Ellen Ranyard (“LNR”), Bible women and informal education

ellen ranyard, 'bible women' and informal educationEllen Ranyard (“LNR”), Bible women and informal education. Known for using innovative methods, Ellen Raynard brought about the first group of paid social workers in England and pioneered the first district nursing programme in London.

Contents: introduction · Bible women · Bible nurses · management and organization · conclusion · further reading and references

Let us sow them wherever we are able the imperishable seed of the word, broadcasting it in humble faith and prayer. (Ellen Ranyard 1861, quoted in Platt 1937: 1)

Ellen Ranyard (1809-1879) was the daughter of a non-conformist cement maker. Ellen Henrietta White was born in Nine Elms and, according to Kitty Aldridge (1890: 103), ‘ developed a taste for books and art, and a passionate longing for bringing out the best of what she felt was in her’. As a child, became involved in visiting poor families. According to Prochaska (1988: 48) it was her personal experience as a visitor that stimulated her lifelong commitment to philanthropy. She knew full well some of the risks involved, one of her friends died of a fever after visiting.

In 1857 she established the Bible and Domestic Female Mission (known as the Ranyard Mission from 1917). It became known for its innovative approaches, and ability to develop work in some of the most deprived areas of London. She had a particular concern for the well-being of women in poor areas. Here we need to note three particular areas of innovation.

Bible women

One of Ellen Ranyard’s best known innovations was the idea of the ‘Bible woman’.

This missionary cum social worker, a working class woman drawn from the neighbourhood to be canvassed, was to provide the “missing link” between the poorest families and their social superiors… Given a three month training… in the poor law, hygiene, and scripture, Mrs Ranyard agents sought to turn the city’s outcast population into respectable, independent citizens through an invigoration of family life. (Prochaska 1988: 49)

By 1867 there were 234 Bible women working in London. They were the first group of paid social workers in Britain.

The uniqueness of Ranyard’s approach is highlighted by Frank Prochaska (1988: 49):

Using the postal districts, the Mission mapped out London’s streets, courts and alleys and assigned the Bible women to their own neighbourhoods. Familiarity with a district was thought essential id the immediacy of parish life was to be recreated in the bowels of London. Being local, the Bible women could walk about their districts inconspicuously, though they were occasionally insulted and some them had buckets of slop thrown over them. From the beginning, the Mission instructed the Bible women to sell Bibles and to provide domestic advice to wives and mothers. It was argued that the reform of mothers was the most crucial task if the condition of the poor was to be improved. Selling Bibles was found to be much easier when combined with tips on cooking, cleaning, and other household matters. Before long, the poor subscribed to schemes to pay for clothing and furniture… Alert to the dangers of indiscriminate relief, she wished to give every encouragement to self-help.

Ellen Ranyard followed the usual evangelical line of viewing social distress as the outcome of individual failings or personal misfortune rather than something more structural. She believed passionately in the importance of deepening people’s religious knowledge and in conversion. However, she did at least recognize that this was not a wholly individual matter and argued that it was important to work at creating a Christian environment. That environment would ‘transform the poor into accountable, self-respecting members of society’ (ibid.: 50). Much like the YMCA missionaries, she wanted the Bible women to work with people of all faiths. However, she was deeply distrustful of Catholicism and, as a result, she instructed the ‘Bible women’ not to work with people within this Christian tradition.

Bible nurses

The Bible women were soon followed in 1868 by another Ranyard innovation – ‘Bible nurses’. These were, effectively, the first district nurses in London. They were trained in London hospitals and undertook a probationary period (Prochaska 1988: 52). Like the Bible women they were working class.

Supervised by lady volunteers they carried out duties which blended preventive work, patching up, and religious proselytising. These duties included referring patients to doctors and local hospitals, inspecting infants in mother’s meetings, and encouraging medical self-help among the poor. [Mrs Ranyard] was very much aware of the degree to which the poor looked after one another in emergencies and hoped to extend and improve these traditions with nursing assistance and advice.

Within 25 years the Mission had over 80 district nurses in London (in 1894 they made 215,000 visits to almost 10,000 patients). As nurse training developed in hospitals, the Mission withdrew from training in 1907 (see Platt 1937). Ranyard Nurses continued after the introduction of the National Health Service in 1948 but worked in cooperation with London County Council District Nursing Service in South London In 1965 they were taken over by the district nursing services run by London boroughs (London Metropolitan Archives 2000).

Management and organization

A further innovation introduced by Ellen Ranyard was the way in which she organized the administration of the work. She basically recruited middle-class superintendents, usually from outside the neighbourhood, to manage and administer the programme. These superintendents paid the Bible women and oversaw the various Mothers’ meetings they organized in mission halls and the like. To Ranyard, the relationship between the supervising lady and the bible-woman was ‘our kind of sisterhood’. The key rule was that ‘a poor woman is the best agent for carrying [the Bible] to women in those depths, and that she requires the constant aid and sympathy of a Christian sister from the educated classes’ (quoted: http://www.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/History/teaching/courses/gender/lect5 ).


Ellen Ranyard’s contribution to the development of social work, community work and informal education has not been properly recognized. It might be that the locus within evangelicalism has tended to put some commentators off, but the way in which Ranyard recruited, trained and deployed working class workers was a significant landmark in the development of practice.

Further reading and references

Aldridge, L. (1890) Florence Nightingale, Frances Ridley Havergal, Catherine Marsh and Mrs Ranyard (“LNR”) 5e, London: Cassell and Co. 128 pages. Contains a potted (30 page) biography.

London Metropolitan Archives (2000) History of Nursing. Major sources in the London Metropolitan Archives, http://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/leisure_heritage/ libraries_archives_museums_galleries/lma/pdf/nursing.PDF.

Platt, E. (1937) The Story of the Ranyard Mission 1857-1937, London: Hodder and Stoughton. 128 pages. Account of the work of the Mission charting the shifting emphases.

Proshaska, F. (1988) The Voluntary Impulse. Philanthropy in modern Britain, London: Faber and Faber. 106 + xv pages. This is a concise and insightful exploration of the development of philanthropy in Britain. Proshaska is particularly good at bringing to light the many forms that working class philanthropy took, the relationship of evangelicalism and liberalism in the development of more formal philanthropy, and in highlighting the continuities and resilience of charitable traditions. The book includes a very helpful discussion of Ellen Ranyard’s work. See, also, his (1980) Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth-Century England, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 126-130

Prochaska, F. K. (1987) ‘Body and Soul: Bible Nurses and the Poor in Victorian London’, Historical Research, vol. 60, pp. 337–48.

Williamson, L. ‘Soul Sisters: The St John and Ranyard Nurse in Nineteenth- Century London’, International History of Nursing Journal, vol. 2, no. 2 (winter 1996), pp. 33–49.

© Mark K. Smith 2001, 2003

Smith, M. K. (2001, 2003). ‘Ellen Ranyard (“LNR”), Bible women and informal education’. The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/ellen-ranyard-lnr-bible-women-and-informal-education/. Retrieved: insert date]