Bluecoat Schools and Ragged Schools

Constant Lambert (Composer) as a bluecoat schoolboy at Christ’s Hospital.

As part of my series on the Poor Laws and workhouses of Britain, I thought I would write a short piece on how these affected education of the poorest children of the times. So here we have a piece on poor schools. Following the Dissolution of the monasteries, during the reign of Henry VIII, scant thought was given to the poor of the parish who had often relied on the charity of the abbeys and so on to provide poor relief of varying measures. These charities included, food, shelter, employment, alms and basic care of the sick. In certain areas, a rudimentary education and certain apprenticeships were offered to young boys, particularly looking to enter trade or the priesthood.

As the monasteries closed and the monks and abbots turned out into the world, the buildings were demolished in part or in full for their stone and timbers, some were sold in their entirety, the land divided between the wealthy either for a price or as a reward for prominent favourites of the King. The poor became more destitute. Matters came to a head during the subsequent short reign of his son and heir, Edward VI who saw the gap in the provision for the poor children, and founded the first Bluecoat school in the form of a foundling hospital, in London. Christ’s Hospital formerly opened in 1552 in the former Priory buildings of Christ Church Greyfriars on Newgate, close to the Church where lay the remains of Elizabeth Barton, Maid of Kent, Isabella of France, wife of Edward II, Marguerite of France, second wife of King Edward I and Joan of the Tower, wife of David II of Scotland and where the schoolboys attended Services on a Sunday. For both girls and boys, the uniform was an ankle-length frock coat in blue, with yellow stockings topped by a white band; instead of breeches, the girls wore a skirt. During times of plague, petticoats were added.


All that remains of Christ’s Church Greyfriars, Newgate Street. The original school was very close to the church but after its devastation in the great fire of 1666, little remained and the school was completely remodeled.

As time passed further Bluecoat schools were opened in other areas; at one point over 60 were still in operation out of a total of 88 over time since their inception, many of which are still running in one form or another, mostly as state schools, retaining the name Bluecoat. The provisions were fairly standard. Children were afforded an education at least part-time, with the younger ones being provided some of the time in school and at other times, often in the country as “boarded out” or remaining with their parents until they were old enough to attend the school. Various other towns without their own Bluecoat schools chartered, founded similar charity schools. In Rotherham, for example, there was a Bluecoats school founded in 1708 by the town Feoffees (Reeves) who consisted of a body of twelve prominent members of the townsmen, as guardians for charitable and municipal works, a task which came into being in around 1547, when Edward instigated the Act for the Dissolution of Chantries, which closed down any institute which received money for the promotion of purgatory. At this point the Feoffees were charged with taking control of the Grammar School, now known as Thomas Rotherham College. It is debated where the original school was founded, with several thinking it was in the grounds of the Grammar school. However, in 1775 a new school was founded several hundred yards away in the town centre, in an area now known as “The Crofts”. In recent years, it has entered a new phase as firstly a Public House, called Feoffees, and more recently as one of a well-known chain of Pub-Restaurants, and re-named The Bluecoat.

In 1724, Thomas Guy, founder of Guy’s Hospital, London, in the late 17thC, died. In his will he left provision that the Hospital board pay an annual sum of £400 to Christ’s Hospital for the education of

‘Four poor children, Boys or Girls, whether orphan or otherwise, or the children of Freemen of the City of London or Unfreemen, not less than seven or more than ten years of age . . . with preference to
my relations, as often as any such shall offer themselves’.


Christ’s Hospital C1770

In the Hospital archives, it is possible to see meticulous records of the admission records of all those children nominated between 1725 and 1975, including the required certification of those descendants of Guy, put forward under the provision.

The School lost 32 children in the Plague outbreak of 1665, and the following year was pretty much obliterated by the Great Fire, although they suffered no casualties. As only a few children were able to return to what was left of the school buildings, they were forced to send the children to board once again in private residences in Hertfordshire. In 1682 the board purchased an area of land also in Hertfordshire, and built a new boarding school there. They didn’t however forsake their original site, and as part of his remodelling of the area, Christopher Wren was employed to design and construct a new London House for the school. This was completed in 1705 and paid for by donations from benefactors. The school unit in Hertfordshire continued for over 300 years, running alongside that in London, however in 1902 all the boys from both sites were transferred to a new site in Horsham, and in 1985 the school at Hertfordshire was closed with the remaining girls transferring to Horsham as the school once again became co-educational.

