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Life of the Rev. Thomas Guthrie D.D.
Chapter VIII - Ragged Schools


On the subject of Dr Guthrie's efforts for ragged schools whole volumes might be written; we can only indicate its more salient features. As to the origin of the movement, we will let the Doctor tell his own story. "It is rather curious," he says, "at least it is interesting to me, that it was by a picture I was first led to take an interest in ragged schools; a picture in an old, obscure, decaying burgh, that stands on the shore of the Firth of Forth. I had gone thither with a companion on a pilgrimage; not that there was any beauty about the place, for it had no beauty. It has little trade. Its deserted harbour, silent streets, and old houses, some of them nodding to their fall, gave indications of decay. But one circumstance has redeemed it from obscurity, and will preserve its name to the latest ages. It is the birthplace of Thomas Chalmers. I went to see this place. It is many years ago. And going into an inn for refreshments, I found the room covered with pictures of shepherdesses with their crooks, and tars in holiday attire not very interesting. But above the chimney-piece there stood a large print, more respectable than its neighbours, which a skipper, the captain of one of the few ships that trade between that town and England, had probably brought there. It represented a cobbler's room. The cobbler was there himself, spectacles on nose, an old shoe between his knees—that massive forehead and firm month expressing great determination of character, and below his bushy eyebrows benevolence gleamed out on a number of poor ragged boys and girls, who stood at their lessons around the busy cobbler. My curiosity was excited, and on the inscription I read how this man, John Pounds, a cobbler in Portsmouth, taking pity on the poor ragged children left by ministers and magistrates, and ladies and gentlemen, to run in the streets, had, like a good shepherd, gathered in the wretched outcasts; how he had brought them to God and the world; and how, while earning his bread by the sweat of his brow, ho had rescued from misery, and saved to society, not less than five hundred of these children. I felt ashamed of myself for the little I had done."

From this time forward, the idea of a ragged school fixed itself in Dr Guthrie's mind. It "grew by what it fed on." He watched, with eager interest, the progress of the school established in Aberdeen by Sheriff Watson—the first in Scotland. Shortly afterwards another ragged school, founded at Dundee, "turned a presumption into a fact," and proved both to himself and those whom he consulted, that there was "no way of securing the amelioration and salvation of those forlorn, outcast, and destitute children, but by making their maintenance a bridge and stepping stone to their education." In his "Pleas for Ragged Schools," the Doctor relates how, strolling one day with a friend among the romantic scenery of the crags and green valleys round Arthur Seat, they sat down on a great black stone beside it to have a talk with the ragged boys who pursue their calling there. With reference to the scheme then shaping itself in his head, and by way of experiment, he said to the boys, "would you go to school, if, besides your learning, you were to get breakfast, dinner, and supper there?"' "It would have done any man's heart good," says the Doctor, "to have seen the flash of joy that broke from the eyes of one of them —the flush of pleasure on his cheek, as, hearing of three sure meals a day, the boy leapt to his feet and exclaimed, "Aye, will I, sir, and bring the haill land (tenement) too;" and then, as if afraid I might withdraw what seemed to him so large and munificent an offer, he exclaimed, "I'll come for but my dinner, sir."

The publication of the first "Plea for Ragged Schools," in which the writer displayed even more than his usual pathos, and adduced many appalling facts on behalf of his project, awakened a powerful interest, not only in Edinburgh, but throughout the whole country. The response made to the appeal was so liberal that a Committee was appointed and other steps were taken for initiating the movement, which was fairly launched in June, 1817, at a meeting held in Edinburgh, and attended by gentlemen of all ranks and denominations. The scheme was modelled after those of Aberdeen and Dundee. At first the Committee did not attempt much. There was great difficulty found in obtaining suitable accommodation for the schools in a central part of the city, but this difficulty was eventually overcome through the kindness of the Rev. Mr Smith and the Kirk-Session of the Tolbooth parish, who provided a large and commodious school room at Ramsay Garden, Castlehill.

