Monday, 22 April 2013

The Original Edinburgh Ragged School (1)

‘They perish in the open street, - beneath the pitiless pelting of the storm, - of cold, and hunger, and broken hearts.’
Bishop Horsley

A Fine Field of Operation

Thomas Guthrie was nothing if not an orator.  His descriptive, and (at times) flowery preaching and writing was always stirring and moving.  In his Seed Time and Harvest of Ragged Schools which came out in three stages or ‘pleas’ from 1847-1860, Guthrie walks us through the sights of Edinburgh.  Having taken us round the beauty spots he takes us to a darker side of the nation’s capital; ‘The sheep are near the slaughter-house, - the victims are in the neighbourhood of the alters.  The mouth of almost every close is filled with loungers, worse than Neopolitan lazzaroni, - bloated and brutal figures, ragged and wretched old men, bold and fierce looking old women, and many a half-clad mother, shivering in cold winter with her naked feet on the frozen pavement, and a skeleton infant in her arms.  On a summer day...careering over the open ground...are crowds of children.  Their thin faces tell how ill they are fed.  Their fearful oaths tell how ill they are reared (Seed-Time and Harvest of Ragged Schools, Thomas Guthrie, 1860, page 7).  This is the parish to which Guthrie was called in 1837 and his response to these ‘ragged children’ is his lasting memorial.

A Difficult Problem

In early 19th century Scotland, many children caught up in crime, no matter how petty, were languishing in prison.  Others were flogged or hanged without mercy.  Writing in 1845, the Governor of the Edinburgh jail, Mr Smith, stated in a letter that 740 children under 14 (245 of which were under 10) had been committed to prison in the previous 3 years. In 1847 5.6% of the population of the Edinburgh jail were under 14 years of age with a further 552 prisoners aged between 14-16.  The need for a different response was gaining momentum by the early 1840’s but the movement needed a figure head and someone who could articulate the cause eloquently.  They found this in Thomas Guthrie who took up the campaign for ‘Ragged Schools’ with great relish.  Guthrie’s campaign for ragged schools was on many different levels; financial, spiritual and moral.  He was appalled at the money being wasted on prisons and often stated that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  The development of the Ragged Schools was to prevent the apprentice criminal making criminality a career choice.  Guthrie saw in these street children the potential for moral and spiritual change; bedded in their dark and dismal abodes, precious stones lie there, which only wait to be dug out and polished, to shine, first on the earth, and hereafter and forever in a Redeemer’s crown’ (Seed-Time and Harvest of Ragged Schools, Thomas Guthrie, 1860, page 52).

The original ragged school which is now part of 'Camera Obscura' beside Edinburgh Castle
 The Ragged School Inspiration

The first or ‘original’ ragged school in Edinburgh was established in 1847 in a small room on the Castle Hill.  The main building that was eventually used is now part of Camera Obscura and the open bible can still be seen above the door with the words ‘Search the Scriptures’ (John 5 v 39) engraved on it.  Guthrie says that the inspiration for the ragged school movement was from John Pounds of Portsmouth (1766-1839).  Pounds was a dockyard worker who at the age of 15 fell in to a dry dock and was crippled for life.  As he recovered he taught himself to read and write and became a cobbler.  Pounds started to teach local children to read and write free of charge.  He also taught them carpentry, how to cook and how to repair shoes while offering them food and shelter at the same time. 

Guthrie discovered John Pounds by visiting an Inn in Fife one day in 1841 and seeing a portrait of Pounds above the fireplace.  Guthrie continues the tale; I took up that man's history, and I found it animated by the spirit of Him who 'had compassion on the multitude.' John Pounds was a clever man besides; and, like Paul, if he could not win a poor boy any other way, he won him by art. He would be seen chasing a ragged boy along the quays, and compelling him to come to school, not by the power of a policeman, but by the power of a hot potato. He knew the love an Irishman had for a potato; and John Pounds might be seen running holding under the boy's nose a potato, like an Irishman, very hot, and with a coat as ragged as himself (taken from "Self Help" by Samuel Smiles, London, 1859).  Guthrie was also inspired by Sheriff Watsons Ragged School established in Aberdeen in 1841.  Watson was seeking to develop an early diversion from custody.  While Guthrie’s Ragged Schools always remained voluntary, a degree of compulsion was used by Sheriff Watson with the only alternative being prison.

