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Ragged Schools
‘While beholding these poor little creatures, whose delicate limbs are scarcely clothed with rags, you think you see flowers covered with mud!’ (Les Ecoles en Haillons, 1850). LCM Questions to Candidates 1. Have you reason to think that you are a partaker of Divine grace, and on what grounds do you arrive at that conclusion? 2. What are your views of the leading doctrines of Christianity? 3. What are your views respecting the qualifications necessary for the work of the London City Mission? 4. Have you been engaged in the instruction of the young, in seeking the spiritual benefit of the sick, in visiting the poor, in the distribution of tracts? In what other ways have you endeavoured to render yourself useful? N.B. Spiritual-mindedness, and a facility in referring to texts of Scripture in proof of the various doctrines and duties taught and enjoined in the Word of God, are deemed essential and indispensable qualifications.

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‘London is a city of 3 million inhabitants and they are mostly fools.’ Thomas Carlyle

‘A gentleman … was engaged in earnest conversation with one of our District Secretaries. “Ah!” he said,“I owe much to the London City Mission. Many years ago, when I was a child in a Ragged School, it was a City Missionary who taught me the first prayer I ever uttered; and to-day I am worth £20,000!” Such an instance is, of course, exceptional. ’ The LCM Magazine, Dec. 1883

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s the men of the young London City Mission tramped the streets and alleyways of their districts, they met the conditions described by Dickens. ‘Covent-garden Market, when it was market morning, was wonderful company. The great wagons of cabbages, with growers’ men and boys lying asleep under them, and with sharp dogs from market-garden neighbourhoods looking after the whole, were as good as a party. But one of the worst sights I know in London, is to be found in the children who prowl about this place; who sleep in the baskets, fight for the offal, dart at any object they think they can lay their thieving hands on, dive under the carts and barrows, dodge the constables, and are perpetually making a blunt pattering on the pavement of the Piazza with the rain of their naked feet. A painful and unnatural result comes of the comparison one is forced to institute between the growth of corruption as displayed in the so much improved and cared for fruits of the earth, and the growth of corruption as displayed in these all uncared for (except inasmuch as ever-hunted) savages’ (Oliver Twist). Dickens’ description is verified by no less than the Earl of Shaftesbury, who wrote in the Quarterly Review, that he found children,‘in squalid and half-naked groups at the entrances of narrow fetid courts and alleys … The foul and dismal passages are thronged with children of both sexes, and of every age from three to thirteen. Though wan and haggard, they are singularly vivacious, and engaged in every sort of occupation but that which would be beneficial to themselves and creditable to the neighbourhood. Their appearance is wild; matted hair, disgusting filth, barbarian freedom from all restraint … Visit these regions in summer and you are overwhelmed by the exhalations; visit them in winter and you are shocked by the spectacle of hundreds shivering … all but naked.’ These same children scuttled around the feet of the City Missionaries, and tugged at their heart-strings. On 18th May 1840, at the Mission’s Annual Meeting in the Exeter Hall, one
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of the topics was what was being done for them. By then, several missionaries had opened schools, five of the establishments being specifically for children ‘raggedly clothed’. These five were in Lambeth, Rosemary Lane, Bethnal Green, Shoreditch, and the West of the city. Among them they had 570 pupils attending. Five years later, 40 Ragged Schools were in existence throughout the metropolis, nearly all of which had been started by City Missionaries who continued to devote a considerable amount of time to running them. Initially these schools met only on Sundays, but it was not long before their doors were open on other days of the week. Crime-worn children An Edinburgh man, when asked to describe a Ragged School, said they were Sunday schools set up in the poorest parts where every house was ‘worn-out and crazy’ and nearly every tenant a beggar, or worse. ‘These schools, he said, were for ragged, diseased and crime-worn children, such as would not be admitted to any other kind of school.’ The one he instanced was in Field Lane, Smithfield, where 45 young people had to overcome the objections of their parents in order to attend; the parents viewing any possible reformation in their offspring as a potential loss of criminal earnings. Some of the children, who were aged six to 18, had already been in prison, and that, the Scot concluded, would be where they would spend much of the rest of their lives unless educated at the Ragged School. The teacher at Field Lane School was a big-hearted woman who did the work voluntarily three days a week (Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal, 7th June 1845). According to Shaftesbury, the children who attended Ragged Schools did have at least one advantage over their wealthier contemporaries. ‘The thief,’ he said, ‘is no fool but is shrewd to a proverb. If we descend to the lowest class of all,
