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Bury Unitarian Church


Article published in the Bury Times 1-10-20


SCHOOLING and education is perhaps something many of us take for granted in the 21st century.

But almost two centuries ago a group of selfless and passionate Bury reformers fought to ensure that formal education and all the benefits this could bestow were a right for all and not merely for a privileged elite.

During the late Georgian and Victoria periods industrialisation brought thousands flooding into towns like Bury in search of work.

In the wake of these drifting multitudes grew an army of the impoverished and destitute.

Life was hard for the newly urbanised working class and poor, and when periods of economic downturn struck many were pushed into the direst poverty and to the very edge of the liveable conditions.

Daily strife and scenes of begging orphans and waifs were an all too frequent occurrence.

The sight of such children stirred the heart of many, including one Bury bookseller, Benjamin Glover.

As a social and moral champion, Mr Glover saw the beer-shop and the public house as the ultimate enemy of family life and believed that education was the route to eliminating misery and crime.

According to local historian Jean Bannister: “Support for the schoolmaster rather than the policeman was his motto and he advocated compulsory free education run by the State with no sectarian strings.”

When the Parliamentary Bills of 1853 and 1855, which had attempted to establish the basic levels of such education, failed, Mr Glover Turned his own hand and attention to improving the lot of Bury’s poorest children.

He was no doubt inspired by the Ragged School movement which had emerged in the 1830s and 40s.

In the early 19th century free schools were established in Scotland, London and the South of England, and in 1844 the Ragged Schools Union was created to ensure free education, food, clothing, lodgings and missionary services for poor children.

Mr Glover founded the new Bury Industrial School, based on voluntary subscription, and became its first secretary.

  A printer named Mr Tweddell was chosen as the first headmaster and the school was housed in his premises in Union Square.

Early records survive and show from what backgrounds the school’s early scholars were admitted.

Twenty eight were said to have been frequently drunk, 13 were expert thieves and most had at some time begged for food.

Several of these children were dismissed for exerting an evil influence on others.

On admittance most pupils were found to have been verminous and all were ignorant of the Lord’s Prayer, having only heard of the Deity for use as a swear word.

One 12-year-old boy had run away from his step mother, spent two years at a coal-pin in Wigan, damaged his fingers, broken an arm and a leg in a road accident and spent time living with a relative sleeping on three hard chairs.

Reports remarked that he improved considerably once at the school. That was until his uncle too him on a day to the races, after which her ran away, back to a life of vagrancy.

Initially around 30 children were cared for, including clothes for those in need, a breakfast, dinner and tea of porridge, soup and bread for all; and seven beds provided for those without homes.

Pupils received basic schooling in the morning and undertook manual work in the afternoon. But there was no instruction on Sundays — perhaps revealing Mr Glover’s influence.

Despite the school founders’ best efforts, a Government inspector in 1857 found the premises poor and the children ignorant.

In 1859 the venture collapsed with the departure of Mr Glover.

Mr Tweddell had offered to continue ‘for the purpose of teaching and instructing the children of the poorer classes such as did not attend other schools for want of better clothing’, but his generosity was not taken up.

Instead a chemist, Mr Pennington, and a spindle maker, Mr Clark, hired a room in the Temperance Institute in Agur Street where they gave lessons on Sunday evenings.

This new venture became the Bury Sunday Evening Ragged School and it continued to grow, from 27 boys and 12 girls, to quickly reach an attendance of 135.

A building of its own became essential and site was acquired in George Street and a school was erected in 1869, complete with fancy brickwork and a Venetian window.

When the school opened on March 24, 1870, 177 pupils were admitted and taught by 28 teachers who gave religious education on Sundays and basic schooling four evenings a week.

Throughout its early years the school struggled for funds and annual inspections reports continually urged for better staff to pupil ratios.

One report described the pupils as ‘the poorest and most neglected children in the heart of the town'.

Although another said: “The children did not seem very ragged in dress.”

The annual inspection report of 1891 stressed the deprivation of pupils, noting: “The poor we have always with us and it is a pleasure to help and succour the children received for this class of our neighbours... their chance of a proper upbringing lies in our power, to care for and help them until...such times as they can help themselves. Otherwise they will go to the swell and already too large numbers are submerged.”

In spite of the hardship donations were always gratefully received at the school and the wealthy spent generous sums on treats and outings for the pupils.

Every Christmas a party of 300 to 400 children enjoyed a meat pie, bun and coffee, as well as carol singing and a bag of goodies.

They also enjoyed trips to Heaton Park, and holidays to the seaside or Bury Holiday Home for the poorest.

In 1906 a new wing was added to each side of the building and the school was renamed the George Street British School, although the Sunday Ragged School remained.

However, the period after the First World War brought continuing hardship for the school.

Inspectors noted in 1925 that there were more war orphans there than at any other school in Bury and remarked that the children seemed passive and it was difficult to arouse their interest.

But by the Second World War pupils numbers were instead dwindling as a process of demolition began in the Mosses area of Bury.

Just one year after the Ragged School celebrated its centenary in 1959, the day school was closed.

For a short time the Bury Unitarian Church occupied the building before moving to Bank Street.

Sadly the Ragged School building is no more and George Street is now in the heart of Bury’s Marketside shopping district and Angouleme Way Retail Park.

However former pupils of the school still meet up with one another to reminisce fondly.







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