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What Is the Ragged School Museum?

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  • Written By: Britt Archer
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 13 November 2016
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A ragged school in Victorian times was a free educational institution for the offspring of the “ragged classes,” the poor who could not afford to give their children an education at a private school. The Ragged School Museum in London gives visitors the opportunity to experience the school day as children in the 1800s experienced it, complete with a costumed teacher, inkwells and writing slates. The museum on Copperfield Road was once the largest of the city’s ragged schools, and its students included both girls and boys. Today a classroom at the Ragged School Museum has been faithfully recreated to provide a realistic Victorian experience.

In a section of the museum separate from the schoolroom stands a museum of social history pertaining to the lower levels of Victorian society. A recreated kitchen is on display, and much information is available about the history of the East End area, where the Ragged School Museum is located. Information includes bits about society, religion, factories and the docks.

The Ragged School Museum also presents information about the school’s start and its founder, Dr. Thomas Bernardo. Born in Ireland, he studied medicine in London with the intent of becoming a missionary in China. His plans were derailed when he saw the extreme need of London’s children. Dr. Bernardo also established dozens of orphanages in the city.

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There were many different ragged schools, and often they provided meals as well as an education. Sometimes they also had space for students to sleep comfortably in cold weather. These schools grew from the charity work of a shoemaker, John Pounds, who devoted his time to giving lessons to children for free. Another man, Thomas Guthrie, established a formal school based on John Pounds’ belief in education for the poor. Over time there were more than 300 ragged schools set up in the country.

The Ragged School Museum shut its doors to students in 1908, in part because a number of government-run schools began to fill the educational need in the East End. Prior to their educational use, the three buildings belonging to the school had been warehouses. The Ragged School Museum Trust saved them from destruction and created the unique museum in 1990.

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