Ragged Schools

A Desperate Need

The vision for a school in every parish was desperately needed in many parts of Edinburgh in the mid 19th Century.  But even more than that, the street children of Edinburgh needed a very different kind of school.  Writing in 1872 Guthrie says: Five-and-thirty years ago, on first coming to this city, I had not spent a month in my daily walks in our Cowgate and Grassmarket without seeing that, with worthless, drunken and abandoned parents for their only guardians, there were thousands of poor innocent children, whose only chance of being saved from a life of ignorance and crime lay in a system of compulsory education. (Autobiography, p 438).  In early 19th century Scotland, many children caught up in crime, no matter how petty, were languishing in prison.  Others were flogged, or hanged without mercy.  Writing in 1845, the Governor of the Edinburgh jail, Mr Smith, stated in a letter that 740 children under 14 (245 of which were under 10) had been committed to prison in the previous three years. In 1847 5.6% of the population of the Edinburgh jail were under 14 years of age with a further 552 prisoners aged 14-16.

The Original Ragged School on Castle Hill Edinburgh

The Original Ragged School on Castle Hill Edinburgh

 A New Approach Gains Momentum

The need for a different response was gaining momentum by the early 1840’s but the movement needed a figure-head and someone who could articulate the cause eloquently.  They found this in Thomas Guthrie who took up the campaign for Ragged Schools with great relish.  Guthrie’s campaign for Ragged Schools was on many different levels; financial, spiritual and moral.  He was appalled at the money being wasted on prisons and often stated that an ‘ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’  The development of the Ragged Schools was to prevent the apprentice criminal making criminality a career choice.  Guthrie saw in these street children the potential for moral and spiritual change: bedded in their dark and dismal abodes, precious stones lie there, which only wait to be dug out and polished, to shine, first on the earth, and hereafter and forever in a Redeemer’s crown. (Seed-Time and Harvest, page 52).

The bible above the door of the original Ragged School in Castle Hill, Edinburgh.

The bible above the door of the original Ragged School in Castle Hill, Edinburgh.

Guthrie comes to Edinburgh

Coming to Old Greyfriars in 1837 Guthrie was immediately overwhelmed by the sight on the streets of Edinburgh.  In 1872 he wrote;

Five and thirty years ago, on first coming to this city, I had not spent a month in my daily walks in our Cowgate and Grassmarket without seeing that, with worthless, drunken, and abandoned parents for their only guardians, there were thousands of poor innocent children, whose only chance of being saved from a life of ignorance and crime lay in a system of compulsory education (Autobiography and Memoirs, Guthrie and Sons, p 438).

As early as the late 1830’s a conviction was forming in Guthrie, informed no doubt by his belief in the state endowment, that there should be education for all, regardless of wealth. Thomas Guthrie is described as the ‘Apostle’ of the Ragged School Movement but Guthrie gives credit to Sheriff Watson of Aberdeen for starting the very first school in 1841.  There was of course a family connection with Guthrie’s son Patrick being married to a niece of Sheriff Watson.

His vision was inspired by a visit to Anstruther in Fife around 1841 where he saw the portrait of John Pounds from Portsmouth.  John was a ship builders apprentice who had fallen in to a dry dock when was young and was disabled.  Showing great character, he taught himself to read, write and mend shoes.  He began to bring in street children with the smell of baked potatoes.  It is estimated that before his death John Pounds had rescued 500 children from a life of crime or abuse.

Inspired by the work of Sheriff Watson in Aberdeen, and also by a school in Dundee established in 1842, Guthrie recounts a story from a walk in Holyrood Park around 1845/6.  Meeting some ‘ragged boys’.  He recounts;

Encouraged by the success of Sheriff Watson, who had the honour to lead the enterprise, the idea of a Ragged School was then floating in my brain; and so, with reference to the scheme, and by way of experiment, I said, ‘Would you go to school if – besides your learning – you were to get breakfast, dinner, and supper there?’ It would have done any man’s heart goo, to have seen the flash of joy that broke from the eyes of one of them, the flush of pleasure on his cheek, as – hearing of three sure meals a day – the boy leapt to his feet, and exclaimed, ‘Aye, will I, sir, and bring the hail land, too;’ and then, as it afraid I might withdraw what seemed to him so large and munificent and offer, he exclaimed, ‘I’ll come for but my dinner, sir! (Autobiography and Memoirs, Guthrie and Sons, p 441-2).

