Ancestry UK

A Visit to Grotto Passage Ragged School

The following article, here slightly abridged, appeared in 1858.


The Ragged School in Grotto Passage, High Street, Marylebone, was established in 1845. The district selected by the founders for their beneficent efforts is notoriously one of the most debased spots of London. The nest of courts midst which it is planted form an oblong square, so flanked by the residences of the aristocracy that a stone's- throw suffices to divide the homes of penury from the halls of luxury. In no part of London does the “great social evil,” as it has been aptly termed, form a more prominent feature—the only distinction being that, whilst the reveller of the Haymarket flaunts in silk and satin, with brandied-eye and rouge-cheek, the wretched tenants of this place are too poor to disguise their vice, or too degraded to seek to hide their occupation, Jezebel like, by paint. Night after night, and far into the Lord's-day morning, drunken men and dishevelled women are seen, under the influence of intoxication, raving and fighting like maniacs, or vainly seeking, with hoarse laugh and filthy song, to hide the misery of  the heart. We recently visited the police court at the end of the passage, and found on Monday morning about 40 persons, for the most part chargeable with disorderly conduct, rather than with positive crime, awaiting the decision of the magistrate. Of these, 18 were loose females, and 7 lads, one only of whom had attended a Ragged School. Whilst we scanned the bloated countenance, bloodshot eye, and the haggard brow, which told that vice had done its hideous work of inducing age in extreme youth, never was there presented a more striking illustration of the sad fact, that, if we are anxious to efface all traces of physical beauty, an early indulgence in vice is the best course to adopt. Well then is it that a Ragged School is conducted in this moral waste, with the two-fold object of rescuing the fallen, and of precluding youth from imbibing the poison vended gratis in the district.

Although we purpose chiefly to describe the Refuge connected with this valuable Institution, a slight glance at the School department may be fitly introduced. In the day schools we found about 240 boys, girls, and infants assembled. Some of these are the children of thieves and fallen women; others are the offspring of Irish Romanists; a most difficult class to manage, especially if an attempt be made to rule by fear rather than by love. But, seeing that on our entrance many a tiny infant hand was held out to greet us, we learnt by this simple freemasonry that, guided by loving teachers, they felt that every visitor must equally be a friend. Then how clean, how orderly, and respectful were they! and how sweetly they sang of Him who on earth was, and in heaven is still, the children's friend! On a former visit, struck by the quiet demeanour of one girl, we inquired into her history, and found that she had been one of the most unruly that had ever attended the school. Not only was she disobedient to her teacher, but her great delight was to tease and quarrel with her schoolfellows; and expulsion seemed to be the only remedy; to prevent this she was, on one occasion, kept back by the teacher when the school was dismissed, and prayed with alone. This softened the hard heart—tears fell like rain; and she, who had been the worst, became from that time the model girl of the school. So much for the omnipotence of love, when guided by faith.

The night schools are attended by 60 elder boys and girls; and the Sunday school, held thrice on the Lord's day, by 150 scholars. The evening Sunday school —the first and the best feature of the Ragged School movement—would doubtless attract a large attendance of “Roughs” were there more teachers. We regret to learn that many are excluded, night after night, simply because though “the harvest is plenteous, the labourers are few.” Our Divine Master left but one message to his servants, “Occupy till I come.” Surely then it is as positive an act of disobedience, as if any of the ten commandments were violated, for Christians to sit in a comfortable pew, and partake of gospel consolations, whilst perishing souls are crying out in vain, “Come over and help us!”

Not many years after the boys' day and night schools were established, it was found that many attended, who if they had parents had far better been without such relatives; for, as the force of example is ever the most potent, so by their profligate habits they undid every lesson taught at school. Nor were these home-evils merely of a negative character; for many cases were discovered of fathers who did not hesitate to teach their sons to pilfer, that they might pass their days in idleness and their nights in the gin-palace. Again, many homeless or orphan lads attended, whose wan complexion and miserable attire did not require speech to tell of the destitution they endured. Others, too, had been imprisoned for petty theft; and friendless and characterless as they were, waged war with that society which had left them scarcely any alternative but either to thieve or starve. Many, alas! when the inquiry was made, “Have you any relations?” replied, “None, as I knows of!”

Refuge Department of the Grotto Passage School.

These painful cases—and private investigation revealed the sad fact that they only illustrated hundreds of similar cases—led the Committee to open a Boys' Refuge in January, 1849. It thus appears that this was the first Institution that copied the precedent set by the Ragged School Union, who opened a Boys' Refuge in Westminster in 1846. Since that period, about 280 lads have participated in its benefits; to the majority of whom it has not only afforded shelter, but become a true “place of repentance.” One fact respecting those admitted deserves commendation and general imitation; namely, the readiness with which boys from other Ragged Schools have been admitted; thereby manifesting that large-hearted, and truly catholic spirit which, not content with “looking on its own things,” also “looks on things of others.” For example, of the 26 lads who were admitted into this Refuge last year, no less than 21 were admitted on the recommendation of other Ragged Schools.

The following cases will indicate the staple of the class who from the first have been received into this Refuge:—

No. 1.—Aged 17. Was born of parents in good circumstances, but who gave him over to the care of others at an early age. He began stealing at nine years old; was imprisoned in the north of England; and on his discharge tramped to London. He soon became the associate of thieves, and entered upon a course of crime which must have ended in transportation, had he not entered this Refuge. He has been in prison nearly twenty times.

No. 2.—Aged 15. Both parents are dead. Exposed at an early age to the influence of bad companions, he began by stealing, and ended by gaining a livelihood by passing counterfeit coin. Has been imprisoned two or three times.

No. 3.—Leaving his home from ill-treatment, he got an honest livelihood for some time; but at length, yielding to temptation, he stole, and was imprisoned. He afterwards wandered about from place to place; being sometimes honestly employed, but oftener getting committed to prison for small offences.

No. 4.—Was left, at the death of his parents, without a friend in the world; and got his living, and often his lodging, in the streets. He was found by a member of the Committee, at five in the morning, sitting on a doorstep, half-starved.

No. 5.—Father dead, and probably mother. He was deserted when three years old, and sent to the workhouse. Being turned out from thence, he obtained a precarious living by odd jobs, Was found half-starved in the streets by one of the Committee. He had lived, like too many of his class, under arches, in mews, under carts, &c.

It may be further intimated, as showing that this Institution includes the criminal as well as the destitute class, and hence that it presents the twofold aspect of being reformatory as well as preventive, that of the 280 lads admitted since the opening of the Refuge, no less than 100 had been imprisoned 297 times. Of the bulk of these, it is reported that they have either entered the royal navy, the merchant service, or emigrated, and that the majority are known to be thoroughly reclaimed.

The time-tables suspended in the office show that the hours are not allowed to run on drearily, for it appears that four hours and a half are daily devoted to secular and religious instruction, and seven hours to industrial training. In addition to tailoring, and domestic work, the following branches of industry are carried on, namely, shoemaking, mat-making, hair and wool-picking, church-hassocks, which serve as hatboxes and' iible-holders; firewood, and carpenteries. Some of the boxes of the Shoe-black Brigade have also been made by the inmates. At our visit we found 23 boys employed in the two workshops. Of these, 16 were inmates of the Refuge; the remainder belonged to the day school, and, selected for their destitution, are formed into an industrial class, and receive dinner daily, as the reward of their industry. These lads we found busily employed as follows: —5 in mat-making; 8 in wood-chopping; 7 at hairpicking; 1 in tailoring; 1 at shoemaking; and 1 at carpentering.

Very pleasant was it to hear the mat-makers and hair-pickers lightening their labours with a hearty strain. It forcibly recalled the noble weaver's song of Barry Cornwall:—

“Sing, brothers, sing and weave;
'Tis better to work than be idle;
'Tis better to sing than grieve.
There is not one, from Britain's king
To the peasant that delves the soil,
Who knows half the joys the seasons bring
Who hath not his share of toil.”

As we personally knew several of the inmates whilst attending another Ragged School, we can testify to the wondrous change which has taken place in their habits, nay, in their very physiognomy. There were “Roughs” of dissolute life, to whom theft and imprisonment were normal states. Many a night, too, had these British Pariahs passed in the casual wards of workhouses, or under the dark arches of the Adelphi. Under the influence of this roving life, they had contracted a defiant or suspicious look, as if they fancied every man an enemy, and that every step was tracked by the police. But now, the lack-lustre eye had brightened into intelligence; their arms, whilst at work, worked with the precision of a steam-engine; and the frank, manly glance of most was an apt illustration of the words of a reclaimed Ragged scholar, “I can look any peeler in the face, now!” Yes, there is nothing like wisely directed love to tame the wild human soul; at least, it does not treat men as if they were demons, and then expect them to act like angels!

That the inmates are not idlers in the great workshop of the world, an inspection of the work done last year fully proves. For, in addition to mending their own clothes, cooking their rations, and cleaning the Refuge, they made 53,209 bundles of firewood, and delivered them at the residence of purchasers. They also, by means of the 3 upright and the 3 smaller looms, which form so conspicuous an object in the upper workshop, made 284 large and small mats, most of which were sold. They also picked 8,445 lbs. of wool and hair last year; this being the first industrial test to which an applicant is submitted.

