Charles Dickens – a sleep to startle us

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An article exploring ragged schooling that first appeared in Household Words on  March 13, 1852. An earlier letter to the Morning News in 1846 described a visit to Field Lane Ragged School (Field Lane was established in 1841 as a Ragged School and Sabbath School by a Christian missionary)

AT the top of Farringdon Street in the City of London, once adorned by the Fleet Prison and by a diabolical jumble of nuisances in the middle of the road called Fleet Market, is a broad new thoroughfare in a state of transition. A few years hence, and we of the present generation will find it not an easy task to recall, in the thriving street which will arise upon this spot, the wooden barriers and hoardings the passages that lead to nothing the glimpses of obscene Field Lane and Saffron Hill the mounds of earth, old bricks, and oyster-shells the arched foundations of unbuilt houses the backs 0f miserable tenements with patched windows the odds and ends of fever-stricken courts and alleys which are the present features of the place. Not less perplexing do I find it now, to reckon how many years have passed since I traversed these byways one night before they were laid bare, to find out the first Ragged School.

If I say it is ten years ago, I leave a handsome margin. The discovery was then newly made, that to talk soundingly in Parliament, and cheer for Church and State, or to consecrate and confirm without end, or to perorate to any extent in a thousand market-places about all the ordinary topics of patriotic songs and sentiments, was merely to embellish England on a great scale with whited sepulchres, while there was, in every corner of the land where its people were closely accumulated, profound ignorance and perfect barbarism. It was also newly discovered, that out of these noxious sinks where they were born to perish, and where the general ruin was hatching day and night, the people would not come to be improved. The gulf between them and all wholesome humanity had swollen to such a depth and breadth, that they were separated from it as by impassable seas or deserts; and so they lived, and so they died : an always increasing band of outlaws in body and soul, against whom it were to suppose the reversal of all laws, human and divine, to believe that Society could at last prevail.

In this condition of things, a few unaccredited messengers of Christianity, whom no Bishop had ever heard of, and no Government-office Porter had ever seen, resolved to go to the miserable wretches who had lost the way to them; and to set up places of instruction in their own degraded haunts. I found my first Ragged School, in an obscure place called West Street, Saffron Hill, pitifully struggling for life, under every disadvantage. It had no means, it had no suitable rooms, it derived no power or protection from being recognised by any authority, it attracted within its wretched walls a fluctuating swarm of faces young in years but youthful in nothing else that scowled Hope out of countenance. It was held in a low-roofed den, in a sickening atmosphere, in the midst of taint and dirt and pestilence: with all the deadly sins let loose, howling and shrieking at the doors. Zeal did not supply the place of method and training; the teachers knew little of their office; the pupils with an evil sharpness, found them out, got the better of them, derided them, made blasphemous answers to scriptural questions, sang, fought, danced, robbed each other; seemed possessed by legions of devils. The place was stormed and carried, over and over again; the lights were blown out, the books strewn in the gutters, and the female scholars carried off triumphantly to their old wickedness. With no strength in it but its purpose, the school stood it all out and made its way. Some two years since, I found it, one of many such, in a large convenient loft in this transition part of Farringdon Street quiet and orderly, full, lighted with gas, well whitewashed, numerously attended, and thoroughly established.

The number of houseless creatures who resorted to it, and who were necessarily turned out when it closed, to hide where they could in heaps of moral and physical pollution, filled the managers with pity. To relieve some of the more constant and deserving scholars, they rented a wretched house, where a few common beds a dozen or a dozen-and-a-half perhaps were made upon the floor. This was the Ragged School Dormitory; and when I found the School in Farringdon Street, I found the Dormitory in a court hard by, which in

the time of the Cholera had acquired a dismal fame. The Dormitory was, in all respects, save as a small beginning, a very discouraging Institution. The air was bad; the dark and ruinous building, with its small close rooms, was quite unsuited to the purpose; and a general supervision of the scattered sleepers was impossible. I had great doubts at the time whether, excepting that they found a crazy shelter for their heads, they were better there than in the streets.

