A 'Ragged School' Gives U.K. Children A Taste Of Dickensian Destitution The East End of London was once synonymous with Dickensian squalor. Now it's prime real estate. A tiny museum in the back streets shows schoolchildren what life was like in the past.
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A 'Ragged School' Gives U.K. Children A Taste Of Dickensian Destitution

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A 'Ragged School' Gives U.K. Children A Taste Of Dickensian Destitution

A 'Ragged School' Gives U.K. Children A Taste Of Dickensian Destitution

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Charles Dickens made the East End of London infamous. In his time, it was rife with poverty and crime. Today, row houses in the gentrified area cost more than a million dollars. But tucked away in a side street, a slice of the old London survives. A tiny museum is showing British schoolchildren what life was like in the bad old days. The BBC's Sam Alwyine-Mosely sent us this report.

SAM ALWYINE-MOSELY: Ms. Perkins stands on creaking floorboards, banging her cane on a wooden desk as she peers over her wire-rimmed glasses, beckoning a group of British schoolchildren into her classroom.

SALLY ARMSTRONG: (As Ms. Perkins) You, boy. You, boy. Come around the front. You don't decide where to sit. I decide where you sit.

ALWYINE-MOSELY: The pupils are neatly dressed in matching green sweatshirts and dark pants. They're fifth graders from a nearby school.

ARMSTRONG: (As Ms. Perkins) Let us say our alphabet altogether. A-B-C-D...

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: E-F-G-H-I-J...

ALWYINE-MOSELY: But today, they've stepped into the past. This is the Ragged School Museum. Ms. Perkins, the stern Victorian schoolteacher leading the class, is an actress. And she's taking the children through an authentic 19th-century lesson. They write on slate boards and learn about the old British currency - pound shillings and pence. Sally Armstrong, who's been playing Ms. Perkins for 11 years, likes to bring out old photographs for the children.

ARMSTRONG: One of my favorite things was, was life really black and white back then? 'Cause it's a black and white photo, you know.

ALWYINE-MOSELY: What do you think the children take away from the lesson?

ARMSTRONG: They haven't got a clue about not having any food in the house. Or they haven't got a clue about there being no welfare state or the fact that they would be expected to go out to work as well as come to school.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Yellow. Green. Blue.

ALWYINE-MOSELY: The museum is in the same building that once housed a free school for some of the poorest children in Victorian England. Back in the 1800s, this part of London was destitute. The origins of the name Ragged School isn't clear. Philanthropists set them up as an early experiment in providing free public education for street children in rags. Erica Davies, the museum's director, reads from a list that gives the family backgrounds of children who attended a Victorian school.

ERICA DAVIES: Fatherless fatherless, laborer, father in consumption, out of work, out of work, out of work. And that would really mean destitution at that time 'cause a woman could not make a decent living.

ALWYINE-MOSELY: Now, about 16,000 children a year take part in the Ragged School classes.

ARMSTRONG: (As Ms. Perkins) Please repeat after me - four farthings equals one penny.

ARMSTRONG: Four farthings equals one penny.

ALWYINE-MOSELY: After class, the fifth graders reflect on their experience. Ten-year-old Victoria Tolaje and 9-year-old Ella Love tell me what they've learned.

VICTORIA TOLAJE: You can't do stuff that you do now or you'll get shouted at.

ELLA LOVE: Normally now, you could ask the person that's sitting next to you if they know the answer. But if you're in the Victorian times, you probably got caned or something.

ALWYINE-MOSELY: What do you think of the teacher?

VICTORIA: I wouldn't really like her as my teacher today because she's very strict and shouts.

ALWYINE-MOSELY: The Ragged School Museum may show these kids just how good they have it, but the organization itself is struggling. Erica Davies, the museum's director, says funding's been cut and she's had to lay off staff. She shows me a hole in the museum's roof.

DAVIES: If you look up there, you can see the hole.

ALWYINE-MOSELY: Does it leak when it rains?

DAVIES: It leaks when it rains, yeah.

ALWYINE-MOSELY: And each year, it gets harder to find the near $30,000 needed to keep the museum open. For NPR News, I'm Sam Alwyine-Mosely in London.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "TIME FOR SPACE")

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