In 1877 Thomas Barnardo, who went on to found Barnardo’s children’s charity, opened what was the largest ‘ragged school’ in London, on Copperfield Road in Mile End. Today this building houses the Ragged School Museum (ragged schools were first devised by tailor Thomas Cranfield in the late 1700s to provide a basic education to the poor and destitute children of London – they continued to serve this purpose until the creation of local education authorities and the state school system in the early 1900s).
In the Ragged School Museum’s lobby area there are details of Thomas Barnardo’s life and his work developing ragged schools in the East End, while in an anteroom there are displays setting out a brief history of the area. Boards are dedicated to Poplar, Stepney, Bow and so on with display cabinets containing artefacts sourced locally – the most notable of these is a scale model of the Bryant & May match factory, now a complex of private flats called Bow Quarter which has recently become newsworthy because of the anti-aircraft missile systems that are currently sited on its roof…
Up on the first floor is the Ragged School Museum’s main attraction – an accurate recreation of a Victorian schoolroom complete with a portrait of Queen Victoria, a chalk board and even a dunce’s cap. Throughout the week young visitors can participate in lessons of a format that would have been familiar to a child of the mid-1800s, although I imagine that health and safety rules forbid the class sizes of 40 or even 50 children that this fairly modest room would once have accommodated. Caning, birching and the throwing of blackboard dusters at the noisy kids on the back row aren’t permitted either – sorry moms and dads! On the second floor there’s a children’s activity area and a charming representation of a Victorian kitchen – anyone who is in their 40s or older will recognise some of the objects in this room. The sturdy mangle, washboard and the coal scuttle that I saw were a reminder that our grandmothers only saw their first washing machines and storage heaters in the early 1970s.
Of course the Ragged School Museum wouldn’t be a proper museum without a shop and a cafe – I can assure you that they are both present and correct. In fact the cafe is rather a pleasant spot to stop for a coffee as it has a nice view of the canal which runs alongside the building. The Ragged School Museum is free of charge to enter, but you should note the rather unusual opening times – although classes for children run throughout the week the museum is only open to the general public on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10am until 5pm and from 2pm to 5pm on the first Sunday of the month. Do go along if you happen to be in the local area when its open as it’s great fun to wander around the place, but leave your pea shooter and chewing gum at home unless you want a stern telling off by teacher!