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At The Ragged School Museum

May 5, 2024
by the gentle author



The Ragged School Museum by Doreen Fletcher, 2017

On a recent bright spring morning, Contributing Photographer Rachel Ferriman and I paid a visit to the Ragged School Museum in Copperfield Rd, Bow, next to the canal. One hundred and fifty years ago, Dr Barnardo opened the first of his ‘ragged schools’ here, teaching literacy and basic arithmetic to poor children in a converted warehouse.

In 1990, the building became a museum of the life and works of Dr Barnardo, with a classroom where pupils from schools around London come to experience nineteenth century disciplinarian education. They discover the delight of practising cursive hand in chalk upon slates, the wonder of pounds, shillings and pence, and the importance of elocution in speaking ‘properly.’ I can assure you that the enthusiastic hordes of children storming up and down the staircases did not appear unduly troubled by the experience, and their teeming presence certainly evokes the former life of this building.

While Rachel explored the labyrinthine museum to take her photographs, Director Erika Davies explained her mission to me.

‘When I came here in 2008, the building was in a poor state and a survey revealed that the roof was in a parlous condition, so it was clear something had to be done. With my trustees, I oversaw the Heritage Lottery Fund grant which put the place in good order as you see it today.

Schools come from all over London, and one regularly from Rome, for our strict Victorian lessons. Some children have been known to get weepy. They also do kitchen sessions to experience the misery of domestic life before electricity, using carbolic soap to scrub laundry, before boiling water and washing it, then mangling it.  This is the other side of Victorian life, the hard domestic work that women did.

At weekends, families come and – on the first Sunday of each month – we offer a free drop-in Victorian lesson.

I believe it is important to reflect on where we have come from and the importance of what we now take for granted, namely education. We should not forget the dire state of so many lives not that long ago, especially in the East End.’

Portraits of Barnardo’s children from the nineteenth century

A class in progress

Learning pounds, shillings and pence

Hands on the table!

Corporal punishment is dispensed instantaneously

Writing on slates

‘kitchen sessions to experience the misery of domestic life before electricity’

Photographs copyright © Rachel Ferriman

The Ragged School Museum is hosting three talks in the next month.

Wednesday 8th May at 7pm – W. M. Jacob, Dr Barnardo’s East End: Poverty & Philanthropy in Nineteenth Century London

Wednesday 22nd May at 6.30pm – Professor Emma Griffin: Life in Dr Barnardo’s East End

Wednesday 5th June at 7pm – Sarah Wise on Annie Macpherson: Fighting Satan in Whitechapel & Bethnal Green  

6 Responses leave one →
  1. May 5, 2024

    I can’t help feeling they’d have a full class of expensively paying visitors if they held a class for adults offering corporal punishment dished out with wanton abandon. There’d have been no need for a Heritage Grant!

  2. May 5, 2024

    The Victorian era was quite strict — but at least people looked after these children and gave them a chance. From today’s perspective, it’s all very ‘romantic’…

    Love & Peace

  3. May 5, 2024

    If those children did not have a ragged school to attend, what might the alternative have been? Going into the labour force at 6?

  4. Marnie permalink
    May 5, 2024

    It is always a delight to see one of Doreen Fletcher’s meticulous and warm paintings highlighting one of GA’’s illuminating articles.

    I remember practicing the P.O. Peterson style of cursive back in the ‘50’s in SW
    Pennsylvania. My penmanship is not elegant but it is legible.

    I was disgusted when I learned a few years ago I would have to PRINT postcard greetings to my nearly-illiterate grandchildren. So much dumbing down in education now will make life and advanced careers difficult for today’s youngsters.

    Some school admins have finally recognized the folly of it and have reintroduced cursive—thank heavens.

    Loved this article and the photographs, GA.

  5. Terry Kirkman permalink
    May 5, 2024

    I remember visiting this school some years ago. We were lucky in that our visit coincided with a group from a local school who sat in total obedience throughout the lesson. I recall one of the teachers accompanying the children remarking afterwards that she wished she could command such control in her own class.
    Terry Kirkman

  6. Sonia Murray permalink
    May 5, 2024

    Thanks for this article, Gentle Author! The pictures of the schoolroom are a trip down memory lane. There’s a desk like that somewhere in England, probably at Cliftonville, where a boy named Michael carved my initials into it three quarters of a century ago. The headmaster, Mr. Bickerstaff, gave unruly boys the slipper. Not a cane, disipline was becoming less harsh.

    Good times, when I look back!

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