 A Unique Curriculum

The first or ‘original’ Ragged School in Edinburgh was established in 1847 in a small room on the Castle Hill.  The main building that was eventually used is now part of Camera Obscura and the open Bible can still be seen above the door with the words ‘Search the Scriptures’ (John 5 v 39) engraved on it.  The original Ragged School had a very unique curriculum: education, regular meals, clothes, ‘industrial training’ and Christian instruction.  Most of the ragged children who attended the school/s did not remain overnight but were in school for 12 hours in the summer and 11 hours in the winter.  The day started at 8.00 am with the rather painful sounding ‘ablutions’ and the children were dismissed at 7:15 pm after supper.  Guthrie describes the daily routine: in the morning they are to break their fast on a diet of the plainest fare, then march from their meal to their books; in the afternoon they are again to be provided with a dinner of the cheapest kind, then back again to school; from which after supper, they return not to the walls of an hospital, but to their own homes.  There, carrying with them a holy lesson, they may prove Christian missionaries to those dwellings of darkness and sin (Seed-Time and Harvest, p 25).

 The Omnipotent Power of Christian Kindness

The unique curriculum of Ragged Schools was done in an environment of discipline and structure although there is never a sense that the schools were harsh or austere.  Guthrie was no great fan of corporal punishment and instead encouraged staff to win over children with kindness: these Arabs of the city are wild as those of the desert, and must be broken into three habits, – those of discipline, learning and industry, not to speak of cleanliness.  To accomplish this, our trust is in the almost omnipotent power of Christian kindness.  Hard words and harder blows are thrown away here.  With these alas they are too familiar at home, and have learned to be as indifferent to them as the smith’s dog to the shower of sparks.  (Seed-Time and Harvest p 25).

While Guthrie’s management of the Ragged Schools was never sectarian or denominational he did not compromise on Christian education.  During the controversy (stirred up by an anonymous writer in a newspaper) that the Ragged Schools were sectarian and discriminating against Catholic children, Guthrie masterfully showed that the schools provided a non-denominational Christian education.  Whatever else could be discussed and debated, he argued long and hard that the Bible needed to remain central to the curriculum of the schools: We held that in a Ragged School, whatever might be the case in other schools, the object aimed at could not be accomplished without the pure milk of God’s Word for those babes, and that the principle – although some good men seemed to have lost sight of it in the dust of battle – was the irreconcilable and eternal difference between Protestantism and Popery: the principle that God has addressed his Word to all the human family (Out of Harness,  p 15).

Purpose and Strategy

The General Committee of the Original Ragged School was elected at the first meeting on 22nd March 1847.  It was made up of ‘men of all shades of opinion, political and ecclesiastical’.  The Committee of Management was deliberately inter-denominational with Episcopalians, Church of Scotland, United Presbyterians and the Free Church all being represented.

Its Mission Statement said;

It is the object of this Association to reclaim the neglected and profligate children of Edinburgh, by affording them the benefits of a good, common, and Christian education, and by training them to habits of regular industry, so as to enable them to earn an honest livelihood, and fit them for the duties of life.  The general plan upon which the schools shall be conducted, shall be as follows, viz;

  • To give the children and allowance of food for their daily support.
  • To instruct them in reading, writing and arithmetic.
  • To train them in the habits of industry, by instructing and employing them daily in such sorts of work as are suited to their years.
  • To teach them the truths of the Gospel, making the Holy Scriptures the groundwork of instruction.

