Saturday, 28 February 2015

The Ragged School Museum

46-50 Copperfield Road, London E3 4RR
Thursday February 27 2015

We hoped Mary was safely in Hong Kong and well away from the persistent drizzle that accompanied us today on our trip to Tower Hamlets (Overground to Shadwell and the 339
and a short walk along Ben Johnson Road to the Victoria Bridge over the Regents Canal ).
We stopped to admire the contrast between the impressive newish builds now lining the canal sides and what looked like an old warehouse or factory on the opposite bank not knowing until we got round to the front – that is the Copperfield Road not canal side – that this older building is in fact The Ragged School Museum.

Staffed by enthusiastic volunteers, the Museum is only open two days a week and its displays fall into three distinct sections. The ground floor deals with the history of the building which has seen many uses, each in its own way indicative of the times. The building started life as a depot or warehouse for lime – although Limehouse down the road got its name from lime oasts or kilns as in quicklime/cement it appears we are here talking about limes, those little green citrus fruits that were ‘prescribed’ as the antidote to scurvy so prevalent amongst sailors. When it seemed easier to ship the limes straight out again (and Jo remembered the canal boats on the Grand Union heading for Roses’ Lime Factory) the building was taken over by Dr. Barnardo.

An Irishman who was training to be a doctor and hoped to become an overseas missionary, he was so appalled at the poverty he saw around him in Victorian London he concentrated on trying to better the life-chances of the children of the poor, many of them resident in this part of London. When the Copperfield Road warehouse building became vacant he set up the eponymous Free School in 1877, having already run two other ‘free schools’. The 1870 Education Act, the first legislation to address and enshrine the right to primary education, put a duty on local school boards to provide schools where none existed. It would be some years yet until these duties were passed to firstly the London County Council (in 1904) and then the Inner London Education Authority – two wonderful bodies which surely deserve a museum of their own in one of the London School Board buildings.

But back to the Ragged School which used this triangular shaped site for both infants (the part where the museum is now) and – where the angle opened out – for separate boys and girls Junior departments. To say they were oversubscribed is an understatement, with classes regularly topping 100-200 pupils. The curriculum was restricted to reading, writing and arithmetic with possibly a little history or geography, but certainly stuff that could be learned by heart and not up for discussion.  The school ran until 1908 when an inspection declared the premises inadequate (by now the LCC was building school to a design). The building reverted to factory use – eventually for the manufacture of very smart motorcycle leathers (what today would call a niche market) until the Museum began restoration in the Eighties. 

It is the first floor display that most visitors come to admire. Here you will find the recreation of an old-fashioned classroom complete with chalk blackboard and two-seater wooden desks with inkwell holes. I hesitate to put a date on these as frankly my entire Primary School Learning (1950s) was done in a class of 49 in exactly such a setting and Jo remembered starting her teaching in a similarly furnished classroom. (The link is a short film.) 

  – I thought life had moved on when the white board replaced the ‘chalk and talk’ stage but doubtless nowadays one teaches through a computer. We reminisced about being the ‘ink monitor’ – allowed to refill the inkwells from the little metal watering can and go home with blue fingers. Or you could be the Register monitor and ‘lose a few minutes’ in the corridor between class and staff rooms (Jo) or not (Linda), or as chalk monitor you could get to lay out the new chalks  and admire them  before they broke (or were chucked at inattentive pupils) or even sneak one home.. The educator was preparing to settle a real primary age class to give them the whole experience (boys separate from girls) so we did not linger but did admire the other artefacts they had collected to give the Ragged School a home context as well. There was a tiny ‘range’ kitchen complete with dresser, rag rug and mangle and washboard for the weekly wash (remember all the water had to be heated). Cupboards boasted old-fashioned pre-electric kitchen gadgets and a few favourite branded goods.
Talking of monitors as we were, the school would have had over 100 pupils per class and only 1 teacher – in order to get through the curriculum the teacher would have selected some brighter students and put them to work teaching in smaller groups. Not ideal but better than no education at all.

Back downstairs, where the first room looks at the history of the building and the early days of universal education, the back room is devoted to a history of Tower Hamlets and its constituent areas – called of course Tower Hamlets because it houses the Tower of London  (see November blog) at its heart and the rest were small hamlets scattered around – doubtless to serve the court  and garrison at the Tower. The room devotes a couple of display boards to each of the different parts of the borough: Bethnal Green, Whitechapel and Spitalfields, Stepney & Mile End, Bow and Bromley by Bow, Wapping to Limehouse and Poplar and the Isle of Dogs – many of them now stops on the Central line and very familiar to us from our bus travelling days. Each area has played and continues to play a vital part in the development of London – the old docks with their refuges for seamen now changed into the new financial district, the old Jewish East End of the Rag Trade now home to different incomers still using the old markets, the Old Bryant & May factory which saw the match girls’ strike now a trendy housing development, the back streets of Spitalfields once home to weavers and a hospice now a destination for trendsetters. And not forgetting the politicized people of Cable Street…

The poverty and dense population of the East End /Tower Hamlets has likewise attracted a large number of philanthropists and do-gooders, all intent on bringing enlightenment, relief, art and sometimes religion to the people – these have included the Barnetts of Toynbee Hall , Maria Dickin of the PDSA  Sylvia Pankhurst who fought for women’s  rights, the Booths of the Salvation Army and of course Dr Thomas Barnardo who had a truly integrated and far-sighted vision – not only did he provide education for many through this and other Ragged Schools, he looked after the orphaned and destitute children foreshadowing today’s children’s social care, and even saw that once educated the young people needed meaningful employment and guided them towards ‘service’ or a range of manual occupations. The school even hosted evening club sessions for the many local factory girls. A true pioneer.

While the section covering the History of Tower Hamlets has less space and exhibits at its disposal than the more spacious Hackney Museum (see January) we were overall very impressed with the rich heritage of Tower Hamlets and the enthusiasm with which the staff shared this with visitors, children and adults alike.

 The Collecting boxes..

The downstairs cafe...

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