History is where you find it, and a visit to the Tea House Theatre teashop in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens recalls one of the more savoury chapters in Vauxhall’s history. No, not the celebrated Vauxhall Gardens pleasure resort on this very spot (1660s-1859) but the part Vauxhall played in origins of free, primary-school education for all, in what became known as the Ragged School movement.
On the Tea House Theatre bookshelf is a battered bound copy of The London Journal and Weekly Record of Literature, and Art Journal for 1848. The London Journal, ‘Price One Penny,’ is a scissors-and-paste job throwing together items from French as well as British current affairs, and is perhaps in itself evidence of a growing literacy and hunger for knowledge. The 15 July 1848 issue carries a report of a debate at Westminster on 6 June in which Lord Ashley proposed that the Government should ‘improve the condition of the lowest, and most to be pitied, as well as feared, of our fellow citizens.’
Ashley said that 500 girls and 500 boys should be taken ‘every year from the ragged schools’ for ‘transplant’ to Australia at the public expense. These ‘transplants’ would not be the hard cases, but the well-behaved and willing to learn. The idea apparently was to save them from the street life outside.
Ashley looked at the books of 16 schools, attended by 2,345 youngsters between the ages of five and 17. Of these, 162 ‘confessed’ that they had been to prison, many of them several times. 116 had run away from home, and 170 slept in lodging houses, ‘the nests of every abomination that the mind of man could imagine.’ 253 lived by begging, 216 had neither shoes not stockings, 249 had never slept in a bed, and many had lost one or both parents.
By the 1840s, the industrialisation of Vauxhall and elsewhere led to such increases in population that many children went without schooling, either because their families could not afford it or because demand outstripped what existing charities could supply. ‘Ragged Schools’ sprang up in poor districts, often in stables, lofts and railway arches, where local working people and well-wishers taught reading, writing and arithmetic on Sundays.
In 1849, Henry Beaufoy, owner of the distillery that is now Regent’s Bridge Gardens, established the ‘Lambeth Ragged School’ in Newport Street, where children had once been taught in one of the railway arches. Free, compulsory primary education came in after the Education Act of 1870.One-third of the building remains, home of the Beaconsfield art gallery. The Lambeth Ragged School also taught children a trade and in time morphed into the former Beaufoy Institute technical school around the corner in Black Prince Road.
House of Lords Archivist Simon Gough has kindly provided this link to the 1848 ‘transplant’ debate: