Every Portsmouth schoolchild can tell you about the most famous former residents of the city. The ubiquitous Dickens, Kipling, HG wells & Conan Doyle all trip off the tongue. There is Isambard Kingdom Brunel, James Callaghan and Southsea born Peter Sellers. Portsmouth born Christopher Hitchens, author controversialist and outspoken atheist, is a recent loss. This stellar array of varied talent is just a fraction of the roll call. But what about those who are not household names to people outside Portsmouth? One great, but little known hero of 19C Portsmouth, is John Pounds, who was the originator of schools for children of the poor. Others have tried to claim the title, but it is Pounds who began the Ragged Schools Movement, and deserves his place in history. Chosen as ‘man of the millennium’ by local people, few outside of the city have heard of him. And while Dickens’ concern for the poor is legendary and Blake’s poems about destitute London children are heart-rending, it was in Portsmouth in 1803 that a humble shoemaker was demonstrating through his actions this concern and compassion in deeds, which went on to drive forward help for poor children all over the country.
Born on 17th June 1766 John Pounds was apprenticed to the royal dockyard as a shipwright by his father, at just twelve years old. His brief career ended in disaster three years later however, when he fell from the side of a ship he was working on, into the dry dock below, shattering his thigh bone. After treatment failed, he was left permanently disabled and was unable to continue working on the ships. He took up shoemaking, and did so well at it that he had his own shop in St Mary Street by 1803 (now Highbury Street). It was during this period that he began teaching the children out on the streets. At this time, just as in London, children of the poor were left to fend for themselves, running barefoot through the streets, ragged and dirty, picking pockets and getting food where they could. Pounds was horrified by the neglect, and began taking children in, teaching them to read as he worked at his shoemaking. He did not charge for this service and his reputation as a fine and natural teacher grew.
It is true that without the work of others, John Pounds pioneering work may not have seized the imagination of the great and good in the way that it later did, and it is Thomas Guthrie who made Pounds work widely known. He offers an insight into Pounds’ early experiment in schooling, writing of an engraving he had seen, which first pricked his own interest in Ragged Schools. In the picture was –
…a cobbler’s room; he was there himself, spectacles on nose, an old shoe between his knees, that massive forehead and firm mouth indicating great determination of character; and from between his bushy eyebrows benevolence gleamed out on a group of poor children, some sitting, some standing, but all busy at their lessons around him.
Soon the classes expanded, although the room in which they were taught was only 6×16 feet in size. Up to fifty children crammed themselves in, and the classes expanded from reading to writing and arithmetic and onwards. Guthrie goes on to describe Pounds’ care for Portsmouth’s abandoned children thus:
“When he went out upon the Portsmouth quays at night he put baked potatoes in his pockets for the ‘drifts’. Not only so but he taught his girl scholars to cook simple food, so that the ragged school cookery class had its origin in the shoemaker’s shanty. To the lads he taught his own trade…”
Clearly the conditions of the school were not ideal, but in time Pounds’ school inspired the creation of three new schools, one in Portsea, one in Fratton and the John Pounds Training Home for Girls. Collectively these were known as the Ragged Schools.
The Movement Gathers Momentum
The movement went from strength to strength after Pounds death, aided by the writings of Guthrie and Dickens. Dickens wrote a description of the attempts being made to help the poor through Ragged Schools, which were set up in London, in a letter to the Editor of the Daily News:
“This attempt is being made in certain of the most obscure and squalid parts of the Metropolis; where rooms are opened at night, for the gratuitous instruction of all comers, children or adults, under the title of ‘RAGGED SCHOOLS.’ The name implies the purpose. They who are too ragged, wretched, filthy, and forlorn, to enter any other place: who could gain admission into no charity-school, and who would be driven from any church-door: are invited to come in here, and find some people not depraved, willing to teach them something, and show them some sympathy, and stretch out a hand which is not the iron hand of the Law, for their correction.”
The intake of Ragged Schools would be today described as ‘mixed’. There were no shortage of appallingly badly behaved children, just as today, and you can read accounts here from the diary of a Ragged School Master, who recounts the astonishing trials of teaching the most challenging of pupils. However, overall the experiment was a great success. Lord Shaftesbury formed the Ragged Schools Union in 1844, and in the following eight years alone over 200 free schools were set up, helped by money from rich philanthropists. By the time of the Education Act of 1870 there were 350 free schools in existence, which were gradually absorbed into the new ‘Board Schools’. Education for all was being born and it was thanks to a simple Portsmouth man, to whom the nation should be truly thankful.
John Pounds’ shop has now been destroyed, and in the absence of modern financial products to protect from such a loss such as shop insurance, it was never rebuilt. But a reproduction of the original shoemakers shops was eventually constructed in the grounds of the John Pounds Memorial Church, which shows the size of the place extremely well. When we consider classes of thirty today to be a headache, consider the difficulty of teaching fifty deprived children in this space and trying to run a business at the same time.
John Pounds is buried behind the Unitarian Church in the High Street, and his name was honoured at the newly opened £7 million John Pounds Community Centre in Portsea. But a national memorial would perhaps be more fitting, for this man led the way in the humane treatment and education of the poor, which has been the model for British society ever since. He added to the cultural history not just of Portsmouth, but to the whole nation.