Having heard, in the course of last month, that this Dormitory (there are others elsewhere) had grown as the School had grown, I went the other night to make another visit to it. I found the School in the same place, still advancing. It was now an Industrial School too; and besides the men and boys who were learning some, aptly enough; some, with painful difficulty; some, sluggishly and wearily; some, not at all to read and write and cipher; there were two groups, one of shoemakers, and one (in a gallery) of tailors, working with great industry and satisfaction. Each was taught and superintended by a regular workman engaged for the purpose, who delivered out the necessary means and implements.

All were employed in mending, either their own dilapidated clothes or shoes, or the dilapidated clothes or shoes of some of the other pupils. They were of all ages, from young boys to old men. They were quiet, and intent upon their work. Some of them were almost as unused to it as I should have shown myself to be if I had tried my hand, but all were deeply interested and profoundly anxious to do it somehow or other. They presented a very remarkable instance of the general desire there is, after all, even in the vagabond breast, to know something useful. One shock-headed man when he had mended his own scrap of a coat, drew it on with such an air of satisfaction, and put himself to so much inconvenience to look at the elbow he had darned, that I thought a new coat (and the mind could not imagine a period when that coat of his was new!) would not have pleased him better. In the other part of the School, where each class was partitioned off by screens adjusted like the boxes in a coffee-room, was some very good writing, and some singing of the multiplication-table the latter, on a principle much too juvenile and innocent for some of the singers. There as also a ciphering-class, where a young pupil teacher out of the streets, who refreshed himself by spitting every half-minute, had written a legible sum in compound addition, on a broken slate, and was walking backward and forward before it, as he worked it, for the instruction of his class, in this way:

Now thenl Look here, all on you! Seven and five, how many ?

SHARP BOY (in no particular clothes). Twelve!

PUPIL, TEACHER. Twelve and eight?

DULL YOUNG MAN (with water on the brain). Forty-five!

SHARP BOY. Twenty !

PUPIL, TEACHER. Twenty. You ‘re right. And nine?

DULL, YOUNG MAN (after great consideration). Twenty-nine !

PUPIL TEACHER. Twenty-nine it is. And nine?


PUPIL TEACHER (drawing nine strokes). How can that be? Here’s nine on ’em! Look! Twenty-nine, and one’s thirty, and one ‘s thirty-one, and one ‘s thirty-two, and one ‘s thirty-three, and one ‘s thirty-four, and one ‘s thirty-five, and one’s thirty-six, and one’s thirty-seven, and one’s what?

RECKLESS GUESSER. Four-and-two-pence farden !

DULL YOUNG MAN (who has been absorbed in the demonstration). Thirty-eight!

PUPIL TEACHER (restraining sharp boy’s ardour). Of course it is! Thirty-eight pence. There they are! (writing 38 in slate-corner). Now what do you make of thirty-eight pence? Thirty-eight pence, how much? (Dull young man slowly considers and gives it up, under a week.) How much you? (to sleepy boy, who stares and says nothing). How much, you?

SHARP Boy. Three-and-twopence !

PUPIL TEACHER. Three-and-twopence. How do I put down three-and-twopence?

SHARP BOY. You puts down the two, and you carries the three.

PUPIL TEACHER. Very good. Where do I carry the three ?

RECKLESS GUESSER. T 5 other side the slate !

SHARP BOY. You carries him to the next column on the left hand, and adds him on !

PUPIL TEACHER. And adds him on ! and eight and three ‘s eleven, and eight’s nineteen, and seven ‘s what?

And so on.

The best and most spirited teacher was a young man, himself reclaimed through the agency of this School from the lowest depths of misery and debasement, whom the Committee were about to send out to Australia. He appeared quite to deserve the interest they took in him, and his appearance and manner were a strong testimony to the merits of the establishment.

