Back straight! Elbows off the table! And don’t step on the gazunder!
Location: Copperfield Rd, Mile End, E3 4RR.
Type of Museum: Local History/Social History.
Admission times/prices: 10am to 5pm Wednesdays and Thursdays, and 2pm and 5pm on the first Sunday of each month. Free, with £2 per person donation suggested for the demo lesson.
Facilities: Small but tempting shop, cafe (snacks only).
Transport: Tube: Mile End. Train/DLR: Limehouse. Buses: 277, 309, 323, 339, D6, D7 and 25.
The main bit(s).
We came to this museum because the puppy ate my daughter’s glasses. Not that the Ragged School offers spectacle-repairing facilities – it’s near to one of the few opticians open on a Sunday.
There was no doubt that we were going to visit at some point anyway. We’ve been numerous times before, and my daughter actually remembers visiting, which is a sign that she really enjoyed it. One time I brought a group of adult EFL students and ended up doing an impromptu Victorian school room demonstration, complete with dunce caps and canes. The museum is interactive enough that even those students with lower-level English got a lot out of it.
Today, however, was a Sunday so the proper Victorian schoolteacher was teaching us and I got to be a giggling pupil this time. I was impressed by how into it all the pupils were – adults and kids both: the instant the teacher entered the room, everyone sat up straighter, saying ‘shh!’ It only took a mention of elbows off the desk for everyone to immediately move their hands to their laps. I’m sure there would have been volunteers for caning if she’d asked.
Sat in separate girls and boys sections, we had palm inspection, the register (the kids’ names actually would have fit in well in Victorian London), and morning prayer, then chanted proverbs while the monitors handed out slates, pencils and authentically-knackered cleaners. An adult should not feel proud of being able to write the alphabet neatly and subtract large numbers, but, well, I did; I blame the eager-to-please atmosphere.
Note: Dr Barnardo didn’t actually allow dunce caps to be used in his school; I’m not so kind.
Upstairs, another volunteer tells lively stories about Victorian home life, stood in a model Victorian poor person’s kitchen. Well, a relatively poor person’s kitchen – the underclass of the time often lived in just one room with rotas for beds let alone kitchen tables. The volunteer focuses on the gruesome bits of history, such as accidentally stepping on a gazunder and wiping your foot on your sister’s dress. Kids and grown-ups alike laugh.
All the volunteers are lovely. The little museum was so popular today that they could probably have done with yet another person to man the ticket desk for the classroom demonstration, but aside from that, we were impressed; of the main volunteer downstairs, Bryn, my daughter said that he was nice and makes the museum more interesting than the others. This is a little unfair on the many other museums I’ve visited that have great volunteer guides, but you can always tell when the guide loves their subject rather than just knows a lot about it.
The extra bits.
Usually this section is about temporary exhibitions; everything here is permanent, but the local history section might not have been what you were looking for when you came here. There’s a lot of local history to pack in, of course, even when focusing on the poor; factories an local industry, the docks, faith, and culture – for example, the genesis cinema used to be a variety hall, where the usherette took home the discarded programmes and ironed them to resell the next day. Poverty-inspired recycling.
Here is also a lot about the history of the Ragged Schools. This one was set up by Dr Barnardo, formerly mentioned in the Royal London Hospital Museum post, and was slightly different to a lot of the other Ragged Schools of the time. You can probably guess that the name came from the raged clothes the kids wore, but many of the schools insisted on standards of cleanliness and pristine appearance that poorest kids, with no running water and one sink per street, simply couldn’t live up to.
Even girls were allowed to study here, though far fewer came because they were expected to stay at home and look after the house and their siblings. Interestingly, the girls found it a lot easier to get work (in the factories or as servants) than the boys did; there were lots of jobs, but there were also lots and lots of people. The same, of course, is happening in many areas of the country today.
It is a little disturbing how often the Victorian sections of these museums feel like they could have been written today.
The bits where you end up spending money.
The shop is very small but sells many of those little knick-knacks that you get tempted by and suddenly you’ve spent a tenner.
Downstairs is a small café – no hot food, at least not at this time of year – and in the Summer it has seating outside by the canal.
Stuff for kids and people who act like them.
The museum is geared up for exactly these sorts of people. Apart from the talks and demonstrations, you can dress up in mob caps and aprons or flat caps and waistcoats, sit at the old desks (which we still had in my primary school – very practical they are too) and play with the interactive exhibits. The nutmeg in the smellobox bit needs replacing, and the feathers in one of the feely-boxes are suspiciously metallic, but otherwise there are lots of things to grab and lift and engage your mind.
At the end of the demo lesson, the teacher asked for any questions, and one kid asked ‘can we come again?’ I don’t think any museum could hope for higher praise.