By the "Constitution and Rules of the Association for the Establishment of Ragged Industrial Schools for destitute children in Edinburgh," it was provided that the aim to be kept in view was "to reclaim the neglected and destitute children of Edinburgh, by affording them the benefits of a good common and Christian education, and by training them to habits of regular industry, so as to enable them to earn an honest livelihood, and fit them for the duties of life." The following classes of children were excluded -.—first, They who are already regularly attending day schools; second, Those whose parents are earning a regular income, and able to procure education for their children; third, Those who are receiving, or are entitled to receive, support and education from the Parochial Board;—with this declaration, that it shall be in the power of the Acting Committee to deal with special cases, though falling under any of these classes, baring regard always to the special objects of the Association.

The general plan upon which the schools were to be conducted was as follows:—

To give the children an adequate allowance of food for their daily support.

To instruct them in reading, writing, and arithmetic.

To train them in habits of industry, by instructing and employing them daily in such sorts of work as are suited to their years.

To teach them the truths of the gospel, making the Holy Scriptures the groundwork of instruction.

On Sabbath the children shall receive food as on othet days, and such religious instruction as shall be arranged by the Acting Committee.

The movement grew and prospered. The first yearly report, dated March 31, 1818, showed that the total number of childien admitted since the opeuing of the school was 310 boys, 109 girls; total, 509. Of this number 230 were under ten years of age. As to the particular circumstances in which the children were found, one of the annual reports thus speaks:—

Found homeless, and provided with lodgings, 72
Children with both parents, 32
With the father dead, 140
Mother dead, 89
Deserted by parents, 43
With one or both parents transported, 9
Fatherless, with drunken mothers, 77
Motherless, with drunken fathers, 66
With both parents worthless, 84
Who have been beggars, 271
Who have been in the police office, 75
Who have been in prison, 20
Known as children of thieves, 76
Believed to be so, including the preceding, 118

In the face of such terrible figures as these it is perhaps little wonder that a lady once asked Dr Guthrie whether he invented his stories.

For a number of years Dr Guthrie threw his whole heart and soul into the cause of the ragged schools. Nothing afforded him greater pleasure than the opportunity of showing to his friends and those who sat in high places, the beneficent operations of the system. One day, he had shown Thackeray and a distinguished member of Parliament through the schools. Turning to Mr Thackeray, the latter said, "This is an agreeable sight." The distinguished novelist replied, it was the finest view m all Edinburgh— the most touching sight he ever saw. The other then remarked, "I see where the whole power of this ragged school lies. It is, first, in the food; and secondly, in the twelve hours daily in the school." Dr Guthrie's own opinion was that these two things constituted the whole, secret and power of their machinery.

The Doctor was never tired of urging the claims of the ragged school on politico-economical grounds. Referring on one occasion, shortly after their establishment, to the Lord Advocate's calculation that the expense of a criminal to his country, on an average, cannot be less than 300, he argued that of the 216 children that had up till then been sent to employment, supposing that 186 had done well, that number, multiplied by 300, would have saved to the country an expense of between 50,000 and 60,000. There was, of course, a large percentage of the children who failed to improve their opportunities, and returned to their old haunts and associations. But an overwhelming majority became respectable members of society. Speaking at one of the annual meetings on the results achieved, Dr Guthrie said, "We have ragged scholars that are cutting down the forests in America. We have them herding sheep in Australia. We have them in the navy; and what d'ye think! there was an odd thing in this way; we had a competition among boys in the navy, and the ragged school boys carried off the highest prize. We have them in the army, too. Just the other day I had in my drawing-room one of my ragged scholars. What was he doing there, you ask? Well, he was just standing beside a very pretty girl dressed like a duchess, and all that. There he was, and on his breast he carried three medals. He had fought the battles of his country in the Crimea. He had gone up the deadly march to Lucknow, and rescued the women, and the children, and the soldiers there. And was I not proud of my ragged school boy when I saw him with his honours?" No more eloquent testimony to the success of the ragged school movement could be furnished than this well attested fact, that, whereas formerly five per cent of the criminals were under fourteen years of age, in the fourth year after the establishment of these schools, the proportion was reduced to one per cent, and in the fifth year, the percentage was only half a juvenile.