As we have seen it is a long held myth associated with such institutes being that they were principally for the provision of an education for boys only. This is of course untrue, girls were equally provided for, with all children being taught to read and write, basic arithmetic for the girls and the learning of domestically orientated pursuits such as needlework and cooking; for the boys a trade. Those considered gifted academically were encouraged to aim for one of the scholarships awarded each year to noble further educational establishments such as Oxford and Cambridge; this aspiration being noted by the addition of plated rather than cloth buttons to the frock coat. In 2011, Christ’s Hospital (Bluecoat School) took a vote on whether to continue with the uniform, still worn. Overwhelmingly they responded in the affirmative, claiming pride in the unique identity the outfit affords them, historically.

The old Bluecoat School in Rotherham, looking rather derelict before its big clean up and re-birth as first the Feoffees public house and now Bluecoat pub/restaurant.

Several noted figures through history have attended the school at Christ’s Hospital included esteemed Elizabethan Historian, William Camden (one of the first pupils), Saint Edmund Campion, one of the “forty martyrs” executed at Tyburn for High Treason, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Augustus Pugin, Barnes Wallis, composer Constant Lambert, and four Victoria Cross Recipients.

In the late 18thC it was obvious that not all children were able to benefit from Bluecoat schools. During this period a London tailor, Thomas Cranfield taught poor children for free in his shop. In 1798 he opened his first free school for destitute children on Kent Street, near London Bridge. He died in 1838 with nineteen such establishments successfully offering the poorest children basic reading writing and numeracy skills. He was not alone. In 1818 a crippled shoemaker, John Pounds, permanently crippled as a young man falling from a dock, also offered a similar educaton free of charge, and included basic lessons in cooking, carpentry and shoemaking, in Portsmouth. He died in 1839. Thomas Guthrie, a Scottish Philanthropist, took up Pounds’ cause following his death, naming him the originator of the idea of free schools for the most deserving children. In the poorest inner-city areas were still slipping through the cracks and not receiving any formal education. The reason being they had invariably no decent clothes in which to attend school. More often than not they attended their lessons in little more than rags, and barefooted. Guthrie’s first “ragged” school opened in Edinburgh. Sheriff Watson later opened a similar school in Aberdeen. Watson employed a slightly different method of enrolment whereby he would “sentence” children appearing before him after committing petty crimes – pickpocketing, stealing food and begging – to attend his Industrial school, where they would receive three good meals a day in return for learning their basic reading, writing and mathematics, and learn a trade.

Bluecoat School Reading

Thus heralded the birth of the Ragged schools. Soon spreading to England, forming the Ragged Schools Union, the founder was leading benefactor and sponsor Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftsbury. For 39 years the Earl was the President of the union, working tirelessly to provide a decent level of education for all destitute children, spreading his reach to tens of thousands of children, in several different cities, with almost 650 schools. He died in 1885 after seeing his dream of education reform come alive, with the passing of the 1870 Education Act and Elementary Education Act which provided similar education to working people. Wealthy benefactors continued to donate large sums of money and their time to raise awareness of the cause, including Angela Burdett-Coutts of the famous Banking family, and Charles Dickens who visited the Field Lane Ragged School and found himself appalled at the conditions for the children. It inspired him to write “A Christmas Carol” based on his experiences, and later Field Lane was to offer the setting for Fagin’s den in Oliver Twist. He continued to donate money, on one occasion also donating a water trough so that the children could have a wash! Their efforts were joined by those of Dr Thomas Barnado in 1870 who arrived in London for training and future work in China, to find the city ravaged by Cholera and many orphaned children living in squalor.

Prefects at the Bluecoat School, Christ’s Hospital.

