Charles Dickens Describes a Ragged School to Angela Burdett-Coutts


Envelope with Dickens’ signature in the bottom left corner and wave seal at back (Cotsen 44006).

On September 16th, 1843, Charles Dickens wrote a letter to Angela Burdett-Coutts in Broadstairs, Kent. He opens the letter by remarking on his current progress writing Martin Chuzzlewit (which he would publish in monthly installments from January 1843 — July 1844). But the majority of the letter meditates on the condition of a particular Ragged school in London, probably the Field Lane Ragged School. Ragged schools were charitable organizations that offered free education for the destitute children of 19th Century England’s struggling working class. Often run by working class people in their own neighborhoods, the schools offered instruction during the evening, after the children had been working or begging during the day.

In the letter’s second paragraph Dickens describes the school he had visited a few days prior:

“On Thursday night, I went to the Ragged School; and an awful sight it is. I blush to quote Oliver Twist for an authority. . . The school is held in three most wretched rooms on the first floor of a rotten house: every plank, and timber, and brick, and lath, and piece of plaster in which, shakes as you walk.  One room is devoted to the girls: two to the boys. The former are much the better-looking — I cannot say better dressed, for there is no such thing as dress among the seventy pupils; certainly not the elements of a whole suit of clothes, among them all.  I have very seldom seen, in all the strange and dreadful things I have seen in London and elsewhere anything so shocking as the dire neglect of soul and body exhibited in these children.  And although I know; and am as sure as it is possible for one to be of anything which has not happened; that in the prodigious misery and ignorance of the swarming masses of mankind in England, the seeds of its certain ruin are sown, I never saw that Truth so staring out in hopeless characters, as it does from the walls of this place.  The children in the Jails are almost as common sights to me as my own; but these are worse, for they have not arrived there yet, but are as plainly and certainly travelling there, as they are to their Graves…” [pages 1-2]

From this heartwarming opening, Dickens continues to explain the poor physical condition of the school, the struggles of its young inhabitants and teachers, their devotion to prayer and knowledge of God, and its significant lack of funding.

Why mention all this to his dear friend Angela you might ask? Well, for one thing, she happens to be popularly known as “the richest heiress in England”. In 1822 Angela Burdett-Coutts became one of the wealthiest women in England after inheriting £1.8 million pounds sterling from her grandfather, Thomas Coutts, founder of the banking house of Coutts & Co.

Towards the closing of the letter then, its purpose becomes quite clear:

“I need not say, I am sure, that I deem it an experiment most worthy of your charitable hand.” [page 8]

The entreatment would prove fruitful. To show his gratitude, Dickens would dedicate the 1844 monograph of Martin Chuzzlewit to Miss Burdett-Coutts herself. A prodigious philanthropist, Burdett-Coutts would work with Dickens on a number of charitable enterprises untill his death in 1870. Famously, the pair would found the Urania Cottage, a home for young women who had “turned to a life of immorality”, in 1847.

In the last paragraph of the letter Dicken’s explains that he will soon be leaving for a visit to the Manchester Athenaeum. In Edgar Johnson’s exhaustive biography: Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, Johnson explains that this visit, and the audience that Dickens would encounter there, would provide the author with his inspiration for perhaps, his most well known work: A Christmas Carol (see Johnson, page 254).

For your enjoyment and perusal (hoping your 19th Century English paleography is up to snuff) the letter is reproduced below:

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Dicken’s signature


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