All this was not the Dormitory, but it was the preparation for it. No man or boy is admitted to the Dormitory, unless he is a regular attendant at the school, and unless he has been in the school two hours before the time of opening the Dormitory. If there be reason to suppose that he can get any work to do and will not do it, he is admitted no more, and his place is assigned to some other candidate for the nightly refuge: of whom there are always plenty. There is very little to tempt the idle and profligate. A scanty supper and a scanty breakfast, each of six ounces of bread and nothing else (this quantity is less than the present penny-loaf), would scarcely be regarded by Mr. Chadwick himself as a festive or uproarious entertainment.

I found the Dormitory below the School: with its bare walls and rafters, and bare floor, the building looked rather like an extensive coach-house, well lighted with gas. A wooden gallery had been recently erected on three sides of it; and, abutting from the centre of the wall on the fourth side, was a kind of glazed meat-safe, accessible by a ladder; in which the presiding officer is posted every night, and all night. In the centre of the room, which was very cool, and perfectly sweet, stood a small fixed stove; on two sides, there were windows; on all sides, simple means of admitting fresh air, and releasing foul air. The ventilation of the place, devised by Doctor Arnott, and particularly the expedient for relieving the sleepers in the galleries from receiving the breath of the sleepers below, is a wonder of simplicity, cheapness, efficiency, and practical good sense. If it had cost five or ten thousand pounds, it would have been famous.

The whole floor of the building, with the exception of a few narrow pathways, was partitioned off into wooden troughs, or shallow boxes without lids not unlike the fittings in the shop of a dealer in corn and flour, and seeds. The galleries were parcelled out in the same way. Some of these berths were very short for boys; some, longer for men. The largest were of very contracted limits; all were composed of the bare boards; each was furnished only with one coarse rug, rolled up. In the brick pathways were iron gratings communicating with trapped drains, enabling the entire surface of these sleeping-places to be soused and flooded with water every morning. The floor of the galleries was cased with zinc, and fitted with gutters and escape-pipes, for the same reason. A supply of water, both for drinking and for washing, and some tin vessels for either purpose, were at hand. A little shed, used by one of the industrial classes, for the chopping up of firewood, did not occupy the whole of the spare space in that corner; and the remainder was devoted to some excellent baths, available also as washing troughs, in order that those who have any rags of linen may clean them once a-week. In aid of this object, a drying-closet, charged with hot-air, was about to be erected in the wood-chopping shed. All these appliances were constructed in the simplest manner, with the commonest means, in the narrowest space, at the lowest cost; but were perfectly adapted to their respective purposes.

I had scarcely made the round of the Dormitory, and looked at all these things, when a moving of feet overhead announced that the School was breaking up for the night. It was succeeded by profound silence, and then by a hymn, sung in a subdued tone, and in very good time and tune, by the learners we had lately seen. Separated from their miserable bodies, the effect of their voices, united in this strain, was infinitely solemn. It was as if their souls were singing as if the outward differences that parted us had fallen away, and the time was come when all the perverted good that was in them, or that ever might have been in them, arose imploringly to Heaven.

The baker who had brought the bread, and who leaned against a pillar while the singing was in progress, meditating in his way, whatever his way was, now shouldered his basket and retired. The two half-starved attendants (rewarded with a double portion for their pains) heaped the six-ounce loaves into other baskets, and made ready to distribute them. The night-officer arrived, mounted to his meat-safe, unlocked it, hung up his hat, and prepared to spend the evening. I found him to be a very respectable-looking person in black, with a wife and family; engaged in an office all day, and passing his spare time here, from half-past nine every night to six every morning, for a pound a-week. He had carried the post against two hundred competitors.