In 1902, the school boards that had been founded over the previous thirty years, which were responsible for the reduction in the need for ragged schools, were finally abolished by the Education Act of that year. The Local Education Authorities with their state schools and free education for all was born. The Ragged School Union however continued, with its name being changed in 1944 to honour the man who founded it. The Shaftesbury Society combined with the Charity John Grooms, named after its founder, who worked tirelessly during the same perio
d to bring education and better employment opportunities to poor, orphaned and disabled girls, who were often completely overlooked. The charity later increased its reach to offer care and opportunities to all those with disabilities and learning difficulties. Its reach became international in the later 20th Century, and also included disabled housing options and nursing care. In 2007 the two charities merged to become Livability.

Today we take education almost for granted for our children. But we must never forget the work of these pioneering institutes for ensuring that no child is left behind.


Surviving Life in The Workhouse Part 2

Portrait of Sir Edward Knatchbull, 7th Baronet (1704-1789)
Portrait of Sir Edward Knatchbull, 7th Baronet (1704-1789)

In part one, we discussed the development of Poor laws and rates and so on to meet the rising need of the destitute in the community and the provision for children, the elderly and others who were unable to provide for themselves.

We had reached the point where Elizabeth I had passed the 1601 Poor Laws, now known as the Old Poor Law, which had passed on the responsibility for collecting the poor rates from parishes and converting it to basic foods, clothing and fuel etc for those in need. Rent allowances and other monies from the rates were also introduced to be given to those in need, enabling them to remain in their homes. Failure to collect rates resulted in hefty fines of up to one pound, seizure of property or even a prison sentence for the overseers responsible.

At the same time as these measures were passed, provision was ordered for a place for the Poor to reside. Whether this be a purpose-built home in the community for vagrants of the parish, for those unable to work and unable to remain in their homes, or the newly introduced “House of Correction” where able-bodied “shirkers” were taken to live and put to work unpicking hemp or breaking stones and so on to earn their keep. These community facilities formed the basis of what became the more recognised workhouses of later years. These measures remained in place for around the next sixty years without significant change.

In 1662, however a fairly important change was introduced, as the Poor laws were amended in the form of the Settlement Act. This piece of legislation was to detail how a person’s settlement was designated. In short, which Parish should be the one from which they claimed should the

need arise. In the past a person’s parish of birth or recent residence was considered the appropriate one to return vagrants to, however there was always a question. How the question was to be answered wasn’t in itself explained, but in practice a settlement was designated by birth, from the settlement of one’s father until times of marriage in which case a wife would then be settled on the Parish of her husband.

Fatherless children paid the price for the grey areas in practice whereby parish overseers would often transport the unfortunate expectant mother into an alternative parish in the days before she was due to give birth, preventing her from returning until she had the child, which was now the responsibility of the new Parish.
As a result, the mother would mostly be compelled to remain also. It wasn’t unheard of for the Parish to pay someone from another parish to marry these unfortunate women, thereby removing their own future financial responsibility, only for the man to abandon his wife and her child as soon as it was born. As his agreed obligation was absolved, his duty was done; He would move on, and the woman and her child were now the responsibility of a new parish.

In 1691 a further amendment was made to define further the settlement of those who worked in a different parish to their home. Apprentices (from the age of seven) could have their settlement transferred to the parish of their employer, likewise anybody who worked away from home for a full year. This move of course came with a loophole, whereby contracts were handed out for 364 days to prevent the worker from qualifying; alternatively, unpaid holidays would be given which also discounted settlement. Labourers in turn had the option of quitting their positions before the year’s tenure was up, thereby avoiding being stuck in a parish they didn’t care for.

Portrait of Sir Edward Knatchbull, 7th Baronet (1704-1789)

In 1697, the scope was once again enlarged to allow for those newcomers with a certificate of protection issued by their own parish to apply for assistance in a different parish until they were financially solvent enough to pay their own poor rates. It was increased in 1795 to cover all except the unfortunate single mums who were still considered too big a drain on poor relief. In an effort to distinguish them, the 1697 Amendment also required that those receiving assistance be identified by a cloth badge worn on their clothing, blue with a red P and the initial letter of their Parish. Not all parishes however enforced this condition and it was eventually abolished in 1810. The question of settlement would continue to be confusing despite several further amendments until 1865 when powers of settlement were placed within the control of the Poor Law Union and its Board of Guardians. The Act of Settlement was finally abolished completely in 1948.

