The West Street School and Ragged School

West Street Ragged School, founded circa 1846

Researched and Kindly Supplied by Clare Spicer, Hilary Southall and Jill Trethewey 18/02/2021

What were Ragged Schools?

Ragged schools were free schools set up specifically for the very poorest children. These children wore the shabbiest of clothes and as they had no washing facilities, often had dirty hands and faces, and so were not accepted in other schools. As most other schools charged fees at this time, the ragged schools offered a vital opportunity for education to destitute children.

The 19th century ragged school movement was driven by the high level of poverty in the newly industrialised towns, and also by the rise of evangelism, both in Anglican and Non-Conformist congregations. There was a strong interest in missionary activities, and this missionary interest was directed towards the British poor, as well as those in need overseas.

The first ragged schools began in the late 18th century, but the Ragged School movement really became very active in the middle of the 19th century. The fast pace of the industrial revolution resulted in a great influx of people from rural areas into cities and towns like Bridgwater. The housing stock was not sufficient to cope with this sudden increase in population, with the result that many poor people were crammed into overcrowded accommodation. The cheapest housing had either no, or inadequate services such as water, sanitation and rubbish collection, with the result that these densely packed areas soon became very squalid, which inevitably caused serious health problems.

There was only a very small amount of parish relief to help people who were out of work, and so the children of poor families often resorted to begging. Some parents were unemployed or only earning a pittance and so were unable to feed their children adequately. Some would turn their children out during the day and tell them to find what food they could. The children would spend much of their day out on the streets, looking for ways to earn a few pennies, or find some food. Unsurprisingly, some hungry children turned to stealing. Their poor diet damaged their growth and general health.

Poem published in the Taunton Courier 23/03/1847

Some of the children had parents, but some only a single parent, and some were orphans. (Children in a home where the single parent was female fared badly, as women had very low wages.) A few children lived on the street, sleeping wherever there was a bit of shelter. Even those that had a home may have had no proper bed to sleep on, no shoes, coat or hat and only very torn, thin and ill-fitting clothes.  There were often no proper washing facilities, so their clothes, bodies and hair might be dirty. The tenements where they lived packed together were full of lice, fleas and other bugs, and so the children sometimes had sores on their skin. This poverty was exacerbated in Bridgwater during the winter months, when the brick yards would lay off many of their workers without pay.

More ragged schools were gradually opened throughout the British Isles, and in 1844 the Ragged School Union was formed to encourage a coordinated approach to setting up and running free schools for the poorest children. Ragged Schools were often run by people who had a strong religious commitment, but they were strictly ecumenical. The schools would be given the name of the street or area they were in, and not the name of the local parish church or chapel, unlike faith based schools.

See Appendix 1 at the bottom of the page for an extract from The Ragged Schools Union Magazine 1849, giving advice on how to set up and run a Ragged School.

Teaching in a ragged school

As well as their lack of fees, ragged schools had a particular approach to teaching. Before 1880 there was no legal requirement for compulsory education, and as the children paid no fees there was no obligation for them to attend. This meant that the teachers had to make sure that the children wanted to come, by trying to make their lessons enjoyable. Rote learning and long lectures were disapproved of, and teachers had to be kind and gentle with their charges, whatever provocation was offered. The emphasis was on rewarding good behaviour. Reading, writing and arithmetic were the main teaching focus, religious education was kept brief and simple. The teachers were nearly all unpaid volunteers, and any costs for rent and educational materials had to be paid for by charitable donations. Only a few of the schools had sufficient donations to be able afford to pay teachers’ salaries. This meant that most of the schools had to be run as Sunday and night schools, as the volunteer teachers had to do their paid job during normal working hours.

Once a suitable premises and a teacher had been found, the new teacher, who was probably a very well-meaning but inexperienced volunteer, might have had something of a baptism of fire on their first day. The Bath Chronicle of 31st Dec 1846 printed a teacher’s account of the first day of opening for a Bristol ragged school.

