Falkirk’s ragged school

Dr Thomas Guthrie
Dr Thomas Guthrie

Last week I wrote about the wealthy Wilson family of South Bantaskine living in comfort in their fine mansion house looking down over the town.

They were not alone in enjoying this privileged life. All over East Stirlingshire well-heeled iron masters, bankers, coal owners, brewers, lawyers and landowners shared the same advantages earned from Falkirk’s fertile carselands and unrivalled skill in iron founding.

But there was another side to this prosperity. For hundreds of working people life in Victorian Falkirk was ‘nasty, brutish and short’ as one philosopher famously put it.

In the overcrowded slum houses of the Back Row and the Garrison constant fevers brought death to most men before the age of 40 and killed children in huge numbers before their teenage years.

Not until the 1840s was any sustained effort made to change things and most of the remedies were opposed by the great and the good who objected to their taxes being used to fund such notions.

But a growing body of opinion prompted by developments in England and by the birth of the Free Church of Scotland in 1843 demanded action and in due course change for the better did come to the town.

The improvements took many forms; a Fever Hospital in Slamannan Road in 1847, a Poors’ House at the foot of High Station Road in 1850, a new Charity School in the Pleasance in 1853 and the Cottage Hospital in Thornhill Road in 1889.

There were also new water supplies, improved sanitation and the upgrading of streets and houses all of which helped transform the look of the town and the lives of the population.

Among the institutions created during the period one has had less than its fair share of attention. The Ragged or Industrial School opened its doors in East Bridge Street with nine destitute children in 1857 and two years later moved to a fine new building in Kerse Lane.

The ragged school movement started in London but was taken up in Scotland by Sheriff Watson in Aberdeen and in Edinburgh by Rev. Dr Thomas Guthrie a Minister in the Free Church. They opened schools for abandoned children in their cities in the 1840s and toured the country exhorting others to do the same.

The idea caught on and, in a number of industrial towns including Falkirk, the churches helped raise the necessary funds. There had been concern for some time about the number of children living on the streets without homes or parents and with no connection to church or school.

For many of them the demon drink was an early temptation and a life of petty crime often followed. The Ragged School offered accommodation, food, basic schooling, simple work (like chopping sticks and selling them round the doors) and, of course, plenty of good old fashioned religion!

The clergymen and their congregations raised money to support children and their teachers and the leading men of the community vied with one another to play the part of patron to this worthy institution.

The number of children varied greatly by the late 1860s there were around 50 children in residence and 80 in 1872. By then the government had introduced its major educational reform act and the need for such schools declined.

The school was closed in 1900 and its funds were transferred to the Cottage Hospital. Only the building remained to serve

for many years as a Model Lodging House. It survived until 1991 when it was replaced by a block of 
modern flats.