In the 1730s to 1740s a series of rules were instigated known as the Bastardy Laws, again aimed at the unfortunate unwed mothers, forcing them to declare illegitimate children, and name the fathers, who would then be forced to support their child or face jail. Once imprisoned, his illegitimate child and the mother would qualify for support, until such times as the father agreed to support, and then he would further be expected to reimburse the parish. Finally, an illegitimate child born to a vagrant mother would automatically be settled in the parish of his or her mother, who would be in turn publicly whipped.

In 1714, in the South of England, starting with Buckinghamshire, Matthew Marryott opened a string of workhouses. In these facilities, he offered work for the destitute in return for food, shelter and relief. His model arguably became the format for the 1722-3 Knatchbull Act (The Workhouse Test Act) passed by Sir Edward Knatchbull. By the passing of this act, Parishes were now able to buy or rent accommodation and facilities either on their own or jointly with other parishes, to provide shelter and board to able bodied destitute in return for their gainful occupation in work. Should they refuse, the Parishes had the right to remove these paupers from their poor rates allowance. In practice however, several of these early facilities were already in operation some years before the Act was passed, notably dating back to the dying years of the 17thC.

Incorporating a system whereby these establishments were either run by parishes or passed on to the maintenance of a third party contractor, awarded by successful bids, meant that provision for various cross-sections of the poorest members of society, for example the elderly, orphans or lunatics, was passed on to others for a set price per annum. Accounts were rarely requested to prove expenditure. The model was designed to be a deterrent rather than a solution, in Knatchbull’s mind; his hope was that the notion of entering a workhouse was so abhorrent that it would force the neediest members of society to try harder to support themselves rather than become an inmate of such places.

By 1732, there were more than 700 Workhouses in England and Wales. By 1767, that number had increased to almost 2000. The workhouse as we know it, was born.

In Part three we shall look at the rise in workhouses, what the conditions were really like and how they worked. I shall explain how they were modelled and who they benefitted, and I will include a few stories and anecdotes.


Surviving life in – The Workhouse (Part One)

Depiction of beggars living in the vicinity of Church in order to collect alms Credit: Fordham Edu
Depiction of beggars living in the vicinity of Church in order to collect alms
Credit: Fordham Edu

Most of us have heard tales of the infamous workhouses of the Victorian era. Dark abodes of desolation where the most pitifully destitute of humanity went, never to see the outside world again. Conditions were harsh and mortality rates were high. But is this an accurate view of these institutes? Let’s delve into the past and find out.

The common idea of the Workhouse goes back much further than most people would think, although in varying guises. As a result of the Great Plague epidemic of 1348/9, a vast number of the peasant population of England and Wales had been wiped out. The loss of life particularly impacted agricultural areas, causing a shortage in the supply of labourers. Those who had survived felt their man-power was now at a premium and they were in a position whereby they could pick and choose who they worked for, and where, and hold out for better wages and conditions. Many labourers, previously tied to one area or Lord, were now able to travel around offering their services to the highest bidder.

This situation was hastily brought under control by the passing of acts aimed at forcing all able-bodied men into work, and to cap wages at pre-plague levels. Many workers resorted to pretending to be ill or infirm, and passing themselves off as beggars. In 1349, the Ordinance of Labourers was passed preventing private persons from giving money to beggars. The acts proved difficult to enforce however. By 1381, the situation had become strained and the result was the Peasants’ Revolt, led by Wat Tyler, John Ball and Jack Straw, in response to a Poll-tax imposed on all, regardless of financial means. The revolt marched on London, with a view to ending serfdom, allowing labourers their own choice of employer, and the right to negotiate for a fair wage. The revolt was eventually put down by Richard II’s forces, and despite his assurances that concessions would be made to the demands, in return for the quiet dispersal of the revolt, Wat Tyler was killed during a skirmish with the King’s men, and the agreed terms reneged on by the young King who ordered the participants found and executed.