“That afternoon I shall never forget. Only thirteen or fourteen boys present; some swearing, some fighting, some crying. One boy struck another boy’s head through the window. I tried to offer up a short prayer but found it impossible; the boys instead of kneeling began to tumble over one another and sing….” (a rude popular song).

The Ragged Schools Union Magazine gave warning examples of what happened to any teacher unwise enough to close their eyes in prayer!

Later the same teacher in Bristol described the boys after he had got to know them better.

“These boys form a peculiar class of beings; high spirited; generally clever; prompt, cunning: particularly prone to fight, and to resent the slightest injury, and, from living much in the open air, sleeping sometimes in passages or empty hogsheads (large barrels), and leading a wild and wandering life, they are remarkably impatient of restraint, and can only be subdued and managed by gentleness and kindness.”

On the 14th of January 1847, the Bath Chronicle published another article describing the experience of a Bristol ragged school teacher.

The Word of Kindness.

Whilst one of the visitors was at the school during the last week, a boy, of about thirteen, was seen to be extremely violent and refractory, and a teacher endeavoured to lead him to the bottom of the class for inattention. He obstinately resisted and stamped with rage. The master, observing the conflict, went to the boy, patted him gently on the head and cheek, and begged him to be a good boy. In a minute, before the master had quitted him, it came again to his turn to be asked by the teacher one of the arithmetical questions of the lesson, when he cheerfully and promptly called out ‘48’, the proper answer. The crimson flush of anger had left his face; his countenance was as bright and placid as if the last few moments had not witnessed the storm that had agitated his passions, and he became at once quiet and docile. The visitor asked the master about him. He replied, ‘That boy is the most unmanageable one in the school; he is clever, but very passionate. He has kicked my legs (happily he has no shoes); he has pelted me with mud in the streets. I have dismissed him from the school, but allowed him to come in again on his most earnest entreaty, and promise of good conduct. If I had struck that lad when he was so irritated, or spoken angrily or harshly to him, his fury would have been ungovernable, but he cannot (with) stand a word of kindness.

This example may have shown how little kindness the boy had received outside school. There were other reports of teachers and the school buildings being pelted with mud and missiles, the ragged schools were not universally welcomed in the early days.

Resisting corporal punishment was not the only way in which the ragged schools were unusual for their time, they also accepted children with physical and learning disabilities, because they considered that they were all God’s children.

Efforts by ragged school volunteers to collect good second-hand clothing to give to their pupils were often unsuccessful, because the deep poverty of the children’s parents drove them to obtain money by pawning their clothes. (The pawn shop was a frequent resort of people who did not have enough income to manage from week to week.) The clothes of children were considered less important than those of the main breadwinner, who had to be reasonably presentable to find work.

Newspaper articles from the 1840s indicate that Ragged Schools were formed around 1846 to 1849 in Bath, Bristol, Taunton and Bridgwater.

Taking on the work of setting up and running a ragged school was a very significant commitment of time and effort, especially for someone like John Woodward, who already worked long hours running his own chemist and druggist business.

The start of the West Street Ragged School – circa 1846

Why West Street?

Ragged schools were always placed in the poorest, most needy parts of a town, as the children would not travel to find a school, so the school must come to them. West Street and the nearby streets like Ropers Lane contained many densely packed courts where the very poorest people lived. Some of the wealthier inhabitants of Bridgwater were disparaging about the people who lived in West Street, believing that they were feckless, lawless and godless. West Street had been described as ‘the most barbarous part of town’. Richard Smith said that, before the ragged school was established, there were children in the lanes and alleys of West Street who had had never heard the name of their creator except as an oath.

As it was one of the main routes out of Bridgwater, more affluent people passed through and were able to see the need for help, and they hoped that a missionary endeavour could alleviate poverty through education.

Some idea of the problems of poor housing and health in the town in the nineteenth century can be read here.

