A hundred and fifty years ago, the adjective “ragged” was attached to schools providing free elementary education to poor children in England – “ragged” because of the children’s clothes and lack of shoes. Such schools were funded by wealthy philanthropists who wanted to give poor children a chance for a better life.
In the 1860s, poor children spent their days as street sellers or beggars, earning a bit to help feed their families. In East London, near the docks, many children were mudlarks – wading into the mud in their bare feet in search of bits of coal, copper, or any scrap they might sell. Most never learned to read or write.
Thomas Barnardo, (the same Barnardo later associated with Home Children emigrants to Canada), saw the need for free schooling and established the Copperfield Road Ragged School in a warehouse. The school opened in 1877 and operated until 1908, when public education became widely available in the area.
Similar “free schools” operated in Canada too. For example, Enoch Turner, a wealthy brewer and philanthropist donated funds for the first free school in Toronto. It opened in 1849, providing education to the children of poor immigrants from Ireland. Now it is a public museum and an events venue.