Friday, 30 July 2010

Field Lane Ragged School


RAGGED SCHOOLS have been so long before the public, that they have lost the prestige of novelty. Whether John Pounds, the humble cobbler of Portsmouth, was the originator of the system in England, or whether, under a sense of individual responsibility, it sprung up in various districts at the same time, cannot easily be determined. Suffice it to say that, as the very best meaus of meeting the claims of the destitute and depraved classes, they have so multiplied that, not to refer to the provinces, there are now about 160 Ragged Schools in the Modern Babylon, wherein, by day and by night, 20,000 scholars are taught how to make the best of both worlds. Yet, though much has been done, more remains to be effected, before the social and spiritual needs of the parishes of London will be fully reached. For drunkenness and profligacy abound. " Gaffs " (unlicensed penny theatres) are permitted to give nightly lessons to youth how to perpetrate crime successfully; licentious periodicals, whose sale may be counted by hundreds of thousands, corrupt our youthful population; whilst in the low districts of London, too, the hovel of poverty and the felon's den are associated, and the offspring of honest penury and of the coiner, playing together in the same gutter, receive the same street education. Hence, could the "stones cry out of the wall, and the beam of the timber answer it," almost every rookery would bear witness to the fearful iniquity of its occupants.
    These facts were recently brought tangibly to our notice as we passed down Victoria Street, Holborn Hill—the new street which has cut right through the very heart of the dens of Field Lane. A crowd of persons, of all ages and of both sexes, were standing round a quaint-looking building, with two tiers of windows and an elongated lantern light. Their general aspect was outr√© in the extreme. The majority were shoeless, and their raiment so threadbare and ventilated by holes, that even that notorious mart of faded apparel, Rag Fair, would have scorned to purchase their whole stock of clothing. The faces, too, of many were dingy from dirt and long exposure to the weather; whilst the hair, unkempt and shaggy, was obviously allowed to grow at "its own sweet will." He must have been but a crude disciple of Lavater or Spurzheim, who could not have read in most faces the lines of care, or the impress of long-indulged vice. If ever picture of concentrated misery was visible in the streets of tins mighty city, it was presented in this strange group. Pen could never fully describe it; and from its mingled grutesqueness and settled gloom, none but a Cruikshank or a Rembrandt could have depicted it.
    After wondering what had attracted these miserable creatures, and that too whilst the rain poured in torrents, we glanced at the building near to which they were lounging, in attitudes more easy than graceful, when the secret was revealed. For, over the first tier of windows, we read this inscription: "Field Lane Ragged School." Thus, then, it appeared that we were gazing at oue of those admirable institutions which are at once the glory and the shame of Great Britain—of her shame, that a pariah class has been allowed to grow up unchecked amid a city of palaces; of her glory, that, what the State refused to do, men with love in their hearts and the Bible in their hands have essayed to do, and accomplished.
On entering the school-room, we were struck by its cheerful aspect. It is 55 feet long by 35 wide, and, by means of the women's gallery, at the north end, can accommodate nearly 500 persons. Adequate provision was made to send a current of fresh air through the room, whenever required ; and, well cleansed and lighted, it formed a perfect contrast to those miserable dens from which so many of the attendants had strayed. After a hymn had been well sung, in which all joined, a chapter from the oldest and best of books was read, which was followed by a brief but fervent prayer. During the devotional exercises, the congregation was subdued into a stillness like that of the desert. Classes were then formed, which were divided from each other by moveable partitions, about three feet high. Composed, as these classes were, of some of the most unruly and debased of London—several, indeed, were pointed out who had been in prison nine or ten times—all were attentive, and not a few drank in the gospel lesson, as if the very soul were famishing.
    Quiet as was the school, we found that in 1841, when it was first opened, and before the full effects of discipline were felt, it might have been cited as au example of "confusion worse confounded." Old and young used to troop in with whoops and yells like Red Indians—the very idea of their being invited to attend school being regarded as a first-rate joke. On one occasion, they came in all-fours, baa-ing like lambs. Teachers, too, were often thrown down—accidentally, of course ; and not unfreqnently they were relieved of their purses by these modern conjurors. As many parents also had trained their offspring as thieves, that they might spend in gin what had been earned by crime, they regarded the moral and religious culture of their children as the loss of a part of their regular income. Hence, they attempted to eject these intruders by breaking the windows, or by throwing oyster-shells and stale vegetables at the teachers. But as the work did not spring from that sickly sentimentality which, contented with crying over wrong, never attempts to remedy it, the teachers did not slacken in their labours, until love had conquered where the strong arm of the law had failed.