A charge has been recently made against Reformatories, that the inmates are so unduly petted that many criminals enter them, not because they repent of past transgression, but simply because they wish for an easy life, with every want provided, and where they become the object of a morbid hero-worship. But it must not be forgotten that, from the unruly habits of this class, the heaviest item in the costly expenditure necessarily consists, not in food, but in management. It is this alone which causes the painful contrast between the wages of the honest labourer and that incurred by the inmates of many Reformatories. But one question ought to be considered before the question is decided; namely, What would these men cost were they allowed still to prey on the public, or were confined in prison? But be the charge true or false, it assuredly does not apply to the Refuges affiliated to the Ragged School Union. For example, the total cost of the Refuge and Industrial class of this Institution is about £400 per annum. If, then, the cost of the industrial class, which amounts to £50 per annum, be deducted, it would seem that £22 covers the annual cost of each inmate, for food, rent, management, working materials, and outfits. Yet, even from this sum must be deducted their share of the united earnings. As, during last year, goods were sold amounting to £81, we cannot, considering their superior aptitude and skill, reduce the share of the inmates below £65. Hence it follows that the total cost of the Refuge is £287; or, as there are 16 inmates, about £18 per head per annum. As few remain in the Refuge longer than one year, it thus appears that the trifling sum of £18 suffices for the reformation and enrolment among the working bees of society of each inmate. Viewed, then, merely from the economical stand-point, how encouraging the result; and what a contrast it presents to the expense which their career would have cost the country had they not been grasped by the strong hand of Christian kindness. The striking language of Inspector Pearce pourtrays what their fate must have been:—“I never see a boy at the bar of a police-court but I think, Well, you will cost the country £300 before we have done with you!”

Nor has this Institution been without results. We think John Bull is too inclined to expect immediate results from any scheme of social amelioration, instead of asking, Is it right to try, or is the plan suggested adapted to the emergency? It is the very same principle which makes him so often a worshipper of success, rather than a venerator of the true and the good. Yet, still there has never been a work of faith—whether it be of John Howard, the prisoner's friend, or of George Müller, the orphan's father—which has not reaped a rich harvest even in this world. Nor has this Refuge been an exception to the rule that “in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.” Since the opening of this Institution, 262 boys have been permanently provided for; and none as sailors have been more successful in obtaining that graduate symbol of thorough seamanship, A.B., attached to their names, than these poor lads. Of the 262 reclaimed outcasts who have thus entered on the busy scenes of life during the past nine years, their employment may be thus specified:—


62Destitute Boys have been sent toAustralia.
82...the Royal Navy.
51...Merchant Ships.
  23...various kinds of service at home.


The gratitude and success of former inmates is attested by many letters; for we rejoice to find that the fatherly hand that rescued them is not withheld now that they are called to fight the battle of life in the broad world. Two brief specimens we have culled from the letter-book,—one from a party of emigrants, the other from a sailor:—

“On board the Troubadour off Plymouth.

“Before quitting our native land, allow us to return our sincere and united thanks for your kindness to us while in Grotto Passage School, for the good books and comfortable clothing you so kindly supplied us with. We feel it our duty to thank you for the same, and also to express our gratitude to all the kind friends which the Father of the fatherless and the Friend of the orphan raised for us in that school. We hope and trust that we shall by our good conduct always show the use and value of the instruction and kindness received there. We are very comfortable on board, in good health, and enjoying every comfort we wish for.



“Portsmouth, H.M.S. Victory.

“It is with great pleasure that I now take up my pen to address your lordship [Lord Kinnaird]. I received your kind letter and books, and am very much obliged for such a kind letter. I have seen the admiral, and he sends me to school every day. He also told me that you sent a letter to him respecting me. They pass Sunday very different here to what I did at school—they curse and swear, instead of keeping the Lord's day holy. I am very much obliged to you for what you have done for me while I was about the streets. I find that the way of transgressors are [sic] hard, and by keeping God's commandments I prosper. I hope that the instruction I learned will do me good, not only in this world, but in the other and brighter world.”


There are, however, few pictures true to nature which have not a back-ground of gloom; and this sketch would not be a correct photograph, were the shadows omitted. For, notwithstanding strenuous efforts have been made to liquidate debts formerly contracted, nearly £200 is unliquidated. We more especially regret this fact, because it not only forbids any experiment, but precludes an alteration in the premises which would prove very serviceable to the Institution. A front entrance is required in Paddington Street, and a house, whose back premises adjoin the Refuge, might be obtained for that purpose, did the funds permit. By this alteration the indefatigable master would be enabled to display the mats and other articles manufactured by the inmates, and so obtain a readier sale for the dead stock—visitors could enter the Institution without being annoyed by the wretched girls infesting the court; and the inmates would be preserved from the allurements to vice to which they are now exposed.