When Thomas Barnardo came to London from his home city of Dublin in 1866, intending to train as a doctor and then become a missionary in China, he was confronted by a city where disease was rife, poverty and overcrowding endemic and educational opportunities for the poor were non-existent. He watched helplessly as a cholera epidemic swept through the East End, leaving over 3,000 Londoners dead and many destitute. He gave up his medical training to pursue his local missionary works and in 1867 opened his first “ragged school” where children could gain a free basic education. From the 18th century onwards, ragged schools were few and far between. They had been started in areas where someone had been concerned enough to want to help disadvantaged children towards a better life. John Pounds, a Portsmouth shoemaker, provides one of the earliest well-documented examples of the movement. When he was 12 years old, Pounds' father arranged for him to be apprenticed as a shipwright. Three years later, he fell into a dry dock and was crippled for life. Unable to work as a shipwright, John became a shoemaker and by 1803 had his own shop in St Mary Street, Portsmouth. In 1818, Pounds, known as the crippled cobbler, began teaching poor children without charging fees. He actively recruited 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. He began teaching local children reading, writing, and arithmetic. His reputation as a teacher grew and he soon had more than 40 students attending his lessons. He also gave lessons in cooking, carpentry and shoemaking. Pounds died in 1839. It is estimated that about 300,000 children went through the London ragged schools alone between 1844 and 1881.
In 1877 Barnardo’s Copperfield Road Free School opened its doors to children and for the next thirty-one years educated tens of thousands of children. It closed in 1908 by which time enough government schools had opened in the area to serve the needs of local families. The buildings, originally warehouses for goods transported along the Regent’s Canal, then went through a variety of industrial uses until, in the early 1980s, they were threatened with demolition. It was then that a group of local people joined together to save them and reclaim their unique heritage. The Ragged School Museum Trust was set up and the museum opened in 1990. The museum was founded to make the history of the Ragged Schools and the broader social history of the Victorian East End accessible to all. Within the original buildings, an authentic Victorian Classroom has been set up where each year some 16,000 children experience a school lesson as it would have been taught more than 100 years ago. They have also recreated a Victorian East End Kitchen from the 1900s, demonstrating what life would have been like in a simple, one-room home with no electricity or running water. The museum has several gallery areas, a reconstructed Victorian Classroom and a Victorian East End Kitchen displaying its own collection of historical objects, all designed for hands-on inspection. This is a museum where you can sit at the school desks, use the tin bath and experience what life was like for the Victorian poor of the East End of London.
Location : 46-50 Copperfield Rd, London E3 4RR
Transport: Mile End (Central Line, District Line, Hammersmith + City). Limehouse (DLR). London Buses routes 277, D6 and D7 (stop at Eric St, head through the park), 25 (Regents Canal, head through park), 339 (Harford St, head east up Ben Jonson Rd), 323 (Bow Common Lane, head through park) and 309 (Copperfield Rd, just over the road!).
Opening Times: Wednesday + Thursday 10:00 to 17:00.
1st Sunday each month 14:00 to 17:00 (with Victorian lessons).
Tickets : Free.
Tel: 020 8980 6405