Skip to main content Accessibility help

They ‘Come for a Lark’: London Ragged School Union Teaching Advice in Practice, 1844–70

  • Laura M. Mair (a1)


Ragged schools provided a free education to impoverished children in the mid-nineteenth century. Inspired by religious fervour and presided over by Lord Shaftesbury, that figurehead of evangelical Anglicans, the schools taught the most destitute to read and write, as well as about the God who loved them. By 1870 the London schools alone recorded an average attendance of 32,231 children. The missionary aspect of the classroom shaped the recommended character of the teacher. Teachers were to be benevolent, while corporal punishment was discouraged. Teaching advice demonstrates that the classroom could prove difficult terrain and suggests that the respect of scholars was hard-won and highly valued. With children attending freely, it was necessary that they desired to return. The children were consumers whom teachers sought to please; their responses determined the success or failure of lessons. This article responds to recent scholarship that interprets the teachers as imposed and powerful agents. By focusing on advice given to teachers, it highlights both how the children were perceived and the impact evangelical theology had upon ideas regarding the teacher's character. Largely overlooked by church historians, the ragged school movement embodies the profound impact of evangelical Christians on popular education in the nineteenth century.


Corresponding author

*33 Traquair Park West, Edinburgh, EH12 7AN. E-mail:


Hide All

This article builds on the findings of my Religion and Relationships in Ragged Schools: An Intimate History of Educating the Poor, 1844–1870, forthcoming in Routledge's Studies in Evangelicalism series during 2019.



Hide All

1 Compton Place Ragged School was located in the borough of Camden in London. In 1855 the school moved to Brunswick Buildings, a five-minute walk from Compton Place. For simplicity, the institution is referred to as ‘Compton Place’ throughout this article.

2 Woking, Surrey History Centre (hereafter: SHC) 1585/3, Martin Ware III, School Journal, 16 October 1853.

3 Montague, Charles, Sixty Years in Waifdom, or, The Ragged School Movement in English History (London, 1904), 164.

4 Gardner, Phil, The Lost Elementary Schools of Victorian England (London, 1984).

5 Burnett, John, Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education, and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s (Harmondsworth, 1984), 143.

6 ‘The Ragged Schools’, Daily News, 21 February 1846, 5.

7 ‘The Ragged School Union’, The Times, 10 June 1846, 8.

8 Heasman, Kathleen, Evangelicals in Action: An Appraisal of their Social Work in the Victorian Era (London, 1962), 7982.

9 ‘The Twenty-First Anniversary of the Ragged School Union’, RSUM, June 1865, 127; ‘Proceedings of the Thirty-First Annual Meeting of the Ragged School Union’, RSUM, June 1875, 133.

10 The RSUM varies between ‘Teachers’ Column’ and ‘Teacher's Column’.

11 Cunningham, Hugh, The Children of the Poor: Representations of Childhood since the Seventeenth Century (Oxford, 1992); Davin, Anna, Growing up Poor: Home, School and Street in London, 1870–1914 (London, 1996).

12 Stephens, W. B., Education in Britain 1750–1914 (London, 1998), 10.

13 Sanderson, Michael, Education, Economic Change and Society in England 1780–1870 (London, 1987), 24.

14 Brown, Stewart J., Providence and Empire: Religion, Politics and Society in Britain 1815–1914 (Harlow, 2008), 163; Hammond, J. L. and Hammond, Barbara, Lord Shaftesbury (London, 1923); Bready, J. Wesley, Lord Shaftesbury and Social-Industrial Progress (London, 1926); Best, Geoffrey, Shaftesbury (London, 1964); Battiscombe, Georgina, Shaftesbury: A Biography of the Seventh Earl 1801–1885 (London, 1974); Finlayson, Geoffrey B. A. M., The Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, 1801–1885 (London, 1981).

15 Heasman, Evangelicals in Action, 69–87.

16 ‘Proceedings at the Twenty-Sixth Annual Meeting of the Ragged School Union’, RSUM, June 1870, 130.

17 Wright, Susannah, ‘Moral Instruction, Urban Poverty and English Elementary Schools in the Late Nineteenth Century’, in Goose, Nigel and Honeyman, Katrina, eds, Childhood and Child Labour in Industrial England: Diversity and Agency 1750–1914 (Farnham, 2013), 277–95, at 294.

18 Laqueur, Thomas, Religion and Respectability: Sunday Schools and Working-Class Culture, 1780–1850 (London, 1976), 160–9.

19 Burnett, Destiny Obscure, 169.

20 Mahood, Linda and Littlewood, Barbara, ‘The “Vicious” Girl and the “Street-Corner” Boy: Sexuality and the Gendered Delinquent in the Scottish Child-Saving Movement 1850–1940’, Journal of the History of Sexuality 4 (1994), 549–78.

