The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Ragged Schools of London

by William Main.
Volume 5, 1894, pg. 116-123

[Ragged Schools were started by volunteers to educate the very poor who were "too raggedy" to attend school, and provide them with skills that would allow them to escape a life of crime. "Charles Dickens visited the Field Lane Ragged School . . . The experience inspired him to write A Christmas Carol." Wikipedia. The movement merged with the Shaftesbury Society. Today there is a Ragged School Museum in London.]

Fifty years ago there were a few Ragged Schools scattered here and there in the slums of the metropolis, and with so little life were some of them endowed, that whether they would live or die was hard to say. The best of them could not be called robust, and there were weaklings that were never out of nursing. Buried away in filthy courts, unknown except to the dozen teachers who stuck to them, their case sometimes looked desperate.

But to one thoughtful worker light came. He veritably discovered the elixir of Ragged School life. "Let a diocese be formed," said he, "let the good Lord Ashley (better known later on as Lord Shaftesbury) be the Bishop. With his power and influence added to our efforts all will go well. Every weak school will be supported."

It was something more than a happy thought, it seemed an inspiration. To-day, fifty years after its accomplishment, the Ragged School Union is a powerful organisation, working out in great detail, the beautiful and providential conception.

In those early days no one could estimate the requirements of Darkest London. For good reason--the territory was literally unexplored. Even the police authorities acknowledged their powerlessness to cope successfully with the large areas of crime and immorality which, happily, have long ago been swept away. The policy the Union adopted was to vigorously maintain the schools that had already been planted on the fringes of these localities, and to further invade them as opportunity occurred. Nor was there any lack of stimulus, for throughout their length and breadth, masses of neglected child-life mutely appealed for succour.

The progress made may have been slow, but certainly it has been sure. The advanced forces were always well supported, and every year fresh inroads were made, and new schools were opened in districts where Christian knowledge had never before been taught. The voluntary teachers of Ragged Schools have been in truth the light brigade of the Church and the Legislature and these many years both Church and State have been kept right busy, holding the ground first occupied by Lord Shaftesbury's troops.

The number of schools that first formed the union was about twenty; to-day they number two hundred and ten, and many of them are each doing more work than all the combined agency of the pioneer establishments. The passing to the Elementary Education Act was thought by many to be the death knell of the Ragged School system. If there be any who still imagine that it was superannuated and rendered effete by that much needed legislation, they would do well to study the last Annual Report issued from 37, Norfolk Street, Strand, W.C. The Education Act was, in reality, the stepping stone which enabled the "Ragged" teacher to reach his proper work. Set free from teaching the mint and cummin of the schoolmaster's message, he now begins to build upon the foundation which the Board School has already laid.

The child of the poor, because of his poverty, his miserable surroundings, and his moral and spiritual condition, must always require much more than any Act of Parliament can supply, and in the voluntary teacher of the Ragged School he finds the friend, the help, the sympathy, and the love that his life demands. For the voluntary teacher is the mainstay of the system. There are thousands of citizens, barristers, solicitors, merchants, clerks and humble workmen, titled ladies and factory girls, who week by week, and year by year, worthily spend their week evenings and Sundays in this grand Christian army. It is impossible to estimate the amount of substantial good they are collectively doing. But speak to one, hear this man tell of "his boys," this lady of "her girls," and watch their faces. How they beam. Those who have worn out their lives in a fruitless pursuit of happiness would surely find it here. These teachers know the kind of home each scholar lives in, and the respective strength and weakness of that particular family circle. The little ones are helped and encouraged as they may require; they are trained to cleanliness, to thrift, to industrial habits. As they grow up, places are found for them, and touch is kept with the employer, so it is not an easy matter to slip through the net of the teacher who is embued with the spirit of his office. Many teachers to-day have in their classes the children of former scholars, and they have cause to rejoice over the improvement of this generation compared with the former. It is in this fashion, and in this spirit, that the schools are manned, and Christian England has no cause to be ashamed, either at the efforts put forth, or the results.

But while the rank and file of the teachers are thus engaged, while each school has its own officials, its own committees, and the management of its own affairs, what has the Cental Union to do with the schools individually? Much every way. First of all, there is a treasure chest labelled "Maintenance," kept at 37, Norfolk Street, and well every "Ragged" manager knows of its existence. While there are many of the institutions whose finance is in a fairly satisfactory condition, it is not so with all. It is from this source that the ammunition is supplied to advanced posts not yet able to purchase their own. If truth must be told, these outposts are generally lodged in a disused stable of the dilapidated, early London style, and to aid in the payment of rent, and in the purchase of struts and beams, whitewash and literature, the needful cheque is often drawn from "Maintenance" at Head-quarters. And when at last the district surveyor speaks peremptorily, and condemns the building as being dangerous, and friends far and near joyfully subscribe for a new and larger building, few open their purses much wider than does Godmother Maintenance.