In 1388, however, the situation had snowballed somewhat and further acts most notably the Statute of Cambridge, were drawn up, restricting the movement of labourers, tying them to their own parishes unless they procured a letter from ‘the good man of the Hundred’ (justice of the peace) allowing them to migrate for work. Responsibility for the ‘impotent poor’ – those who were unable to work or provide for themselves due to age or infirmity – also fell to the Hundreds by way of a tax on the more affluent members of the Parish, to levy poor relief for these unfortunates. Beggars and invalids were prohibited from wandering, under vagrancy acts. Due to the restrictions of labourers to travel, beggars could no longer pretend to be migrant workers. Breaking these laws often resulted in punishment, such as being placed in stocks. These laws in effect constitute the first English Poor Law.

Many of the destitute were able to find relief in the form of food, shelter and care in local priories which often acted as early hospitals. The provisions were basic, broths and porridges, plain in formula, to strengthen the constitution. The medical treatment was simple, and involved those simple nutrients, prayer and basic medicine performed by monks and lay brothers, and the conditions included a requirement that the needy actively participate in repentance for their transgressions, (which surely led to their downfall) and worship for as long as they remained within these Holy precincts. These early hospitals formed a vital service as the backbone for Poor relief in many areas. As the inmates recovered, they were obligated to “pay” for their stay and treatment, with labour in return for continued assistance. Those who perished as a result of their exposure, were afforded a simple burial, with religious rites. It could be argued that these initiatives were an early fore-runner of the later Workhouse. The Acts and laws themselves imposed by Richard II were again difficult to enforce.

Rembrandt sketch of Beggars
Rembrandt sketch of Beggars

In 1494, Henry VII, added his weight to the issue, with his less than sympathetic order “the Vagabonds and Beggars Act” which ordered the rounding up and placing in stocks of anybody found wandering, for three days and nights with nothing other than bread and water. They would then be returned to their Hundred, place of birth or place of residence best known. Following his son, Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries from around 1536, the situation became bleaker than ever for the poor and destitute. The one remaining place of sanctuary where they could be assured of a warm blanket and a meal was removed. Not only were the buildings pulled down and robbed out, the land and any assets taken, but the brothers themselves were turned out also with nowhere to go. The strain increased. An Act the same year allowed parishes to collect and hand out voluntary alms for the poor, but again conditions were imposed whereby if those poor were considered able-bodied, they must work in return.

In 1547, Edward VI ordered further harsh restrictions on the neediest of society with the Act of Legal Settlement. Those vagrants considered to be able-bodied enough to work, and caught drifting would be returned to their Hundred or place of residence and BRANDED, or being signed up as a slave for 2 years. If they absconded, this period was increased to life. ‘Foolish pity’ for vagrants and the poor was actively discouraged. On the upside however, cottages were built to provide shelter for the impotent poor, with relief offered. Over the following 25 years, positive changes were introduced the majority of them under Elizabeth I. Following successful initiatives in major cities including York, Ipswich, London Cambridge, Colchester and Norwich, where poor-tax was introduced, a property tax was introduced in 1572, the ‘Poor Rate’ across the nation, to be handled by Parish Justices, and overseen by local representatives for distribution to the destitute invalids, aged and infirm.

A previous act of 1564 had allowed for parish officials to arrange ‘convenient places for the habitations of’ vagrants and beggars. The earliest workhouses were born. In 1576, this was followed by the ‘Act For Setting the Poor on Work’ which ordered that premises and materials, hemp, wool and flax in particular, would be gained and opened with the task of setting the able-bodied poor into employment. This was followed in 1597 by ‘Act For the Relief of the Poor’ which charged an overseer of the poor in every parish to engage any physically able-bodied unemployed person into work. Parish Houses would be provided for their residence. By 1601, Elizabeth had set up the basics of the Poor Laws, and expanded it to include residence and apprenticeships for all unaccompanied children. Financial responsibility for any out of work persons would be placed on parents, and other relatives where possible. Those able but unwilling to work were removed to prison, those who refused to pay their allotted poor-rate followed them and assets were seized. Poorhouses and almshouses were built for the residence of the impotent poor. The Workhouse was born.

In Part two, I will be continuing the journey of the destitute towards the grim institutes of the 18th and 19th Centuries that we are more familiar with.