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19th century Children Lambeth Poverty

Lambeth Ragged School

Lambeth Ragged School
Lambeth Ragged School

Ragged schools were free school for poor vagrant children, where they were taught and usually given food. The name comes from the pupils’ ragged appearance.

The schools gave children some basic instruction, in often makeshift accommodation, and helped them find work, or even to emigrate. In 1818 John Pounds, a Portsmouth shoemaker, started teaching poor children for free; his ideas were taken up by people such as Thomas Guthrie, Dr Barnardo and Lord Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury formed the Ragged School Union in 1844 and by 1852 there were over 200 free schools for poor children in Britain. By the time of the 1870 Education Act there were 350 ragged schools which were gradually absorbed into the Board School system. Gradually because “even Board School teachers do not like to take shoeless, shirtless, and capless children into their schools.”

lambeth ragged school
Lambeth Ragged School (recent photo)

The Lambeth Ragged School in Newport Street, SE11 was built by Henry Benjamin Hanbury Beaufoy, FRS in 1851 as a memorial to his wife at a cost of £10,000. Initially the school was known as the Beaufoy Ragged School and later as the Beaufoy Institute. Today the old Lambeth Ragged School has now become the Beaconsfield Art Gallery.


Henry Mayhew, writing in the Morning Chronicle, 29 March 1850

An experienced officer, who attended at a Ragged School in Lambeth, gave me the result of his observation on the subject. The superintendent of the district, to whom I had been directed by the Commissioners, referred me to two officers as best qualified to give me information. I subjoin the statement of the first I saw:

“At the street Ragged School (Lambeth), none live in the house, but the attendance in the winter averages about 400 boys and girls every Sunday evening. The gentlemen who manage the Ragged School do everything they can to instruct and encourage the children in well-doing; they make them presents of Testaments and Bibles” (I find by the Reports that they are sold). “and give them occasional tea parties. In fact, everything is done to improve them in the school. The patience of the teachers is surprising. The boys and girls are separated in school; there are more boys than girls-perhaps 300 boys to 100 girls. The girls are better behaved than the boys; they are the children of very poor people in the neighbourhood, such as the daughters of people selling fruit in the street, and such like. Some few years ago I had some inquiries to make on the subject, and found several children of street-beggars there.

Lambeth Ragged School
Lambeth Ragged School

“I have not recognized a girl in this part on the town whom I knew at the school. Most of those that have grown into women since I knew them at the school sell things in the streets; they are very audacious, but I can’t say that they are prostitutes. I have, however, seen bigger boys, not of the school, but street vagabonds whom I knew to be of bad character, waiting about the school until it broke up, and then go away with the bigger girls. These girls when in the street are indecent in their language, and immodest in their behaviour; quite different from what they appear in the school. The boys, as I have said, are worse than the girls. When gathered in the street, previously to being let into the school, their conduct is very bad. Some of them smoke short pipes which they pocket when let into school. While waiting on the Sunday evening, they sing, and caper, and some stand on their heads and clap their feet together, and fight frequently and swear and make all manner of noises. As soon as they get into school they pull long faces I have often heard them, when hymns were sung, sing something along with it quite different to a hymn. I have seen them too, when a gentleman has been address ing them on religious topics, wink one to another, and put their tongues in their cheeks.

“The school has been opened perhaps nine years. The police have been obliged to be in attendance since within three months of the opening, and I often turn a dozen boys out of the school in a night for misbehaviour. These boys, in my opinion, have different objects in going to the Ragged School. Some few go really with the intention of learning. The great proportion go for warmth, or a change, or for shelter or for a lark. I know it from their behaviour, for I can tell the boys who wish to learn from the others, by their conduct to the teacher. The worst class of boys always laugh and make faces at the teacher the moment his back is turned and sometimes even before his face. I have seen many boys at the school whom I have known in custody for felony, and others whom I have seen in prison. On leaving school their behaviour is very disorderly; you can hear them half a mile off; they never seem to have benefited by the excellent things they may have heard; in fact, for bad and obscene language, cursing, swearing, and noise of every kind, they are worse in coming out than going in. When school is over they throw off all restraint. I can only judge by their conduct, and from that it does not appear to me that they pay the least attention to the good and religious advice given to them by their excellent teachers. I have often known the Rev. Mr. visit the school and take great pains to impress upon the children the evil of their ways, but from their conduct after his lessons, after they get outside the door, and from their filthy and bad language. I fear no good effect has been produced.