21 Swain, Shurlee and Hillel, Margot, Child, Nation, Race and Empire: Child Rescue Discourse, England, Canada and Australia, 1850–1915 (Manchester, 2010). This study considers the RSUM alongside material from the Church of England's Waifs and Strays Society and Barnardo's Homes.

22 Goose and Honeyman, Childhood and Child Labour, 8.

23 Laqueur, Religion and Respectability, 65–74.

24 ‘Our Principles: A Review’, RSUM, January 1869, 2.

25 ‘Ragged Schools – Preliminary Meeting’, The Scotsman, 24 March 1847, 3.

26 ‘Edinburgh City Mission’, Caledonian Mercury, 25 January 1849, 3.

27 ‘Our Principles: A Review’, RSUM, January 1869, 2.

28 London, LMA 4060/A/01/001, Field Lane Ragged School Committee Minute Book, 1842–1846, 12 September 1843.

29 Bebbington, David, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London, 2002), 3.

30 This verse encompasses the ragged school message; it was quoted at the head of each LRSU Annual Report.

31 Crime and its Causes: A Reply to the Attacks of the ‘Morning Chronicle’ on the London Ragged Schools (London, 1850), 3. The public meeting on which this pamphlet reports was convened in response to Henry Mayhew's accusations in the Morning Chronicle that ‘institutions like the Ragged Schools, which seek to reform our juvenile offenders merely by instructing them, cannot be attended with the desired results’: ‘Labour and the Poor, Letter XLIV’, Morning Chronicle, 25 March 1850, 5.

32 ‘Papers, Original and Selected: The Liverpool Ragged School Union’, RSUM, March 1854, 64.

33 ‘Intelligence: St Giles’ Ragged School’, RSUM, January 1849, 18.

34 ‘Spiritual Life and Ragged Schools’, RSUM, November 1859, 217.

35 ‘Poetry: Unto this Work we are Called’, RSUM, May 1849, 92.

36 LMA 4060/A/01/006, Field Lane Ragged School Committee Minute Book, 1858–1863, 18 January 1860.

37 ‘Spiritual Life and Ragged Schools’, RSUM, March 1860, 62, ‘Spiritual Life and Ragged Schools’, RSUM, July 1858, 123.

38 ‘Spiritual Life and Ragged Schools’, RSUM, January 1860, 17.

39 ‘Meeting of Paid Teachers’, RSUM, January 1856, 10.

40 ‘Paid Teachers and their Annual Meeting’, RSUM, May 1858, 92.

41 Hall, George, Sought and Saved: A Prize Essay on the Ragged Schools and Kindred Institutions (London, 1855), 14.

42 ‘The Earl of Shaftesbury on Ragged Schools’, The Times, 22 October 1859, 8.

43 Heasman, Evangelicals in Action, 72.

44 Lewis, Donald, Lighten their Darkness: The Evangelical Mission to Working-Class London (Carlisle, 2001), 49.

45 For more information on the connection between Scripture readers, London City missionaries, and the LRSU, see Lewis, Lighten their Darkness, 166; Heasman, Evangelicals in Action, 71.

46 ‘Presentation to the Earl of Shaftesbury’, RSUM, August 1859, 162–75.

47 Ibid. 163, 166.

48 ‘Testimonials to Teachers and Scholars’, RSUM, March 1860, 59.

49 SHC 1487/106/1, Memoirs of Martin Ware III.

50 Ibid.

51 This figure is given in a handwritten note from John Kirk, the secretary of the LRSU at the time of Ware's death in December 1895, enclosed in SHC 1585/7, Ware, Journal.

52 Obituary in The Record, pasted ibid. While local newspapers presented versions of the same syndicated obituary, those published in major newspapers and evangelical journals were composed by different individuals and thus had different emphases.

53 Obituary in The Globe, pasted ibid.

54 ‘Local Sport’, Yorkshire Evening Post, 6 January 1896, 4, ‘Births, Deaths, Marriages and Obituaries’, Leeds Mercury, 7 January 1896, 8.

55 Henry Mayhew, ‘Labour and the Poor, Letter XVIII’, Morning Chronicle, 19 March 1850, 5.

56 Cunningham, Children of the Poor, 108.

57 Untitled article, Derby Mercury, 24 January 1849, 2; ‘Notes on Popular Movements’, Northern Star and National Trades’ Journal, 9 December 1848, 4.

58 ‘Visits to the London Ragged Schools’, Daily News, 12 April 1850, 2.

