Inner city heritage

“No-one will comprehend the mine of national wealth that is the children of Deptford.”

Started in Flood Street, South London above a skittle alley in December 1844, a propitious month, the Deptford Ragged School was started to serve the children of the area, between creek and river. The police reported it too dangerous an area to patrol, the “lowest of the low.”

This was thirty years before the state started to offer education to all children.

The original institution was one of a number known as ragged schools – serving children in rags and connected through the efforts of the Victorian reformer Lord Shaftesbury. It offered teaching and a wide range of other social activities for the community of all ages, from day trips to the hilly fields of Brockley through to a ‘slate club’ for local adults, as a mutual insurance pool in case of sickness.

By 1862, there were 160 children coming each day, 64 in the evening and 140 on Sundays. This was the ‘mine of national wealth’.

I’ve spent the evening with a volunteer archivist at the building, now the Bear Church in Deptford, London, hearing about the lives of local children over time. Katharine Alston has a PhD in museum education and is taking the stories that she finds, along with her volunteer team, largely churchgoers as were the founders, to the school close by today.

My wonderful friend Jani Llewelyn was a nursery school teacher at this school and it was thanks to her many years ago that a charitable trust was started to support education in Deptford and far away in Mozambique, the Merry Trust. When Jani, still young, was given a short time to live, her pension was commuted and entrepreneurially she bought her council flat, a stones throw away, and left them in her will for reinvestment in the community. The education work of the Deptford Ragged School Archive is funded today by her spirited activism.

Not all were model pupils, then or now, but often spirited. One nineteenth century report Katharine shows me is of a child who “came into school and rushed up the chimney and after rubbing his hair well in the soot, suddenly descended and, dancing round the room, shook the soot all over it.

But it served.

By 1886, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury commented that “there is no institution in England more worthy of support than the Deptford Ragged School.”