A New Curriculum

The original Ragged School brought together different responses to the needs of these desperate children; education, regular meals, clothes, ‘industrial training’ and Christian instruction.  All this was done in an environment of discipline and structure although there is never a sense that the schools were harsh or austere.  Guthrie was no great fan of corporal punishment and instead encouraged staff to win over children with kindness; these Arabs of the city are wild as those of the desert, and must be broken into three habits, - those of discipline, learning and industry, not to speak of cleanliness.  To accomplish this, our trust is in the almost omnipotent power of Christian kindness.  Hard words and harder blows are thrown away here.  With these alas they are too familiar at home, and have learned to be as indifferent to them as the smith’s dog to the shower of sparks (Seed-Time and Harvest of Ragged Schools, Thomas Guthrie, 1860, page 25).

The ragged children who attended the school/s did not remain overnight but were in school for 12 hours in the summer and 11 hours in the winter.  The day started at 8am with the rather painful sounding ‘ablutions’ and the children were dismissed at 7:15pm after supper.  Guthrie describes the daily routine; ‘in the morning they are to break their fast on a diet of the plainest fare, - then march from their meal to their books; in the afternoon they are again to be provided with a dinner of the cheapest kind, - then back again to school; from which after supper, they return not to the walls of an hospital, but to their own homes.  There, carrying with them a holy lesson, they may prove Christian missionaries to those dwellings of darkness and sin (Seed-Time and Harvest of Ragged Schools, Thomas Guthrie, 1860, page 25).

The door to the Original Ragged School with the inscription 'Search the Scriptures' 

A Cloud Gathers

As with every great venture, there was controversy.  An anonymous writer in a newspaper suggested that Roman Catholics were excluded from the school.  When it was proved that nearly a half of the children were of Irish and presumably Roman Catholic descent, the Ragged School was then accused of indoctrinating these children and effectively excluding them.  A public meeting was called in July 2nd 1847 and Guthrie, Sheriff Spears and Dr Lindsay Alexander were pitched against Lord Murray, Professor Gregory and an advocate called Mr Simpson.  Guthrie rose to the occasion; Mark how I stand.  I say that the responsibility of the religious upbringing of the child lies upon the parent; and if there be no parent, or none to act a parent’s part (if the parent for instance, be a worthless, profligate mother), on whom does the responsibility next lie?  I join issue with the Catholic here.  He says that it lies with the priest.  I say it lies with the good Samaritan who acts the parents part.  I say it neither lies with the priest nor the Levite who passed by on the other side; it lies with the man who resolves, by the strength of his own exertions, to save the poor outcast child (Autobiography and Memoirs, 1896, p 449).  Guthrie was always ecumenical in the Biblical sense of the word, but he never compromised on Christian education.  Perhaps one of his best quotes sums up his view; the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible; the Bible without note or comment – without the authoritative interpretation of priest or presbyter – as the foundation of all its religious teaching, and of its religious teaching to all (Autobiography and Memoirs, 1896, p 455).

I’m going to do a second article on the effects of the Original Ragged School in Edinburgh and the wider movement around the country, but let me leave you with the thought that we can all achieve a huge amount with a God given vision, plenty of energy and the help of a committed group of fellow Christians.  Many scoffed at Guthrie when they first heard of his vision, but as we look at his statue on Princess Street we see a wonderful legacy.  Underneath his statue it reads; a friend of the poor and the oppressed.  And what if he had failed?  As he said himself of his vision for ragged schools; It is better far in such a cause to fail, than to stand idly by and see the castaway perish.  If the drowning man sinks before we reach him, it will be some consolation to reflect that we did our best to save him. (Seed-Time and Harvest of Ragged Schools, Thomas Guthrie, 1860, page 54).


  1. This is all so interesting. I had never heard of Thomas Guthrie before your blog, and now I need to research John Pounds, too.
    Fascinating information - thank you! I look forward to reading more.

    1. This a great blog post about John Pounds Sarah Jayne.

  2. Looking forward to the next instalment.