Alexander MacLagan, a Scottish poet and lyricist, wrote and compiled this collection of songs and poems themed around ‘ragged’ schools. Ragged schools were institutions that provided free education for the poorest children at a time when it was not provided by the British government.

Who was MacLagan’s intended audience? 

On the one hand, Ragged School Rhymes may have been assembled for ragged school pupils. Composed in a simple form, the songs and poems are easy to recite and suitable for children with basic literacy skills. Their subjects teach upright moral qualities such as thankfulness and hard work. 

On the other hand, it may have been aimed at potential patrons as a giftbook that promotes the ragged schools’ work and principles. In the Preface MacLagan writes that he intends to ‘enlist the sympathy of a few warms hearts in the benevolent and truly Christian movement’. Publishing books of fiction or poetry was a common way to raise funds for charitable institutions, such as ragged schools. 

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s support 

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s familiarity with the ragged school movement stemmed from her sister’s work at a girls' ragged school. In a similar vein to MacLagan’s publication, Barrett Browning strove to raise support and funds for the cause by publishing ‘A Plea for the Ragged Schools of London’ in 1854. Its influence can also be traced in ‘The Cry of the Children’, an appeal against England’s reliance on child labour. 

Charles Dickens’s visit to a ragged school 

Throughout his life Charles Dickens advocated free public education for all – in common with the central principle of the ragged school movement. He was vocal in his belief that better access to education would relieve poverty and petty crime. 

In late 1843 Dickens visited Field Lane Ragged School, London. Face-to-face with children living in abject poverty, he was appalled by the ‘frightful neglect by the State’ (Daily News letter) that could lead to such disparity between rich and poor. The visit inspired A Christmas Carol, written later that same year. Dickens continued to bring the public’s attention to the ragged school movement, contributing a letter to The Daily News and an article to Household Words in 1846 and 1852, respectively.