Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Ragged Schools of Scotland: A Dickensian Dream fulfilled

by Megan Hoyt

Thomas Guthrie's "Ragged Theology" was a new concept in 1800s Scotland, but we see glimpses of it throughout Charlotte Mason's writings. Did you know that? I didn't -- until a couple of weeks ago when I fell in love with Ragged Schools! Gentle whispers throughout the pages of each of Miss Mason's volumes woo us toward magnanimous thinking, toward proffering ideas to children instead of speed drills, toward seeing the infinite value of a human being instead of his utility to the state. 

Miss Mason believed every living soul deserved to access the great minds of the past -- the great art, music, literature, inventions, poetry, and all the glorious ideas that came before them.  But just prior to the time she began saying such things, Thomas Guthrie and Andrew Walker were heading into Edinburgh's slums to offer the Gospel to those who thought themselves beyond reach, who others didn't even bother with -- the nameless, faceless poor. Guthrie wrote about one man's response to the Gospel in his autobiography. What a beautiful recognition this gentleman had! May we all have such tender souls as this grace-filled man!

"He rose, bowed down by a sense of sin, in great distress of mind; he would go to the church that day, but being a man of a very tender conscience, he hesitated about going to the Lords table; deep was answering to deep at the noise of God's waterspouts, and all God's billows and waves were going over him; he was walking in darkness, and had no light.  In this state he proceeded to put himself in order for church, and while washing his hands, one by one, he heard a voice say, 'Cannot I, in my blood, as easily wash your soul, as that water wash your hands?' 'Now Minister,' he said, in telling me this, 'I do not say there was a real voice, yet I heard it very distinctly, word for word, as you now hear me.  I felt a load taken off my mind, and went to the Table and sat under Christ's shadow with great delight.' " (Thomas Guthrie, Memoir and Autobiography, 1896, p 115.)  

Once I began reading about Ragged Schools, the idea clung to my heart. I hope one day to bring some level of hope to America's struggling poor, the way Andrew Walker did in Scotland: 

London City Mission Magazine  
for May 1, 1896

We have received intelligence also of the death of another servant of Christ, who at one time did earnest effective work as a London City Missionary. A gentleman in Edinburgh writes:-

On the 3rd of February there died at City Troy, New York State, at the patriarchal age of eighty-nine, Mr. Andrew Walker, well known fifty years ago as the pioneer of the Ragged Schools in Westminster.

He was born at Craigsford, Earlston, a pretty village in Berwickshire, July 20th, 1807, and partly educated in the village at the same school which the famous Dr. Waugh, of Wells Street, London, had attended half a century before.

When the time came for choosing a calling, he became, like Robert Moffat, a gardener. His first engagement was at Newton Don, his last in Scotland at Camperdown . . . From Camperdown he went to Hans Place, London. Wandering one day through the narrow lanes and courts of Westminster that lay to the south of the Abbey, he was so impressed with the signs of vice and misery all around him, than he resolved he would make it his life’s work to do what he could to bring light and liberty to the region.

He gave up his occupation at Chelsea, entered the London City Mission, November, 1838, and began his work within the district bounded by Clare Street, Orchard Street, Strutton Ground, and Great Peter Street.

Mr. Walker remained there for fourteen years, and during that time, by the blessing of God on his labours, effected a most remarkable change in the inhabitants. When he went there were six public-houses, one of them having a thieves’ training school attached to it, after the manner of that described by Dickens in “Oliver Twist.”

His first place of meeting was in an old stable . . . By the kindness of Lady Trowbridge, part of it was fitted up for girls. Lady Hope provided sixty of the children with articles of clothing. On the opening day many titled people were there, and Robert Moffat - home on furlough - addressed the children.

Mr. Walker was not long in finding out that any benefit given during school hours was neutralised by the scenes of home life. It was, therefore, decided to retain the young people there night as well as day and provide them with food and clothing - in short, to form a Ragged School, the first of the kind in Westminster. In this he was greatly assisted by Lord Shaftesbury - then Lord Ashley - who, by public speech and private influence, was the means of exciting interest and raising money. Mr. Walker’s next step was to secure the interest of the thieves in his Mission. The district was one of the headquarters of the “swell mob.” These he sought to influence, and accomplished it in this way. Securing a place of meeting in the upper room of one of the public-houses, he accosted some of them one day when they were playing “pitch-and-toss,” and invited them to form a Sunday afternoon class, to which none but those of their own fraternity would be admitted. They agreed, and next Sunday met for an hour in the afternoon for singing, prayer, reading, and explaining God’s Word.

Mr. Walker had many visits from those interested in reclamation work. In his journal he mentions meeting Charles Dickens and taking him round the district. The result of the visit was a powerful article in Household Words, entitled “The Devil’s Acre.” Another visitor was William Chambers, who came introduced by Lord Kinnaird, a warm friend of Mr. Walker’s. This visit was also followed by a paper which appeared in Chambers’  Journal, under the heading “A Visit to Westminster, but not to the Abbey.” His final scheme was to secure another of the public-houses, known as “The Green Man.” It also was fitted up as a Refuge, where trades of various kinds were carried on. Secular education was given during the week and, by the assistance of various ladies and gentlemen, Sabbath instruction also.

In due time the lads passed into the world to earn an honourable living, many of them going to Australia and the States.

After this arduous labour in Westminster, Mr. Walker removed to the Surrey side of the river and began the Wellington Nursery for the reclamation of the wanderers, where education and out-door occupation were combined. Here he was again visited by Charles Dickens, who penned another graphic article in Household Words, called “Tilling the Devil’s Acre.” Acting under medical advice he gave up this work in 1858, sailed for the States, and settled down in Troy City, where he became an active worker and elder in the United Presbyterian Church, carrying on his first occupation.

From Thomas Chalmers to Thomas Guthrie to Andrew Walker to the London City Mission of today, Charlotte Mason's revolutionary ideas about personhood and education must surely have been influenced by these few kindly gentlemen who looked and really saw, who cared and actually did something to help the less fortunate poor of their day. God bless them! 



    This might interest you as well, Megan. I found many parallels with CM when we visited, particularly in the personhood of children, and the right to education for the poor.

  2. Lovely! Especially since my first childhood home was on a street called Lanarkshire. :) I especially liked this part:

    "Founded by David Dale in 1785, the village became famous as a model industrial community under the enlightened management of Dale's son-in-law, Robert Owen, from 1800-1825. Owen transformed life in New Lanark with ideas and opportunities which were at least a hundred years ahead of their time. Child labour and corporal punishment were abolished, and villagers were provided with decent homes, schools and evening classes, free health care, and affordable food."