In 1877 Dr Thomas Barnardo opened the Copperfield Road Free School, the largest of three ragged schools (charitable institutions that offered the poorest children a free education) in a row of three warehouses on Regent’s Canal in Tower Hamlets. Now an underfunded, independent museum (opened in 1990), a small exhibition offers an insight into how tough life was in east London in the late 1800s, but the highlight is one of the original classrooms where visitors can attend a lesson led by an actor in Victorian costume. The museum is in the second phase of applying for a lottery grant, which will allow it to make vital repairs to the largest of the three warehouses, though the aim is to retain the authentic atmosphere of the building.
In 1881, Dr Barnardo took 2,500 Sunday school children by train on an outing to Theydon Bois in Essex.
The lesson. We sat at small wooden desks while stern “Miss Perkins”, dressed in long skirt, high necked blouse and wire-rimmed glasses, taught us our letters and numbers, slamming her cane down on her lectern if any of us misbehaved. My seven-year-old son was slightly appalled at the idea of going to school on a Sunday but enjoyed it once he got there, especially learning about the various cruel punishments Victorian school children were subjected to. A dressing up box of torn clothes means kids can look the part during class.
The tiny “cafe” is little more than a counter with a kettle. It’s a latte-free zone though this didn’t stop one smartly dressed customer asking for one. Tea, instant coffee and hot chocolate are all £1. There are packets of bourbon and digestive biscuits (40p), Snickers bars and that’s about it. We sat at the window with our drinks, watching a coot build its nest on the canal.
Often the bête noire of this column, I felt obliged to buy something just to support the project. Pocket money toys (marbles, pencils, skipping ropes, minature cars, balloons) cost £1-£2. There are also a few books on local history and postcards (30p).
It’s free – donations are encouraged.
Between 10am and 5pm every Wednesday and Thursday, and 2pm to 5pm on the first Sunday of each month when lessons (2.15pm or 3.30pm) are offered on a first come, first served basis. There are activities during school holidays (Wednesdays and Thursdays only). Outside these times the museum runs a schools programme, with 16,000 school children coming through the doors each year.
The nearest stations are Mile End tube and LimehouseNational Rail/Docklands Light Railway. Or it’s a bus ride from Liverpool Street or Stratford rail stations.
I loved it. It’s utterly uncommercial though this is due to lack of funds more than intention. This is an authentic slice of East End history that strives to inspire children through its work. Lottery money will help them modernise the exhibition and cafe. 7/10.