We in the UK take the opportunity to be educated for granted. So we should – though recent statistics have shown we are by no means leading the way. Around the world 75 million primary school age children are outside of education, girls in particular are likely to be denied access. The reasons for this are many, the absence of school buildings, the cost of attending, the financial need for children to work, parents who were not educated themselves and do not value it as a result, to name but a few. Only 135 years ago, the children of Mile End and the industrial East End were confronted by many of these exact same issues, Dr Thomas Barnado, that esteemed and exceptionally kind Victorian gent, sought to reverse this. Whether lured in by the promise of free meals, the safety of a school environment or at the behest of their parents, the class rooms of the Ragged School were thronged by up to 100 kids in each classroom. These classrooms have been recreated in the same converted industrial building which now houses the museum.
In the lower level of the bulding is a local history exhibit, the likes of which is all too familiar to absurly-frequent museum visitors such as myself. There is the obligatory “Now we are multicultured” stuff, plus some random facts about the East End I did not know – the first PDSA (free animal welfare) centre was opened nearby and that there was a tragedy at Bethnal Green tube station during the Blitz – the worst single event on the home front. Plus reminders of some stuff I did know about, like the ‘Battle of Cable Street’. This particular room is a bit scattered and, to use the modern meaning of the word ‘random’. Whilst I was interested to read about slum clearances and the living conditions, I am not in the least interested about local theatres, cinemas or PDSAs.
But this room is not the reason you come to the Ragged School. And you should come to the Ragged School.
I attended the school on a Sunday. The first Sunday of each month the school puts on classes run by an actress who does a thoroughly convincing turn as first of all a lovely kind introductory speech, then she dons her glasses and re-enters the room as the embodiment of spinster-strictness. Incidentally attendance to the class is free but a £2 donation cup will be pointedly slid in front of you upon entry – it is absolutely worth it.
Having done a bit of teaching myself, I would not be keen to try and tame a room of kids, many of whom would not have valued the opportunity, nor even have been ‘socialised’ into the school ethos and traditions – amongst the hundred there must have been a few Dickensian urchins causing a ruckus. However, the teachers were equipped with all the harsh punishment provisions allowed to Victorian educators.
We students were shown the implements of
torture discipline available to here. Hand restraints for fidgeters, a plank to be put behind the back for those who slouch, the dunce cap for mental anguish, the cane for physical. By and large my small class was well behaved. Sometimes reciting by rote, other times we copied from the board, onto a scratchy and tricky to read slate. It was funny to be back learning primary school lessons again – I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be naughty and knowing or try and outdo my students as number one clever clogs. Luckily our own teacher was benevolent enough to forgive our (ie my) mistakes in our arithmetical tasks. She was probably very impressed by my authentic primary school student level handwriting and drawing.
In addition to the cafe in the basement, there is on the top floor a final exhibition space with a number of authentic items to recreate something like a typical local household. A lovely volunteer there, Martha, a genuine East- End child full of stories, explained how she remembered each of the items and got in a few old-people cliches to boot; though well she might claim ‘kids today don’t know they’re born’ as someone who lived through the war, destruction of the east end, an era with reduced literacy and a job in the factory as most people’s realistic ambition.
Nor was it easier in the household. Martha explained poverty was not considered an exception for keeping your house and person clean and presentable – even though the arduous task of washing shirts would have included removing all buttons from shirts before putting them through the mangle, and then sewing them back on again. Oh lord I’m grateful I was born in the modern era. And to think how much of a chore it seems to hang out the washing. Old fashioned irons, a mangle, washing and cleaning apparatus and household products are on display, as well as written testimony about how they were used, should Martha or another volunteer not be around to talk to you.
In summary, you really must visit the museum at a time when classes can be attended. Kids found themselves enjoying classes at the weekend (plus probably getting to see their parents get told-off), adults were nostalgic, everyone left grateful they were not Victorian students – unlike many of children who passed through the Ragged School, which did what it could to reduce the crushing structural poverty of Victorian England until it was closed down in 1908.
Location: 46-50 Copperfield Rd, London E3 4RR (10 mins from Mile End Station, follow the canal path or through the park).
Entrance is FREE, though a donation will be suggested. Entrance is for schools and groups during the week, family days during the holidays and Victorian lessons first Sundays of each month (2pm to 5pm). General visitors can attend between 10am and 5pm each Wednesday and Thursday.
More info on the website here: http://www.raggedschoolmuseum.org.uk/