“The boys generally go to the school in small parties, who know each other four, five, or six; and if one won’t go in the others won’t; and when they leave they go away together. After that they are beyond my observation. In the school I think the boys do behave rather better than they once did, but no better in the street. There is as much street gambling as ever. The boys are very bad in this neighbourhood. The boy-thieves are generally intelligent in all their wicked ways clever, artful, and deceitful to the last degree; they would impose upon any one they are capable of making people believe they are quite good innocent boys and laugh at them just after. I’ve seen some of the most hardened shed tears, and pro- test they had never done anything wrong; and so naturally that it would impose upon any person unacquainted with their deep tricks.”…

The Ragged School to which I principally directed my attention is situated in one of the worst quarters of Westminster. The street-in which it is the best and cleanest house-and all the circumjacent streets, with their many courts and alleys, and what are well described as “blind passages”-is mainly occupied by the destitute and the criminal. Low lodging-houses abound. “Lodgings for Travellers,” at “3d.” (and sometimes 2d.) “a night,” are the predominating signs. The shattered and ill-patched windows of very many houses-where sheets of brown paper occupy the place of glass-and the open and unpainted doors, allow even a cursory observer to notice much filth and laziness in the rooms within. In some houses each room has its family, and sometimes almost every upper window has its yellow patched or ragged linen hanging out to dry on something like a small bowsprit rigged out of the window.

Young thieves, with greasy side-curls, and unoccupied costermongers are lounging at the corners of the streets-some few smoking-some tossing in the open road, with an eager crowd of lads gathered round them-some gambling at pitch and toss, in a dirty corner or bye place-others leaning against a post or a wall, seemingly as much asleep as awake-and all appearing to strive to while away the time as best they can. Empty costermongers’ carts stand by the edge of the kerbstone, and capless women, with fuzzy hair, eyes bloodshot with drink or want of sleep, and with dirty shawls over their shoulders, either loll out of the windows or sit on the door step. An oppressive odour seems always to pervade the atmosphere-and cocks and hens scratch at the heaps of filth in the street. The people look generally unhealthy. Here and there, as you emerge from the low and filthy streets, there rises in startling contrast, some towering gin-palace, the squalor of its noisy customers being again in full contrast with its glittering decorations and glare of light. The house that now forms the Ragged School (I learn from Mr. Walker’s account) was once a public-house, in which thieving, or rather one of its branches, that of pocket-picking, was taught as a science, a pair of trowsers supplying the means of tuition. A master-thief illustrated and explained the adroitest modes of picking pockets to perhaps half a hundred keen pupils. A mock Old Bailey trial frequently followed, and the lads who evinced most skill either in practising on the trowsers (which were hung from the ceiling), or in defending themselves from any Old Bailey charge, were encouraged with drink and skittles. Very near to this spot stood another public-house-a resort of Dick Turpin and of others whose names modern literature has made more familiar to that criminal neighbourhood, and far more popular than did tradition or any other previous cause. Turpin’s resort is now an Institute for Working Men.

The number of boys employed in tailoring, when I visited the school, at the time of industrial training, was 26. Of these 3 were fourteen years old, 1 was thirteen, 8 were twelve, 6 were eleven, 2 were ten, 4 were nine, 1 was eight. 1 was six. There were also 22 boys engaged in shoe-making, whose ages were in the same proportion as those who were tailoring. All these boys, as far as I ascertained, expressed their sense of the kindness with which they were treated, and of the pains taken to do them good. Of these boys, I learned from their own admissions, that six had been (collectively) thirteen times in prison. As they detailed their experience in prison, the other boys, who declared that they had never been in prison, laughed and grinned admiringly. One boy said to a gentleman who accompanied me, “Master, what do you think that boy was in prison for?” “I can’t tell,” was the answer. “He stole a pig,” whispered the urchin, laughing and smiling approvingly as he whispered.

The Master Tailor, who was the only officer in attendance when I called, did not know, he said, of any boy having been transported; nor could he at first remember any boy having been imprisoned from that school. At last he suddenly recollected that two boys were in prison at that time from the Ragged School (the two I had seen at Tothill-fields); even this fact, however, he could not remember, until reminded of it by my inquiry whether Ragged Schools were not intended, if possible, to bring about the reformation of thieves. Neither did he know of any boys of the Ragged School who had been in prison within the last twelve months, but the school-boys present (one especially) numbered up eight very rapidly. When a boy disappears, he added, the Ragged School managers do not inquire after him, as they have not time to go to the police-office. They keep no records of the imprisonment of their scholars.

The Master Tailor had been there about three years. He had belonged to a society in connextion with the honourable trade about ten years ago. Within three years ten boys had been apprenticed to tailors. A premium of £10 used to be given- now it is £5. Small masters generally get the apprentices. The articles made by the boys, I was informed, were given to the scholars as rewards for good conduct. I found out afterwards, by inquiry among the boys, that a small price was charged for them. I was furnished with an account of the number of shoes, jackets, &c., made by the boys in the course of last year. and upon investigation I found that “forty-eight boys in school had received nineteen jackets, thirty-four pairs of trowsers, and twenty-eight pairs of shoes;” four of the lads, however, were without shoes, and five wore women’s or girls’ boots, and often odd boots.

A boy in school told me he had known the school boys go thieving after school hours. Another lad knew boys, but not school boys, go thieving in small gangs. Another boy remembered the school being robbed; the police came, but no charge was made. He had heard that the thieves about the street corners had got hold of some of the boys. A policeman searched the boys. Four of the boys I saw in the school had fathers only living (one of whom was in prison); eleven had only mothers (but two of the fathers of these children were not dead, for one was transported and one was in a workhouse); and one had neither father nor mother living. The others had both parents alive.

In order that I might have the best and most trustworthy information as to the quality of the work and the probable consequences of the instruction of the boys of a Ragged School (with industrial training superadded to the usual reading. writing, and arithmetic), I took with me two well-informed, experienced, and unprejudiced men-a tailor and a shoemaker-on whose judgment and fairness, from my inquiries among the trade, and from my recent investigations, I knew I could rely. I give their statements-the first being that of the tailor. He said:

“I have noticed the work of the Ragged School boys, whom I have seen making or repairing their clothes, and I have formed the following opinion. The boys have attained just that degree of proficiency in their tailoring which would make them available for the slopworker or the sweater-more particularly for the slopworker. as the work of the sweater must be of a better character. They are proficient enough to do their work regularly, but not well; the sewing is thin but regular; by thin, I mean too small a number of stitches in a given space; but the stitches, as I have said, are regular and in good form. Indeed the work of some of the poor little fellows rather surprised me, as it is not very easy to sew fustian and cord, such as their jackets and trowsers are made of.

“I consider that the teacher of the children has exercised due pains and skill I think that boys so circumstanced, whatever may be the immediate advantage are likely to prove a very serious injury to the working men in my trade-I mean of course, the honourable trade. It is not possible that these boys can remain long in their present state, so that some other place must be found for them, or they must resort to thieving. I see no alternative for the poor fellows. If, indeed they are apprenticed, it will most likely be to small masters, or sweaters, for sweaters are often small masters-that is, they are able to do a small quantity of work on their own account, underselling the very masters who employ them. They may not be so apprenticed now, but this is what it must come to. To small masters or sweaters the premium is generally the grand object; they care nothing what be- comes of the boy, as our police reports too frequently prove. The boy, if not thus apprenticed, may possibly resort to the slop-market, and there he can never rise into the means of earning a fair remuneration, for his abilities are not sufficient to elevate him. He may, and will, drag better workmen down to his level, but he can- not rise; and so he may marry-as reckless people will-and his children may be reared in a poverty that will tempt them to crime far more promptly than any institute (however well intended) can check them.

“I see no other career for such a boy, and no other likely result. If he is to be sent 21 abroad, where is the use of teaching him the trade of a tailor? Let him go to any of the colonies, he will find that the slop-seller-maintained by such labour as schools like these create-is there before him. There is not a market they do not supply. One of these poor lads, when he has had two or three years’ instruction 7 (according to his quickness) at a school such as that we have visited to-day, is able 7 to earn a trifle from a slop-worker, and he grows up a slop workman, and adds to 7 the poverty, and perhaps the crime, of the country, as a consequence of the very system adopted to make him a good member of society. It is impossible he can become a first-rate workman, unless he be altogether an exception to the general rule; and so he adds to the already overstocked, little-skilled, or unskilled labour- _ market which is producing such sad consequences to the superior artisans, and to the best masters in England.

“I have very carefully watched this matter in all its bearings for more than sixteen years-Government contracts, police clothing, prison and workhouse labour, philanthropic and industrial schools; and this last and worst phase of all-Ragged Schools. The conclusion forced upon me is, that there is no hope for bettering the condition of any trade in which these things exist, or upon which they are brought to bear, whilst such practices are persevered in. Such practices produce starvation wages, on which men cannot live. Some parish authorities are so convinced of this that workhouse labour has been abandoned. I am afraid that many excellent per sons who encourage such institutions as the Ragged Schools look only at the surface. Ragged School tailors must ultimately lower tailors’ wages, and so in crease the very evil they are intended to destroy.”

