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Crime and Education

I offer no apology for entreating the attention of the readers of
The Daily News to an effort which has been making for some three
years and a half, and which is making now, to introduce among the
most miserable and neglected outcasts in London, some knowledge of
the commonest principles of morality and religion; to commence their
recognition as immortal human creatures, before the Gaol Chaplain
becomes their only schoolmaster; to suggest to Society that its duty
to this wretched throng, foredoomed to crime and punishment,
rightfully begins at some distance from the police office; and that
the careless maintenance from year to year, in this, the capital
city of the world, of a vast hopeless nursery of ignorance, misery
and vice; a breeding place for the hulks and jails: is horrible to

This attempt is being made in certain of the most obscure and
squalid parts of the Metropolis, where rooms are opened, at night,
for the gratuitous instruction of all comers, children or adults,
under the title of RAGGED SCHOOLS. The name implies the purpose.
They who are too ragged, wretched, filthy, and forlorn, to enter any
other place: who could gain admission into no charity school, and
who would be driven from any church door; are invited to come in
here, and find some people not depraved, willing to teach them
something, and show them some sympathy, and stretch a hand out,
which is not the iron hand of Law, for their correction.

Before I describe a visit of my own to a Ragged School, and urge the
readers of this letter for God's sake to visit one themselves, and
think of it (which is my main object), let me say, that I know the
prisons of London well; that I have visited the largest of them more
times than I could count; and that the children in them are enough
to break the heart and hope of any man. I have never taken a
foreigner or a stranger of any kind to one of these establishments
but I have seen him so moved at sight of the child offenders, and so
affected by the contemplation of their utter renouncement and
desolation outside the prison walls, that he has been as little able
to disguise his emotion, as if some great grief had suddenly burst
upon him. Mr. Chesterton and Lieutenant Tracey (than whom more
intelligent and humane Governors of Prisons it would be hard, if not
impossible, to find) know perfectly well that these children pass
and repass through the prisons all their lives; that they are never
taught; that the first distinctions between right and wrong are,
from their cradles, perfectly confounded and perverted in their
minds; that they come of untaught parents, and will give birth to
another untaught generation; that in exact proportion to their
natural abilities, is the extent and scope of their depravity; and
that there is no escape or chance for them in any ordinary
revolution of human affairs. Happily, there are schools in these
prisons now. If any readers doubt how ignorant the children are,
let them visit those schools and see them at their tasks, and hear
how much they knew when they were sent there. If they would know
the produce of this seed, let them see a class of men and boys
together, at their books (as I have seen them in the House of
Correction for this county of Middlesex), and mark how painfully the
full grown felons toil at the very shape and form of letters; their
ignorance being so confirmed and solid. The contrast of this labour
in the men, with the less blunted quickness of the boys; the latent
shame and sense of degradation struggling through their dull
attempts at infant lessons; and the universal eagerness to learn,
impress me, in this passing retrospect, more painfully than I can

For the instruction, and as a first step in the reformation, of such
unhappy beings, the Ragged Schools were founded. I was first
attracted to the subject, and indeed was first made conscious of
their existence, about two years ago, or more, by seeing an
advertisement in the papers dated from West Street, Saffron Hill,
stating "That a room had been opened and supported in that wretched
neighbourhood for upwards of twelve months, where religious
instruction had been imparted to the poor", and explaining in a few
words what was meant by Ragged Schools as a generic term, including,
then, four or five similar places of instruction. I wrote to the
masters of this particular school to make some further inquiries,
and went myself soon afterwards.

It was a hot summer night; and the air of Field Lane and Saffron
Hill was not improved by such weather, nor were the people in those
streets very sober or honest company. Being unacquainted with the
exact locality of the school, I was fain to make some inquiries
about it. These were very jocosely received in general; but
everybody knew where it was, and gave the right direction to it.
The prevailing idea among the loungers (the greater part of them the
very sweepings of the streets and station houses) seemed to be, that
the teachers were quixotic, and the school upon the whole "a lark".
But there was certainly a kind of rough respect for the intention,
and (as I have said) nobody denied the school or its whereabouts, or
refused assistance in directing to it.

It consisted at that time of either two or three--I forget which--
miserable rooms, upstairs in a miserable house. In the best of
these, the pupils in the female school were being taught to read and
write; and though there were among the number, many wretched
creatures steeped in degradation to the lips, they were tolerably
quiet, and listened with apparent earnestness and patience to their
instructors. The appearance of this room was sad and melancholy, of
course--how could it be otherwise!--but, on the whole, encouraging.