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such as the inmates of Ragged Schools, the precocity of these individuals has often been remarked on as little short of a natural phenomenon. Their wits are, in fact, sharpened by their condition, and they are quicker in learning than other individuals, and more easy, in these respects, to be taught.’ That may or may not have been the case, but the schools did have some successes. H.C.T., the son of drunken parents, was one such success. When he first started attending the Ragged School, his brother was already in prison for stealing rather than starving. He was then transported. H.C.T. attended school regularly, behaved well and studied hard. For this he was rewarded with a new pair of shoes and socks, the first he had ever possessed. The following day, in several inches of snow, he appeared at school bare-footed and with his shoes under his arm. So painful were his chilblain-covered feet that he could not wear his new shoes. But he was not prepared to leave them at home for fear his mother would sell them to buy drink. Despite being severely undernourished, H.C.T. was determined not to do as his brother had done, but to make an honest way in life. One day he asked the missionary for the loan of threepence, saying that he could use it to make a living and attend school too. With the threepence he bought a dozen boxes of matches which he sold for sixpence. For nearly two years he attended school all day, sold a dozen boxes of matches in the evening, and lived on his threepence profit. ‘When I can read and write well,’ he told the missionary, ‘I will get a situation.’ While H.C.T. benefited from his years at the Ragged School, there is no suggestion that it made any impact on his home. That was not always the case. One missionary told of two children, a boy and his sister, who were pupils at one of the early Ragged Schools. The pair were so filthy on their first day at school that they needed to be scrubbed and provided with
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clean clothes, and when they returned home that day their parents hardly recognised them. Their mother was soon to discover that while ragged clothes were no bar to schooling, filth was, and the teachers were strict on the subject of cleanliness. The change in her children began to have some effect on their mother, who started to wash not only their clothes but hers too. Even her husband’s shirt found its way into the washtub where it encountered soap for the first time. Her home then began to change till, three months after the children started attending school, it looked a different place. Probably encouraged by the improvement in their home, the boy and girl worked well at school. They took their learning, as well as their cleanliness, home with them, even teaching their parents hymns and verses from the Bible. Their father eventually put away a penny a week to buy his son and daughter a Bible. The change in the family was so marked that even their landlord noticed. So impressed was he, that he offered the father a job as caretaker for all the buildings in the courtyard. Thus the dissipated family was changed through the influence of the Ragged School, and the wretched tenant became the overseer. Pounds of Portsmouth Ragged Schools were not just about education. One of the first was run by John Pounds of Portsmouth who, in the 1820s, realised that, to gain the benefit of teaching, a child had first to be fed and clothed, and that for education to be of practical use it had to include some measure of training for employment. Pounds, a cobbler, blazed the trail and many followed. Dr Guthrie opened schools in Edinburgh, Sheriff Watson did the same in Aberdeen, and the LCM missionaries went some way to meet the needs of the tens of thousands of children living in
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poverty in the metropolis. As late as 1861 the Select Committee on the Education of Destitute Children recognised that educational provision, such as existed, was failing them. ‘There exists in many of our great cities and towns a class of children whom the system of national education supported by Parliament, and administered by the Committee of Privy Council for Education, does not reach, and who are excluded, in consequence either of the faults or the misfortunes of their parents, from any participation in its benefits’ (Kathleen Heasman, Evangelicals in Action). By 1861, 176 schools were connected to the Ragged School Union, which for the previous 17 years had worked ‘to give permanence, regularity and vigour to the existing Ragged Schools and to promote the formation of new ones’. Shaftesbury was chairman of the Union. Baptist Noel and R.C.L. Bevan, both closely connected with the London City Mission, were on the committee. So it was not only individual missionaries who were concerned to help the least privileged of the city’s children, the Mission’s leaders were also working to the same end. Mid-19th century evangelicals had a social conscience that led them to hands-on action; they also had a loud voice that got things done in government. While Shaftesbury was lending his name and support to the Ragged School Union, and visiting individual schools in the poorest parts of London, he was at the same time campaigning for there to be a limit to the number of hours children were allowed to work in factories and coalmines. To think of Ragged Schools as educational establishments in the modern sense would be wrong. Teachers were, in the main, volunteers, and volunteers with perhaps more heart than expertise. ‘The uproar with which anyone visiting such a school would be greeted, the unsavoury remarks, the lewd jokes and general atmosphere of low living would make the visitor immediately aware