Every one who has had occasion to knock at the door of the National Exchequer, especially on behalf of new and doubtful projects, has found admission very difficult. This was long the experience of Dr Guthrie. Every resource within his power he used to move the Government; but the national purse strings were drawn closely together, and ho could only obtain the merest pittance for his schools. Ho was, however, encouraged to persevere in his appeals, believing that it was the duty of the State to care for the moral training of the outcast and destitute, and that prevention and preventive measures should be more generally attended to. He complained that the Government gave much more to the reformatories than to the ragged schools, and remarked thereanent, "It is a grand thing to give a man a fever, and then cure him; but it is better to drain and clean the town and prevent the fever from coming. Think of the Government refusing money to save a man's leg, but giving him money instead to buy a wooden leg when the limb is cut off!" His righteous indignation at the apathetic indifference of the Government to the training of the children for whom the ragged schools were designed, was expressed even more forcibly on another occasion when, speaking of Lord Palmerston's Reformatory Act, he thus described it: "The Act says to us, 'Don't take a child and send him to a ragged school, where you may prevent him from becoming a criminal. Don't take him while he is on the edge of the precipice, but wait till he has fallen down. Wait till he has become a criminal. If you attempt to save a child from becoming a criminal, I will help you with a penny a-week; but if you will allow the child to become a criminal through your neglect, and then try to rub out the mark, you will get seven shillings!'"

But Dr Guthrie was not a man to be disheartened because he could not get his own way. He continued to knock at the Treasury door. Three times he was at the head of a deputation that went to Downing Street and complained of the Goverment treatment of ragged schools. The last time he informed Mr Lowe, who was then at the Exchequer, of the success that had attended the operations of the ragged schools; of the extent to which it had reduced the number of commitments to prison; and of the remedy against crime which it provided. Mr Lowe, making use of the very arguments used by the deputation, replied in effect, "Gentlemen, it's no affair of mine; it's a matter of crime and police. Go to the Home Office, and they'll give you the money." It is needless to add that the Home Office did not see the case in the same light, and the money was not got.

As to the transformation that is effected in the children attending the ragged school, he says, "I have seen heaps of filthy rags, such as may be cast off by a vagrant, received by the man of science and art, and turned into a creamy pulp, and afterwards manufactured into a fabric as white as snow, destined to receive from the pen the words of wisdom and of knowledge, and to carry men's thoughts abroad over the wide world. And so it is with these unhappy children. They are the raw material, and by-and-bye you will see the fabric we make out of it."

Very soon after the ragged school movement was fairly commenced, a dissension arose on account of the resolution of the Committee to have the Bible taught to the children. It was of course the authorised version that was introduced, and as this did not square with the views of the Roman Catholics, there was unpleasantness and recrimination. Dr Guthrie and his Committee wore accused of introducing "a system of religious tests," and of "excluding the largest portion of those children for whom the schools were designed," who belonged to Irish and Roman Catholic parents. Being thus put upon their trial, the Committee published a statement in which, by the constitution and rules of the schools, they justified the use of the Bible, and concluded that "it would be utterly ruinous to the plan, and defeat all its benevolent purposes, especially considering the criminal and vagrant habits of the children who are to be benefited by it, if any other system were adopted than that of subjecting them to the entire moral and religious discipline—simply based upon the Word of God—which it purposes to bring to bear upon them.' Although this rupture threatened at the time to restrict the usefulness of the institution, the probability is that in the end it was overruled for good. Lord Murray and several other gentlemen who objected to the use of the Bible, took steps for the founding of another school, which was successfully established under the name of the "United Industrial School," in South Gray's Close. Both schools have failed to meet the actual wants of the city; the harvest is as plentiful as ever; and although conducted, so far as religious teaching is concerned, on essentially different principles, they are aiming primarily at the same end.


 


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