Ragged schools and the development of youth work and informal education

Charter Street Ragged School
Charter Street Ragged School and Working Girls Home, Manchester by Crispin Semmens. Flickr ccbysa2 licence. Click for more information.

One of the great movements of Victorian philanthropy, ragged schools provided for children and young people who were excluded by virtue of their poverty from other forms of schooling. A key feature of their work was that they moved significantly beyond the simple provision of educational opportunity – and as such both provided an example for of youth and adult provision, and a concrete base for their development.

contents: introduction · origins · shaftesbury, and the ragged schools union and the development of the work · tensions with the state system · conclusion: ragged schools, youth work and informal education · further reading and references · links

The ragged schools movement grew out of recognition that charity, denominational and Sunday schools were not providing for significant numbers of children in inner-city areas. Working in the poorest districts, teachers (who were often local working people) initially utilized such buildings as could be afforded – stables, lofts, railway arches. There would be an emphasis on reading, writing and arithmetic – and on bible study (the 4 ‘R’s!). This mix expanded into industrial and commercial subjects in many schools. The growth was considerably aided by the activities of the Ragged Schools Union (RSU) founded in 1844 under the guidance of Lord Shaftesbury, and by propagandists like Thomas Guthrie and writers like Charles Dickens. It is estimated that around 300,000 children went through the London Ragged Schools alone between the early 1840s and 1881 (Silver 1983: 20).


There is some debate about the origins of ragged schooling, but the work of four men is often cited – John Pounds (1766-1839), Sheriff Watson of Aberdeen, Thomas Cranfield and Thomas Guthrie (1780-1873). John Poundswas a cobbler in Portsmouth who began to use his shop in 1818 as base for educational activity for local poor children neglected by other institutions. Part of his concern was also to educate his disabled nephew. His curriculum included the usual ‘three R’s’ plus religious instruction and nature study, and various practical tasks like cobbling, cooking, toy-making and clothes-mending (Eagar 1953: 121). Provision was free and often involved up to 40 students at a time. We know quite a lot about his work because it was championed and publicized by Thomas Guthrie in a popular series of books and articles.

My first interest in the cause of Ragged Schools was awakened by a picture I saw in Anstruther, on the shores of the Firth of Forth. It represented a cobbler’s room; he was there himself, spectacles on nose, an old shoe between his knees, that massive forehead and firm mouth indicating great determination of character; and from between his bushy eyebrows benevolence gleamed out on a group of poor children, some sitting, some standing, but all busy at their lessons around him. (Quoted in Montague 1904: 37)

John Pounds was active in recruiting children and young people to his school. He spent time on the streets and quays of Portsmouth making contact and even ‘bribing’ them to come with the offer of baked potatoes.

Nearly everything in the operations of the RSU existed in germ in that wonderful little shop, sex feet by sixteen. Even the fresh air movement had its counterpart, for the scholars took turns at sitting on the step and the form outside. The clothing department was represented by the garments Poundsloaned to the children to enable them to attend Sunday school. The cripple department was foreshadowed by that curious contrivance of leather he made for his crippled nephew in the imitation of an orthopaedic instrument he had seen, and which we are told effectually cured the distortion.

When there was a competition for places in his little academy he always gave the preference to the little ‘blackguards,’ thus forestalling in practice Lord Shaftesbury’s advice, ‘Stick to the gutter’. When he went out upon the Portsmouth quays at night he put baked potatoes in his pockets for the ‘drifts’. Not only so but he taught his girl scholars to cook simple food, so that the ragged school cookery class had its origin in the shoemaker’s shanty. To the lads he taught his own trade, and this would represent industrialism, while the reading, writing and arithmetic in which they were thoroughly grounded, stood for education. Being doctor and nurse to his young charges he may be said to have had a medical department as well. As a maker of bats, shuttlecocks and crossbows for the youngest he exhibited an interest in recreation. (Montague 1904: 40-41)

He was certainly not the first person to do something like this, but his work was such that it caught people’s imagination – but this was later. Before Thomas Guthrie popularised his work in the late 1840s it is probable that relatively few people were aware of his contribution.

The claims of Sheriff Watson as a ‘father’ of ragged schooling while sometimes cited, are somewhat questionable. He certainly set up a society in Aberdeen to educate poor children. Initially, tickets were issued so that these children could attend ordinary day schools but there were objections from teachers ‘who did not like having in their classes children so dirty, ragged and poor, and from the visitors, who found the children so hungry, that offering a ticket seemed like offering a stone instead of bread’ (Young and Ashton 1956: 242). He revised his plans and instead, in 1840, set up an industrial school to educate, train and feed all the vagrant children of the town. However, unlike the efforts of Pounds and subsequent ragged schoolers, Watson used compulsion. Vagrant children were arrested and put in the school. A ‘ragged school for girls opened in 1843, and a mixed school in 1845.

