As Miss Poole introduced herself to her class, she looked very much like a Victorian school marm – brown hair pulled back, wire-rimmed glassed, stern expression. She wore a maroon-coloured full-length skirt and long-sleeved, high-collared white blouse and she carried a thin cane, hooked at one end. In many Victorian schools, teachers used a cane like this to beat children who misbehaved. “This school was established by Dr. Barnardo who didn’t believe in beating children,” she said. “I won’t be hitting anyone.” The six and seven-year olds in front of her, a class from a nearby school, relaxed. Then she demonstrated how she would only wave her cane at them if they disobeyed the rules.
“Sit up straight. Put your hands in your lap. No talking or giggling. If I ask you a question, stand up straight beside your desk to answer it. You must use your right hand for writing,” she continued. “No left-hand writing is allowed.” The girls and boys were seated on opposite sides of the classroom in traditional wooden desks, two children in each desk. When one little boy squirmed, she walked toward him briskly and waved her cane. He froze. Other children did too.
I had received permission to observe Miss Poole take the children through brief lessons in reading, writing, and arithmetic. The children used slate pencils to write words and numbers. As she taught, Miss Poole sprinkled her lesson with moral guidance from the Victorian era. More haste, less speed. Silence is golden. There is no fun like work. Miss Poole is in fact an actress, hired by the Ragged School Museum in East London, UK. The museum was established in 1990 in a warehouse that was previously used for Dr. Barnardo’s Copperfield Road Ragged School.
Today the Ragged School Museum is much like the one-room school museums in Ontario. It offers lessons to local school children. Their visit includes time in a Victorian kitchen with various items for children to test — a washing board, tub for bathing, and hand-operated meat grinder. It’s an experiential history lesson. I enjoyed it too.