In 1888, William Payne, aged eleven, was sent home from St. John’s School in Stepney for having ragged clothes. Church schools and board schools, which accounted for most public education in Britain at the time, demanded weekly fees, and expected a certain degree of presentability from their pupils. Payne clearly fell short of one (or perhaps both) of these requirements; and that’s how he ended up in the registers of Doctor Barnardo’s Copperfield Road Free School, where a scrawled note records his humiliation.
I came across the story of William Payne, and others like him, after being lucky enough to secure a Creativeworks London Researcher-in-Residence post at the Ragged School Museum. The RSM is one of London’s best small museums: occupying the former warehouse used by the Copperfield Road Free School between 1877 and 1908, it’s not only a vital educational resource for the schoolchildren who visit on Victorian study days, but also a vital link between the East End’s present and its past. In an area whose face has been dramatically changed by successive waves of slum clearance, demographic change and gentrification – an area, too, that’s increasingly on the front line in London’s deepening inequality divide – the Ragged School is a visible reminder of the period in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when the East End forged its unique identity and sense of place, and when reformers, radicals, and evangelical philanthropists like Dr. Thomas Barnardo struggled to ameliorate the appalling conditions of life for the poor and to convince the world that their suffering was not acceptable in a civilised society.
The project was entitled ‘Peopling the Ragged School’, and peopling the Ragged School was what we intended to do. Between 1877 and 1908, the Copperfield Road school took in thousands of children, usually those whose circumstances meant that they could not afford to attend the area’s board or church schools. Many of their names are recorded in the three register books which survive in the London Metropolitan Archives. As Researcher-in-Residence, my principal task would be to transcribe these registers and to look into how they might be used as a historical resource. In doing so, we would be unearthing the names and details of almost four thousand young people, inhabitants of a London whose traces can still, sometimes, be faintly felt.
My PhD, which I’d recently finished, had been on the 19th-century archives of the East India Company, and I was eager to apply the skills I’d learned there – textual paleography, archival studies and patience – to a project that dealt, not with the elite administrators of the British Empire, but to the dispossessed and mistreated of London’s East End.
It is easy to forget just what a grim place that East End was. The worldwide trade depression of the 1870s and the cholera epidemic of 1866 had taken their toll on the poorest and most overcrowded area of a city which was growing at an exponential rate: inward migration and a growing urban proletariat packed ever more people into appalling slums where, with no social safety net or access to healthcare, they were prone to mass unemployment, disease, exploitation by employers and slum landlords, and destitution on an appalling scale.
The registers contain over three and a half thousand entries; each represents a child who entered the Ragged School. Not all the entries are complete, but the vast majority record date of registration, date of birth, full name, parents’ names, address, previous schools (if any), stage of education achieved on entry and exit, progress, and the date of leaving.
Perhaps the most interesting material, however, is the right-hand column, variously labelled ‘The Cause of Leaving”, “Remarks”, or “The Cause of Leaving, and Remarks”. Often this will record a straightforward reason for the child having been deregistered: “Left”; “Gone to the country”; “Transferred to another School by LCC [London County Council]”; “Of age” (which, at the time, meant thirteen or fourteen). Sometimes the reason will be more troubling or tragic: “Mother won’t send”; “very ill”; “very ill, in infirmary”; “Breaking out on Body”; “In a consumption” , “Deceased”, or simply “Dead”.
However, perhaps the real value of this column is that it is the only place where a shorthand comment can be made about the child’s circumstances, and at times it reads like an index of all the reasons why a child might be brought to Barnardo’s school in the first place. Perhaps most frequently, the loss of a parent or unemployment would impoverish a family to the extent that they might have to bring their child to Copperfield Road, or indeed deregister them entirely (which is not always clear):
These entries prove just how fragile domestic fortunes were for the working poor: something as simple as a few weeks without casual labour, or an illness in the family, or the death of a parent, could turn a precarious survival into disaster. If Charles Booth’s poverty maps of 1898/9 gave spatial expression to the concentration of poverty in Victorian London, with areas colour-coded as “mixed”, “semi-comfortable”, “very poor” and “lowest class”, the Copperfield Road registers illustrate how easily individuals and families could slip between these categories: then, as now, precarity was as much a component of poverty as material deprivation.
Sometimes the reason given hints at a story of a clash between child and the institution, or trouble with the law: Alice Margaret Ward, who enters the school in October 1889, aged eight, leaves less than a month later, with the observation: “The child is a truant, and steals. Trying to help her”. A later addition notes: “Gone into the Home”. In fact, many records indicate a progress through more than one Barnardo institution; and, in the later registers, some older children are marked “Gone to Canada” – meaning that they have been chosen for Barnardo’s emigration program, whereby “the flower of East London” was sent out to the Dominions to work on farms or in cities, part of a general push to ameliorate poverty and overcrowding at home whilst providing new human material for the Empire.
Perhaps the most poignant details, however, are those which give a sense of deep texture, and reclaim individual lives from the aggregate. Of one child, the Remarks column notes: “Mother is an itinerant singer”; of another, “Knows not a letter”.
So much for the materials; but what has the project achieved? Well, there are the transcriptions; the Ragged School Museum now has the materials with which to make a searchable database of, at least, some of the children that passed through its doors. More importantly, however, the research helped to kickstart an ongoing project. In December, Queen Mary, University of London granted follow-on funding for a collaborative project entitled ‘Educating the East End, Past and Present’, between the RSM and the College’s School of Geography. The project’s aims are to devise a set of new display boards and educational resources for the Museum, based around the research of several academics in the school; one of the research strands is to be based on the registers, and I’ve been able to move from being the RSM’s researcher-in-residence to a position as project co-ordinator. Arguably, the Researcher-in-Residence post, and the work we did with ‘Peopling the Ragged School’, was an essential part of the follow-on bid; I’ve gained not only an entry to a new professional field, but also an insight into the how collaborative projects can productively straddle the walls of the academy. My work with the Ragged School has given me an inkling of how research undertaken in archives and libraries can matter to communities: how it can help to build a sense of place and texture, of historical continuity and change, that illuminates the present moment.