Founding the school

Four men were the main founders of the West Street Ragged School – John L.L. Woodward, Richard Smith, William Jarman and the Rev de la Hooke, minister of Trinity Church. John Woodward was a chemist and druggist with a shop in the High Street, Richard Smith was a solicitor, and William Jarman was described as ‘a humble man’. It was part of the ethos of the ragged schools to involve people from all walks of life, and women as well as men. The ragged schools were also recommended to have a minister connected to a nearby church or chapel on their committee, to provide the volunteers with stability and continuity, so the Rev de la Hooke fulfilled this role. This seems to have caused initial suspicion in Bridgwater that this was to be an Anglican school, but soon Dissenters started to contribute as well. (Mr William Browne was a prominent Dissenter who contributed in the early days). It was important that the ragged school was run on ‘broad principles’, and so could gain support from a wide range of people in the town.

John Woodward seems to have been the most actively involved from the beginning, doing a lot of teaching, at least in the early days, and also acting as secretary. Richard Smith was a solicitor and Town Clerk at the time, so was also a very busy man, but he managed to teach at the school for a year before other teachers came forward. Richard Smith remained on the committee, acting as treasurer, and it is the subsequent newspaper reports of his speeches in 1859 and 1860 that provide the evidence for the founding circa 1846 of the West Street Ragged School. William Jarman was a man of modest means, but he put richer people to shame by the proportion of his income that he contributed, and he was the school’s superintendent from the start until at least 1860. (There were several William Jarmans in Bridgwater in the 1840s and 50s, so unfortunately it is not clear which one was involved with the school.) The Rev de la Hooke probably visited the school and may have given some lessons, and certainly provided a source of income by encouraging donations from his congregation.

The paragraph below is quoted from a report of a speech made by Richard Smith, which was published in the Bridgwater Mercury on the 20th of April 1859. This was to commemorate the laying of the foundation stone for the new school building.

“Thirteen years ago, (i.e. 1846) his friend Mr Woodward started the school in West Street, in a little cottage for which 1s 6d per week was paid, and 30 or 40 children were gathered together out of the lanes and alleys of that locality. To Mr Woodward he believed all the honour to be due. From the first hour to the present that gentleman had never ceased to labour, from Sabbath to Sabbath, in teaching those children the way they should go. He (Mr Smith) had taught for 12 months and then left the school, teachers increasing in numbers. Certain persons who had given self-denying aid to the work ought to be mentioned ……. A humble man, William Jarman, had from the first to last acted as superintendent of the school. “

Mr Haywood and Mr Murlis were also named as teachers and fund raisers. Apparently there was also a number of ladies, but it was not considered proper to name them! John Woodward had sisters who subsequently worked as governesses, and who may have helped in the early days. Women often volunteered for teaching roles in the ragged schools as it provided a respectable way for middle class ladies to have a useful activity outside the home, and families often volunteered together.

Richard Smith went on to describe the cottage in West Street used for the school, which had to accommodate 30 or 40 scholars at the beginning.

“The little cottage contained two small rooms downstairs and two upstairs. They first put the boys into one of the lower rooms, and the girls into the other; they then had to take down the partition wall and send the boys upstairs; next they were compelled to use the garret, and to put props under the various ceilings to prevent their giving way. “

The 1851 census shows a cottage reserved for the Sunday school, close to the St Matthew’s Field end of West Street.

As the number of children attending the school grew, in order to fit all the children in to such a small building, the school had to separate the teaching of boys and girls, by teaching them on different days. By 1858, there were on average, 100 attending the Sunday morning class, and 150 attending the Sunday afternoon class. 70 Girls were taught on two nights a week, and 85 boys on two other nights. Imagine 150 lively children in a small four room cottage, where the ceilings have to be propped in order to use the attic space!