Thomas Cranfield was more in the John Pounds mould. He was a tailor and former soldier. He had opened a Sunday school on Kingsland Road, London and in 1798 established a day school on Kent Street (close to London Bridge). He was a great organizer and by the time of his death in 1838 had ‘built up an organization of nineteen Sunday, night and infants’ schools situated in the foulest parts of London’ (Eagar 1953: 121). It was with the establishment of the London City Mission in 1835 (and its employment of paid missionaries and lay agents) that the ragged schooling got its name. The fifth annual report of the London City Mission (1840) reports the establishment in the previous year of five schools ‘formed exclusively for children raggedly clothed’ which a total of 570 children were attending. (Montague 1904: 34)

Shaftesbury, and the Ragged Schools Union and the development of the work

By 1844 it seems that there were at least 20 ragged schools in existence (including those formed by agents of London City Mission) and it was becoming clear that there would be great benefit from some sort of national organization that could promote their cause and service their work. To this end a group of four people, Mssrs. Locke, Moutlon, Morrison and Starey involved in the schools met on April 11, 1844 at 17 Ampton Street (just off the Grays Inn Road) in London and set up a public meeting to establish the Ragged Schools Union (later to become the Shaftesbury Society). With articles in publications like the Chambers’ Journal, the gaining of the patronage of Lord Shaftesbury, and the organizational abilities of those involved in, and employed by, the Union, ragged schools became better known. Indeed, there was a massive growth in the numbers of schools, teachers and students. For example there were around 200 teachers in 1844, over 1600 in 1851 (Montague 1904: 169). By 1867 it was reported that the 226 Sunday Ragged Schools, the 204 Day Schools and the 207 Evening Schools had an average attendance of 26,000 children (Eagar 1953: 123).

Shaftesbury was president of the Ragged Schools Union for 40 years and took a very active interest in the schools and the organization. As Eagar (1953: 123) noted, the movement not only benefited from his great and growing influence, ‘he gave what had been a Nonconformist undertaking the cachet of his Tory churchmanship – an important factor at a time when even broad-minded churchmen thought that Noncomformists should be fairly credited with good intentions but that co-operation was undesirable’. In short, it could be said that he made ragged school philanthropy ‘respectable, even fashionable’ (op. cit.). The downside, for some involved, was that ragged schooling became too identified with Shaftesbury and his concerns. Many of those involved in the schools did not subscribe to some of his political views, nor with his particular brand of evangelicalism.

Ragged schools were institutions of evangelism, but generally had a strong and expanding concern for the physical, mental and moral well-being of the children and young people. There was a clear focus on care and upon creating a freer and more relaxed environment then that could generally be found in other forms of schooling (Doyle and Smith forthcoming). The schools that opened had their homes in various buildings including stables, disused store rooms, covered-in railway arches, stables, old houses and various former commercial buildings. Later there were to be some purpose-built schools. Some were quite small with less than 25 students and none, initially, had more than 250 students. They started, usually, by opening on Sundays, but a number opened on weeknights too. As Young and Ashton (1956: 241) comment, ‘it was soon realized that unpaid, untrained workers were not achieving the desired end as quickly as was hoped’ and as a result by 1846 four London schools were opened with full-time paid workers.

Quintin Hogg and Of Street ragged school 1865

The room in Of Alley was at first used only in the daytime, a female teacher being in charge, an earnest woman whose ambitions somewhat outstripped her capabilities. She begged Mr. Hogg to open it in the evenings for the benefit of the older lads, but with the vision of his only attempt at that kind of work before him, he refused to take any active part, though he sanctioned the use of the room and gas, provided she would undertake to keep order. Nothing daunted, the good woman eagerly accepted the offer and made immediate preparations [page 55] for the commencement of her plan. It so happened that the evening the experiment was first tried, Quintin Hogg was in bed with a very bad feverish cold.