59 SHC 1585/1, Ware, Journal, 8 December 1850, 15 December 1850.

60 SHC 1585/2, Ware, Journal, 16 November 1851.

61 ‘Ward's Place, Lower Road Islington’, RSUM, January 1859, 10.

62 ‘Visits to the London Ragged Schools’.

63 ‘Correspondence’, RSUM, March 1849, 55.

64 ‘Advertisements & Notices’, Daily News, 11 January 1847, 2.

65 ‘Bristol Ragged School’, The Observer, 25 January 1847, 3.

66 ‘Visits to the London Ragged Schools’; SHC 1585/7, Ware, Journal, anonymous letter, 18 June 1848.

67 ‘Ragged Schools of London’, British Mother's Magazine, 1 February 1849, 48.

68 ‘Visits to the London Ragged Schools’.

69 SHC 1585/3, Ware, Journal, 6 November 1853.

70 ‘Westminster Ragged School’, The Times, 24 April 1850, 5.

71 Seymour, Claire, Ragged Schools, Ragged Children (London, 1995), 22.

72 Guthrie, Thomas, Out of Harness (New York, 1867), 78.

73 ‘Teachers’ Column: Rules for a Sunday Night School’, RSUM, November 1870, 255.

74 ‘Ragged School Emigration’, The Examiner, 10 June 1848, 374.

75 ‘Ragged Schools of London’.

76 ‘Bristol Ragged School’.

77 ‘School Agent's Work – West and South’, RSUM, July 1869, 156.

78 ‘Visits to the London Ragged Schools’.

79 ‘Correspondence’, RSUM, March 1849, 55. It is possible that the boy who attempted to ‘stab the superintendent’ is the same boy mentioned in the Daily News, although this cannot be verified.

80 ‘Correspondence: How to Treat the Roughs’, RSUM, January 1863, 20.

81 ‘Correspondence: Knife-Cleaning Brigade’, RSUM, August 1865, 194.

82 SHC 1585/7, Ware, Journal, 27 November 1864.

83 SHC 1585/6, Ware, Journal, 6 January 1861, 23 August 1863.

84 Ibid. 22 May 1863.

85 Laqueur, Religion and Respectability, 17–18; Gardner, Lost Elementary Schools.

86 ‘Plans and Progress: Hints to Parties thinking about establishing Industrial Schools for the Outcast and Destitute’, RSUM, July 1849, 128.

87 The Third Annual Report of the Ragged School Union, established for the Support of Free Schools for the Destitute Poor of London and its Suburbs (London, 1847), 6.

88 Hall, Sought and Saved, vii, 56.

89 ‘Teachers’ Column: How to Win a Child's Heart’, RSUM, February 1865, 43.

90 Following the 1857 Industrial Schools Act, ‘criminal’ children could be committed by the order of a magistrate to attend an industrial school. As some ragged schools also qualified as industrial schools, they often received such children. Nevertheless, the focus of ragged school pedagogical advice was on those scholars attending voluntarily.

91 Hall, Sought and Saved, 27.

92 Ibid. 39.

93 Gardner, Lost Elementary Schools, 174.

94 ‘The Teachers’ Column: Delegates’ Meeting’, RSUM, June 1856, 122.

95 SHC 1585/2, Ware, Journal, 11 and 25 July 1852.

96 Ibid. 21 November, 26 December 1852.

97 Ibid. 10 April 1853.

98 Hall, Sought and Saved, 39.

99 Cornwallis, Caroline, The Philosophy of Ragged Schools (London, 1851), 52.

100 SHC 1585/5, Ware, Journal, 10 April 1857.

101 ‘The Teachers’ Column: Attention; or, Principles rather than Rules’, RSUM, June 1864, 141.

102 SHC 1585/1, Ware, Journal, 15 July 1851.

103 Hall, Sought and Saved, 87.

104 ‘Plans and Progress – Practical Suggestions: The Work, and how to do it’, RSUM, February 1849, 33.

105 SHC 1585/1, Ware, Journal, 17 February 1850.

106 SHC 1585/5, Ware, Journal, 3 May 1858.

107 SHC 1585/7, Ware, Journal, 22 October 1864.

108 Hall, Sought and Saved, 49.

109 ‘The Teachers’ Column: Prayer in Ragged Schools’, RSUM, January 1868, 19.

110 ‘The Shoeblack Brigade’, Punch, 21 February 1857, 80.

111 SHC 1585/1, Ware, Journal, 7, 21 July 1850.

112 Ibid. 30 June 1850.

113 SHC 1585/6, Ware, Journal, 2 November 1862.

This article builds on the findings of my Religion and Relationships in Ragged Schools: An Intimate History of Educating the Poor, 1844–1870, forthcoming in Routledge's Studies in Evangelicalism series during 2019.


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed