The Ragged School Museum

I first became aware of the Ragged School Museum ten years ago, when I lived for a year in the Ocean Estate in the East End of London. I used to go running down the Regent’s Canal towpath and, every so often, by a certain row of (as of yet) unregenerated warehouses up a quiet side street. There, I’d find myself running smack into a large crowd of excited young children dressed as Victorian street urchins. This was my first introduction to an institution I’d come to love, and to think of as a repository of local history and memory that desperately needs to be protected and preserved for the future. 

Although a small museum, the Ragged School stands at the intersection of several historical narratives which are not only in danger of neglect, but of ever more vital relevance today. First and foremost, it preserves the memory of Dr. Thomas Barnardo and his earliest philanthropic work in the East End. Barnardo’s is still very much a working charity, and the wider networks and cultures of philanthropy of which it was a part, is an important part of the social history of the UK and the development of universal education and the welfare state.

The Ragged School Museum building is one of the few remaining monuments to this history, and the only building of Barnardo’s once extensive network of homes and mission halls which still retains some connection to its original use. Besides the Barnardo’s connection, it also provides an important memorial of the ragged school movement – a movement bigger and older than Barnardo – which over the course of the 19th century advanced the cause of universal free education. Finally, through its engagement with these subjects, the Ragged School Museum is deeply involved in the work of preserving the social memory of the old East End and its local histories of industry, poverty, immigration, political agitation and reform. Histories that it is all the more important to preserve in the current climate of gentrification, demographic change, and the visible rolling-back of a welfare state with whose origins the area was intimately involved.

The Museum Today

The museum’s main business is as a community educational resource. The crowds of schoolchildren that used to frustrate my morning run comprise the majority of its visitors. The museum’s upstairs rooms include an original 19th century classroom, in which actors dressed as Victorian teachers scare the life out of visiting children, who are also dressed for the day in Victorian get-up; a traditional part of a British primary education. There is a stand-up desk with a cane laid threateningly across it, a map of Britain, a globe, and a ‘dunce’ cap for anyone who fails to answer a question correctly. There’s also a room which recreates a Victorian East End kitchen, and an art room where pupils can make pictures and sculptures reflecting on what they’ve learned.

Besides its educational function, the Ragged School Museum additionally has an exhibition space with a permanent display about Barnardo and the museum’s past, developed in partnership with the neighbouring Queen Mary University of London. This space also lays out some of the building’s subsequent history; after the school closed early in the nineteenth century it was used by a succession of small industrial businesses. At one point in the 1950s and 1960s it manufactured leather motorcycle jackets that were popular with teddy boys and rockers, and adopted by the Beatles in their Hamburg period. In 1990 it was saved from demolition by a community trust, and since then has been surviving, by hook and by crook, in an often tumultuous funding environment.

Besides its historical significance, the building itself is an under-acknowledged treasure. The essential fabric of the warehouse has barely changed for more than a century, and is an important piece of architectural heritage. Only half of the building’s actual space is currently in use – where the teaching room now holds about 30 pupils at most, in its heyday the school taught and fed more than a thousand children daily. There are large back rooms full of items that are begging to be put out to display or incorporated into educational set-ups: Dr Barnardo’s desk, a printing press and shelves on shelves of archives. And there is a basement café, opening straight out onto the towpath, which is begging to be smartened up. Very early on, Erica Davies – the museum’s enterprising director – recognised the potential of the building’s spectacular upper floor, with its handsome brickwork, huge windows and partially glassed roof, and the space now holds contemporary art exhibits, and hosted the inaugural Ragged School Classical Music Festival in autumn 2019.

The histories the museum preserves are complicated and often uncomfortable, but they provoke necessary questions about social solidarity, poverty, welfare and multiculturalism. But, like all museums of a similar size, the Ragged School Museum is facing uncertain times, as UK arts and heritage funding is threatened, and the kinds of communities it serves come under increasing attack under austerity. In 2015, when we launched the permanent exhibition, a reporter from London Live TV asked me why we should bother engaging with these histories today. I pointed out, at great length and not completely soberly, that one in four children in London live in poverty; in the East End, the figure is higher.

The Ragged School has seen worse times, and it’ll probably survive these: it has good leadership and a beautiful building. But just on the off-chance that you’re a funder, and you’re reading this, perhaps you could send them some money? That’d be great. Thanks.

Also in the Area

If you’re new to the East End, or simply fancy an afternoon out that shows another side of it, the museum is best visited as the halfway point on a surprisingly idyllic walk along the towpath of the Regent’s Canal.