“Suddenly” (in his own words) “about eight o’clock in the evening one of the elder boys living in Bedfordbury came racing up to my father’s house in Carlton Gardens (the house now occupied by Mr. Balfour), to beg me to come at once, as there was a row in the school with the boys, who were fighting the police and pelting them with slates. In about three minutes I had huddled on just sufficient clothes to suffice me, and slipping on an overcoat as I ran through the hall, I made for the ragged school as hard as my legs could carry me. On arriving there, I found the whole school in an uproar, the gas fittings had been wrenched off and were being used as batons by the boys for striking the police, while the rest of them were pelting them with slates, and a considerable concourse of people was standing round in a more or less threatening way, either to see the fun or to help in going against the police. I felt rather alarmed for the safety of the teacher, and rushing into the darkened room, called out for the boys to instantly stop and be quiet. To my amazement the riot was stopped immediately, in two minutes the police were able to go quietly away, and for the first time in my life I learned that I had some kind of instinct or capacity for the management of elder boys. From that day to 1868, when I had to go abroad for the first time, I scarcely missed the ragged school for a single night.”

The boys used to come into the house in an undescribable condition, so that it was absolutely necessary to shave their heads and literally scrub them from head to foot before they were fit to associate with any human being; all of which unpleasant operations Mr. Hogg used to perform with his own hands.

“The class prospered amazingly; our little room, which was only 30 ft. long by 12 ft. wide, got so crammed that I used to divide the school into two sections of sixty each, the first lot coming from 7 to 8.30, and the second lot from 8.30 to 10. There I used to sit between two classes, perched on the back of a form, dining on my ‘pint of thick and two doorsteps,’ as the boys used to call coffee and bread and treacle, taking one class in reading and the other at writing or arithmetic. Each section closed with a ten minutes’ service and prayer.”

Reproduced from Ethel M. Hogg (1904) Quintin Hogg. A biography, London: Archibald Constable and Co.

As the schools developed, many gained better premises and broadened their clientele (age wise), opened club rooms and extended their work. Walvin’s (1982) description of the Hungate ragged school in York (founded in 1861) gives an example of the widening involved.

Using voluntary teachers and charitable donations, the school began ‘to impart to the pupils the elementary branches of knowledge, such as reading, writing, and calculation; combined with and thoroughly pervaded by Biblical and Religious instruction’. All this took place at two Sunday sessions and evening classes on Tuesday ad Friday

Numbers grew; so did the school’s activities. Sports were added and open-air ‘treats’ became a feature. Visits to the countryside, picnics, and later, annual excursions to the seaside all brought eagerly welcomed and beneficial fillips to the life of the desperately poor pupils. Books were awarded as prizes and, although discipline remained a perennial problem (and did so until the early 1920s) the teachers’efforts yielded results. Among the boys there were many who were ‘apt and assiduous scholars, evidently anxious to embrace this opportunity of supplying the defects of their training’.

Some, inevitably, dropped out; a few even fell foul of the law. But the evidence suggests that most went into, or were simultaneously engaged in, useful trades and occupations. Teachers made visits to the homes of the more wretched boys, and the school gradually began to serve a wider social purpose. Within two years, three hundred boys had attended, the library was both sizeable and well used, a Band of Hope had been formed and dozens of boys had sampled the hitherto unknown delights of Scarborough or Harrogate. In 1863 a girls’ school was added, its pupils being ‘ignorant and unruly’.

Some, like the schools Quintin Hogg was involved in, added hostel and shelter accommodation (see the Youths’ Christian Institute). Others included Penny Banks, savings clubs and holiday schemes to their programmes of classes. A good indication of the widening of the work is given by S. E. Hayward’s illustration The Ragged School Tree (an illustration in Montague 1904).

Along the branches we find coffee and reading rooms, Bands of Hope, Penny Banks, refuges, men’s clubs and sewing and knitting classes. This stood in stark contrast to the narrow focus on the 4 ‘R’s that remained, for example, in the voluntary National and British Colonial schools.

Tensions with the state system

After the passing of the Education Act (1870), the rationale for ragged schools needed revising. Key figures like Shaftesbury believed that the ‘occupation’ of ragged schools had been taken away – and that it was a ‘national calamity’ (Montague 1904: 308). He saw ragged schooling as a counterbalance to popular secularism. As the state expanded its control over schooling it was inevitable that religious instruction and moral guidance would occupy a far less central role. The new School Boards took over some of the existing buildings and embarked on a major school-building programme. There were many people involved with education who wanting to sideline ragged schools (Bready 1926: 158). Standards had been variable, there could be an emphasis on forms of Christian teaching that offended the more secular-minded, and the freer and more holistic approach was not one that was easily accommodated within the formal institutions of nineteenth century popular schooling. Some of these tensions came to a head in 1876 when there was a significant dispute around the Olge Mews Ragged School.

