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ST. AUSTELL PARISH

Life in the Parish

“RAGGED SCHOOLS” and ST. AUSTELL

(written by J. Mosman, OPC)

 

Children in Cornwall in the early 1800's were viewed differently than children today. It was considered beneficial to their characters to teach them early the rewards of work; children were sent to work in the tin and copper mines, the forges, woodshops, and clay works as young as 8 or 9. In this manner they were kept from "ruinous leisure" while helping the family survive with their earnings.. Education was not something most considered essential, if it was considered at all. "Dame" schools existed for those children whose parents could afford to pay a small weekly sum, but these schools did not reach the majority of children. Various church charities afforded educations to some select students - the curate at St. Austell was paid to teach 15 students each year by an endowment. But most children did not receive formal instruction as they do now.

 

However, change was in the wind in the 1830's-40s. The Methodist church saw as their mission the teaching of everyone to read the Word of God, in which effort they established Sunday schools. For many reasons, non-conformist churches "took hold" and thrived in Cornwall; thousands of people came to listen at Gwennap Pit when Billy Bray preached. Reports in the West Briton newspaper mentioned that often, the Sunday School instructors set up special classes, for which they were not paid, to enable shift-work miners to come to classes.The Church of England responded by increasing activity in their local mission efforts.

 

In the mid-1840’s, a new convention came on the scene, called “the Ragged School” movement. While many historians consider this one movement, it was actually several. Free schools for the destitute poor were established in London in the 1830s by the City Mission; these joined together in the Ragged School Union in 1844. The Scottish movement stemmed from Sheriff Watson’s industrial feeding schools, set up in Aberdeen between 1841 and 1847, and from Dr. Guthrie’s Edinburgh ragged school founded in 1847. Bristol and Birmingham had schools in 1846, and forty towns had schools by 1852. One of the main supporters of this movement was the Church of England.

 

These schools occupied a special niche, as they intended nothing less than the “civilization and conversion” of an entire segment of the poor, juveniles unreached by any other institution. These were children of the poorest of the poor; occasional workers, such as rag pickers, hawkers, and tramps, who could not afford a penny a week for their children’s education, as well as people who through sickness or compulsions, especially drink, could not hold a job. The bible was the compulsory basis of the curriculum, which also included elementary work in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Their main object, as stated in the first RSU circular, was to “teach the children of the lowest poor to read the word of God, and to understand its simple truths.” Their main goal was to save souls; education was secondary.

 

Fully independent local committees formed; they held their own meetings, published separate accounts and reports, and decided on which services to provide. These committees often reflected interdenominational co-operation, and achieved many of their goals because of that co-operation. Church of England outreach missions were heavily involved, as well as Wesleyan Methodists, Primitive Methodists, Bible Christians, and others.

 

The need for such a school in Cornwall was first investigated by a committee with members from non-conformist and Church of England congregations in Truro in 1848, but as most of the truly destitute children they could find had religious affiliation, and access to Sunday schools, the establishment of such a school was deemed unnecessary at the time. (in fact, there were 14 found who were not involved with Sunday schools, but it was decided that was too small a number to warrant the establishment of a school.)

 

Often the schools were housed in buildings convenient for the children, barely adequate, often shabby and unsound. Most had no luxuries such as desks, or even gas light; as they were often ill-funded, being dependent on church mission charity. Men from the artisan class were employed as instructors. In many cases, the teachers kept the schools going by their own means. However, they did achieve success. The literacy rate grew dramatically, as evidenced in one particular by reports at the Cornwall Quarter Sessions from the officials, which quarterly showed a steady decline in the number of prisoners who could not read, or write their names. And in a less dramatic way, it was demonstrated by more and more people being married able to sign the parish registers, until in the 1880’s, when nearly everyone did.

 

From what evidence exists, the schools in Cornwall, and in St. Austell in particular, were often housed in local chapelries, not shacks – but neither were they “palaces”. Vacant fish cellars were pressed into use, if needed.

 

By 1870, when the Education Act was enacted, these schools had become a valued resource. Most of the larger cities in the British Isles had ragged societies; Plymouth had four schools, while Liverpool had forty-four.

 

There was such a school in St. Austell, as evidenced by the 1871 census entry for “a Ragged School and Chapel” in Workhouse Lane. By 1904, it may have been no longer used for the purpose, as the local authorities were considering a development application.

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DCRES – Restormel Borough Council DCRES/1249 Plans, Restormel Borough Council
Ref. No. DCRES/1249/540
Title – Alterations to Old Ragged School, Moorland Road, St. Austell
Date – 25 October 1904
Format – Plans

_______________________

When in 1874 local educational boards were established, and the national school system inaugurated, some ragged schools were retained for those who did not fit into ‘regular’ classes. They often evolved into industrial schools, and eventually became irrelevant as extreme destitution declined, and a better understanding of the nature of truancy, together with the initiation of alternative means of dealing with it, resulted in a diminished need for such provisions.

 

Together with church Sunday Schools, night schools for adults and children, "dame" schools, and privately funded schools, social reformers managed to create a revolution which is still paying dividends to this day. Horace Mann, in his survey of British schools at the time of the 1851 census, said “It would perhaps be difficult too highly to appreciate the values of the Ragged School”.

 

For another, much better written view of Ragged Schools in London, by Charles Dickens, please go to http://wwww.infed.org/archives/e-texts/dickens_ragged_schools.htm

 

Sources of information:

Source: Ian Jordan, Australia, and member of The Cornish List at Rootsweb.com

Source: H. W. Schupf, "Education for the Neglected: Ragged Schools in Nineteenth-Century England " (1972) 12 (no. 2) History of Education Quarterly pp. 162-183.

Source: Clark, E. A. G.(1969) 1 (No. 2) 'THE EARLY RAGGED SCHOOLS AND
THE FOUNDATION OF THE RAGGED SCHOOL UNION ', Journal of Educational
Administration and History pp. 9 - 21.

West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser newspaper, October 1848.

 

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