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Ragged Museum at Mile End is put on ‘heritage at risk’ register in danger of being lost

PUBLISHED: 16:21 15 October 2020 | UPDATED: 16:57 15 October 2020

Thomas Barnardo who set up the Ragged School at Mile End in 1877, Picture: Amberly Books

Thomas Barnardo who set up the Ragged School at Mile End in 1877, Picture: Amberly Books

Martin Levy.Amberly Books

The famous Ragged Museum in Mile End has been added to the “heritage at risk” register of historic buildings likely to be “lost forever” from neglect or decay.

Heritage at risk... Ragged School in converted early Victorian wharf by Regent's Canal. Picture: Museum TrustHeritage at risk... Ragged School in converted early Victorian wharf by Regent's Canal. Picture: Museum Trust

It has been placed on the register today, October 15, in a shock report by Historic England’s annual snapshot of historic places most at risk.

The museum housed in an old Victorian wharf in Copperfield Road next to the Regent’s Canal is in bad need or urgent repair to its leaky roof, construction problems and the dampness.

It is one of 20 historic London sites being added to the register because of fears about their condition in a year that’s been hit by the Covid emergency, the heritage organisation fears.

Recontructed Victorian clasroom at the Ragged Museum in Mile End. Picture: Ragged Museum TrustRecontructed Victorian clasroom at the Ragged Museum in Mile End. Picture: Ragged Museum Trust

Looking after them would be the key to economic recovery with jobs and tourism, the heritage organisation urges.

“Heritage can give us a sense of continuity in such testing times,” Historic England’s London regional director Emily Gee said. “Investing in our historic places can help the economic recovery.

“But there is a long way to go with many more historic buildings and places which need funding and community support to give them a brighter future.”

Today's children enjoying recreated Victorian classroom lessons. Picture: Ragged School MuseumToday's children enjoying recreated Victorian classroom lessons. Picture: Ragged School Museum

The Ragged School was opened in 1877 by Dr Thomas Barnardo to give free education for the East End’s poor.

It was the largest ‘ragged school’ in its day with 1,000 children on weekdays and more than double that number for Sunday School.

Barnardo arrived in London to study medicine at the London Hospital in Whitechapel when he treated the sick and dying during the cholera outbreak of 1866.

Street urchin found by Thomas Barnardo in Whitechapel that led to his orphanage and later a ragged school to educate the East End's destitute. Picture: Barnardo'sStreet urchin found by Thomas Barnardo in Whitechapel that led to his orphanage and later a ragged school to educate the East End's destitute. Picture: Barnardo's

He witnessed the poverty on the streets and dropped out of his studies to open the Working & Destitute Lads Home two years later in Stepney Causeway, which went on to become the Barnardo orphanage charity we know today.

But his philanthropy was more than just taking waifs and strays off the streets of the Victorian East End.

The destitute children and many others in poverty needed education.

The boys' class at the Ragged School in the 1890s. Picture: Barnardo'sThe boys' class at the Ragged School in the 1890s. Picture: Barnardo's

Barnardo went on to open the Ragged School in Copperfield Road.

Each floor would have a large classroom with a fireplace and the basement would serve as playground. It had four teachers and six monitors who would teach and supervise an average daily attendance of 106 boys, 100 girls and 60 infants all from around Mile End and Stepney, according to East End local historian Gary Haines. The Master of the Boys was William Butler and his wife Sarah was Mistress of the Girls.

It was a lifesaver for the children living in squalid poverty. Many could not have received education any other way. They also got free breakfast and lunch as well as education and later got help in finding employment.

Pupils at the Ragged School in the 1880s. Picture: Ragged Museum TrustPupils at the Ragged School in the 1880s. Picture: Ragged Museum Trust

Barnardo’s Ragged School finally closed in 1908 when local government education became adequate, while its Sunday School and other evening classes continued until 1915 when the building returned to industrial use.

A successful campaign in the 1980s led by Tom Ridge, a retired teacher from Bethnal Green, saved the building from demolition to make way for extending the new Mile End Park.

A Ragged School trust was set up which secured the listing of 46 and 48 Copperfield Road and acquired the freehold to convert them into a museum with a reconstructed Victorian classroom.

Street children in squalour that Thomas Barnardo found in the East End. Picture: Barnardo'sStreet children in squalour that Thomas Barnardo found in the East End. Picture: Barnardo's

It opened as a museum in 1990 when the school bell was rung again on April 7 for the first time since 1908.

Thousands of children visit every year and experience what it was like to be taught a school lesson in the Three Rs—reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic.

But the building is deteriorating with its leaky roof and other structural issues as well as the damp.

The trust has recently received a grant offer from the National Heritage fund for sustainable repairs, which will also improve its education facilities, events space and flexible office facilities.

Tom Ridge has been a driving force behind the museum who continues today campaigning to preserve the East End’s heritage with a passion, wherever he finds it.


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