Ragged School
London’s West Street Ragged School coincidentally gives a good impression of what Bridgwater’s must have been like.
Article in the Bridgwater Mercury 1859, requesting more volunteer female teachers for the girls’ classes

Even with separating the teaching of girls and boys, more space was needed, and a plan was formed to raise money to build a small extension to the cottage in West Street. The Rev de la Hooke believed that £60 would be enough for this purpose, and he appealed for donations in January 1858. Disappointingly they could not get enough donations to meet this relatively modest target, and their treasurer Richard Smith advised that they would do better to appeal for a much bigger project as this would then attract the interest of the wealthier people in the town. This change in tactics worked, and from having been unable to raise even £60, they raised £100 in a single week!

Encouraged by this success, sights were set on constructing a completely new building, especially when Gabriel Poole offered to donate either £100 or land for the building in West Street. The committee opted for the land, which was likely to be worth more than £100, and the project to build a new school was underway. The committee applied to the Privy Council for a grant, and by October 1858 news came that a grant would be given, but its size would depend on the amount raised locally, so fund raising had to continue vigorously. Sometime between January and October in 1858, the Vicar of St Marys became involved in the project, and his name was included on the Privy Council application, rather than the Rev de la Hooke. The terms of the Privy Council grant were that the new school should be a full time day school, run on National Board lines. A full time day school would require the employment of one or two full time teachers, but the cost implications of this were not immediately apparent to some of the donors.

Circulars were issued, headed ‘West Street Ragged School’, aiming to raise £300. Some of the circulars travelled quite a distance, as one subscription was received from a Bridgwater man now living on Vancouver Island. Lists of subscribers were published regularly in the Bridgwater Mercury.

In April 1859 the foundation stone for the new West Street School was laid by the daughter of Gabriel Poole, and there were long speeches made by both Richard Smith and Gabriel Poole. Mr Smith explained the history of the West Street Ragged School and the current expenses. Mr Poole talked about how important it was for the children to be educated, and how they could aspire to become engineers and industrialists. He gave the example of George Stephenson, who rose from humble beginnings to become the designer of the first steam locomotive engine. Mr Poole also said that he hoped there would be evening classes for adults at the new school as there were many people in Bridgwater who had grown up without the benefit of any education. (Bridgwater Mercury 20/04/1859).

On the 26th of July 1859 there was an annual treat for several Bridgwater schools, including the ragged school. The treat included a parade around the town accompanied by a band, and a tea with lots of cake and noisy games after.

Building work had begun on the new school, even though the funds were not fully in place. On the 1st of January 1860 there was another fund raising appeal, as a further £200 had to be raised in order to qualify for the Privy Council grant of £405.

Description of the school building when brand new in July 1860.

The structure is gothic in character, of an early period, and is substantially built of red conglomerate stone procured in the neighbourhood, with Bath stone and blue Lias dressing. The roof is covered with brown and red tiles of home manufacture, and the arrangement of colours has a very pleasing effect. The school consists of two rooms, each 46 feet by 22 feet, with timber flooring and the usual school fittings. The rooms are divided by folding doors, and each has a separate entrance, one for the boys and one for the girls. There are also two classrooms in the course of erection. The usual out offices and paved courts are provided, and there is a plentiful source of excellent water. Good drainage has been secured, and ventilation has been most carefully considered. (Bridgwater Mercury 18/07/1860).

The school was designed to accommodate up to 300 pupils, and opened with about 120 children attending.

The West Street school on the 1888 Town Plan
The West Street School prior to its demolition in 1961

Opening the new school building in July 1860.

There was an important meeting held at the new West Street School building which was reported in the Bridgwater Mercury on the 18th of July 1860. The treasurer Richard Smith presented the accounts, and then recommended that the role of treasurer should be handed over to John Woodward after the government grant had been finalised. Mr Smith said that “Mr Woodward had spent many years carrying on this labour of love (setting up and running the ragged school) – he was in at its commencement, and had worked unseen and unnoticed for years.” Plans were then made for the opening ceremony for the school, with Mr Woodward suggesting that it should be held on the same day as the school children’s annual treat.

