An East London museum that tells the story of education for the poor has reopened following the dual impact of covid and refurbishment works.

At a time when most people lacked an education, a number of schools for the poor were being set up, and the largest was in east London, near Mile End. Opened in 1877 in a couple of disused canalside warehouses, it closed in 1908 when its function became obsolete thanks to the government finally deciding to provide free education to every child.

It was a victim of its own success, in a good way.

The buildings were nearly demolished in the 1980s, but saved and opened as a museum in 1990 that mainly catered to local schools, and with rather erratic opening hours.

Now though, after some work to stabilise the building, it’s reopened, and with more visitor-friendly opening hours.

Although the building is large, the museum is fairly small, but delightfully atmospheric, and thanks to most of the refurbishment works being on repairing the fabric of the building, inside still looks like a slightly decaying warehouse building, which only adds to the atmosphere of a visit.

The upper floor contains the main museum event, a replica Victorian classroom with the sort of desks and disused old ink wells that many of us will still recognise today. This is also where children will come today to be given a Victorian school lesson.

Up on the top floor is something very curious — an artist, Clarisse d’Adcimoles has taken an old photograph of a home and recreated the room that was photographed, but done so in the same monochrome effect of the original photograph.

It’s a curious effect that’s accentuated by being stuck in the corner of an empty room, as if a forgotten relic from the past or some sort of Sapphire and Steel portal into another time, and you certainly want someone to take a photo of you standing in the room. People will accuse you of tweaking the photo to remove the colour from the background, but nope, it’s real.

There’s also a modern exhibition space, that’s a bit sparse in terms of objects to look at, but lots of display boards rich in detailed histories of the ragged schools, how they were set up and the people who funded them.

The largest of the exhibits include Dr Barnardo’s Wooton Patent Cabinet Office Secretary Desk complete with his handwritten labels still in place. Designed to meet the requirements of someone who wanted ‘everything in its place’ it was patented by an American inventor – other famous owners included Queen Victoria and President Ulysses S.Grant. I quite liked the clock though – with a 30 minute timer built in to ensure his meetings didn’t overun. Something for modern offices I think.

If anything the building is as much of a draw as the exhibition spaces, with its municipal painted brick walls, old staircases and wooden floors. I was also particularly taken with the wall of photos of children who were admitted to the school, and there’s some faces there that might surprise people.

The Ragged School Museum is now open Wednesday to Sunday from 10am to 5pm — matching the hours of the basement cafe that’s also opened with the museum.

  • Full price adults: £5
  • Children: £2:50
  • Family: £10
  • Concession: £2:50

The museum is on Copperfield Road, next to the Regents Canal and Mile End Park, and about 10 minutes from either Mile End tube station or Limehouse c2c/DLR station.


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  1. Sean says:

    What a great few months for London museum openings and reopenings. Young V&A, the Portrait Gallery, Huntarian, City Wall and now this.

  2. Tim says:

    Agree with Sean. How lucky we are!

  3. Thomas Paige says:

    Fantastic to see, I only came upon the Ragged School recently when going through some old papers of my Grandfather. He for several years conducted a choir at the Annual Festival held at The Queen’s Hall on behalf of the Shaftesbury Society & Ragged School Union. These events were usually attended by a member of the Royal Family.
    The choir was composed of 400children

  4. John Nettleingham says:

    If Mr Tom Ridge is still involved, please say hi and thank him for all he did for us as a youngsters at Cass

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