At the present moment Mr. John Kirk, the secretary, could name more than a score of schools whose premises structurally are in a disgraceful condition. Their doors are open every night in the week, they are thronged by children who are glad to leave the din and squalor of one-roomed homes, for the clubs and classes and friendships of their school. But the entrance is narrow and ill-lighted, the roof low pitched and ragged, the rooms are few, small and ill-arranged, and the stairs are dangerous. New premises are urgently required. But new buildings cost money. Maintenance, unhappily, cannot build, it can only afford to give the subscription list a handsome "send-off."

Every new school assures continuity of work, it is the pledge that the campaign will be prosecuted. Like the hive to the bee, the boat to the fisher, tools and workshop to the artisan, it makes possible every effort which the conditions demand. So long as the youngest generation can appreciate crèche, gymnasium, penny bank, Band of Hope, social intercourse, a library, and a lecture hall so long will their thresholds be worn by eager little feet. So long as the present condition of society exists, so long, it is to be hoped, will the Ragged School be a permanent institution. If it were for nothing more than for the Christian instruction it imparts to child, youth, and adult, its continuance should be made secure. Given the buildings, the Christian church will surely insure a supply of teachers so long as they are needed.

But the Bishop of Ragged London and his consistory have something more to think of than bricks and mortar. Dismal poverty is chronic in Darkest London, and well the "Ragged" teacher knows it. And can he be content when he sees before him little bodies that suffer from cold and hunger, and a goodly proportion of the 50,000 scholars are in this evil case every winter? To meet the demands for "grants in aid" for breakfasts and dinners, that come from the north, south, east and west of the metropolis, is no easy matter. Very often the "benevolent" nurse is sore put to it, to keep the many kitchens going. But there are rills and rivulets of help that flow in, not only from the metropolis, but from all parts of England, and so the channels are supplied, and free course is given to a much-needed branch of practical christianity.

The latest helping auxiliary to head-quarters has proved a delightful acquisition--the Guild of the Good Samaritan, formed from amongst readers of "The Young Woman" monthly. From Caithness to Cornwall, sympathetic hearts have been touched by the needs of the little folk, and the office of the Union during the winter months somewhat resembles a city warehouse, so plentiful are the in-coming and out-going packages of juvenile requirements. The case of each child-applicant must be vouched for as genuine by a responsible teacher, and when the parcel arrives she keeps an oversight that the garments and boots are worn.

During the last three years this clothing department has more than doubled its capacity for work. Everywhere there seems a readiness in the "haves" to express their sympathy with the little "have-nots" in all sorts of practical and useful ways. A hamper of children's worn boots and jackets is a much more effective method of relief for a gentle-woman's feelings, than sundry vague expressions of regret, regarding the thriftlessness and poverty of overgrown London.

Although the Ragged School Union is to celebrate its jubilee this year, it appears to possess all the vigour and exuberance of lusty youth. It has no hard and fast lines outside of which it dare not work, and strange indeed would be the proposal which it would not attempt to utilize on behalf of the children. For instance, last summer a fruit farmer in Kent, found that after he had gathered his saleable strawberries, there were still many remaining that would not pay the gathering. He sent a modest request that two hundred boys and girls should be sent to him for a day. His order was duly despatched by train, and never were fields better gleaned, nor children better entertained. The farmer and his better half were delighted with their guests, whom they saw on more than one occasion, and the Ragged Schools found a generous friend. It was in a similar way the Pearson's Weekly asked Mr. Kirk to supply the child material for the holiday fund which it instituted. A more agreeable Godsend never came the children's way. Permission was given for the erection of spacious accommodation in Epping Forest for meals and wet weather, and relays of the raggedest went daily down last summer until by the end of September, 40,000 had enjoyed one grand, long, uproarious day among the daisies.

This open ear and willing hand of the Council has brought many a blessing to the dwellers of the slums. Some years ago a lady in Essex well-known for her active benevolence, furnished some unoccupied buildings in which little London pale-faces could spend a fortnight's holiday. She applied to Mr. Kirk, with the result that so many boys and girls went down fortnightly, with the regularity of clockwork, to be this lady's guest. But more, the idea was a fruitful one. It proved the practicability of Holiday Homes. The seed fell on good ground, and to-day nine of these health-promoting establishments for little folk exist, by mount, and stream, and sea, under the immediate management of head quarters. One at Bognor was built and furnished by a lady as a memorial of her son. One at Ramsgate is associated with the name of one of the best friends ragged children ever had, ("Rob Roy") Mr. John Macgregor. The Southend home is called after the late Mr. Leone Levi, a professor of political economy, who satisfied his human heart by abundant effort on behalf of London Ragged Children.

