In 1837, Guthrie became minister at the Old Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh where he saw at first hand the ragged children who lived by begging and stealing. Presumably he knew of Sheriff Watson in Aberdeen who had formed his Industrial Feeding School in 1841. Guthrie converted a room beneath the church as a kitchen and he soon had his first class going. Within a year he had started three Ragged Schools in Edinburgh! In his 1847 pamphlet Plea for Ragged Schools, Rev Guthrie described a unique curriculum - education, meals, clothes, industrial training and Christian instruction. Pupils learned cobbling, tailoring and cooking. And by doing jobs for local shops, the children could earn a small wage and learn its value. The effect was to clear the streets and prisons of young beggars.
Ragged Schools provided free education for children too poor to receive it elsewhere but they were not pretty. Charles Dickens thought a particular London Ragged School was the most wretched place he’d ever seen. By 1841 c2 million people lived in London, but without compulsory schooling only a fraction of them had attended school. The Empire was expanding, but much of London was still impoverished.
Barnardo's Hope Place Ragged School,
Edinbugh Castle Mission, London 1909
Field Lane Ragged School opened in 1842. The school consisted of two or three miserable rooms where ragged, filthy children huddled together on a bench. Not to be trusted with books, the pupils were taught orally by a voluntary teacher. By the 1850s Field Lane consisted of a day school, which taught reading, writing, counting and the Bible; two night schools, one for vagrant adults and another for boys who were employed during the day. There were classes in shoe-making and tailoring for boys, and sewing classes for girls. Field Lane also fed and clothed its students, ran a night refuge and a weekend Bible school. Evangelical Christianity was at the heart of Ragged schooling!
In 1844 the Ragged School Union was founded as a movement of individual schools, sustained by charity or government grants. In under a decade, 300+ free schools for poor children were established in Britain. London, Aberdeen, Dundee and Edinburgh of course, but Manchester, Liverpool and other cities became equally important.
There was criticism. Dickens thought the movement was not secular enough.
In 1850 journalist Henry Mayhew noted ongoing juvenile delinquency. In his 1851 report, London Labour and the London Poor, Mayhew noted the Mudlarks who traipsed along the banks of the Thames looking for coal, copper and rope scraps to sell. Few of these children had been to church or school. Indeed, due to their acts of petty theft brought about by hunger, they were often in prison.
Many poor families believed the classes on offer were irrelevant, so the Ragged School Union began to establish Brigades for boys in 1857. These groups provided certified jobs in street vending or shoe shining, with a proportion of the boys’ earnings being placed in a personal bank account. The police approved.
statue of Rev Thomas Guthrie,
Princes Street Edinburgh
Ragged Industrial Schools were intended to help destitute children who had not as yet committed any serious crime. They’d remove the children from bad influences and teach them a useful trade. Under the 1857 Industrial Schools Act, magistrates could send children who had been found in the company of criminals or were begging, to attend residential Ragged Industrial Schools for two years.
Were the Ragged Schools popular among the poorest in society? In the Ragged School Union’s Annual Report for 1857, only 21,500 out of London’s half a million children had attended their lessons. Eventually Parliament agreed that Ragged schooling alone would not solve the problems. The introduction of universal, compulsory schooling in London under the 1870 Education Act finally arrived.
The Jews' Free School in Spitalfields, in London’s East End, taught c20,000 pupils between 1856-1907. By 1900, the school had 4,250: it was the largest school in Europe. .Since my grandmother lived in Whitechapel, sharing the two rooms with the 12 other people in her impoverished family, I must investigate her Jews’ Free School detailed records. Grandma went on to become a singer/dancer in the three Yiddish Theatres AND in the English-speaking pantomimes. So for at least my family, the Free School did a great job.
Ragged School Museum
Copperfield Rd, London
He gave up his medical training to pursue his local missionary and philanthropy works and in 1867 opened his first ragged school, Copperfield Road School in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Copperfield Road School (and his other properties in the East End) educated tens of thousands of children over the years. It only closed in 1908 when enough government schools were available to serve the local families (although the Factory Girls’ Club lasted until 1916). Was this the last Ragged School to close?
A group of 3 canal-side buildings once formed the largest ragged school in London, Barnardo’s. These 3 buildings later went through a variety of industrial uses until they were threatened with demolition in the early 1980s. Local people joined together to save them and The Ragged School Museum opened in 1990. Visitors can see lessons taught in an authentic Victorian classroom; and they can inpsect the recreated Victorian kitchen with no electricity or running water.