Founded in the early 1850s, the Olge Mews Ragged School had been fairly successful. With the erection of a local Board School, things got rather heated. The directors were unable to fill it, yet the ragged school was flourishing. The ragged school came in for some difficulties.

Its officials were summoned to court on the ground that “the education given did not satisfy the Board’s standard.” Warm scenes followed. The master of the new school “told the bench plainly that extermination, not efficiency, was the Board’s object.” But this object was scarcely charitable; and men who had sacrificed much for that particular school, and knew something of its work, were not inclined to accept insults lying down. Sir Robert Carden, an ex-Lord Mayor, was then a voluntary teacher in this very school; so he brought children to court for viva voce examination by the magistrate. A test followed; and all considered, the judicial examiner thought the youngsters passed through their ordeal quite admirably. The Board School’s counsel, however, chose to think otherwise; his wrath was thoroughly roused, he had tasted blood and, henceforth, vegetable diet had no appeal. He still, therefore, quibbled about the inadequacy of the Ragged School standards, and Sir Robert in turn, checkmated him by insisting that children of the two schools be pitted against one another in public examination. High pitched excitement thus continued for some time, and several press articles appeared on the subject; but, fortunately, at this juncture peace-makers came to the rescue and the issue was quietly settled, though the mud thrown did no good to either side. (Bready 1926: 160-161)

By the mid-1870s the number of ragged schools had diminished significantly, and remaining schools were rethinking their work. The Ragged Schools Union itself, according to Montagu (1904: 316-17), spent ten years in a ‘constant bewailing of flown-birds and an empty nest. Outsiders came to look upon the Society as archaic in its aims, a relic of bygone days’. However, there were significant movements occurring, especially at a local level – and new developments especially around the areas of night schools, youths’ institutes and clubs, and around the social welfare needs of children and young people were appearing. While School Boards were able to provide some form of basic education for their students, large numbers had other pressing social and emotional needs that could not be met in Board Schools.

Conclusion: ragged schools, youth work and informal education

A number of the remaining schools continued with their men’s clubs, Sunday schooling and night schools. Indeed, there seems to have been an increase in attendances at the latter. However, one of the most significant developments linked to the RSU was the development of boy’s and youth’s institutes. Some years before Arthur Sweatman had advocated the establishment of such institutions – and now they appeared to be the logical step for some local ragged schools.

Latymer Road Ragged School Youth’s Institute

The Latymer Road Mission in Notting Dale, London was founded in 1862. A Board School was built for some 1300 students in the area. The response of the Mission was to start a crèche for local laundry workers and in 1880 a coffee house for young men. The RSU Quarterly Record in April 1881 described it as follows:

Every evening between 100 and 200 young fellows quietly interest themselves with books, draughts, carpentry tools and games of various sorts. The name of Coffee House has been dropped and that of Evening Shelter substituted. The boys, in fact, make the place a kind of club and are sadly distressed when they are unable to obtain entrance, which sometimes happens on the occasion of a public meeting. There is a weekly service on Wednesdays at 7.30pm and the boys, by their quiet demeanour, show that they appreciate the service and the kindness which prompts it.

There were evening classes twice a week, the three ‘R’s were taught to those who needed it (and wanted it), and one of the main features of the shelter were fortnightly cocoa concerts. The Quarterly Record reported that ‘admission is one penny, which is returned in the shape of hot cocoa and a price of a cake’.

Eagar (1953: 133) comments on the illustration that it is painfully ordered and static by more recent standards, ‘but the atmosphere has its charm, with an obviously kindly manager in the canteen, a nurse (badly needed for treatments in an almost undoctored district), pet birds, books, games and carpentry’.

All material from W. McG. Eagar (1953) Making Men. The history of the Boys’ Clubs and related movements in Great Britain, London: University of London Press, page 132-133

The number of ragged schools turning to this form of activity was significant but limited. Perhaps ragged schooling’s greatest contribution to the development of informal education and youth work was, as Young and Ashton (op. cit.) suggest ‘the experience of the conditions they gave to the men and women who taught in and worked for them’. George Williams, the leading light in the formation and development of the YMCA worked in one, as did Quintin Hogg (the founder of the Regent Street Polytechnic), Tom Pelham (the writer of the first practice text on boy’s club work and in the growth of boys club work), Maude Stanley (who did a similar job for girl’s club work), Dr Barnardo and Mary Carpenter. What is significant about this listing is that those named took this experience and applied in different contexts. They developed other forms of intervention and provision beyond the orbit of the Ragged Schools Union. Commenting on the development of work with boys and young men, Eagar (1953: 130) comments:

Men, young men in particular, were feeling the impulse of motives which differed from Lord Shaftesbury’s in expression if not in essence. They entered the field of work for boys by a different gate, and took their own paths in its wide, mainly untilled expanse.

