Ragged Children, Mended Lives

Ragged Children Title

In 1877, the few square miles around where the Ragged School Museum stands today was one of the most densely populated places on earth. In a then squalid corner of London, more than a million people – many of them desperately poor – faced hunger, unemployment, and disease. For destitute children and their families, the Ragged School offered hope of a better future through the promise of a free education, food, warmth, clothing and training. ‘Ragged Children, Mended Lives’, a new permanent exhibition from the Ragged School Museum and Queen Mary University of London brings to life the experience of childhood in 19th-century East London.


Kendall Taivalkoski tells us more about some of the stories in the new exhibition.

“The new exhibition at the Ragged School Museum features the stories and journeys many of Barnardo’s children.  The children entered the care of Thomas John Barnardo for a variety of different reasons, but their stories are joined in their struggle to overcome poverty or personal loss.. Dr. Thomas Barnardo tried to assist them through the best means he could; allowing them to escape the polluted city and experience fresh air in the country; providing free education, and running an emigration programme that sent children to Canada for a fresh start.


“One story that visitors encounter within the new exhibition is the story of George Woodley. Born in Bow in 1894 his family faced a crisis when his father, exhausted by work and the stress of poverty, was admitted to an infirmary. George Woodley’s mother was left to provide for four children by herself with no government assistance, a difficult position for a mother to be in during those days. Unfortunately, George’s mother could not provide for all four children on her own and admitted three of her sons to a Barnardo home. Eventually the boys were sent to Canada where they  were indentured servants on a farm before trying to farm on their own. But the outbreak of war in 1914 led George to enlist in the army and sometime during his service he was seriously wounded in France. He survived to reunite with his mother, marry, and get a long-term job with the Canadian Pacific Railroad before his death in 1973. Although not all emigration stories have such happy endings the reasons for sending children to Canada were logical; too many people crowded in the city slums and few opportunities to improve their lives. Canada offered fresh air and opportunities.

From Barnardo's Admissions register3.0

“Canadian emigration was one way (perhaps the most dramatic way) for destitute children to get a better chance on life, but another way to improve their lives was for Dr. Barnardo to admit them into his free schools and give them life skills that would help them obtain employment. One example of this is the story of sisters Ellen and Louisa. Both sisters were in a state of “semi-starvation” with barely enough ragged clothes to cover their body when they were brought to Dr. Barnardo’s attention. When Barnardo met the girls’ mother she told him that, “I would rather perish and let my children rot than enter into the house.” By “the house” she referenced the workhouses found throughout  Britain where conditions for the destitute were hardly bearable. Ellen and Louisa were eventually both admitted to Barnardo’s Girls Village Home in Barkingside where they were trained in various domestic skills with the intention of getting a job as a servant within a  suitable household. Barnardo’s often helped girls to find work within respectable households, greatly increasing their chances for a stable career.  While jobs in domestic service were not always looked upon favourably by women in the era (as many were turning to factories for work) it was seen as a respectable profession that would attract appropriate suitors for their likely futures as wives and mothers.

© Barnardo's

© Barnardo’s

“Thomas Barnardo made it no secret that he preferred women working in domestic service rather than factories as he believed, “…factory life among young girls, though it appears to be a social necessity, is not conductive to the cultivation of gentile manners, nor a quiet and tractable spirit.” This quote summed up the belief of many during this time of industry when factory owners looked for cheap labour in the form of girls and unmarried women. One student of the Copperfield Road Ragged School, Elizabeth, entered into a confectionary factory for work around 1901. It is likely that this was Clarnico located in Hackney Wick which, in 1893, employed 1,500 people “of whom 1,300 were women” according to Matthew Crampton author of The Trebor Story. Though factory work did indeed provide women with a great social life and community of fellow colleagues, the factory workers often suffered long hours, poor working conditions, and low wages. Frequently however, they would strike against management and if they gathered enough sympathy for their cause they may win some concessions, but other times resulted in the women simply being replaced.  One notable example is the Factory Girls Strike of 1888 where they gathered huge public support which forced factory management to bend to some of their demands including creating a separate room for the girls to eat their lunches.

“Each Barnardo child entered Barnardo’s care with their own story, more often than not under tragic, but common, circumstances. Thomas Barnardo hoped to give every child who entered his homes a better future. The death of the breadwinner was the family catastrophe which brought so many children to Barnardo’s door. By teaching them practical skills, providing free education, and participating in emigration to Canada, children gained opportunities that they would not have had access to without the generosity of individuals like Barnardo.  Not all of their stories are known, but through various records and organizations we can be able to tell a fraction of them. Their stories help humanize the struggle of the poor which suffered from neglect and the evils of 19th century poverty. They show how hard life could be, but also show how much a helping hand could help.”

By Kendall Taivalkoski

Children waving their Christmas Party invitations.

Children waving their Christmas Party invitations. (C) Barnardos

Professor Owens described the exhibition:  “The story is about hardship, hope, and philanthropy. East London was the home of tremendous poverty but it was also the site of one of the largest schools in the Ragged School movement which was opened in 1877 by the renowned philanthropist Dr Thomas Barnardo. The Ragged School Museum is in a unique position to tell the history of the struggle for free universal education and it has been wonderful to work with them on this project.”

The new gallery display includes images, objects, and materials curated from collections at the Ragged School Museum, London Metropolitan archives, and the archives of the children’s charity Barnardo’s.  ‘Ragged Children, Mended Lives’ uses photographs, stories, and original research to explore the area’s history of poverty, poor health, philanthropy and emigration. The exhibition is designed to appeal to all ages. The museum is open Wednesdays and Thursdays, from 10am-5pm, and on the first Sunday of every month, 2pm-5pm.



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