Webpage created: July 11, 2017.
Webpage updated: July 17, 2017
Way back in 1818 a cobbler in Portsmouth by the name of Mr John Pounds had provided a school that was entirely free for the poorest children in his area. His work came to the attention of Lord Shaftesbury, who in 1844 helped to organise a Ragged Schools Union.
Mr Eldred Brown and Mr Thomas Nicholson brought this movement to Plymouth in 1848, when they opened a small school in a loft over the wash-houses in Hoe Gate Street. It is also said that they soon outgrew that accommodation and moved into larger premises in Catte Street.
The Plymouth Ragged School Association was formed at the Mechanics' Institute on Thursday February 7th 1850, with Mr J N Bennett of Lockyer Villas as the president and Mr A P Prowse of 5 Ford Park, Mutley as the secretary. The treasurer was Mr G Prideaux of the Devon and Cornwall Bank. The object was 'to provide Free Schools for the Children of the most destitute of the Labouring Classes.' The Association claimed that: 'Great numbers of these children grow up in total ignorance of what is right or wrong, and become familiarised with vice and crime, in various shapes, by daily and unavoidable contact.'
These children could not grow up in ignorance without being pests and terrors to society,' exclaimed the Reverend Hatchard. 'Along with such mental and moral destitution as existed in the metropolis and in all large towns, there was to be found filth, intemperance, wretchedness, defective health, mischief, profligacy, profaneness, desecration of the Sabbath-day, and crime in all its forms, followed by the retribution due to society -- imprisonment and transportation beyond the seas.' He felt that the cost of transportation, between £150 and £200 per criminal, would be better directed to providing them with an education so that 'they might grow up to be pillars of the social fabric.'
A school for boys and girls had already been opened in Hoe Gate Street (not Vauxhall Street) and premises had been taken in Octagon Street for another school, to be established as soon as possible. Further schools would be opened when funds permitted. Donations were invited and ranged from Mr T W Fox's £10 through Miss Tanner's £6 and Mr T Nicholson's £5 to a host of half-crowns (2s 6d).
Two extremely large committees were formed, both with power to add to their numbers. In the announcement made by the Mayor, Mr John Moore, on February 9th there were 22 on the Ladies' Committee and 50 on the Gentlemen's. By the end of the month, on the 28th, both had increased to 28 and 59 respectively. Among the names that appeared were Mr & Mrs J N Bennett, Mr E Brown, Mr T Nicholson, Messrs D and S Derry and Miss Ann and Miss Jane Derry, several Reverend gentlemen, Doctors Prance and Soltau, Lieutenant Sumpter, and Mr & Mrs A Rooker.
Some of the statistics given at that inaugural meeting are of interest. A survey had been carried out of 60 streets, many in the poorer part of Town, and it was calculated that these contained 2,898 families. But out of the children under twelve years of age in that area, 58 were without a mother, 90 were without a father, and 11 were orphans. Of the children between 3 and 5 years of age, 415 did not attend any school and of those between 5 and 12, the number was 781. 83 of them lived in Stonehouse Lane and a further 36 at Millbay.
At the poorly attended annual meeting of friends and subscribers held in the Plymouth Mechanics' Institute on the evening of Thursday February 26th 1852 the chairman, Mr John Nicholas Bennett, immediately set forth to refute suggestions in some quarters that 'there was no material in Plymouth for a Ragged School'. He pointed out that with the fluctuations of population in a town the size of Plymouth, 'there must necessarily be a great number of persons who could not afford to pay for the instruction of their children'.
The Ragged School Association's secretary, Mr A Prowse, then presented his report. The day school in Hoe Gate Street had shown a small increase in numbers since the previous year, there now being 90 boys on the register. Daily attendance had also improved and the 30 boys who had transferred to other schools in the Town had all been well received by their new masters, reflecting great creditability upon the School.
There was also an evening school at Hoe Gate Street and around 300 boys were thought to be attending although no written record was being kept and, it was stated, there had been an average daily attendance during the last six months of only 65.
Mr Prowse also reported that attendance at the Octagon Street School had risen from 104 last year to 180 now, an increase of 76. Reading, writing, scriptural knowledge and needlework were taught.
Six of the most destitute and deserving boys were selected from the Catte Street School in April 1857 to become a Shoeblack Brigade. They were given a uniform and equipment and allocated to one of six positions around the Town Centre.
By the end of November 1860 the Plymouth Ragged and Industrial Schools (Association) had set up a "Building Fund". At that time it held £589 11s. Subscriptions were still pouring in, though, and subscriptions were acknowledged from Mr Alexander Hubbard, £10 10s; Mr Henry Brown, £5 5s; Mr E Henley, £5; Messrs Edmonds & Sons, £3 3s; and Mr H Whiteford, £1. The president of the Association, Mr E R Brown, was, of course, happy to receive further donations at his office in Crescent Place.
Given how poor were the families of the children being educated at the Ragged Schools, one can imagine that the furthest they went for recreation was the Hoe slopes. There were no parks at that time, no paid holidays and Sundays would be spent at Sunday School. So the children would have been very excited about the annual fete, which in 1867 took them on to Dartmoor.
Likewise there must have great excitement on Wednesday July 17th 1901 when the annual treat included a train ride to Horrabridge followed by tea on Buckland Down and then races and a wild flower competition. Prizes were awarded in both instances. The tent and food were transported by a horse and wagon lent by Messrs Derry & Company. The festivities were led by Mr Taylor, the superintendent of the King Street School, and Mr Partridge of the Stillman Street School.
The Ragged Schools were taken over by the Plymouth School Board in 1873.