Religion and relationships in ragged schools

Dr Laura Mair’s research on evangelical Christian schools for poor Victorian children is being published in a book.

Head and shoulders shot of Dr Laura Mair in warm outdoor clothes with the sea behind

‘Religion and Relationships in Ragged Schools: An Intimate History of Educating the Poor, 1844-1870,’ will be available in hardcover as part of the Routledge Studies in Evangelicalism, 22 March 2019.

Book cover for Religion and Relationships in Ragged Schools, no illustration

Ragged schools were established by evangelical Christians in response to child poverty in urban areas in the mid 19th century. They were concerned with saving both the bodies and souls of poor children, teaching them to read and write as well as the Christian Gospel. The Edinburgh ragged school, which was located on Ramsay Lane beside the entrance to Ramsay Lane Wing of New College, also fed the children.

Focusing on the interaction between teachers and scholars, Dr Mair’s book provides an intimate account that challenges existing scholarship on evangelical child-saving movements and Victorian philanthropy.

Doctoral research

Dr Mair says:

“During my doctoral research - which is the basis of the book - I found a cache of around 250 letters from former ragged school children to a teacher. These letters have been very valuable in highlighting the experiences of poor children in Victorian Britain, as well as giving unique access to their literacy levels.”

The letters record the experiences of 57 boys who had emigrated from age 14 to Australia, Canada or New Zealand with the help of the London Ragged School Union’s Emigration Fund. Their testimonies highlight their anxiety and homesickness, their opinions of the teacher and their thoughts about emigrating.

Child migration was promoted in the early years of the movement, in the belief that it would present children with opportunities inaccessible to them within the inflexible British class structure. The émigrés Dr Mair studied went on to enter a wide range of trades, including bakers, farmhands, plasters and joiners.

Dr Mair continues:

“In addition to the children's letters, a core component of the research were the school journals of their teacher, Martin Ware, spanning 17 years (1850-1867). These journals give an important insight into the concerns and motivations of middle-class philanthropists in this period. Together the journals and letters allow something of the student-teacher relationship to be gleaned.”

Showcasing impact

Dr Mair’s research was press released by the University of Edinburgh in September 2018 and highlighted at a celebration of research impact in the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, February 2019.

As a PhD student in 2014-15, Dr Mair acted as a consultant to the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood for an exhibition, "On their own: The story of Britain’s child migrants," which told for the first time the experiences of British child migrants in the 19th and 20th centuries. An accompanying soundtrack, The Ballads of Child Migration, included a song based on one of the letters Dr Mair had uncovered. The Ballads have featured on BBC radio and were performed in a UK tour in 2018.

In 2016-17, the exhibition helped to inform the child immigration strand of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, when exhibition curator, Professor Gordon Lynch (Kent), was an expert witness.


Paper in Journal of Victorian Culture

University press release

On their Own exhibition

The Ballads of Child Migration

Media coverage

The National

History Scotland