Victorian Era Ragged Schools

Victorian era Ragged Schools were charitable organizations established around the 1840s and dedicated to the free education of society’s most destitute children in Britain. The schools combined a free education, food, clothing, lodging, religious instruction, and other home missionary services as required for poor children. The idea of ragged schools was to educate children and incorporate them into society. This was based on “police statistics [that] showed that almost half of the persons taken into custody were without any occupation and a third could neither read nor write, thereby illustrating the relationship between poverty, ignorance, and juvenile crime.”[1]

“Ragged School Union Magazine” quote from 1849. Public domain.

Of the school’s name, one 1845 insightful newspaper remarked:

“The name … is not an ambitious one, but it tells a serious truth and it suggests reflections that may be usefully ruminated. The first want of our nature is food, the next shelter, the third raiment; the last of these wants is, however, less felt in infancy, when neither health nor decency exacts the attention due by adults to their outward covering. While all the children of the very destitute therefore are necessarily ragged – the children of persons just above absolute destitution are ragged also – but children so ill attired are usually excluded from the ordinary schools, by a feeling of alarm on the part of the managers of those schools, lest the character of their establishments should suffer from the appearance of the pupils, and also by a feeling of not unjustifiable pride in the parents of the little ragged ones, which forbids them to send their children where they would be, probably, if admitted, unwelcome intruders, and regarded as unworthy associates for their better clad schoolfellows.”[2]

Ragged Schools were situated in working-class districts where destitute children lived. These children were often excluded from obtaining a Sunday School education not only because they had an unkempt appearance but also because they often exhibited challenging behavior. Although there was a great desire to help the poor and destitute children find God, there was also a great desire to help society in general as mentioned in one meeting held in 1862 at St. Mary’s Hall in Coventry.

“Ragged Schools, or Free Day Schools for destitute and neglected children, are based on most important principles, which involve our welfare as a nation and as a Christian community. It is a matter of the highest moment to the prosperity of the State, that no portion of the population should be left to stagnate in a slough of ignorance from which they cannot, unaided, extricate themselves; – that there should be no underlying mass of corruption to deaden the efforts which are made to raise the harbouring classes to a true sense of their position in society; – that there should be no children, the future citizens of our country, left to grow up in such a condition that they will inevitably come upon society for support, as paupers or as criminals.”[3]

Many Victorian Era 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. Among the most helpful was one of Britain’s greatest 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 honor.

Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Of course, not everyone supported Ragged Schools or thought that 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 groundbreaking findings into a book series in 1851 titled, London Labour and the London Poor. He argued that Ragged Schools could not reform poor children and thought that any education given them would only make them more skillful criminals.

Henry Mayhew. Author’s collection,

Charles Dickens was at first unsure if Ragged Schools could create enough change for the thousands of poor children on the streets. He thought that using volunteers was inadequate and that they were not enough of them 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 just 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, were 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; and Unutterably Ignorant. 

This Reader, was one room as full as it could hold; but these were only grains in sample of a Multitude that are perpetually sifting through these schools; … This was the Class I saw … They could not be trusted with books; they could only be instructed orally; they were difficult of reduction to anything like attention, obedience, or decent behaviour; their benighted ignorance in reference to the Deity, or to any social duty … was terrible to see. Yet even here, and among these, something had been done already. … The new exposition I found in this Ragged School, of the frightful neglect by the State of those whom it punishes so constantly … I had seen there, in the heart of London; haunted me, and finally impelled me to an endeavour to bring these Institutions under the notice of the Government; … I made the attempt; and have heard no more of the subject, from that hour.”[4]

Charles Dickens. Author’s collection.

As noted, despite Dickens’ reluctance, he sought out reforms and tried to help with the Ragged Schools. He was also inspired to write A Christmas Carol because he realized he could encourage people to get involved more easily through creating a novel of fiction than if he wrote a pamphlet about the plight of orphans and poor children. He also later wrote Oliver Twist in the same hope of appealing to the goodness of people and to generate help for orphaned and abandoned children.

It was a slow start for the Ragged Schools. Most people were unfamiliar and unsure what Ragged Schools were when they started in 1844. However, newspapers willingly educated people and spread the word about them announcing that philanthropists and church volunteers maintained them. Newspapers also did not pull any punches, providing descriptions such as the one that follows that was printed in 1845:

“‘A ragged school’ is a Sunday school, established by private benevolence in a city district of the meanest kind, where every house is worn-out and crazy, and almost every tenant a beggar, or, perhaps, something worse. A school moreover, in which no children are to be found who would be admitted into any school; for ragged, diseased, and crime-worn, their very appearance would scare away the children of well-conducted parents, and hence, if they were not educated there, they would receive no education at all.”[5]

Despite the slow start, general lack of acceptance, and the less than pleasing descriptions, Ragged School 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.”[6]

Ragged Schools had been designed to help some of the neediest children, such as mudlarks. These children scrounged and scavenged rivers (and sometimes sewers) hunting for treasures, such as coal, paper, woodchips, copper nails, scrap iron, and the occasional hat, old boot, or silk handkerchief. Mayhew interviewed these children for his book and didn’t believe the schools would make a difference. He also wrote negatively of the children stating:

“These poor creatures are certainly about the most deplorable in their appearance … They may be seen of all ages, from mere childhood to positive decrepitude, crawling among the barges at the various wharfs … with but few exceptions, these people are dull, and apparently stupid; this is observable particularly among the boys and girls, who, when engaged in searching the mud, hold but little converse one with another. … some of them go, in the evening, to a ragged school, in the neighbourhood of which they live; more, as they say, because other boys go there, than from any desire to learn.”[7]

Mudlarks on Thames. Author’s collection.

