'A transcript of their mind'? Ragged school literacy in the mid-nineteenth century

Laura Mair

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article explores the education ragged schools imparted in the mid-nineteenth century. It argues that the ragged school movement filled an important need within communities, teaching reading and writing to those children excluded from existing institutions by their poverty. Until now, scholarship on the education offered in ragged schools has focused on the assessment of government inspectors or the movement’s own literature. Using a collection of 227 letters ragged school emigrants sent their former teacher, this article shifts attention towards the children’s own words and penmanship. It demonstrates the widely varying abilities found within one classroom, contrasting those who required amanuenses with those letter-writers who composed poetry. This article offers a new and valuable insight into the literacy attained by the poorest children in Victorian society, as well as their individual efforts to improve. The letters evidence the value placed on literacy and reveal the time former ragged school scholars invested in cultivating their reading and writing skills. It suggests both pride and shame could be attached to literacy, with letter composition evoking anxiety for some. More broadly, this article presents a new view of working-class education by revealing young men’s immediate attitudes towards literacy, inaccessible through autobiographies or memoirs.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbervcy050
Pages (from-to)1-16
JournalJournal of Victorian Culture
Publication statusPublished - 6 Aug 2018


  • emigration
  • literacy
  • education
  • poverty
  • Lletters
  • emotion
  • Britain


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