Southampton Industrial and Ragged School stood on St George’s Place, Houndwell, on the western corner of St George’s Street, opposite Hoglands Park. Debenham’s restaurant now stands on the site. When it was built, it was surrounded by Southampton’s “Rookery” of slum courts and alleys. St George’s Street connected with St George’s Court, St Thomas’ Buildings and Houndwell Cut, all named in the Dilapidated Housing Report of 1892.
Ragged Schools provided a free education for the poorest children of Victorian England. The Ragged School Union was established in 1844, although such schools had existed earlier. The first organisation known to attempt a “Ragged School” in Southampton rejected the title, calling itself the Southampton Free School Society. The Hampshire Independent, 27 March 1847, reported that the school had been founded in late 1846 at the saw-mills in Three Field Lane, but had just rented a room in Chandos Street “which will hold 100 children, well seated.” Volunteers taught in the evenings: about 60 boys on Tuesdays and Thursdays 7-8.30pm, about 45 girls on Wednesdays 6.30-8pm. Unfortunately, we do not know the names of any of the teachers, who also formed the management committee. “We sincerely trust,” wrote the Independent, “that all who possess the power either by personal services or by contributions, to help an effort which promises to realise a great public good, will at once apply themselves to the task.”
Two years later, in May 1949, the Mayor, George Laishley, promoted the idea of a Ragged School (the Free School seems to have failed) and a committee was formed to engage a master. In autumn of that year, Mr Edward Sheppard, as secretary, took a loft in Orchard Lane, and tried to teach, but was chased away “with shouts and hooting.” Charles Crowther Smith took over as teacher, later to become secretary to the Committee in February 1850. He became almost synonymous with the school, despite a demanding day job as Clerk to the County Court. He canvassed subscribers until a collector could be appointed, taught the Sunday School and the evening classes, raised funds and promoted the cause until July 1860, when ill-health forced him to resign. He returned to the post in the mid-1870s, and served the School and its successor, the Palk Memorial home until 1891.
The loft proving inconvenient, the old Church Infant School in Lower Canal Walk was rented, and the first day saw five pupils. The second day, however, only saw three. The early days were chaotic. “The house was full of the very dregs of the town: there was yelling, shouting, stamping, throwing stale fish and stones. The reading boards and candles were flaming from one end of the room to the other.” (Hampshire Advertiser 23 August 1851.) The second Annual Report in July 1851 said 370 pupils had been enrolled since the opening, and “the appearance of the children, their general conduct and behaviour … has excited wonder and surprise.” The boys arrived at 9am, washed their hands, and at 9.30 school was opened with a hymn and a prayer. They had lessons in the Bible, reading and spelling, and the geography of England, with ten minutes recreation in the yard. They were dismissed at noon. To encourage them to come back for the afternoon, there were “swings etc” in the playground. Then more washing, and a lesson in natural history “or some other subject likely to interest them,” followed by writing and arithmetic. There were 137 pupils on the books, and an average attendance of 95.
Rev. James Crabb, one of the school’s great supporters, died 17 September 1851, and a collection was made for a memorial at the Cemetery in Hill Lane. Since the collection exceeded the £40 cost of the memorial, and the Corporation, as Mr Laishley’s request, had waived the cemetery fees, it was decided to put the rest towards a purpose-built Ragged School.
An advertisement appeared in the Advertiser, 27 December 1851, announcing the purchase of “an eligible freehold site in one of the most destitute and crowded parts of the town.” The plan was to teach girls as well as boys: a Ladies’ Committee had been formed, and a schoolmistress engaged, and now donations were solicited for the work “in order to check the fearful amount of juvenile profligacy existing in the Borough.” The Crabb memorial committee had promised £130, but the Committee would need financial support for the rest. Money was tight: one of the reasons they wanted their own building was the on-going expense of the rent of £43 a year on the School Room in Lower Canal Walk. They had ambitious plans, though, not only for school rooms, but also for “industrial occupations” and a small dormitory for the poorest boys.
In 1852, the school in Lower Canal Walk was open Monday-Friday 9-12 am and 2-4.30pm, Sundays 9-10.30am, 2-4.30pm, with an average attendance of 100 on weekdays, and 65 on Sundays. Evening classes were held in the winter 7-9pm Tuesdays and Thursdays: the evening students were separate from the daytime pupils. Apart from the education of the children, the school also distributed clothing “to the most deserving.” There seems to have been some concern that the pupils accepted at the school should indeed be deserving: the Committee asked for volunteer inspectors who could determine that the children were genuinely “neglected and uncared-for.”
With the building going up, Alderman Edward Palk, treasurer to the charity, persuaded the Council to hold the lease for the site in trust “for the purposes of a Ragged School.” (Hampshire Advertiser 7 January 1854.) The foundation stone was laid 6 October 1853.
The new school was opened with prayer on Monday 24 April 1854: this was not a secular school, but it was non-denominational. Anglicans, Congregationalists, Wesleyan Methodists, the Scots Presbyterian minister and Mr Trestrail of James Crabb’s Zion Chapel, were all present, together with such local worthies as Sampson Payne, Thomas Leader Harman, and of course, Edward Palk. It was announced that the total cost of the building would be £1200, with a shortfall of £65, which they needed before they could claim a Privy Council grant of £268 15s. Not for the first time, or the last, the Committee was asking for money. Classes began three days later. The architect was John Elliott, and the City Archives have his plans for the building (see below.)
The 1855 Annual Public meeting heard that the charity was free of debt on the building and the school, and had received the Privy Council grant, as well as keeping up a round of fundraising activities, such as bazaars and sermons in the various churches.