    In reply to our inquiries, we found that the operations of this institution were so diverse, and yet so based on the great truth that the soul requires feeding as much as the body, that it may be regarded more as a "Preaching Station for Outcasts" than as a mere school. Day and night schools are conducted here, which are attended by 500 scholars. Due provision would also seem to be made to practically enforce this proverb of Solomon : " In all labour there is profit." For in the tailor's and shoemaker's classes we found about eighty young men mending their old clothes, and furbishing up their well-worn boots. In the young women's class, about ninety were busily plying the needle, whilst they lightened the labour with holy song. And at the mother's class, fifty women, some decrepit with extreme age, and others in the first bloom of womanhood, nursing their babes, were cutting out or repairing garments, and listening to such advice as, if followed, would keep many a poor industrious man out of the gin palace. In addition to 400 scholars, taught by sixty voluntary teachers, divine worship is conducted every Lord's day. At a visit to this "Ragged Church," we found about 200 persons assembled, mostly adults. They were chiefly costermongers, cadgers, thieves, (whose cropped hair told that they had only recently left jail), and females, many of whom had gone astray before they properly knew the distinction betwixt vice and virtue. There was no difference, save in brevity, between this and an ordinary service; and yet no congregation could have displayed more external attention and reverence. One, indeed, of this strange flock came up to the preacher at the close of the service, and said, "Thank you, sir, for your sermon, I enjoyed it very much."
     Nor does the work end here. Mere preaching would be of little benefit to those whose haggard looks aud sunken eyes toll that they are enduring the horrors of semi-starvation. On the contrary, a dormitory is provided on the ground-floor for houseless males. In this humble refuge, about sixty men and lads sleep every night throughout the year; and the inmates received last year 53,765 six-ounce loaves. We thought, as we inspected this item, how Christ-like was the gift. Knowing that men have bodies as well as souls, whilst He preached he fed; for, said he, in his inimitable tenderness, " If I send them away fasting, they will faint by the way."
At the close of school-hours, sixty-five persons trooped down to the dormitory below. It was formerly used as a smithy, but is now fitted up with baths aud lavatories, and is calculated to accommodate above 100 persons. It was first opened in May, 1851, principally at the cost of an "elect lady." When opened, many lads were admitted who had not slept in a bed for several months—one, indeed, had found his nightly shelter, during the inclement winter, in the large garden roller of Regent's Park. Regulations for the preservation of order were suspended in the large school-room; and, as no one is admitted without prior inquiry, all possible means are employed to restrict it to homeless but deserving wanderers. The berth provided would not offer many temptations to a sybarite, seeing that it is simply a wooden compartment—of a length suitable to boys or men—which, for the sake of the daily cleansing, slopes down to the stone footways. After washing, they received a small loaf of bread, which many devoured ravenously, as it was the first meal they had tasted that day. In family worship, conducted with the brevity which befits the class, they were commended to the care of Him who is the guardian of the poor as well as of the rich, and slept more soundly than if they reclined on beds of down. Since this dormitory was opened, above 10,000 men and boys have availed themselves of the shelter provided; of whom 1326 are known to have obtained permanent employment. During the past year alone, no less than 3959 persons were admitted into the dormitory, of whom 342 either obtained work, or were restored to relatives who had mourned over them as lost or dead prodigals.
    The success of this movement induced the managers of the school, in March last, to open a female dormitory. A rigid inquiry into the history of the females who attended the ragged church, proved the correctness of the saying of the poet, that "truth is stranger than fiction." The causes of their destitution were varied. For example, eight had become poor through the death of, and three more through desertion by, their husbands. Two girls had been forsaken by their mothers; and three had been turned out of doors by parents, who showed less affection for their offspring than the beasts that perish. Nineteen more had lost their employment, and sought for work in vain; thirteen were widows; nine were married, and were accompanied by their children ; the remainder were single women.
Many of these poor victims of neglect had slept in the casual wards of the London workhouses. In some of these they were treated with less kindness than horses or dogs. No light illumines the "darkness that may be felt." As the very air breathes of pestilence, the unhappy inmates awake from a restless sleep, either physically exhausted or fever-stricken. Straw, rotten from age, and reeking with filth, too often forms their only bed; damp exhalations float all around, and clothe the very walls with strange fungi. Hence the seeds of asthma and consumption are thickly sown in these miserable abodes. The moral evils of the casual wards are fitly symbolised by these physical horrors. No attempt at classification being made, unmitigated disorder reigns. Modest girls and dissolute women ; pallid and thinly-clad women weakened by disease or penury, and girls discarded by their families for their profligate habits; servants out of work, and girls who never mean to work—all herd together, more like swine than human beings. What is still worse—as exhibiting the saddest of spectacles, women in utter debasement—too many pass the night in foul jesting and filthier song.
     These painful facts were confirmed by a visitation of some casual wards of London by a late lord mayor. Of the appropriate remedy who could doubt? Seeing the success of the male dormitory, the propriety of forming a female one, to supplement the other, was at once perceived. A stable having been obtained, it was fitted up for the accommodation of fifty females, at the cost of about £200, the larger part of which was contributed by the same Christian lady who had defrayed the expense of the male dormitory.
