A contributor to the _East London Observer _of 2 July 1859 - submitting under the name of A Christian - reported an impromptu visit to the George Yard Ragged School. This extract gives a good idea of the needs that George Holland was trying to address.
The bible lying open before me, pointing to the 6th verse of the 5th chapter of Matthew, 'Blessed be they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled' —I asked a very little, pale, thin-faced boy, what our Saviour meant by that? He reflected a moment, and then said, 'Why, sir, I suppose he means that we are blessed on coming out of church on a Sunday morning, when we are hungry and thirsty, and that we shall have something to eat.' I remarked to Mr. Holland that that was a very strange answer, 'Not so, sir,' said he, and calling the boy to him, asked, 'What have you had to eat today?' 'Nothing, sir.' 'Well, my boy, and what did you have yesterday?' 'One slice of bread, teacher,' and the boy's dim eyes filled. 'There, sir,' said Mr. H., 'that will account for the boy's strange answer.' Alas! I saw at once, too plainly, that it did account for the seeming strangeness of his reply. In reply to my questions, Mr Holland informed me that hunger and nothing to eat was the case with a great number of the children, and that he had known them at times fall off the forms to the floor from sheer exhaustion, caused by the want of food. He deplored and lamented the want of funds whereby this pitiable state of things might be remedied. Upon handing the superintendent a trifle to purchase some bread with, a pleased light broke over the countenances of many.
East End historian and guide David Charnick recounts some of the history of the former George Yard Ragged School
"This [site] used to be George Yard and the ragged school was set up as part of the George Yard Mission. Just around the corner on Whitechapel High Street itself at number 87 (which nowadays is Cashino, one of these amusements arcades) is where George Holland set up the base for his mission. It was aimed particularly at this street which was described in the East London Advertiser in 1888 as one of the most dangerous streets in the area because of the crime around here and the prostitution, et cetera.
"This was the site of the actual ragged school itself. You would have the building here which stretched back to the area covered now by the Whitechapel Art Gallery extension. It would be quite a modest building which would be accommodating children who were from very destitute families who couldn’t get places in the general charity schools and hence the name 'ragged schools'. These children would have raggedy clothes and often no shoes or anything like that. They would have been from the local area because this was an area of great poverty in the 19th century.
"The ragged school was established in 1853 as part of the mission. George Holland was a provisions merchant but he had a change of heart and became an evangelist and decided to come east to Whitechapel to administrate a modest outreach.
"It is said that in 1888 with the Ripper murders, the spotlight was turned on the East End and then everyone was realising what was going on here and the poverty, et cetera. In fact, people like George Holland were coming down in the 1850s, so long before the Ripper murders there was an awareness of the problems that were being caused here by the expansion of London.
"The ragged school was established in the Black Horse, a notorious gin shop. These schools would take over existing buildings because they were very basic establishments. The most famous one in the East End is the Dr Barnardo's Ragged School which is now the Ragged School Museum on Copperfield Road just by the canal farther to the east from here. That was old warehouses that were now disused and were taken over by Dr Barnardo himself to establish a ragged school.
"Lord Shaftesbury, who was a peer and a politician, but also a great social reformer, was very interested in child welfare. He was behind a lot of legislation to get children out of working in the mines for instance and factories. He came to visit George Holland's work here, and particularly the ragged schoos to see what the children were like and how they were being cared for and so on. In fact, he was a great admirer of George Holland's work.
"He has left descriptions of the children when he would go and talk to them and ask them how they were and what’s being done for them, et cetera, and they were all full of praise for what George Holland was doing for them, the way he was giving them I suppose some form of structure and security to an otherwise very haphazard existence.
"How long a child was in a ragged school was difficult to answer because of the nature of employment here and because of poverty as well. Families were keen to have their children at work at the earliest possible opportunity. We know [about] Charles Dickens, for instance, (I know this was not his area), but when his father was imprisoned in the Marshalsea Prison, Dickens was taken out of school at the age of 12 and sent to work. This was 1824 when 12 years old was plenty old enough to be put to work.
"The children would be put to work at much earlier ages than that and often in family businesses. They would be sent to a ragged school presumably to get them out of their parents' hair for a while but very soon, they would be put to work.
"It would relieve the parents of the burden of looking after them, that’s the thing I suppose. There was a ragged school union but not all ragged schools belonged to that. Some of them were created by individual philanthropists like George Holland here and, as I mentioned, Thomas Barnardo. His ragged school was not part of the union. It was his own creation.
"We don’t have any records for [how many children attended the school]. Unfortunately, we don’t really have a great deal of information about George Holland himself or his work, which is in many ways a great injustice because we know that he inspired quite a lot of people with his work here. He was here from 1850 until he died in 1900 and a number of people were very much inspired by what he did.
"I mentioned Lord Shaftesbury but there was a professional cricketer called C.T. Studd. He and his wife decided to go to China as missionaries and they sold everything before they left and split the proceeds amongst a number of charities and they gave George Holland here a substantial amount of money. There were people who were interested in what he was doing and wanted to support him back here.
"Whether there was any link to church and Christianity, I'm not sure. I imagine that it would be one of these places that would have texts on the wall, biblical texts or exaltations to worship but as far as I know, there were no services held [at 87 Whitechapel Road]. Again as I say, the information is very sketchy so it’s very hard to say."
David Charnick (www.charnowalks.co.uk) was speaking to Shahed Saleem on 23.02.18. The text has been edited for print.