The West Street School was officially opened on Thursday the 26th of July 1860 in fine sunny weather. Lord Auckland, who was the Bishop of Bath and Wells, attended, along with the mayor and other local dignitaries. After the inevitable speeches came the annual school treat, with over 600 children attending the tea and games, including over 200 from the ragged school. Also attending were ten young women who were former pupils of the ragged school, and who now had good jobs thanks to having been taught to read and write. (Bridgwater Mercury 01/08/1860).

Was child labour in Bridgwater a great evil or a healthy activity?

Several other people made long speeches at the meeting to plan the opening ceremony of West Street School. One of the speakers was Mr George Parker, who talked about the need for a school in this particular area. He explained that the inhabitants of West Street were ‘pretty well off in the summer time but were badly off in winter’ because of the brickyards closing. Mr Parker went on to say that “the greatest evil that he had seen in Bridgwater was the employment of little girls in the brickyards. Parents got a little money for the labour of their daughters in the early part of their lives, but they ruined their children by so doing.” Mr Parker had spoken to several brickyard owners, and Mr Hammill was willing to stop employing girls if the other owners would do the same.

Mr Parker regretted that although the girls could earn up to 3 or 4 shillings a week in the summer, their parents didn’t put this towards their education but spent it all before the winter came, leaving the children to wander the streets begging. However, the mayor was of the opinion that working in the brickyards was a rather healthy employment for girls, they were well looked after and only worked in the summer time. Mr Parker replied that it was only the employment of girls he was objecting to, because they learnt bad habits, and then had knew nothing of their duties when they became wives and mothers. He thought the employment (in a brickyard) ‘was a glorious thing for the boys’. Without the mayor’s support, no conclusions were reached about ending the employment of small girls. (Bridgwater Mercury 18/07/1860). The mayor in question, Robert Ford, was a brick and tile manufacturer, so his position was perhaps unsurprising.

Defining the new school

Although all the fund raising had been done in the name of the West Street Ragged School, the requirement from the Privy Council to run a day school meant that at least one or two full time school teachers had to be employed. Although fund raising continued to subsidise the school, there was not enough income to cover all the wages and other costs, and still allow the school to be completely free to the pupils. This meant that fees had to be charged from the beginning, although they were low compared to other schools in Bridgwater. West Street School charged one penny a week for the youngest children  and one and a half penny a week to the over sevens.

The charging of any fee meant that this was no longer a Ragged School, and the committee recognised this. When the time came to decide on the name of the school to be put on the building, the committee decisively rejected the suggestion that it should be called ‘West Street Ragged School’, and it was called simply ‘West Street School’.

The totally free ragged school did in fact continue for a while longer, still running as a Sunday and night school, but this was separate from West Street School. The treasurer and committee member Richard Smith explained all this very clearly in an impassioned speech to the committee of Dr Morgan’s School, of which he was also a member. (At this time, Richard Smith was treasurer to both Dr Morgan’s and the West Street School, so he was in a very knowledgeable position). This speech was reported in the Bridgwater Mercury on the 31st of October 1860.

The opening of a new fee paying school affected the other schools in Bridgwater. The committee of Dr Morgan’s School decided to take the opportunity to increase their own fees to four pence a week, and to remove about 25 of the poorest pupils from their register, on the grounds that they could now go to the West Street School instead. During the discussion, some of the committee members referred to ‘The West Street Ragged School’ in a derogatory way, and this prompted the following speech from Richard Smith:-

“The Ragged School was an evening school and was still an evening school, where children could be taught without money and without prices. In order to get the government grant the committee pledged themselves that they would keep up a day school….. That day school (West Street School) was a distinct affair from the Ragged School… and had to be supported by the payments of the scholars as well as voluntary subscriptions.”

Even a small payment was completely inconsistent with the Ragged Schools principles.

So far, no further references to the West Street Ragged School have been found after 1860, but it seems likely that it may have continued for a few more years, as an evening school, or purely as a Sunday school. Compulsory education was not introduced until 1880.