After threading a maze of alleys and of ruinous houses, which, before their westward emigration, had formed the homes of England's nobility, we found this Refuge in Hatton Court, Hatton Garden. It was well lighted and ventilated; and the recent lime-washing diffused a healthy savour throughout the premises. From the extreme, and if possible prudish, cleanliness of the dormitory, it was clearly not a spot wherein a spider could safely spin his web. The inmates, many of whom had the impress of age in extreme youth, were clean and neat. Very pleasant was it to listen to their song of praise before retiring to rest. As we left this Refuge, amid a squall of rain and wind, we felt grateful to think that these poor daughters of woe, who otherwise must have roamed the streets the live-long night, were sheltered from the storm.
A question recurred to us after our visit: "Has any benefit accrued from these self-denying labours ? or does its history present but another example of money and toil wasted on a barren soil ?" It would seem that in this, as in all cases, " the hand of the diligent maketh rich." If wc inspect the statistics of the past year alone, we find that 105 children attending the day school obtained employment ; 32 of the little needlewomen at the industrial school entered into service ; and 342 inmates of the male Refuge were provided for. What is most pleasing, as showing that the friendless and hall-starved children are permanently reclaimed, we were informed that, of the 402 scholars who last March received the prizes of that admirable institution," the Ragged -School Union," for retaining their situations for twelve months and upwards, no less than seventy-six belonged to this school. One sketch of a former scholar may be fitly given, especially as it may be regarded as a representative biography of many other inmates.
     —, aged 26. His father died when he was six years old. He was apprenticed to a respectable firm in Hull, but his mother indulged him with an excess of pocket-money, which induced extravagant habits and negligence of his employers' interests, till his indentures were cancelled. He then became landing-waiter at the customs of Hull, but was discharged for being drunk on duty. He once more obtained a situation and remained in it two years, when drink brought him to want. He then went into the country, hawking small wares, where he forged an order for sixpence, which is allowed to every Odd Fellow while travelling; for which offence he was imprisoned twelve months. After leaving prison he came to London, and found his way to Field Lane Refuge, from whence, his conduct proving satisfactory, he was recommended to a permanent Refuge, where he became a communicant, and is now a clerk to a land surveyor in America. Before sailing he sent the following letter to the Refuge master:—" Ere leaving the shores of Old England for a strange and distant country, I think a few lines from me will be as pleasant for you to receive as it is for me to send them. Many times I have said to myself this morning, 'What should I be now, but for yon, and the kind teachers of Field Lane School ? I should still be walking the streets or in some prison ; and I do feel happy and thankful that Providence ever brought me there, otherwise I am afraid I should never have known the value of a living: God. Now I can look up to him with confidence.' May God bless you all, and the school, for it has proved a blessing to my soul and body."
    Whilst cogitating over the strange sights wc had seen, and the romantic recital of individual histories to which we had listened, we found ourselves exclaiming aloud : "With evidence like this, that none are beyond the reach of practical Christianity, why should such institutions be in debt ? and are the wealthy doing their part towards elevating, morally and socially, their poorer brethren? * [Few objects are more worthy of the generous support of the benevolent than such schools and refuges; and aid to which, in seasons of distress like the present, is sure to be especially acceptable. Those who have not the opportunity of visiting Field Lane Ragged Schools may have (post free) a lengthened and very interesting report of their various details, by forwarding six postage stamps to Mr. Mountstephen, 72 West Smithfield, London.]  It is not difficult to admire the parable of the Good Samaritan; but of the multitude who praise, how many ever entered the rookeries and byeways of London to search for and reclaim those who, from their very birth, have "fallen among thieves?" Many a morally wounded youth lies at our very door, and unless we prefer the gloom of a prison, nothing but the unbought love of the Ragged School teacher can meet his case. Even, if regarded only in a social point of view, this and all kindred institutious deserve the warm support of the public. It is affirmed on good authority that, before his career is stopped, every criminal costs the nation at least £300. Now it would seem that 342 adults, of the very same class, and destined to disseminate the same moral malaria, were reclaimed by this one school, at an expense of little more than £1 per head. Viewed, then, economically—and when did John Bull, in testing a theory, ever forget his banker's account ?—the curative process is better than the old plan of social excision. The history of the Field Lane School, as do the records of every other ragged school, fully shows that, what legal force can never effect is not beyond the power of love. For criminals have been reformed who regarded a jail merely as another home; outcasts have not only received shelter, but been taught the great duty of work; the profligate or spendthrift has been shown that true pleasure cannot be divorced from duty; and not a few of our home heathen have been pointed to the eternal Refuge far away. Thus is it shown, by illustrations not to be misinterpreted, that the Christianity which saves, also civilizes; and that before men can properly perforin their duty to society, they must learn their duty to their Maker.

The Leisure Hour, 1858

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