Ipswich Ragged Boys School, Waterworks Street Ipswich IP4 1JG.
The engineering giant Ransomes & May (later to become Ransomes Sims and Jefferies) moved its foundry from St Margarets 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. The St Clements and Rope Walk areas of Ipswich became packed with cramped, poor housing with a high rate of crime and unemployment.
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 Clements and St Helens churches, Rope Walk). The location was convenient not only for Ransome's 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 decided to help. Alexander was a banker and a Quaker; he was also a pioneering photographer.
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. With Victorian bluntness the Ragged School* was founded in 1849 for children: ‘Too poor, too ragged, too filthy, too ignorant, for ordinary instruction.’ This reminds us of how much of a privilege it once was to have a decent education – and not so very long ago. The school was first established in a cottage in St Clements Church Lane under the control of Joshua George Newman.
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. For almost twenty years he and his wife Deborah 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. In 1859 there were 135 pupils.
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 school later moved to the Waterworks Street building we see today – although it’s a bit smaller now.
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 the Ragged School was definitely educationally ‘inferior’.
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.
In 1849 a separate Ragged Girls School was built further up the road in Bond Street, close to the rear of County Hall. At this time it was still part of The Ragged School Union, as it was when expanded in 1900. Foundation stones testify to this link. Today the building is in good order and used as a children’s nursery.
The Ragged Girls School – two of the six foundation stones (illustrated below): 'THIS STONE WAS LAID BY D. FORD GODDARD ESQ. MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT FOR THE BOROUGH; NOVEMBER 29TH 1900; EADE & JOHNS ARCHITECTS.'. 'THIS STONE WAS LAID BY THE MOST HONOURABLE THE MARQUIS OF NORTHAMPTON, PRESIDENT OF THE RAGGED SCHOOL UNION; NOVEMBER 29TH 1900.'
One notable event in Ipswich history occurred in 1984 when plans were made to widen Waterworks Street for the ‘Eastern Gyratory’ traffic scheme from a relatively narrow road. The gabled frontage of Ragged School, with its lettering intact, was moved back several feet by specialist contractors to save this important part of Ipswich’s education history. This is a markedly different approach to the widespread demolition of ancient buildings which took place in the 1960s and 1970s in Ipswich, often to be replaced by somewhat brutalist glass, steel and concrete. The building behind the Ragged Boys School facade was converted into housing, accessible from the car park to the south. N.B.: The two cottages immediately south of the Ragged School, before it was cut and moved are 'Merchant House', carefully taken down, stored and eventually re-erected in Silent Street.
(*It was not only the Victorians who were tactless when naming schools and organisations. In the 1920s there was a building at 253 Ranelagh Road, close to the junction with London Road, called ‘Home for Feeble Minded Girls’ with Miss Lincoln as Matron. This building has now gone and a McDonalds drive-through restaurant occupies the site.)
[Sources: John Norman's Ipswich Icons, Ipswich Star 13.5.17; Ipswich Society Image Archive captions and images.]