The door was now opened, and the men and boys who were to pass that night in the Dormitory, in number one hundred and sixty-seven (including a man for whom there was no trough, but who was allowed to rest in the seat by the stove, once occupied by the night-officer before the meat-safe was), came in. They passed to their different sleeping-places, quietly and in good order. Every one sat down in his own crib, where he became presented in a curiously foreshortened manner; and those who had shoes took them off, and placed them in the adjoining path. There were, in the assembly, thieves, cadgers, trampers, vagrants, common outcasts of all sorts. In casual wards and many other Refuges, they would have been very difficult to deal with; but they were restrained here by the law of kindness, and had long since arrived at the knowledge that those who gave him that shelter could have no possible inducement save to do them good. Neighbours spoke little together they were almost as uncompanionable as mad people but everybody took his small loaf when the baskets went round, with a thankfulness more or less cheerful, and immediately ate it up.

There was some excitement in consequence of one man being missing; ‘the lame old man.’ Everybody had seen the lame old man upstairs asleep, but he had unaccountably disappeared. What he had been doing with himself was a mystery, but, when the inquiry was at its height, he came shuffling and tumbling in, with his palsied head hanging on his breast an emaciated drunkard, once a compositor, dying of starvation and decay. He was so near death, that he could not be kept there, lest he should die in the night; and, while it was under deliberation what to do with him, and while his dull lips tried to shape out answers to what was said to him, he was held up by two men. Beside this wreck, but all unconnected with it and with the whole world, was an orphan boy with burning cheeks and great gaunt eager eyes, who was in pressing peril of death, too, and who had no possession under the broad sky but a bottle of physic and a scrap of writing. He brought both from the house-surgeon of a Hospital that was too full to admit him, and stood, giddily staggering in one of the little pathways, while the Chief Samaritan read, in hasty characters underlined, how momentous his necessities were. He held the bottle of physic in his claw of a hand, and stood, apparently unconscious of it, staggering, and staring with his bright glazed eyes; a creature, surely, as forlorn and desolate as Mother Earth can have supported on her breast that night. He was gently taken away, along with the dying man, to the workhouse; and he passed into the darkness with his physic-bottle as if he were going into his grave.

The bread eaten to the last crumb; and some drinking of water and washing in water having taken place, with very little stir or noise indeed; preparations were made for passing the night. Some, took off their rags of smock frocks; some, their rags of coats or jackets, and spread them out within their narrow bounds for beds : designing to lie upon them, and use their rugs as a covering. Some, sat up, pondering, on the edges of their troughs; others, who were very tired, rested their unkempt heads upon their hands and their elbows on their knees, and dozed. When there were no more who desired to drink or wash, and all were in their places, the night officer, standing below the meat-safe, read a short evening service, including perhaps as inappropriate a prayer as could possibly be read (as though the Lord’s Prayer stood in need of it by way of Rider), and a portion of a chapter from the New Testament. Then, they all sang the Evening Hymn, and then they all lay down to sleep.

It was an awful thing, looking round upon those one hundred and sixty-seven representatives of many thousands, to reflect that a Government, unable, with the least regard to truth, to plead ignorance of the existence of such a place, should proceed as if the sleepers never were to wake again. I do not hesitate to say why should I, for I know it to be true ! that an annual sum of money, contemptible in amount as compared with any charges upon any list, freely granted in behalf of these Schools, and shackled with no preposterous Red Tape conditions, would relieve the prisons, diminish county rates, clear loads of shame and guilt out of the streets, recruit the army and navy, waft to new countries, Fleets full of useful labour, for which their inhabitants would be thankful and beholden to us. It is no depreciation of the devoted people whom I found presiding here, to add, that with such assistance as a trained knowledge of the business of instruction, and a sound system adjusted to the peculiar difficulties and conditions of this sphere of action, their usefulness could be increased fifty-fold in a few months.

My Lords and Gentlemen, can you, at the present time, consider this at last, and agree to do some little easy thing! Dearly beloved brethren elsewhere, do you know that between Gorham controversies, and Pusey controversies, and Newman controversies, and twenty other edifying controversies, a certain large class of minds in the community is gradually being driven out of all religion? Would it be well, do you think, to come out of the controversies for a little while, and be simply Apostolic thus low down !

First published March 13, 1852, Household Words

This piece has been reproduced here on the understanding that it is not subject to any copyright restrictions, and that it is, and will remain, in the public domain.