Religion and Relationships in Ragged Schools

An Intimate History of Educating the Poor, 1844-1870

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Laura M. Mair
Routledge Studies in Evangelicalism
  • New York, NY: 
    , April
     270 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Laura M. Mair’s Religion and Relationships in Ragged Schools is a historical exploration of low-income children educated in mid-19th-century England and Scotland, and an investigation into the relationships formed between them and their teachers. Her work enters into an ongoing scholarly conversation of movements to save children. However, this book examines varying dialogic exchanges (or testimonies) exhibited in personal diary entries between Martin Ware, the superintendent of a North London school, and young scholars, to elucidate the impact of the teacher on his pupils. Mair highlights the impact of “ragged schools” in countering the perils of poverty, issues surrounding juvenile delinquency, as well as moving towards a Protestant Christian way of life. While clearly a historical exploration, Mair’s work is not esoteric and lofty, but accessible and relevant.

According to the author, poor children were educated in “lofts, railway arches, and warehouses” that were “transformed into schools for the unkempt and dirty children of the destitute and dubbed ‘ragged schools’” (1). The initial formation of these schools was to provide a place where students could interact with evangelical faith, through volunteer teachers. The definition of “evangelical” is unclear; yet one must assume throughout the text that her understanding is rooted in a mainline, Protestant definition of “gospel,” and its implications on people.

The book begins with an overview of mid-19th-century society in England and Scotland, which highlights the impact of industrialization, increase in migration, and increase in many cities. This overview provides background information regarding how poor children are depicted and addressed during this time period. Mair then describes the educational system for the poor, from the early-to-mid 1800s, allowing the reader to understand the place education among poor children had in society at this point, and to describe the process by which “ragged schools” were fashioned.

In addition to the societal contextual information, the author later provides a clear overview of how these children were depicted in that society. Certain promotional literature illustrated stereotypes of impoverished children. Rather than stressing the stereotypical nature of such material, Mair explores the lives behind the literature. She humanizes her historical subjects rather than leaving them as abstract ideas for the remainder of her text. One comes to know the knowledgeable and compassionate characteristics of Ware, and how he provided support to these students in the midst of a social-historical context that framed them negatively.

Mair spends a good deal of time on children and teachers in the classroom. Unlike other scholars, such as Shurlee Swain, Margot Hillel, and Linda Mahood, who have focused on the teachers, Mair centers on the students themselves. This allows the reader to experience the thoughts and feelings of students in these ragged schools, through detailed journal entries from a teacher.

One can appreciate the personal components of this historical study, as it puts a face on an otherwise aloof subject matter. The author does a satisfactory job in displaying the complexity of the relationships between these two groups in these schools. Furthermore, these are not just static accounts; they display change over a period of time. The evolution of these students’ lives shows the impact—whether positive or negative—that their teachers had upon them. Mair is an expert in extrapolating central themes from the primary sources—for example, how one’s class affects one’s ability to receive a quality education—in order to present a clear picture of this microcosm of British society in the mid-19th century.

One key component of this study is the underpinning of religious, particularly Protestant Christian, ideology. Many of the ragged schools sought to bring the gospel to places in the urban context that were deemed dark. While not as developed as other ideas in her text (i.e., implications and illustrations of child poverty), Mair does a decent job in providing a historical understanding to the response to Roman Catholic intervention, and how that intervention was perceived in communities where ragged schools were located. Further, to her credit, the author touches on the lasting impact of faith on students, as exhibited in superintendent Ware’s journals. More analysis could have been provided to show how the religious lives of the teachers shaped their students.

The release of Mair’s book coincides with increasingly significant debates about education in the West, particularly in the United States. The educational issues she examines, such as childhood poverty and explicit religious teaching, garner increasing attention. The broader social context is impacted by economic disparity in many school districts and political decision-making that has far-reaching implications (especially as it relates to financial distribution within a school district). There have been shifts in pedagogical and methodological foci (which adversely affect particular populations of students), racial and ethnic disparity in academic achievement, and constant conversations about teaching to the “whole” child—all the while remaining competitive academically on the global stage.

This book offers a scholarly and historical exploration of sensitive subject matter: the relationships cultivated among students and teachers in makeshift classrooms, serving poor communities that had significant impact on the personal lives of students. Having this conversation in today’s context allows the reader to ponder the implications of life-on-life (personal) relationships between pupil and educator.

Religion and Relationships in Ragged Schools delves into history, sociology, and theology, with varying degrees of success. Overall, however, it is a stand-out text when it comes to understanding unique communities that still exist in societies across the globe. By providing a historical account of this nature, Mair provokes more questions for consideration today.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jairus E. Hallums a Middle School Educator and Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
May 19, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Laura M. Mair is Research Fellow at the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh. She has published on the ragged schools in the Journal of Victorian Culture and Studies in Church History. Mair was a consultant to the V&A Museum of Childhood in connection with the 'On Their Own: Britain’s Child Migrants' exhibition. She is currently an advisor to London’s Ragged School Museum.


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