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Ballarat Benevolent Asylum Ragged School

Ragged Schools were charity schools providing a basic education for orphans and children of the poor and destitute on the goldfields. They provided a basic, non-denominational education with an emphasis on learning trades and skills, which could be used to find employment.

Education in Britain, and therefore Australia, was neither free nor compulsory in the 1850s and 1860s, and many forms of schooling existed. Parents chose schools for their children based on their class, social status and ability to pay the fees. No national curriculum existed. In some rural areas, very young children attended ‘Dame Schools’ to learn crafts, such as lace making and straw plaiting, while the mistress-in-charge read to them. Thus, the sale of the completed products paid their fees while they gained a meagre education. Many children only obtained a minimal education by attending fee-paying Sunday Schools while they worked on the other six days of the week. Upper class children were educated at home, by a governess while they were young and then through the instruction of a private tutor who usually lived-in until the boys, at least, were old enough for boarding school.


Ragged Schools in Britain

There is some debate about the origins of ragged schooling, but the work of four British men is often cited - John Pounds (1766-1838), Sheriff Watson of Aberdeen, Thomas Cranfield and Thomas Guthrie (1780-1873). John Pounds was a cobbler in Portsmouth who began to use his shop, in 1818, as a base for educational activity for impoverished local children neglected by other institutions. His curriculum included the usual ‘three R’s‘ plus religious instruction and nature study, and various practical tasks like cobbling, cooking, toy making and mending clothes. The big difference between Ragged Schools and Sunday Schools was that Ragged Schools were free.

The movement spread throughout Britain culminating in the Ragged Schools Union, which was founded in 1844 under the guidance of Lord Shaftesbury, and supported by Thomas Barnado, Mary Carpenter and writers like Charles Dickens. Supporters of Ragged Schools believed education was the solution to a number of social evils, such as laziness, unemployment and stealing, which were often evident amongst slum children. It is estimated that around 300,000 children went through the London Ragged Schools alone between the early 1840s and 1881. Many of these children from poor backgrounds were lured off the streets by the offer of hot food and safe housing. Ragged schools gradually disappeared after the 1870 Education Act made education more accessible.