The Shoemaker’s statement I now give, which is as follows: “I found, on counting heads, while at the school, that twenty-one boys were at work there; but I was told by several of these boys that there were others who were not at present in the shop. The number absent were some nine or ten. Mr. , the master, was not there at the time, so I had no means of testing the variety of ability displayed. One, the eldest of the number, had a rather more conspicuous seat than the rest; his age was sixteen, and he had the name given to him of monitor, by way of distinction.

“Here I may state that the boys were somewhat grotesquely grouped in three separate classes. The first, or youngest class, were six in number, and were seated round a low square table, garnished with a few much-worn knives, a pair of very narrow-nibbed pincers, and an edged tin plate, covered with small bits of rounded wax. This, the initiative class were generally employed in what is called ‘stabbing’ bits of leather, this being a mere exercise of the awl. The scrap of leather is held in the instrument called the ‘clams,’ which are two long bowed staves, the mouth or upper part tightly nipping whatever substance may be placed between them, and thus enabling the operator to have complete command over whatever material he may be engaged upon. None of these boys had any knowledge of, or had received any instruction in the sort of work named ‘blind stabbing’-a very beautiful and most essential process-indeed, one which cannot be done without when the boy is intended to be the ‘boot-closer;’ and a process, too, which only can be effectually learned in early life, when the sense of touch is most delicate, and the fingers the most expert.

“The second class were the cobblers; and these I found numbered seven, and they appeared to take much more delight in making the hammer sound, in beating the leather on the ‘lapstone’ than in putting in stitches. Some were sewing patches on the upper leathers, or drawing together rents; but the greater part, as I have said, kept striking away on the stone; while two or three were nailing pieces on the heels, which, as I observed, they found to be very weak, in consequence of the severe battering which the bit of bull-hide had received.

“The third class-with the ‘monitor,’ in the absence of the ‘master baker,’ presiding in a somewhat dignified manner over his fellow-boys of younger years and less size-were the ‘new’ shoemakers. The ‘monitor’ himself had just finished the sewing round or the ‘stitching’ of a shoe which would fit a lad of about fourteen years of age. He said that his own age was sixteen, and that he had been at the shoemaking for upwards of a year; that he could sew a shoe round, of the sort I have mentioned, in an hour, which is about half the time a man would take to accomplish a similar piece of inferior work, although the perfect ‘stitching’ of a light boot or shoe will often require from two to three hours. Two other of these boys of the third class gave me likewise their work to examine; this, although very coarse in quality, as might be expected, seemed to be drawn together firmly-the workers, as I perceived, appearing always to make the best use of the ‘hand-leather,’ in accordance, no doubt, with their instructions. As this, though a means, is however no security for solidity, it often happens that the mere fact of the shoemaker labouring at his work is only doing so in vain; for if there is not the proper foundation laid in the getting up of a shoe, as of a house, in the nice and close fitting and adjustment of the materials before hand, no mere thickness of thread or strength of pull will avail in securing a truly serviceable article.

“The generality of these boys had very bad shoes, and the rest no shoes at all. On inquiring how this happened, the information was given that the right to have shoes came by purchase; ninepence per pair being the price charged to every boy or girl to whom shoes are given. ‘And these trowsers’ said one of the little shoemakers, ‘cost me also ninepence;’ while another told me that he also paid the same sum for his jacket. ‘And if you have not this money,’ I asked, ‘you neither get shoes, nor trowsers, nor jackets?’ ‘No,’ was the general and immediate reply. ‘My mother,’ one said, ‘is to give me the ninepence on Saturday. and then I shall have these shoes to go out in on Sunday.’ And the poor boy had here, indeed, a great blessing in prospect, for he was actually barefoot.

“‘Do you want an apprentice, sir,’ now inquired the ‘monitor,’ perceiving that I was examining somewhat closely the pair of shoes which had just been handed to me, and imagining, as I suppose, that I was in quest of a boy, from the manner of my inspection. I gave him to understand that I was not seeking an apprentice, but only came there for general information. The work which I examined, though very inferior indeed, was still, considering all things, as well got up as might be expected, the boys being employed only at short intervals; the early part of the day, from nine in the morning till the hour of dinner, being set apart for schooling purposes; and the afternoon, from two till five, for learning shoemaking, five days in the week. Boys so taught, however, are never to be supposed capable of earning a livelihood through the extent of their capacity, but can only be made so far useful as to become the apprentice of the slop home-worker, or garretmaster-a class of people who are always on the look-out for cheap labour and an ‘apprentice fee;’ the latter to enable them to buy ‘stuff,’ or the material for their low-priced goods. With such people the helpless position of the apprentice allows every chance of their compelling the greatest possible amount of exertion from the lads.”

Source: Victorian London