England,  Phoebe,  Western Europe

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.