The new school, designed by John Elliot, consisted of two “light well-ventilated rooms,” one each for boys and girls, and a covered playground. Classes were held Monday-Friday 9-12am, and 2-4.30pm, Sundays 9.30-10.30am and 2.30-4.30, with a parents’ meeting in the evening, and winter evenings, Tuesdays and Fridays 7-9pm. The evening classes were for the older boys and young men who worked during the day “as hawkers, etc.” Fitting the boys for work was a long-term aim of the school: the Committee repeatedly spoke of their dream of a proper industrial training programme, but funds were always tight. The school was proud of their successes, but there was a high turn-over of pupils, and not every one completed their education. Of those who did, the 1855 meeting heard of a boy who had gone into service as a page, proudly showing the master his new uniform, and another learning the cigar manufacturing business. The Annual Tea Party was told in 1858 that 12 boys were cultivating a piece of glebe land donated by Archdeacon Wigram, one boy had become a page in a private household, and five had joined the Royal Navy.
In 1859, the site next door was bought for the hoped-for industrial school. The architects Hinves and Bedborough offered to provide the plans and superintend the building works “gratuitously,” an offer eagerly accepted by the Committee, along with £20 from the vendor, and £10 from Archdeacon Wigram. The total cost was £108 17s 6d, including £14 11s 4d to the Industrial Fund.
An opportunity was taken at the same time to add a classroom to each of the boys’ and girls’ ragged schools and to build a dormitory for the most deprived outcasts. This was particularly welcomed by the Mayor, Edward Palk. “There are a large number [of children,] he told the 1859 Annual Soiree, “who sleep in sugar casks, in porches, in sheds.” These children could be provided with a “nice home for them for the night, where they could be taken care of properly by a matron.” This was all part of the charity’s welfare provision: the soup kitchen would also operate from the same building.
It would appear from newspaper reports that the dormitory could be used as emergency accommodation “if a lad seemed really deserving.” He would be received, Mr Palk told the police while sitting as a magistrate, “up till 9 o’clock at night, or even later, and after a good bath be provided with supper, a clean and comfortable bed, and a breakfast the next morning.” In the 1861 census, there was one young man in residence: Edwin Lawes, aged 16, born Hurstbourne, Hants. Sadly, this seems to be the only time Mr Lawes appears on the public record. Use of the dormitory varied: in 1866-7, only 16 boys took advantage of the service, but in previous years there had been more, because of the presence of the Boscawen. “When that ship was in our waters many lads who came from a distance to join her found a home at the institution till they were able to be received on board.” (Hampshire Advertiser 7 December 1867)
The girls were taught domestic skills, including making soup in the soup kitchen. An evening class, on Tuesdays and Fridays, for older girls taught sewing and needlework. The boys were set to chopping wood, making paper bags and tailoring, “under the superintendence of competent instructors. The tailoring was considered to be very useful if the boys went to sea, but the paper bags were not good quality. Local businesses provided occasional work, even though this impacted on the boys’ attendance in the classroom.
The school and its new premises were becoming a focus for other services for the community. Alderman Palk donated a library, and a men’s reading room was opened in 1861, 7-10pm on Saturdays. There was a mothers’ meeting on Wednesday evenings, and other wholesome activities, such as talks and magic lantern shows. There was a penny savings bank, and means of buying cheap books and magazines.
It would seem the girls at least tried to follow fashion: in 1863, the Committee banned hoops and crinolines in the school as a health and safety risk. The children’s clothes were usually repurposed from donations in the industrial department, providing training and “new” clothes at the same time. Ladies formed sewing bees to make new warm clothes to give to the girls at Christmas. Captain Strutt raised money for Saturday dinners.
With passing of the Elementary Education Act in February 1870, things were changing. A Local School Board was elected in 1871, and plans to expand with a second ragged school in Simnel street were abandoned. The School Board had the power to take over the running of schools in their area, and to enforce attendance in the schools they controlled. Negotiations were apparently taking place in 1873, but there was a feeling that “the Ragged School children were a peculiar class, and it would be a long time before the School Board officer, master, or authorities themselves could bring them into sympathetic instruction.” (Hampshire Advertiser 22 October 1873) By 1877, the Ragged Schools had become Houndwell Board School on a fourteen year lease. The welfare and industrial education work that had been built up in the 26 years of the Ragged Schools’ existence were continued in the new Palk Memorial Hall, built in memory of Alderman Edward Palk. Houndwell Board School closed in about 1890, following a poor inspection and at the close of the lease.
Francis James Morris became Master in about 1858, at the age of 44, serving for nearly twenty years until the School closed. His wife, Ann, was matron for twelve years until her death in 1870. She had been a Sunday School teacher at Zion Chapel. Before he was a schoolmaster, Mr Morris was a coach plater like his father before him. In retirement, he kept a coffee house at 63 East Street, before becoming a resident of the God's House Almshouses in Winkle Street. He died in 1897.
When it closed, 31 May 1877, the Ragged School had taught 2769 boys since 1849, and 3485 girls since 1862.

Front Elevation, 1854

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From John Elliott's Plans in the City Archives

First Floor, the Girls' School, 1854

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From John Elliott's plans in the City Archives

Second Floor, the Boys' School, 1854

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From John Elliott's plans in the City Archives

see also
Palk Memorial Home, 1877-1900
Battenberg House, 1904-c1940


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