An important period had passed, and the ragged schools movement been a significant feature of many children’s, and young people’s, lives.

In terms of the development of informal education practice in Britain, ragged schools can be seen as showing three things:

  • The buildings and settings used need not be ideal so long as they were accessible and local to the people they were aimed at.
  • The character and quality of the educator was central – and that the qualities necessary for success in the formal classroom of the school were not necessarily what was required in the freer atmosphere of non-formal and informal provision.
  • The significance and potential of attending to the ‘whole person’ – physical, mental, spiritual and moral – and to the environment in which they operate, especially the family and the peer group. (Young and Ashton 1956: 246)

As Walvin (1982: 119) it is easy, at first sight, to adopt a cynical view of ragged schooling, ‘seeing it as the work of biased Christians anxious to curb the development of heathen and potential uncontrollable urban mob’. However, as Walvin continues, ‘the efforts of these adults and the benefits to the children were both striking and unsolicited’. Lord Shaftesbury may well have viewed ragged schools as a bulwark against secularism and the rise of working class radicalism, but these schools did not, on the whole, represent the imposition of middle class mores on working class students. Like Sunday schools they involved a large number of working-class teachers and could be seen as nurturing and extending some keys aspects of the ‘indigenous culture of working class life’ (ibid.: 114).

Further reading and references

Eagar, W. McG. (1953) Making Men. The history of the Boys’ Clubs and related movements in Great Britain, London: University of London Press. 437 pages. Quite the best historical treatment of UK youth work. Eagar begins by discussing the recognition of adolescence; the development of church and philanthropic concern around youth; the emergence of ragged schooling, clubs, settlements and missions and then charts the history of the boys’ clubs movement. There is some material on girl’s clubs. He is particularly strong on the idea of the club, linkages into schooling and rescue, and how these related to other Victorian institutions and concerns. Thoroughly recommended.

Montague, C. J. (1904) Sixty Years in Waifdom. Or, the Ragged School Movement in English history, London: Charles Murray and Co. 459 pages. Helpful overview of the history of the Union and of the experience of ragged schooling.

Walvin, J. (1982) A Child’s World. A social history of English childhood 1800-1914, London: Pelican.

Young, A. E. and Ashton, E. T. (1956) British Social Work in the Nineteenth Century, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.


Besant, W. (1894) The Jubilee of the Ragged Schools Union, London: RSU.

Bready, J. W. (1926) Lord Shaftesbury and Social-Industrial Progress, London: George Allen and Unwin.

Doyle, M. E. and Smith, M. K. (forthcoming) Christian youthwork, London.

Guthrie, T. (1847) Plea for Ragged Schools, or Prevention is Better Than Cure, Edinburgh.

Hammond, J. L. and Hammond, B. (1939) Lord Shaftesbury, Harmondsworth: Pelican.

Holden Pike, G. (1884) Pity for the Perishing: the power of the Bible in London, London.

Percival, A. C. (1951) Youth Will Be Led. The story of the voluntary youth organizations, London: Collins.

Redwood, H. (1944) Harvest, London. Centenary publication of the Shaftesbury Society.

Silver, H. (1983) Education as History, London: Methuen.

Sweatman, A (1863) ‘Youths’ clubs and institutes’ in H. Solly (1867) Working Men’s Clubs (revised edn. 1904), London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent and Co.


the ragged school museum: The Museum was opened in 1990 in three canalside warehouses in Copperfield Road, East London. The buildings were previously used by Dr Barnardo to house the largest ragged school in London. The site provides details of the museum plus links.

Charles Dickens on ragged schooling: piece reproduced from the Daily News on the Maybole site.

Thomas Guthrie – the original Scottish ragged school: the full text of the first chapter of Guthrie’s Out of the Harness. Part of the excellent site devoted to Guthrie and his work maintained by Alan Newble: http://www.newble.co.uk/guthrie/index.html

Thomas Guthrie: brief biography from Sparticus.

History of ragged schools: brief overview from the Maybole homepage. See, also, the piece on the Maybole Ragged School.

Schools – what were they like?: useful set of picture resources from a school site.

How to cite this piece: Smith, Mark K. (2001) ‘Ragged schools and the development of youth work and informal education’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/ragged-schools-a…formal-education/. Retrieved: insert date].

© Mark K. Smith 2001.  Updated June 2019.

Last Updated on September 16, 2020 by infed.org