‘Charles Dickens was at first unsure if Ragged Schools could create enough change for the thousands of poor children on the streets.’
Victorian Ragged Schools were charitable associations founded around the 1840s and dedicated to society’s most impoverished children’s free education. The schools combined a free education, food, clothing, lodging and religious instruction. The idea of ragged schools was to educate children and integrate them into society. They based this on police statistics that showed that almost half of the persons taken into custody were with no occupation. A third could neither read nor write, illustrating the relationship between poverty and juvenile crime.
The Schools were in working-class areas where destitute children lived. These children were often omitted from obtaining a Sunday School education because they had a shabby appearance and because they often showed disobedient behaviour. Many Victorian people were interested in the religious welfare and education of poor orphans and abandoned children, and some of them volunteered their time, skills, and talents as educators or worked as administrators to help with the establishment of Ragged Schools.
Not everyone supported Ragged Schools or thought they would work. One outspoken critic was Henry Mayhew, an English social researcher, journalist, playwright and advocate of reform. Eventually, he would interview hundreds of poor people and compile his ground-breaking findings into a book series in 1851 titled London Labour and the London Poor. He argued Ragged Schools could not reform poor children and thought that any education given them would only make them more skilful criminals.
At first, Charles Dickens was unsure if Ragged Schools could create enough change for the thousands of needy children on the streets. He thought using volunteers was inadequate, and that they were not enough to help homeless children overcome their challenges. He also objected to the evangelical aspects promoted in Ragged Schools, as did others. However, Dickens donated funds and visited the Field Lane Ragged School that opened in 1842 before the London Ragged School Union was established. What he found there was depressing and appalling.
Of his visit he wrote: ‘It was a hot summer night, and the air of Field Lane and Saffron Hill was not improved by such weather. It consisted at that time of either two or three – I forget which – miserable rooms, upstairs in a miserable house. In the best of these, the pupils in the female school were being taught to read and write; and though they were among the number, many wretched creatures steeped in degradation to the lips, they were tolerably quiet, and listened with apparent earnestness and patience to their instructors. The appearance of this room was sad and melancholy, of course – how could it be otherwise. The close, low chamber at the back, in which the boys were crowded, was so foul and stifling as to be, at first, almost insupportable. Huddled together on a bench about the room, and shown out by some flaring candles struck against the walls, where a crowd of boys, varying from mere infants to young men; sellers of fruit, herbs, lucifer-matches, flints; sleepers under the dry arches of bridges; young thieves and beggars – with nothing natural to youth about them: with nothing frank, ingenuous, or pleasant in their faces; low-browed, vicious, cunning, wicked; abandoned of all help but this; speeding downward to destruction.’
Despite Dickens’ reluctance, he sought reforms and tried to help with the Ragged Schools. It also inspired him to write A Christmas Carol because he realised he could encourage people to get involved more efficiently by creating a fiction novel than if he wrote a pamphlet about the plight of orphans and needy children. He also later wrote Oliver Twist to appeal to people’s goodness and generate help for orphaned and abandoned children.
Despite the slow start, general lack of acceptance, and the less than pleasing descriptions, Ragged Schools caught on and their number mushroomed from 20 in 1844. By 1849 there were 82 Ragged schools, with 11,000 Sunday pupils and 8,000-day pupils plus 124 paid and 929 voluntary teachers, and the movement spread to most towns and cities in the United Kingdom during the 1850s. By 1867 there were in London alone 226 Sunday Ragged Schools, 24 Day schools, and 207 Evening schools, with an average attendance of 26,000.
Among the most helpful was one of Britain’s most significant social reformers, Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury. He became president of the Ragged Schools in 1844 and served as president of the London Ragged School Union for 39 years. In fact, in 1944, the Union adopted the name ‘Shaftesbury Society’ in his honour. One of the last Ragged Schools to be opened in London was erected in John Street, Shacklewell Lane, Hackney in July 1871. They planned it to accommodate 300 children, and the Earl of Shaftesbury was there to open formally.
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