The close, low chamber at the back, in which the boys were crowded,
was so foul and stifling as to be, at first, almost insupportable.
But its moral aspect was so far worse than its physical, that this
was soon forgotten. Huddled together on a bench about the room, and
shown out by some flaring candles stuck against the walls, were a
crowd of boys, varying from mere infants to young men; sellers of
fruit, herbs, lucifer-matches, flints; sleepers under the dry arches
of bridges; young thieves and beggars--with nothing natural to youth
about them: with nothing frank, ingenuous, or pleasant in their
faces; low-browed, vicious, cunning, wicked; abandoned of all help
but this; speeding downward to destruction; and UNUTTERABLY

This, Reader, was one room as full as it could hold; but these were
only grains in sample of a Multitude that are perpetually sifting
through these schools; in sample of a Multitude who had within them
once, and perhaps have now, the elements of men as good as you or I,
and maybe infinitely better; in sample of a Multitude among whose
doomed and sinful ranks (oh, think of this, and think of them!) the
child of any man upon this earth, however lofty his degree, must, as
by Destiny and Fate, be found, if, at its birth, it were consigned
to such an infancy and nurture, as these fallen creatures had!

This was the Class I saw at the Ragged School. They could not be
trusted with books; they could only be instructed orally; they were
difficult of reduction to anything like attention, obedience, or
decent behaviour; their benighted ignorance in reference to the
Deity, or to any social duty (how could they guess at any social
duty, being so discarded by all social teachers but the gaoler and
the hangman!) was terrible to see. Yet, even here, and among these,
something had been done already. The Ragged School was of recent
date and very poor; but he had inculcated some association with the
name of the Almighty, which was not an oath, and had taught them to
look forward in a hymn (they sang it) to another life, which would
correct the miseries and woes of this.

The new exposition I found in this Ragged School, of the frightful
neglect by the State of those whom it punishes so constantly, and
whom it might, as easily and less expensively, instruct and save;
together with the sight I had seen there, in the heart of London;
haunted me, and finally impelled me to an endeavour to bring these
Institutions under the notice of the Government; with some faint
hope that the vastness of the question would supersede the Theology
of the schools, and that the Bench of Bishops might adjust the
latter question, after some small grant had been conceded. I made
the attempt; and have heard no more of the subject from that hour.

The perusal of an advertisement in yesterday's paper, announcing a
lecture on the Ragged Schools last night, has led me into these
remarks. I might easily have given them another form; but I address
this letter to you, in the hope that some few readers in whom I have
awakened an interest, as a writer of fiction, may be, by that means,
attracted to the subject, who might otherwise, unintentionally, pass
it over.

I have no desire to praise the system pursued in the Ragged Schools;
which is necessarily very imperfect, if indeed there be one. So far
as I have any means of judging of what is taught there, I should
individually object to it, as not being sufficiently secular, and as
presenting too many religious mysteries and difficulties, to minds
not sufficiently prepared for their reception. But I should very
imperfectly discharge in myself the duty I wish to urge and impress
on others, if I allowed any such doubt of mine to interfere with my
appreciation of the efforts of these teachers, or my true wish to
promote them by any slight means in my power. Irritating topics, of
all kinds, are equally far removed from my purpose and intention.
But, I adjure those excellent persons who aid, munificently, in the
building of New Churches, to think of these Ragged Schools; to
reflect whether some portion of their rich endowments might not be
spared for such a purpose; to contemplate, calmly, the necessity of
beginning at the beginning; to consider for themselves where the
Christian Religion most needs and most suggests immediate help and
illustration; and not to decide on any theory or hearsay, but to go
themselves into the Prisons and the Ragged Schools, and form their
own conclusions. They will be shocked, pained, and repelled, by
much that they learn there; but nothing they can learn will be one-
thousandth part so shocking, painful, and repulsive, as the
continuance for one year more of these things as they have been for
too many years already.

Anticipating that some of the more prominent facts connected with
the history of the Ragged Schools, may become known to the readers
of The Daily News through your account of the lecture in question, I
abstain (though in possession of some such information) from
pursuing the question further, at this time. But if I should see
occasion, I will take leave to return to it.

Charles Dickens

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