More than 5,000 children were made happy and healthy last year through this much needed department, which has now a permanent place in the machinery of the organization.

It need not be said in these pages that every child God sends, demands endless effort on its behalf. But what superadded care is required for stunted, maimed, and invalid children, born and bred in the social and moral wastes of an overgrown city? The Ragged School Union Council have had this subject in a very special way before them for the last two years. During that period, it has loomed out of the mist that surrounded it, slowly becoming more and more urgent and masterful, as its outlines and proportions were the more clearly seen.

There is surely little doubt but that the London School Board, whose thoughtful sympathy is now taking practical shape for the blind and deaf, will yet stretch out a hand as far as maimed and solitary children. But the Ragged School workers, who in times past paved the way for corporate action, are already at work in this but recently discovered sphere of suffering.

With much toil and trouble, in court and alley, in garret and cellar, little invalids have been found, slowly dragging out a wearied and miserable existence. Most touching cases have come to light. The other day the "Ragged" Kindergarten teacher found four children of a family--Annie, the eldest, a hopeless invalid; a boy of eight, suffering from a nervous disorder; another of five, nearly blind; and a blank-looking baby in the mother's arms. It was as a glimpse of heaven to the mother to see a friendly face at her door, and the delight of the poor little things to have dolls and toys to play with, and to be told fairy stories, cannot be described.

The lady heard of a sick cripple boy of seven years close by. On calling, she found that his father was ill, and that the mother was the bread-winner. How did she do it? She received from a warehouse the stitched uppers of children's shoes, and the soles. Her work was to put the soles and uppers together, to stiffen them with paste and cardboard; then stitch the soles to the uppers, and afterwards put in the lining, which had to be carefully sewn in its place. She had to find her own thread, and paste, and cardboard and for these materials, and for her labour, she was paid the sum of 9d. per dozen pairs!

Sitting at the table, busily engaged, was a young, quiet-looking woman.

"Is she your daughter?"

"No," said the house mother, "she was motherless girl, and some years ago I took her in--she has been with us ever since."

"And yet you have six children!"

"Yes, but she is one of us now, ain't you, Annie? And she works as hard as me to keep the little home together.

"How many can you make in a day?"

"We shall finish three dozen pairs to-day."

"And what do you call a day?"

The woman looked up with a tired expression, as she said, "I began at three o'clock this morning, and I shall leave off at midnight."

It would be safe to say that there are hundreds of invalid children in somewhat similar circumstances to these, in the back streets of London. So far as means will allow, the Ragged School Union is seeking them out, so that lady visitors who are qualified to instruct and amuse them, may pay them regular and frequent visits. During the winter months, when the Holiday Homes are not in request by their usual lively visitors, little companies of these interesting "lameters" are taken down, much to their pleasure and improvement. This department of work is so attractive, that it would take a paper all to itself.

There is one fact which must be noted here, a fact which indeed is never forgotten by the ragged school authority,--that there is still much ground to occupy. The remembrance of that is a continual spur to action. The shifting of the population, its growth, and its density, are ever presenting new opportunities for further effort. Well-to-do christian congregations send representatives to the slum regions, to conduct mission schools and chapels,--would that many more would follow their example. Yet still, all over the congested districts, there is plenty of room for more Ragged Schools. The Church of Christ claims to be a Missionary Church, and the designation receives justification, seeing that every wind that blows, sends missionaries over the sea to foreign ports. But if a church provide not for the poor and the miserable of its own country, it has surely lost the faith. If ever there were eloquence in a voiceless appeal, surely it may be heard from the children who are still unsought, who lead worse than savage lives in the richest city in the world. The Ragged School Union is no longer on its trial. It has justified its existence in this extensive field of operations. Its lift-power is recognized as one of the moral dynamics of the metropolis. It has a right to ask, and obtain, a liberal and an extended support. Under its new President, Lord Compton, in this its jubilee year, it will doubtless attempt greater things, for to stand still, it dare not. There are many who are not slow to assert, that but for the influence it has exerted in its special sphere, the volcanic forces that slumber in all masses of neglected and depraved humanity would, ere now, at our own door, have burst forth into disastrous activity. If that be so, the Ragged School has saved the State; it is certain that it is helping to regenerate the world.

Typed by AniElizabeth, July 2018; Proofread by LNL, May 2021