Start at London Fields park, and the chic shops and cafes of Broadway Market, and walk down the canal past the monumental gasometers and the fancy pagoda of Hackney’s enormous Victoria Park – a testament to the Victorian movement for civic open space. Then drop in at the Palm Tree, one of the East End’s most characterful old pubs; visit the museum, not forgetting to say hello to the families of swans and Canada geese that have made this stretch of the canal their home; and finish up at Limehouse Dock, where old East London meets 1980s yuppie developments and the hypercapitalism of Canary Wharf, and where spacious pubs serve food on terraces overlooking the river. Along the way, just past the museum, you might want to make a detour to visit St Dunstan and All Saints, the ancient parish church of Stepney, which contains fascinating records of the area’s nautical past and a moving stained-glass window commemorating the Blitz. Next door to it is Stepney City Farm, which holds popular farmers’ markets at weekends.

Museum Information


Location: 46-50 Copperfield Road, London, E3 4RR

Approx. 9 min walk from Mile End station, or 12 mins from Limehouse on the Docklands Light Railway. From Canary Wharf it’s a short bus ride on the D4 or the 211; from Whitechapel, take the 205 to Mile End

Admission: free, although charges apply for schools and group talks

Opening Hours: Wednesday and Thursdays, 10am - 5pm, and the first Sunday of each month, 2pm - 5pm. School trips and talks also run during term-time

Full image credit: Victorian school room at Ragged School Museum London by Karen Bryan, via Creative Commons CC BY-ND 2.0

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Extra Background: Barnardo, Ragged Schools and Urban Philanthropy

By the time Barnardo began his missionary and philanthropic work in the East End in 1866, the ragged schools movement was at least sixty years old. Its roots lay in the last decades of the 18th century, when provincial middle-class philanthropists and evangelicals established schools to take children off the streets on the Sabbath and provide them with free meals. Initially a loose and ad hoc movement, the Ragged School Union was established in 1844 as an attempt to centralise authority.

The formation of the Ragged School Union also crystallised the ideological motives behind the movement, articulating a vision which balanced material charity with social hygiene. While ragged schools provided warmth and shelter, seasonally appropriate clothing, and free meals to children who desperately needed them, they were also a front in the fight against ‘moral decline’ which many social reformers, philanthropists and evangelicals saw as interlinked, and which were associated particularly with the emergent urban working class. By giving children basic literacy, numeracy and industrial skills, alongside a moral and religious education, reformers hoped to not only give them the means to escape miserable existences, but also to avert the formation of a potentially revolutionary underclass.

The ragged school movement reached its height around 1869; between 1840 and 1881, Ragged School Union records indicate about 300,000 children passing through the doors of ragged schools across Britain. It was at this peak of activity that Thomas Barnardo established his own school. Devoting himself to alleviating the conditions (and saving the souls) of the people, and particularly the children, of the East End, he opened his first free school at Hope Place on the Mile End Road in the same year. Ten years later, his operations having expanded considerably, he moved it to a group of canal-side warehouses on Copperfield Road. It was to remain in operation on this spot – now the museum – until 1908.

The conditions with which Barnardo was trying to deal were appalling. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the area was one of the most densely populated slums on earth. Most houses contained several families, often living together in one room, and often moving frequently to escape unpayable rent. Many families depended on dangerous, and invariably exploitative, work in the London docks or piecework done at home, and the loss of a breadwinner could cause catastrophe for a family. Barnardo had also arrived in London just in time to witness the particularly awful conditions of 1866-7, when a series of poor harvests, a worldwide banking crash and trade depression, and a disastrous cholera epidemic rendered the condition of the East End more than usually grim.

In general, ragged schools began to decline from the 1870s onwards, after attendance at school was made compulsory up to the age of 13. However, since Board and Parish schools still charged weekly fees, typically a penny, not only were children forcibly precluded from being able to contribute domestic and paid labour to the household during the day, but the family usually had to pay for the privilege as well. This made a free school such as Copperfield Road a very attractive proposition.

Whether the school’s connection with Barnardo’s growing philanthropic empire made it more or less attractive is open to question. He was an evangelical, an eccentric and something of a fanatic, whose interest in rescuing children from appalling circumstances was as often concerned with the moral hazards of poverty as with its physical dangers. In fact, much of Barnardo’s labour focused on ‘rescuing’ children from their context, separating them from their families (often through legal force), rehousing and resocializing them, training them up to trades, or sending them to Canada, Australia and South Africa as child emigrants. This is the main strand of the work that Barnardo and his organisation did, and that upon which most histories have focused. The day school was of course quite a different operation: it concerned itself with the welfare of children who were still grounded in their families and communities.

Through schooling, Barnardo’s commitment to education as a right, and to preserving childhood – a state newly codified by Victorian middle-class ethics as a time of relative innocence which deserved protection and care – made major contributions to the history of the welfare state and the relations between classes. Moreover, his genius for publicity and media – pursued through his largely self-written periodical Night & Day – effectively set the standard by which charities still operate.

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Peter Mitchell

Peter Mitchell currently works for "NHS at 70: The Story of Our Lives", an oral history project at Manchester University. His first book, on imperial nostalgia, is out later this year.