As the movement become respectable, it attracted many wealthy philanthropists. One person attracted to the cause of Ragged Schools was Angela Burdett-Coutts who in 1837 became one of the wealthiest women in England when she inherited her grandfather’s fortune of around £1.8 million. She donated large sums of money to the Ragged School Union.

Angela Burdett-Coutts. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Other people also gave donations or left legacies to the schools. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert donated £100 between 1854 and 1855, and The Ragged School Union Magazine also listed numerous pages of donors during the same period who had kindly donated at least £5. There were also those who donated £100 or more such as James Campbell Esq., a Miss Mary Brown, J.G. Hubbard Esq., The Corporation of the City of London, and Abel Smith, Esq. In addition, the magazine also reported on a generous donation of £500 by “A Lady, per Lieut. Blackmore.”

As to the effect the Ragged Schools had on students, the Union Magazine provided several stories of success in 1856. For instance, among some of the students who immigrated and went abroad, a student with the initials R.B. went to Australia. There he found an apprenticeship with a shipwright and remarked, “I am happy.” Another student who went to Canada also noted his happiness and stated that he had been apprenticed for three years as a blacksmith. There was also another student named J.M. who immigrated to Canada:

“I am glad to hear how the School is improving: I never can forget those who support it; long may they live, for they have taken me out of misery, and placed me in a country where I can become a man of property – for, if I live, and take care, there is nothing to hinder me.[8]


Ragged School Union Report for 1856. Public domain.

It was not just the Ragged Schools and the students who had praise for what was being accomplished in the schools. The Falkirk Herald noted in 1861 the positive effects of Ragged Schools:

“A Government Inspector lately ‘pronounced’ against an English ragged school, and the democracy of thought in the British press set up a howling, and most mournful lamentation against ragged schools and against ‘ragged’ orators. The panic has ceased, and a stubborn fact rises up to confront the panic-mongers, and it is this: that ragged schools have done good – are in the meantime doing good – and will continue in the same hopeful course. … The ragged and charity schools have picked off the streets those dirty, destitute, mendicating young people who were an outrage on civilisation, seeing that they were growing into man and womanhood, knowing, and caring for, little else than how to get, by the easiest method, what did not belong to them. As a mere police preventative, Ragged Schools have done admirable service. … But, while the promoters of Ragged Schools have to point to police statistics, they can also point to what too many forget – that these tattered little ones are kindred to the best of us. Uncared for, they float into crime, shaping their wrists for the handcuffs. The Ragged School gives them the badge of honesty. … Ragged school influences may seem trivial now. But they will grow, and all the better if nurtured. How great they shall grow – and how worthy an army of honest men and women they shall produce, is hid from us now; but, if we have faith in the potency of goodness and kindness, we have an assurance that their results are not a mere probability.”[9]

By 1870, there were 350 Ragged School established. Their establishment clearly demonstrated there was a necessity to educate poor children, and it encouraged England and Wales to establish school boards to administer elementary schools, although education was still not free at the time. However, after 1870, public funding was provided for elementary education among the working classes and school boards were created in boroughs and parishes under the Elementary Education Act 1870. There was also a movement to make elementary education free from Anglican doctrine. Thus, as school boards became more established, the demand for Ragged Schools declined.

One of the last Ragged Schools to be opened in London was erected in John Street, Shacklewell Lane in July of 1871. It was planned to accommodate 300 children and the Earl of Shaftesbury was there to formally open it with devotional exercises being conducted by a Reverend T.W. Aveling of the Kingsland Congregational Church. In the Earl’s speech, he dwelt on the past achievements of the Ragged Schools, which were summarized by the Clerkenwell News:

“Since their establishment they [have] imparted more or less of moral and Christian education to no fewer than 400,000 children who would otherwise have gone to swell the hordes of pauperism and crime; and … but for their labours London would not now be governable by its ten thousand police … The noble earl, in conclusion, earnestly pressed the duty of continuing in some form the labours of the past, and warned the Christian public against trusting too much in the efficacy of the Education Act.”[10]


  • [1] R. Swift, Victorian Chester: Essays in Social History, 1830-1900 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1996), p. 150.
  • [2] London Evening Standard, June 12, 1845, p. 4.
  • [3] Coventry Standaard, “Ragged Schools,” November 22, 1861, p. 1.
  • [4] C. Dickens, The Works of Charles Dickens v. 14 (London: Books, Incorporated, 1911), p. 27–28.
  • [5] Hertford Mercury and Reformer, “Visit to a “Ragged School”,” July 19, 1845, p. 3.
  • [6] R. Swift, p. 150.
  • [7] R. B. Knowles, The Illustrated London magazine, ed. by R.B. Knowles (London: Piper, Stephenson, and Spence, 1853), p. 137.
  • [8] The Ragged School Union Magazine (London: Partridge & Oakey, 1849), p. 11.
  • [9] Falkirk Herald, “Our Local Ragged and Industrial Schools,” November 14, 1861, p. 4.
  • [10] Clerkenwell News, “Kingsland Ragged Schools,” July 29, 1871, p. 6.

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