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  Exploring Southwark and discovering its history

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The "Ragged School" Union Street -

St Mary's Girls' Club

The "Ragged School" in Union Street.  St Mary's Girls' Club occupied the premises on the left hand side of the building.

Ragged School 1

The attractive building on the south west corner of Union Street and Redcross, 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 latter organisation occupied the premises on the very corner of Union Street and Redcross Way.


Originally called the Work Girls Protection Society, the St Mary’s Girls' Club was founded in 1875 by the Sisters of Mary, a group of Anglican Sisters, under the guidance of Miss Ansell.  They acquired premises in New Kent Road and “began with many difficulties; the condition of the girls especially the seamstresses, was painful indeed, the slums were most unfavourable to mental and bodily development, and the long hours of labour and the crowded workrooms were far worse than they were at the present time.  The sisters worked in a spirit of the purest self-sacrifice and encouraged the girls to learn a higher class of work, helped them to obtain good employment, and instituted a seaside home for those who were sick.”  From a speech given by Earl St Aldwyn reported in The Times on 31 January 1908 at the opening ceremony of the Club in Union Street.  


In the early days, the Club attracted wealthy benefactors who included the royal Dukes of Connaught and Cambridge. Grand dinners attended by the wealthy were held to raise money and one such dinner was held in May 1886 at the Hotel Metropole attended by 100 guests.  The Duke of Connaught proposed the toast and afterwards mentioned the three points which engaged the attention of the society – a school of instruction, a club for reading, recreation and free instruction in cookery, and a home for friendless girls.  


In addition to the Club in New Kent Road, the Society leased a holiday home called St Monica’s in Birchington on Sea where the girls who stayed there paid as much as they were able.  The 1898 Annual Report described the holiday home as a place where “the broken down child of toil may recruit her frail body and pick up courage for a new term of work. … Poor child, so pale and white, toiling from early morning till late evening at portmanteau stitching, only half an hour for dinner, no time even for tea.  It can be well imagined what a rest and change to beautiful Birchington air does for such a one”.


The Annual Report a year later recorded the Society had to search for new London premises when the New Kent Road premises that they had “so long occupied” but did not own were “sold over their heads” to a manufacturing company. Premises were found at 85 Union Street, a former tin plate works, on a lease that would expire in September 1906. Activities at the club included dressmaking and embroidery, singing, mandolin playing, musical drill, dancing, bible class, reading writing, paper flower making and cooking with the singing class reaching second place in the London United Girls Club Singing Competition in 1903.   Members’ occupations were varied and included  tin box makers, cork cutters, restaurant hands, dressmakers, underclothes makers, bookbinders, cigar and cigarette folders, tie makers,  girls from stationery factories,  Day and Martin’s blacking works, and Pinks and Crosse and Blackwell’s jam factories.  


The Trustees of the Club were aware of criticism that they took away the girls from their mothers but replied that the girls’ “crowded homes, long hours of work, and the craving for recreation natural to youth drives them out of doors, and our work is to take them, not from their homes, but from the streets.  In order to be prepared with facts as a reply to such objectors we have made it a point in visiting the girls houses to find out the opinions of their mothers, and no new member is admitted till the mothers wishes have been ascertained.” The mothers’ responses included the following:


“If my daughter were not at the Club she would only be in the streets, and that would be worse.”


“I am thankful to get rid of her just when the children are going to bed, the fewer there are about the house then the better.”


“My girl works hard all day long, she must have some recreation, and I am thankful when I know she is safe at the Club.”


The search for a more permanent home for the Club was begun towards the end of 1905.  It proved difficult to find suitable premises and it was decided instead to acquire a plot of land and build a new, purpose-built club.   A Building Sub-Committee was formed with the Hon. Eleanor Hicks-Beach, later Lady Eleanor Keane, in the Chair.  The Ecclesiastical Commissioners advised them of the site available at the corner of Redcross Street and Union Street which the Club acquired.  A Mr Runtz was appointed as Architect and it was estimated the cost of the new building would be £2000 though the final cost of the building was to come in at over £3,000.  


Fund-raising began in earnest.  All current supporters were written to requesting a donation, collecting cards with a picture of the proposed new building on the outside were printed, a bazaar and a sale of work were held, and recitals given.  By the time of the laying of the foundation stone in April 1907, the total amount of money raised had reached just under £2000.  

Ragged School 3 (2)

The foundation stone was laid by the now married Lady Eleanor Keane with the inscription “TO THE HONOUR AND GLORY OF GOD AND IN LOVE OF OUR SISTERS”, the latter a suffragette inspired sentiment.  The Bishop of Southwark, who was a member of the Building Committee and took a keen interest in the Club, attended and blessed the building, and Club Members attended along with their parents and friends.

Foundation Stone - click to enlarge to be able to read the inscription.

The Building Committee Minutes of 9 October 1907 recorded that “some Princess should be asked to perform the ceremony – failing one, that the Duchess of Buckingham should be asked.”  Princess Patricia,  daughter of the Club’s former patron the Duke of Connaught, had already declined. Princess Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein, another of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren, agreed to perform the ceremony which took place on 30 January 1908.  The new premises were able to boast a splendid hall, a spacious gymnasium and class rooms including one specially fitted for cooking lessons.


The Club was commandeered during the First World War by the Ministry of Munitions as a canteen but the Club kept going and met four times a week in the Red Cross Hall just around the corner.


In 1930, St Mary’s Club was approached was by the Women’s University Settlement (now known as the Blackfriars Settlement) who ran a similar club for both boys and girls called the Acland Club.  The premises for the Acland Club were also on Union Street but had become very dilapidated and the lease was coming to an end.  The Settlement suggested that perhaps the two clubs could amalgamate.  After much deliberation between the representatives of the two clubs it was found that both clubs had similar aims. St Mary's Girls' Club premises could accommodate a much larger membership and that it would make for both economy and efficiency to join the two clubs together.  


12 May 1930 was the opening night of St Mary's and Acland Club, and the membership was now open to boys as well as girls.  On Fridays there was a mixed social club.  Boys and girls paid 6d (members 4d) and did not have to attend the Club on other nights though a fair proportion went on to become members who would not otherwise have been attracted.  Attendance reached 130 on one night but lack of space restricted future attendance to 100.  


Sadly, the Club did not survive for many more years in Union Street.  The Club moved to Nelson Square in 1936 as it was put forward that there were many who lived in that area who wished to attend a club.  A purchaser was found for the Union Street building.  


Lady Eleanor Keane continued to be active in the Girls’ Clubs Movement and is regarded as a pioneer in youth work.  She died in 1960, her obituary can be found here.


Sources Used:  Annual Reports and Minutes of the St Mary’s Girls’ Clubs in the archives of the Blackfriars Settlement, boxes FL609 and 610, held at the Women’s Library at the LSE.

Gospel Lighthouse Mission