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  Exploring Southwark and discovering its history

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The work of The Shaftesbury Society has changed to meet the needs of the times though its work is still underpinned by a strong Christian faith.  It merged with the John Grooms organisation in 2007 and was renamed Livability.  


Source:  In His Name:  the Ragged School Union and Shaftesbury Society Magazine, No. 210, March 1907


The "Ragged School" Union Street

- The Gospel Lighthouse Mission

The "Ragged School" in Union Street.  The Gospel Lighthouse Mission occupied the premises on the right hand side of the building.

Ragged School 1 Gospel Lighthouse Mission drawing St Mary's Girls' Club Ragged School

The eye-catching building on the south west corner of Union Street and Redcross Street, known locally as The Ragged School, appears to be mainly residential though in the recent past has also included studio and gallery space. A closer look shows that the building was originally two separate buildings with two foundation stones laid at different times, one in 1906 and the other in 1907, for two different organisations - the Gospel Lighthouse Mission and the St Mary’s Girls’ Club.


The building to the west has an inscribed plaque over the original entrance, now a window, that proclaims “The Mint and Lighthouse Gospel Mission: Shaftesbury Society”. The full title of the Shaftesbury Society at that time was the ‘Ragged School Union and the Shaftesbury Society’, which has led to the building being known as The Ragged School. By the time the building was built however, Ragged Schools were mainly a thing of the past because as a means of secularising education, the London School Board was formed in 1870 and embarked on an energetic school building programme.    Despite this, the Ragged School Union still felt there was an overwhelming need for their work in the inner cities that was primarily aimed at the young and concentrated now on working from Christian Missions in the poorest parts of London, following the advice from Lord Shaftesbury to “stick to the gutter.” “If the hooligan is to be arrested in his development, and the slum evils to be prevented from repeating themselves under new conditions, some such agencies must not only be maintained but multiplied.”  (Annual Report of the RSU & Shaftesbury Society, 1906-07).  


The Gospel Lighthouse Mission arrived in the Mint in 1888.  Its original home was in White Cross Street (now called Ayres Street) in a loft accessed by a steep stair from the ground floor. The rent of the loft was paid for by the workers at the Mission who each contributed 6d a week.  New premises had to be found when the loft was required for business purposes and a three roomed house with a wooden hall to the rear was found at 19 Clenham Street.  Most of the work took place in the hall as the rooms in the house were so small they could not be used for anything other than storage although two or three families would live in just one of the similar houses close by.  


Activities included Sunday Schools held in the afternoon and evening and a Bible Study class held on Sunday morning.  A Band of Hope meeting was held on Tuesday evenings and on the same evening during the winter months 250 of the poorest slum children were given a free cup of hot cocoa.  The children were supposed to bring their own mugs but living in such poverty rarely was a child able to bring a mug, instead bringing anything that would hold liquid including broken cups, jugs and small bowls and even dirty tins. For three hours in the afternoon and evening on Thursdays, 50 disabled children attended for games, sewing, a cup of cocoa and bread and butter, or jam.


The Mission had a Boy’s Brigade, attended by about 50 boys aged between 12 and 17 who “are brought under Christian influences at the most critical period in their lives and at the same time undergo most healthy discipline.”  A weekly drill was held on Tuesday and a gymnasium on Wednesday, both activities taking place at the local Lant Street LCC School (now called the Charles Dickens School).


Once a week, a Senior Girls’ Club was held, most of whom worked in the nearby factories.  “They are always in boisterous spirits and their general behaviour is certainly free and easy; but in them is to be found some of the finest material on which the Mission has to work.” There was also a Club for boys over 17. The Mission reported that it was “among the older boys and girls with whom the Mission deals that the most encouraging work is accomplished.  A vast difference can be seen, merely from the material point of view, in those boys who have passed through the Brigade and in the young women who have been some time at the Girls’ Club.  Their dress becomes more tidy, and they take more pride in their personal appearance; while the boys especially are not in a constant state of non- employment as is the case with most of the youths of the neighbourhood.”

But the premises were in a bad condition.   The upper storey of the hall had been declared unsafe by the city surveyor and could not be used for any sort of meeting while the ceilings of the rooms in the house were badly cracked and described as “undulating” in appearance.  The Ragged School Union and Shaftesbury Society was celebrating its Diamond Jubilee and to mark this event, the RSU acquired or built seven new buildings.  The new building in Union Street was the last building to be erected under this scheme and cost £3,500 including the site. The local Committee undertook to raise £1000 of this sum.  


On the ground floor of the new building was situated a good sized hall suitable for Sunday School, the gymnasium, activities for the disabled and general meetings.  On the first floor, there was a large hall that could be divided into two club rooms by a revolving partition, together with a smaller class room.  On the second floor were two more class rooms.  The new building was opened in March 1907 by the Marquis of Northampton, the President of the Ragged School Union and Shaftesbury Society who felt the move from the “dark and dreary” old premises to the new clean and bright building was a step forward in the work of the Mission. By November of that year attendance at the various activities had risen considerably.  

Inscribed plaque over the original entrance, now a window.