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Ragged School 246John Pounds, Thomas Guthrie, Thomas Cranfield 

A cobbler, a minister, a tailor. Men of faith who started teaching poor children in the late 18th/early 19th century that led to a revolution in the British education system.

John Pounds, born in 1766, was involved in an accident which left him badly disabled while an apprentice shipwright in Portsmouth dockyard. He was unable to work and spent time educating himself, learning to read and write and studying a wide selection of topics. He became a cobbler mending shoes, employed by several employers and eventually set up his own shop.

John allowed his nephew and his friends to play in the workshop whilst he was repairing shoes. Whilst there John began teaching them to read and write, simple arithmetic and other general knowledge. Almost by accident John had become a teacher. In time more children joined the lessons using slates, bibles and other materials donated by local churches and supporters. All lessons were provided free of charge.

Conditions for the children of poor working class families were very bad, children's education was unheard of and they often wore just rags of clothing. John was able to collect clothes from his many friends and supporters and give them to his pupils. He often walked the streets giving food to the waifs and strays he found in the area and encourage them to join his school.

The conditions and lack of opportunities poor children received often led them into a life of crime as a means of survival, stealing and picking pockets. John realised that education was the key to breaking this cycle. More than conventional education, John Pound taught his pupils how to mend their clothes, to cook and arts and crafts such as toy making. He also took the children on outdoor activities and lessons, believing that the fresh air was good for them. They would learn about wildlife, plants and nature. On Sunday's John attended the High Street Chapel and after a meal at his workshop, the children accompanied John to the chapel.

Rev Dr Thomas Guthrie, a minister in Scotland, saw a picture of John Pounds working in his workshop surrounded by children and was inspired to build on John's work in his home town of Edinburgh, the schools which developed were known as the Ragged Schools. At Old Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh, he saw at first hand the "ragged children"  who lived by begging and stealing amongst the poverty and squalor of the Old Town in which his church was set. Guthrie converted a room beneath the church for the making of soup and porridge and he soon had his first class attending. Within a year there were three Ragged Schools in Edinburgh.

The prime rule of the schools was to reclaim the children from destitution and train them to earn an honest living. They were well fed and educated about cleanliness, godliness, reading, writing and taught skills including cobbling, tailoring, and cooking. By doing jobs for local shops the children were able to earn a small wage and were instilled with "the value of a penny earned."

Over 500 children passed through the schools in their first year. The effect of his efforts, it is said, was to clear the streets of young beggars and reduce the number of children held in prison by three-quarters - a phenomenal success story.

Guthrie was also involved with other good works including the Board of the Royal Infirmary; a Home for Fallen Women, the Blind Asylum and a House of Refuge. He was also involved with the Temperance legislation.

His funeral procession in 1873 was watched by 30,000 bystanders. 230 children from the Original Ragged Schools attended the graveside and sang "There is a happy land, far, far away". A fitting epitaph surely are the words of a little girl from one of the schools, "He was all the father I ever knew."

Thomas Cranfield was a tailor and former soldier. He had opened a Sunday school on Kingsland Road, London and in 1798 established a day school on Kent Street (close to London Bridge). He was a great organizer and by the time of his death in 1838 had built up an organization of nineteen Sunday, night and infants’ schools situated in the worse parts of London. This work was extended by the newly formed London City Mission. It is estimated that around 300,000 children went through the London Ragged Schools alone between the early 1840s and 1881.

Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury was one of Britain's greatest social reformers, whose broad-ranging concerns included education, animal welfare, public health and improving working conditions. In 1843, Lord Shaftesbury became the president of the ragged schools. He used his knowledge of the schools, the refuges, and his understanding of the living conditions among low-income families to pursue changes in legislation.

Charles Dickens also supported the schools. His experience inspired him to write A Christmas Carol. While he initially intended to write a pamphlet on the plight of poor children, he realised that a dramatic story would have more impact. He also used one of the areas where schools were located as a setting for Fagin’s den in his classic novel, Oliver Twist.

The Ragged Schools Union eventually became the Shaftesbury Society which then became Liveability.

The success of the ragged schools definitively demonstrated that there was a demand for education among the poor. In response, England and Wales established school boards to administer elementary schools. They were abolished by the Education Act 1902, which replaced them with local education authorities and thus what started as small, local, social actions by marketplace and pulpit Christians changed a nation.

John Pound, Thomas Guthrie and Thomas Cranfield saw the needs of young children around them and improved the life chances of thousands. Disadvantaged children today may not have the same needs but can still end up condemned to a lifetime of poverty. Is there something you can do? Like John, Thomas and Thomas, you may not see the long-term results of your work but the social actions you initiate or get involved in today can change the futures for many children.

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Geoff Knott, 06/07/2016

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