Controversy Erupts

There was controversy surrounding the school with a Roman Catholic Priest stirring up others to accuse Guthrie and the Ragged Schools of making the children in to Protestants.  Guthrie responded by saying;

 Above the door of these Ragged Schools men shall henceforth see an open Bible, this glorious text upon its page, ‘Search the Scriptures.’  No man feels a more lively interest in these schools than I do.  I have thought and pondered over them.  I have prayed over them, and I am not ashamed to say I have wept over them; but, dear as they are to my heart, I say, perish the Ragged Schools, if they are only to be kept up by parting with the Bible.  I would rather that we were found like the body of the sailor boy which lay on the lone sea-shore.  A handkerchief was tied around it, and when the spoiler came, he thought it was gold; he tore it open and found the Bible which his mother gave him with a mothers blessing.  And now, if other men won’t do it, these hands of mine shall do it; I shall bind the Bible to the Ragged Schools and committing this cause to the care of providence there I shall stand (Autobiography and Memoirs, Guthrie and Sons, p p450).

Qualifications for Teachers

Thomas Guthrie speaks a lot about the qualifications for teachers in the Ragged Schools;

What I desiderate in all our officials is sincere piety; a warm Christian affection for the souls of these poor children; a mind which will not be content with a perfunctory discharge of duty, not, even with remarkable success in the way of improving their intellects and reforming their outward habits; but a mind and soul which burns with love to Christ, and will be satisfied with nothing short of seeing these children converted and saved (Autobiography and Memoirs, Guthrie and Sons, p 452).

Secular Opposition to Ragged Schools

As well as Catholic opposition to the Ragged Schools many sought to deny Guthrie’s Christian motivation as this quote illustrates;

We observe, that the organs of the mere secular sections of the community admire the talents of the character of Dr Guthrie and pay a hearty tribute of respect to his memory.  Some of them, at the same time, through a mental perversity allied to colour blindness, refuse to recognise the fountain where the stream of his charities sprang.  They own the greatness of his benevolent work, but knowingly intimate that, in order to perform these blessed service to the community, he came out of his theological circle, and left his Calvinism behind him.  This is precisely the contrary of the truth.  The stream of his benevolence flowed from the well-spring of his faith.  It was the love of Christ that constrained him to visit the widows and orphans in their affliction (Rev William Arnot, Autobiography and Memoirs, Guthrie and Sons, p 452).

 A Brand Plucked from the Burning

Guthrie himself saw the Ragged Schools as his most enduring legacy: I never engaged in a cause, as a man and a Christian minister that I believe on my death-bed I will look back on with more pleasure or gratitude to God, than that He led me to work for Ragged Schools.  I have the satisfaction, when I lay my head upon my pillow, of always finding one soft part of it: and that is, that God has made me an instrument in His hand of saving many a poor creature from a life of misery and crime. (Autobiography, p 496).  Guthrie’s legacy of Ragged Schools did more than almost any social philanthropist in history to change the nation of Scotland.  Amongst Guthrie’s last words he was overheard to say ‘a brand plucked from the burning!’  His legacy was that through his vision and love for his Saviour, the Ragged School movement was established, which in turn plucked thousands of little brands from a life of poverty and crime, and brought them to know the ultimate ‘Friend of sinners’.



Streets Paved with Gold

I would like to thank Rev Dr John Nicholls, former Chief Executive of the London City Mission for sending me further material on Ragged Schools in London.  Below are a few quotes from chapter 4 of John’s book co-authored with Irene Howat called Streets Paved with Gold, Christian Focus Publications, 2003.  If you want to read the entire chapter it can be downloaded from here and is used with kind permission from Christian Focus Publications.

Streets Paved With Gold Book Cover

Within the chapter on Ragged Schools by Nicholls and Howat there is a good summary of a what a Ragged School was;

‘An Edinburgh man, when asked to describe a Ragged School, said they were Sunday schools set up in the poorest parts where every house was ‘worn-out and crazy’ and nearly every tenant a beggar, or worse. ‘These schools, he said, were for ragged, diseased and crime-worn children, such as would not be admitted to any otherkind of school.’ The one he instanced was in Field Lane, Smithfield, where 45 young people had to overcome theobjections of their parents in order to attend; the parents viewing any possible reformation in their offspring as a potential loss of criminal earnings. Some of the children, who were aged six to 18, had already been in prison, and that, the Scot concluded, would be where they would spend much of the rest of their lives unless educated at the Ragged School. The teacher at Field Lane School was a big-hearted woman who did the work voluntarily three days a week’ (Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal, 7th June, 1845).For the complete blogpost about Streets Paved with Gold follow this link.