and took no account of the experience of the S.P.C.K. or the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor. However, the local committees in general refused to respond. Faced as they were with irregular attendance, a fluctuating population, poor premises, young children, local fears about the labour market, the possibility of ’injuring honest workmen’ as well as a continuing shortage of funds, they felt unable to commend the idea to their supporters. In the event, they proved wiser than the parent organisation.


A sub-committee of the Union examined the difficulties which would be me t in starting an Industrial School and prepared estimates [49. Ibid., 1846, October 30th]. They suggested that the Thieves’ Public House in Westminster would be an appropriate place; it could be had for £30 p.a. and would need £50 for alterations [50. Ibid., November 17th]. It would be opened from 8 a.m. – 8 p.m. for children between 8 and 14 years old. They would spend something in the order of 5 hours in industrial pursuits, have 4 hours’ Instructions and 3 hours for meals and recreation.


The Corner Of Old Pye Street And Duck Lane, By H. Shepherd

(Showing The Westminster School Of Industry – Left)

Source: County Hall London.


Breakfast, dinner and supper would be given to the children.and it was reckoned that the cost of this would be 3s. per head each week [51. Ibid.,1846 November 17th]. The school was to cater for a hundred boys, when established but was to take fifty at first. They agreed that: “The lowest and most destitute class should be admitted, giving preference to those children of that class who parents or who have been forsaken by them” [52. The Ragged School Union, Minute Book, 1846, November 9th].


Circulars appealing for funds were printed, advice on the appointment of an efficient master was taken from the Glasgow organiser of Industrial schools and an Under Secretary of State gave It as his opinion that the children, having been Improved, should be sent to the Colonies [53. Ibid., November 23rd].


The expansion of the R.S.U. and the publicity attaching to its work brought it into contact with other groups in the country attempting similar work. It lacked the vision, finances and personnel to establish a national system of ragged schools. Moreover, it struck attitudes and clung to opinions which many progressives regarded as archaic. It was unable to offer a lead at rational level to induce the government to offer some support to its ventures and drew back from involving Itself with the reform movements. It was essentially an inward looking movement concerned with conditions in London. Its expansion was one which was limited to the Metropolis.


It was, of course, willing to encourage other towns and cities to embark upon a system of ragged education. Members of the London R.S.U. Committee visited many other centres, advising and helping in fund-raising activities. But they refused the role of national co-ordinator. The Union defined the area of its activity clearly. It , extended ’five miles round London’ [54. Ibid., 1845, July 4th], though it agreed that the formation of similar unions should be encouraged in ‘ different parts of the country where needed [55. Ibid., 1845, July 4th].


A visit was made to Liverpool to help in the formation of their Union [56. Ibid., 1846, December 4th] and the work of groups in Southampton [57. Ibid., 1847, April 1st], Bath and Manchester was noted [58. Ibid., May 18th].


Listed Bibliography:

1. The Ragged School Union, Minute Book, 1844, April 11th.
2. The schools were Field Lane school, Colonnade Sunday school, Smith’s Buildings nagged School and Britannia Ragged School. D. Williamson, Lord Shaftesbury’s Legacy, 1924, pp.28-29.

3. The Ragged School Union, Minute Book, 1844, April 26th.
4. The Ragged School Union, Minute Book, 1844, May 24th

5. Ibid.
6. Ibid. July 5th

7. Ibid., October 4th

8. Ibid
9. Ibid., June 21st

10. Ibid., November 15th.
11. The Ragged School Union, Minute Book, 1844, December 6th

13. Ibid., 1844, November 15th

14. Ibid., 1845, January 3rd

15. Ibid., January 17th

16. Ibid., March 7th

17. The Ragged School Union, Minute Book, 1845, April 4th.
18. R.T. Newman, George Hamilton Archibald and the Beginning of the Graded Sunday School Movement, 1956, p.12. ‘It might be well for the cause of Sunday school instruction if there could be what are termed normal schools in this department of labour -schools in which teachers having zeal and Christian love might themselves be trained to teach others also’,. (Report of the South Bucks. Sunday School Union, no date.
19. The Ragged School Union, Minute Book, 1845, April 4th.
20. Ibid., May 2nd

21. Ibid., June 6th

22. The Ragged School Union, Minute Book, 1845, May 9th.
23. Ibid., June 10th

24. Ibid., November 20th

25. Ibid., 1846, September 4th
26. Ibid., November 23rd
27. Ibid., September 18th.
28. The Ragged School Union, Minute Book, 1845, September 5th

29. Ibid., September 18th

30. Ibid., 1845, November 7th.
31. Ibid., November 7th that the Lamb and Flag Court School had eleven teachers for eighty children 32.  , that Grey’s Yard School had sixteen teachers for fifty children 33. Ibid., November 7th.
34. Ibid., 1845, November 7th

35. Ibid., 1846, September 18th
36. The Ragged School Union, Minute Book, 1847, May 18th.
37. Ibid., 1845, November 20th

38. Ibid., December 5th

39. Ibid., 1846, September. 18th.
40. Ibid. , September 18th

41. Ibid., June 2nd.
42. Ragged School Union, Minute Book, 1845, April 4th

43. Ibid., 1846, September 18th

44. Ibid., January 2nd
45. Ibid., 1845, June 10th

46. Ibid., November 20th

47. Ibid., 1847, February 5th

48. The Ragged School Union, Minute Book, 1847, February 5th.
49. Ibid., 1846, October 30th

50. Ibid., November 17th

51 Ibid.,1846 November 17th

52. The Ragged School Union, Minute Book, 1846, November 9th.
53. Ibid., November 23rd.
54. Ibid., 1845, July 4th

55. Ibid., 1845, July 4th.
56. Ibid., 1846, December 4th

57. Ibid., 1847, April 1st

58. Ibid., May 18th



This is the work of D.H. Webster who wrote a thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of the University of Leicester, 1973. It remains an important historical document and analysis of the Ragged School and free education movement in Britain. It will be reproduced and published verbatim in instalments for educational purposes to facilitate review and discussion about education. This post is the first part of section one of the thesis where the references have been reproduced inline within the text.


You can see the thesis overview and contents here:

The Ragged School Movement and the Education of the Poor in the Nineteenth Century