The West Street School building constructed in 1860 continued in use as a school for over 100 years, until 1964. The school was re named ‘St Matthews Church of England School’ in 1958, and in 1964 moved to Oakfield Road. Then the West Street building was considered to be in danger of subsiding into the nearby canal and it was demolished in 1968.

Appendix 1

Excerpt from the Ragged School Union Magazine for 1849, digitised by Google Books.


A few hints may be given to those who now carry on, or those who wish to begin such a work.

1. — Fix on the locality that most needs a school.

2. — Endeavour to get one or more good-sized rooms, easy of access, in that very locality. This class will not come to a school — the school must be taken to them.

3. — Endeavour next to interest some benevolent persons in that particular neighbourhood, so as to form a small committee to carry on the school; and, if possible, let this committee be more  immediately connected with the minister of some particular church or chapel in the vicinity, so as to give it permanence and stability.

4. — Open a subscription to defray expenses, and hold a public meeting in the neighbourhood for that object.

5. — Get as many male and female teachers as you can, or as may be required, to put down their names and addresses, and to promise to attend; one regular teacher ought to be obtained for every six or eight children; but when the teachers cannot attend regularly, then to double the number of teachers is a good plan, that they may attend alternately. Every teacher should consider himself or herself bound to attend, or if absent to send a suitable substitute.

6. — Next let the teachers choose a superintendent. If a paid teacher or superintendent can be afforded, it were better that he be under the control of the committee; but that committee will occasionally be found to consist of the teachers.

7. — Let strong forms and desks be provided; and Bibles, Testaments, and other books. The 1st and 2nd class books, and the lesson books for adults, published by the Sunday School Union, are very useful elementary works.

8. — Let the neighbourhood be canvassed for a week or two for fit objects for the school, i.e., children and youths who have no other opportunity of receiving instruction, and let the names be taken down of those who promise to attend.

9. — Let a day be fixed for opening the school, and let that be done in the most solemn and impressive way possible; an address being given on the subject by someone capable of addressing and interesting children. Let the admission be quite free — but begin with a few, admitting more afterwards, as the first are brought under proper control. Bear in mind that without subordination little real good can be done.

10. — If found necessary, have a policeman to attend at the door, that unruly boys or girls may at once be removed from the school or reduced to order.

11. — Expel those who will not behave properly after repeated admonitions, but admit and try them again on a future day if they promise amendment.

12. — Exact no fee, and use no corporal punishment; be as kind, forbearing, and affectionate as possible. In teaching, take the Scriptures as the ground-work, especially their practical portions, and make their grand and glorious truths as plain, simple, and interesting as possible. Such lessons to be followed by an address before the school is dismissed, which should not last above ten or fifteen minutes.

13. — Try to introduce singing by adopting some simple hymns or sacred songs, but do not attempt prayer, unless something like order and silence can be obtained.

14. — Let each teacher, if possible, visit his scholars occasionally, especially absentees, and endeavour to gain the good-will and co-operation of the parents or other friends (if any) of the children.

15. — Try and get the children to read and subscribe for books, and give some instruction in writing and accounts, if possible, on week-day evenings, as an encouragement to good behaviour.

16. — Endeavour to attach to the school a place for washing hands and face, and admit none who refuse to cleanse themselves.

17. — Give an annual treat of some kind, and let it be a reward for regular attendance and good behaviour.

18. — Do not forget to have meetings from time to time, of the committee and teachers, for consultation and united prayer, that God may bless the efforts thus made to benefit our poor brethren.


Bath Chronicle

Bridgwater Mercury

Taunton Courier

Ragged School Union Magazine – Google Books

“’The Only Friend I have in this World’ Ragged School Relationships in England and Scotland 1844-1870” by Dr L M Mair

British History Online (Victoria County History)

Squibbs History of Bridgwater

Clare Spicer, Hilary Southall and Jill Trethewey 18/02/2021