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(that) its primary purpose was to reclaim and civilise the child and make him or her a useful member of the community.’ The LCM’s official policy had always been that the spreading of the gospel was paramount, and missionaries were forbidden to be involved financially with their people. As more and more missionaries became involved in the setting up and running of Ragged Schools, the Mission clarified this policy further. ‘The missionaries are most carefully to avoid the giving of temporal relief, as not their department of Christian effort, and as most materially interfering with the integrity of their especial work. The missionaries are strictly forbidden from writing letters soliciting aid for persons in distress, or for objects connected with the district, except with the special leave of one of the Secretaries … The missionaries must not make themselves responsible, or incur pecuniary responsibility in any form, for ... expenses attendant of Ragged Schools, rooms of meeting ...’ Behind these regulations lay not a lack of concern for the poor but the fear that, once missionaries were seen as a source of ready cash, it would be difficult for them to be sure of the honesty of those professing spiritual concern and conversion. The Mission was concerned to avoid the problem of what later became known as ‘rice Christians’. Yet the regulations were always interpreted fairly broadly, as in the case of a missionary who persuaded his local butcher and cookshops to help him feed starving children. It was a feature of the times that men of goodwill spread their favours through many different groups and societies. Lord Shaftesbury supported the London City Mission, the Ragged School Union and over a hundred other societies. In 1867, he and two other peers, Lords Kinnaird (a member of the LCM Committee) and MountTemple, set up the Destitute Children’s Dinner Society in response to the desperate need to feed the Ragged School children. Ministers, missionaries, teachers and
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others of like standing gave needy children a ticket entitling them to a subsidised meal of meat stew, rice and vegetables in one of the many special dining rooms that were opened, several of them attached to Ragged Schools. Funds were set up to help provide for the children in all kinds of ways, not least to give them a party with roast beef and plum pudding each Christmas! In 1848, Shaftesbury told the Thirteenth Anniversary meeting of the London City Mission, ‘It is needless here to discuss what was the origin of Ragged Schools … We cannot tell where they were born; by God’s blessing they exist – by that blessing they will still go forward; but whenever you enter a Ragged School, remember this – we are indebted for nine-tenths of them to the humble, the pious, the earnest City Missionary.’ Keeping hold of the vision The London City Mission was not founded to establish Ragged Schools; it had as its great aim to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the city of London. Even those missionaries whose Journals show their investment of time and interest in the poorest children of their area still had their district to look after. The Committee expected that 36 hours each week would be spent in door-to-door visitation, that time not being inclusive of preparation for and holding meetings, writing Journals and Reports, meeting with local superintendents or any other activity, however commendable. Even Sunday was accounted for. As well as attending two services, missionaries were expected to devote three hours to door-to-door visitation. And the reason the Committee gave for this was that Sunday was the only day of the week on which many men were to be found at home. Apart from that, they felt that the Lord’s Day was much the most important day of the week for communicating
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religious instruction, possibly because some of the people they visited felt it was the day you spoke about God if you spoke about him at all. In short, the work-shy need not apply to the LCM! The Mission would probably not have been for the nervous or fearful either, as illustrated by one missionary’s experience of a visit to a Ragged School. The ‘little incident’ was reported in the February 1863 Magazine under the heading ‘A Missionary Garotted’. ‘We fill up the remaining lines of this number with a narrative of a little incident which has just occurred to a missionary … Having received an invitation to attend a Ragged Shool Meeting in his old district (Deptford), he was induced to accept the invitation and pay a visit to his former friends. His return home from this visit was necessarily somewhat late, and in passing though Southwark near St. Saviour’s Church, he was accosted by two men, one of whom pinioned his arms and the other grasped his throat in his embrace. From the effects of the violence he is not yet free. He was robbed by them of his watch and the money which he happened to have in his pockets.’ Interestingly, his watch was returned to him by one of the thieves, but the other had no compunction about keeping a missionary’s money! London City Missionaries have on many occasions been the agents of change, and this was certainly true in the establishment of Ragged Schools. From them, or associated with them, were the Ragged School and Chapel Union (again, with Lord Shaftesbury as its President), the Children’s Country Holiday Fund, Pearson’s Fresh Air Fund and, more loosely, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Thirty years after the first missionaries began Ragged Schools, their work came to an end. With the Education Act of 1870, elementary education was made available for all children, regardless of means. But while children’s educational
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needs were then catered for, their most basic welfare needs were not. The Ragged School Union became the Shaftesbury Society and continued to work for the good of the poorest children. Nor did the London City Mission opt out of education. Missionaries today are still involved in school work, after-school groups and children’s clubs. They still have a concern for the whole life of each child.

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Related Interests