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Exeter's Ragged Schools

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Page added 2nd July 2012

It was a Portsmouth shoemaker, John Pounds, known as the 'crippled cobbler’ who opened the first 'Ragged School' in Portsmouth in 1818. The movement developed, especially in Scotland, where the Rev., Thomas Guthrie wrote the 'Plea for Ragged Schools' which credited Pound with starting the movement. Lord Shaftesbury formed the London Ragged School Union in 1844; within eight years over 200 schools had opened across the country. They were free of any weekly fee, and relied on subscriptions and donations for funding.

Two years after Lord Shaftesbury's initiative, on 19th June 1847, Exeter's first ragged school was opened in Rack Street. Originally planned as a six month trial, the 'School for the Destitute' as it was called in the Western Times, was opened in the presence of the committee, the Rev., T Hincks, Mr James Terrell, Mr James Stephens, Mr Huxtable, Mr Charles Huxham, and Mr Charles Hill (the Secretary). Mr John Scott from Topsham, was to superintend the new school, while Mr Passmore was appointed Master. The school was initially only open in the evenings for thirty boys and girls between the ages of ten and fifteen.

In January 1848 a second 'Free Evening School' for destitute children was opened in the rooms of the British School, Coombe Street, and a Mr Sampson engaged as a teacher. Only children who through destitution, or were orphans, and could not attend a day school would be admitted.

By October 1848, the number of children attending the Rack Street Ragged School (sometimes referred to as being in Preston Street and even in West Street due to its position on a corner site) was 300. Conditions must have been basic as one newspaper reported problems with the common privy running into an open cesspool, in which soiled effluent was inches thick.

The school continued running in its premises in Rack Street as an evening school until February 1852, when premises in Preston Street, were obtained, allowing it to become a day school. The following August, 86 children were taken up to Cleave to enjoy games and a 'hearty repast' – the practice continued for an annual day out at Cleave for many years, although it was often threatened by a lack of funds.

The school flourished, encouraged by its many patrons and in December 1853 an advert was placed to engage an additional teacher for the boys department on Saturday and Sunday evenings, and a Mr Robert Britton, a former pupil of the Exeter Diocesan Training College was appointed an Assistant Teacher.

Other Ragged School

Further Ragged Schools were opened across the city in the following years – some were independent of the original. New premises were found for the boys in St Mary Arches Street in 1855 – the girls remained at Rack Street. In July 1856, the St James's Ragged School, which was probably in Blackboy Road, opened. Also referred to as St James' Free School it was supported by subscriptions and donations. Mr and Mrs Singer were charged with running the school. By 1870 it was run just by Mrs Singer. It closed soon after, as the 1870 Education Act was implemented.

Ewings Lane School, also a Ragged School, was opened at a cost of £500, in 1869 for boys and girls – it was open in the day and evening. It did not last long, and in 1872 it was hired as a temporary infants school. It became a Sunday School sometime between 1876 and 1881.

New teachers

In 1857 Miss Roberts was elected as school mistress at a meeting attended by Richard Somers Gard MP. Two other candidates were highly recommended. At the same meeting, it was suggested that supporters of the charity be encouraged to visit the school and witness “a work of genuine benevolence and public usefulness.” (Western Times)

Parliament passed an act to open Industrial Schools in 1857 to improve and complement the provision provided by Ragged Schools. In 1863, Exeter proposed an Industrial School in Exe Island, for 12 boys. This school was meant for boys who were considered to be running wild, and many were referred by the local magistrates. Competition between schools was growing as evinced by a story in 1868 that the local National School was attempting to poach pupils from the Rack Street Ragged School. It was also implied that only children who have fallen into crime or lived in rags and filth should go to the Rack Street school.

Christmas Celebrations

The Christmas celebrations at the Rack Street School, were described in 1870. Ninety-two girls attended tea, waited on by the great and the good, including members of the committee. Mrs Pickard, a teacher, led the children in “singing, marching, and manoeuvring of the school sort, merrily and usefully passed the time until a pleasant change in the programme took place by the introduction of the Magic Lantern, over whose wonderful creations Mr Mortimer very kindly presided.” (Western Times)

By 1870, a lack of funds was hampering the Ragged School, while the Reformatory School (former Industrial School) on Exe Island was struggling, and the National School in Bartholomew Yard, formerly the Lancastrian or Dissenters School that first opened in 1811, had been forced to move to St David’s Parish School. All the charitable and un-endowed schools were struggling for survival and it would only be a matter of time before they closed, and the responibility for public schooling transferred to the new School Boards being established across the country.

Despite the girls Ragged School being left a £500 legacy from John Dinham, the school was struggling to pay its way. It cost £100 per annum to run, while charitable donations and endowments only produced £70.

Following the 1870 Elementary Education Act, in 1871, the Committee of Exeter’s Board Schools met and proposed that the Exeter Ragged School be approached with a view to transferring their school to the Board. The offer was declined at the time. In January 1875, the boys' Ragged School was closed, while the girls' school continued in the evenings, with £400 of funding, educating about 40 pupils until December 1876 when it finally closed. Any remaining funds were used for giving prizes of 10 shillings to children at the local Board School, who had the best attendance.

Ragged Schools had fulfilled a need for educating the poor for thirty years in Exeter. The same applied to other cities and it became apparent, that they were no longer viable and were closed or absorbed into the local Board Schools.

Sources: Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, Western Times, School Buildings in Exeter 1800-1939 by Richard Parker, published by the Devon Buildings Trust, Historical Notes on Devon Schools by Robert Bovett and Wikipedia.


Ewings Lane School 1869 Ewing's Lane School drawn by George Townsend in 1869. This is the only illustration I can find of any of the Ragged Schools in Exeter. Courtesy the Westcountry Studies Library.

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