Ipswich Icons: How Ipswich’s Ragged School helped pave the way for the town’s education system

The front elevation of the former Ragged School building in Waterworks Street, Ipswich. Picture: IPS

The front elevation of the former Ragged School building in Waterworks Street, Ipswich. Picture: IPSWICH SOCIETY - Credit: Archant

John Norman reminds us how much of a privilege it once was to have a decent education – and not so very long ago, either.

The engineering giant Ransomes & May (later to become Ransomes Sims and Jefferies) moved its foundry from St Margaret’s Ditches to Orwell Quay in the 1840s. The new works demanded a vast increase in labour, which encouraged more people to move into Ipswich from the rural hinterland.

In the first instance these were single men: adaptable, mobile and able to live in shared accommodation. As the demand for labour increased, and farmworkers could see the advantage of year-round wages, other men brought families into the town.

The families, of course, required accommodation and rows of terraced houses were built in an area known as the Potteries (between St Clement’s and St Helen’s churches, Rope Walk). The location was convenient not only for Ransomes’ new works but for other employers with their factories and foundries close to the Wet Dock.

Not all the families moving into town found employment, and for those that didn’t (or if the regular bread-winner lost his post) their children suffered. They went without food, wore worn-out shoes (or none at all) and their clothes could best be described as rags. It was this group of children, existing in the eastern part of town, that the philanthropist Richard Dykes Alexander, a Quaker banker, decided to help.

Children whose parents were considered worthless, common criminals or beggars (all attributes brought about by the lack of employment) were offered places in a specially-funded and constructed Ragged School. The first premises were a cottage in St Clements’ Church Lane, started in 1849 under the control of Joshua George Newman. For almost 20 years he taught the most difficult unruly children and achieved some great results, turning out not the best of academics but young people who were capable and were able to hold down employment.

Joshua Newman had come to Ipswich in 1851 to run a dormitory and training school supported by a couple of benefactors. Unfortunately that enterprise failed but Newman moved to the Ragged School, aged just 30, where he taught carpentry and woodwork as well as reading and writing.

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Actually, the majority of what the boys did was collecting and chopping firewood, and then bundling it for sale. The girls learned domestic skills, usually work brought in from the community. Soon after starting, the school moved to a purpose-built school room in Waterworks Street.

The Ragged School wasn’t the first of the social or religious schools. The Grey Coat School for Boys was established in Curriers Lane in 1709 (150 years earlier). A school for girls was opened in 1710 but this was definitely educationally “inferior”.

There was of course no state or compulsory education; parents who could afford a private education for their offspring sent them to a fee-paying grammar school. The various Christian religions opened schools for a select few from their own parish, but a sizeable majority of young people went without an education.

One of the key subjects taught (to boys) at the Grey Coat School was navigation, and a fair proportion of students went to sea – those making it through the ranks contributing financially to the running of the school long after they had left.

In 1870 the Forster Education Act was the first stirring of state education. In Ipswich a school board was inaugurated in 1871 and Joshua Newman appointed the board’s first school warden. The school building in Waterworks Street was offered to the school board and in 1872 became its first school: Waterworks Street Infants.

The Ragged School was handed back to its owners in 1873 and the infants moved to Bond Street. The school board embarked on an extensive building programme and schools for boys, girls and infants were built in Wherstead Road, Argyle Street and Trinity Street.

By 1892 a further seven schools had been added to the portfolio and state education in Ipswich was established.

Church schools and privately-funded public schools were still available, and supplementing the state sector to ensure education for all prior to the First World War.

The Ragged School building remains in Waterworks Street; however, the front gable was moved back for a street-widening scheme in 1984 and the building has since been converted to residential accommodation.