Barnardo’s Ragged School had missionary zeal

Historian Garry Haines looks at the history of one of the most famous of Victorian heritage sites in East London, the Ragged School Museum, tracing its links to one of the East End’s most famous sons

Historian Garry Haines looks at the history of one of the most famous of Victorian heritage sites in East London, the Ragged School Museum, tracing its links to one of the East End's most famous sons:


A COMMEMORATIVE plaque is located on a property at 30, Coborn Street. This plaque is in memory of the young man who arrived in London from Dublin and lodged there in 1866.

He arrived in a city that was suffering from overcrowding, poverty and disease. Cholera soon took advantage of these conditions.

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It rampaged through London in 1866. Approximately 4,000 people died from this outbreak with 3,000 of these fatalities being in the East End.

The man who had arrived in London to study at the London Hospital in Whitechapel, to become a missionary in China, who ministered to the sick and dying during the cholera outbreak, was Dr Thomas John Barnardo. This was a man whose work was to better the lives of many and arguably save the lives of as many as cholera took away.

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Many will know of his work with abandoned and orphaned children. This article, however, will look at his involvement in education and how one can visit one of his major achievements in this field in the form of East London's Ragged School Museum at Copperfield Road in Mile End.

The museum is in the premises that once housed the largest Ragged School in London. In 1879, some 370 day children were registered to attend and 2,500 Sunday School children also came along. This made it the largest of the 148 Ragged schools in London.

Ragged schools were first established in the late 1830s to give a free basic education to poor children.

After the 1866 cholera outbreak, Barnardo resigned from his position as Superintendent of the Ragged School in Ernest Street, off Harford Street, and founded the East End Juvenile Mission in 1868 in Hope Place, World's End.

Two years later Barnardo opened the Working & Destitute Lads Home in Stepney Causeway.

In September, 1876, Barnardo took out a 21-year lease on two canal warehouses, in Copperfield Road, which had been used to store limejuice and other general provisions. These warehouses were converted into Copperfield Road Ragged Schools. Each floor would have a large classroom with a fireplace and the basement would serve as playground. A triangular pediment was added to the front of the building to make it appear even more architecturally impressive.

The Copperfield Road Ragged School opened in 1877 and had a staff of four paid teachers and six paid monitors. This staff would teach and supervise an average daily attendance of 106 boys, 100 girls and 60 infants all from the area around Mile End and Stepney. The Master of the Boys was William Kitley Butler. His wife was Mistress of the Girls, Sarah Ann Butler. The infant's mistress was Miss Ann Newman.

The Ragged School would be a lifesaver for the children who attended. The many thousands of poor children who made the journey to Copperfield Road, from the time of the schools opening until its closure in 1908, could not have received education any other way. They came from all backgrounds, regardless of faith, colour, or disability. Children from as far as West India, Africa, India, and America passed through its doors.

They would receive free education and also help in finding a job. Children who were found to be in need were given free breakfasts and dinners in the cold winter months. The need for this nourishment was such that from 1887 to 1888 alone, records show 36,158 hot breakfasts were served at Copperfield Road School.

The School closed in 1908, but the Sunday School and other evening classes continued until 1915. After this, the buildings once again become warehouses as well as being used for manufacturers, continuing until 1984.

The warehouses were due to be demolished Due to a planned expansion of Mile End Park.

But the Ragged School Museum Trust was formed in 1983 to protect these warehouses and to use them as a museum to highlight the Ragged Schools, the children that attended them and the social history of the East End. By 1985 the trust had secured the listing of 46 and 48 Copperfield Road. They acquired the freehold in 1986 with help from the Greater London Council. The buildings were converted into a museum with further help from the GLC and Tower Hamlets council, among others.

The opening of the Ragged School Museum was signified on the April 7, 1990, when the school bell was rung again, the first time since 1916.

The museum is famous for its reconstructed Victorian classroom. Thousands of children visit this classroom every year and experience what it was like to be taught a school lesson in the Three R's -reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic.

On one Sunday of every month, everyone however young or old can experience this when the museum has its Sunday Open House. It also has its own 1900s East End kitchen and many other historical collections which bring back memories to all that visit and view them.

Many items relate to Dr Barnardo and his work in the East End and how the people lived, worked, played and survived.

There is an excellent pamphlet, Dr Barnardo and the Copperfield Road Ragged Schools, written in 1993 by local historian Tom Ridge, a driving force of the museum trust, available to buy from the museum. Another excellent publication is Tom Ridge's Central Stepney History Walk published in 1998. Both publications are also available to read at the Tower Hamlets Local History Library in Bancroft Road. They proved invaluable in writing this piece, thanks to Tom's continued passion for the East End and the safeguarding of its heritage.

Garry Haines


The Ragged School Museum is at 46-50 Copperfield Road, Mile End, next to the Regent's Canal by Rhodeswell Road, open 10am-5pm Wednesday and Thursday, as well as 2pm-5pm first Sunday in every month. Schools and group bookings Monday to Friday during term time. Tel: 020-8980 6405.

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