A movement which helped, possibly far more than any other, to better the lot of the children of the Poor commenced with the foundation of the Ragged School Union, of which the Queen became the patroness.
Out of this sprang a small army of agencies for well-doing. Commencing only with evening schools, which soon proved insufficient, the founders established day schools, with classes for exercise and industrial training: children were sent to our colonies where they would have a better chance of making a fair start in life; training ships, cripples’ homes, penny banks, holiday homes followed, and from these again the numerous Homes and Orphanages which entitle us to call the Victorian Age the Age of Kindness to Children.
Charles Dickens took the keenest interest in the work of the Ragged Schools. A letter from Lord Shaftesbury quoted in his Life gives a clear idea of the marvellous work they had accomplished up to the year 1871:
“After a period of 27 years, from a single school of five small infants, the work has grown into a cluster of some 300 schools, an aggregate of nearly 30,000 children, and a body of 3000 voluntary teachers, most of them the sons and daughters of toil. . . . Of more than 300,000 children, which, on the most moderate calculation, we have a right to conclude have passed through these schools since their commencement, I venture to affirm that more than 100,000 of both sexes have been placed out in various ways—in emigration, in the marine, in trades and in domestic service. For many consecutive years I have contributed prizes to thousands of the scholars; and let no one omit to call to mind what these children were, whence they came, and whither they were going without this merciful intervention. They would have been added to the perilous swarm of the wild, the lawless, the wretched, and the ignorant, instead of being, as by God’s blessing they are, decent and comfortable, earning an honest livelihood, and adorning the community to which they belong.”
Dickens believed, first of all, in teaching children cleanliness and decency before attempting anything in the form of education. “Give him, and his,” he said, “a glimpse of heaven through a little of its light and air; give them water; help them to be clean; lighten the heavy atmosphere in which their spirits flag and which makes them the callous things they are . . . and then, but not before, they will be brought willingly to hear of Him whose thoughts were so much with the wretched, and who had compassion for all human sorrow.”