I found my first Ragged School, in an obscure place called West-Street, Saffron-Hill, pitifully struggling for life, under every disadvantage. If I say it is ten years ago, I leave a handsome margin. It had no means, it had no suitable rooms, it derived no power or protection from being recognized by any authority, it attracted within its wretched walls a fluctuating swarm of faces — young in years but youthful in nothing else — that scowled Hope out of countenance. It was held in a low-roofed den, in a sickening atmosphere, in the midst of taint, and dirt, and pestilence: with all the deadly sins let loose, howling and shrieking at the doors. Zeal did not supply the place of method and training; the teachers knew little of their office; the pupils, with an evil sharpness, found them out, got the better of them, derided them, made blasphemous answers to scriptural questions, sang, fought, danced, robbed one another; seemed possessed by legions of devils. The place was stormed and carried, over and over again; the lights were blown out, the books strewn in the gutters, and the female scholars carried off triumphantly to their old wickedness.
With no strength in it but its purpose, the school stood it all out and made its way. Some two years since, I found it, one of many such, in a large, convenient loft in this transition part of Farringdon-Street — quiet and orderly, full, lighted with gas, well whitewashed, numerously attended, and thoroughly established.
I went the other night to make another visit. I found the school in the same place, still advancing. It was now an Industrial School too; and besides the men and boys who were learning — some, aptly enough; some, with painful difficulty; some, sluggishly and wearily; some, not at all — to read, and write, and cipher, there were two groups, one of shoemakers, and one (in a gallery) of tailors, working with great industry and satisfaction. Each was taught and superintended by a regular workman engaged for the purpose, who delivered out the necessary means and implements. All were employed in mending, either their own dilapidated clothes or shoes, or the dilapidated clothes or shoes of some of the other pupils. They were of all ages, from young boys to old men. They were quiet, and intent upon their work. Some of them were almost as unused to it as I should have shown myself to be if I had tried my hand, but all were deeply interested and profoundly anxious to do it somehow or other. They presented a very remarkable instance of the general desire there is, after all, even in the vagabond breast, to know something useful. One shock-headed man, when he had mended his own scrap of a coat, drew it on with such an air of satisfaction, and put himself to so much inconvenience to look at the elbow he had darned, that I thought a new coat (and the mind could not imagine a period when that coat of his was new!) would not have pleased him better. In the other part of the school, where each class was partitioned off by screens adjusted like the boxes in a coffee room, was some very good writing, and some singing of the multiplication table — the latter, on a principle much too juvenile and innocent for some of the singers. There was also a ciphering class, where a young pupil-teacher out of the streets, who refreshed himself by spitting every half-minute, had written a legible sum in compound addition on a broken slate, and was walking backward and forward before it, as he worked it, for the instruction of his class.
I had scarcely made the round of the Dormitory, and looked at all these things, when a moving of feet overhead announced that the School was breaking up for the night. It was succeeded by a profound silence, and then by a hymn, sung in a subdued tone, and in very good time and tune, by the learners we had lately seen. Separated from their miserable bodies, the effect of their voices, united in this strain, was infinitely solemn. It was as if their souls were singing — as if the outward differences that parted us had fallen away, and the time was come when all the perverted good that was in them, or that ever might have been in them, arose imploringly to Heaven.
From “A Sleep to Startle Us,” which appeared in the May 1852 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 165-year archive — is available here.