A detailed history

“That Ragged School down on Markham Road, what is it?”

People ask this question so often that I really must start by putting the answer down in print.

Those who know it best just call it chapel. There is still a traditional service at 6.30 p.m every Sunday. In the ‘Upper Room’, a group provide a weekly meal & social time for elderly Chinese people and the Eastwood Room is used by various organisations.

By now, the enquirer has had time to frame the question that lay behind the first and they usually interject “Yes, but how did it get its’ name?”

Once there were many Ragged Schools. They were essentially free Sunday schools run by volunteers. They were set up in the poorer parts of Victorian industrial towns and cities for children who might otherwise never darken the doors of a church or school. Characters from Dickens or Kingsley slaving in mills or maybe sweeping chimneys the hard way. Ragged Schools were for ragged children.

“So why build it where there are no houses?”

When Chesterfield’s Ragged School opened there was no traffic thundering by. There was no Markham Road, New Beetwell Street, bus stand or car park. The townscape consisted of a rabbit warren of narrow alleyways running south from the Market Place right down to the banks of the river Hipper. This pattern had its origins in the burgageplots of the medieval market. Originally there would have been just the house, shop or inn fronting the market with outbuildings and a smallholding to the rear. For six hundred years the layout hardly changed. Then the industrial revolution reached Chesterfield.

Alongside the meandering river a variety of industrial concerns were already established by the time of Potter’s survey in 1803. On the Ragged School’s site a carpet factory is marked. By 1837, this has been replaced with a square block corresponding to the size and shape of the present main building. There is evidence that this may have been a purpose built mill to house John Waterhouse’s great lace making machine. The chapel deeds do not mention names, but the date and style of construction are a good match. Records of the inventor’s move to Wheeldon Lane are confirmed in trade directories. In 1849 a John Thackery was running the mill. By 1851 it was up for sale. George Mason appears to have bought the building for his tobacco and pipe manufacturing until he moved to his larger, purpose built factory near the railway.

Throughout the 19th century, maps of the town show gardens and orchards disappearing under tightly packed rows of cheap terraced housing and small factories. The area began to acquire a doubtful reputation. Policemen were instructed not to venture down the “long yards” alone.

Four young men from the nearby Congregational Church resolved that something should be done for the families that had to live in such a place. Seeking premises, they found the former factory on Wheeldon Lane vacant. The previous tenants had run a beer and lodging house of such ill-repute that the authorities had closed it down. The mission team duly rented the upper room and opened for the first time on Sunday, 28th July, 1878. One hundred and nine children came that morning. The four teachers enlisted more help. After two weeks, an afternoon meeting was added. After three weeks, an evening gospel service was held, attended by fifty adults.

The mission continued to grow. A teachers meeting was inaugurated to govern the school. Minutes of the first meeting are dated 30th October, 1878. On May 5th, 1879, the Ragged School became a member of the Chesterfield Sunday School Union.

Public support for the work, especially from other churches, was generous. Denominational differences were put aside as donations of books, food and other gifts were sent. The founders seem to have resolved from the very first that they would devote all available resources to the local work and waste nothing on formal ties with Methodist, Baptist, Congregational or other organisations but rather welcome them all as friends and fellow workers. This remains true today.

The effectiveness of such wholehearted concentration on the job in hand is reflected in the attendance records. By 1885 there were 340 scholars and 27 teachers on the books. More impressive still was the proportion of these who were coming regularly. Average weekly attendances were 319 and 24 respectively.

Discipline must have been very difficult to maintain. The school rules are most illuminating. The requirement that “Teachers shall not hesitate to move from their accustomed places to quell a disturbance..” (rule 7) rather suggests that quelling was frequently needed!

Mid-week meetings and social events were soon added to the school’s calendar. Band of Hope, Sisterhood, Christian Endeavour, classes of various kinds, Christmas treats, summer trips and games, special mission weeks all gave interest, direction and purpose to the lives of those involved. When it became evident that many of the children were poorly fed and rarely had anything for breakfast, the teachers organised a basic meal before Sunday school. It is not known how many years they were able to continue this kind of help, but it certainly made the place even more popular!

“…and from your bounty, O God, you provided for the poor.” Psalm 68 v. 10

Finance was a significant item on the agenda with so many mouths and minds to feed. In such an area, the usual freewill offerings were never going to balance the books, so bazaars and services of song were arranged to which aldermen and local politicians were invited along with a large proportion of the town’s clergy.

Sunday School anniversaries were held. Civic dignitaries and captains of industry were invited to share the platform with the preachers and join the board of trustees or serve a term as president or vice president. Naturally, they were also expected to dig deep when the collecting box came around or letters went out to solicit annual subscriptions or donations to the Christmas Tree Fund.

A typical anniversary collection is recorded in the minute book. The boxes used were wooden, which explains the last few items. A button or a cherry stone might be dropped in to pass for the sound of a farthing as long as your neighbours all respected the polite convention of not looking!

After nine years, the work was still growing and the teachers resolved to purchase the whole building. After long negotiations, it was secured for £480. The school did not have any capital and could not borrow but the teachers were confident that the Lord would provide. They launched a public appeal, ran a huge bazaar and by the end of 1891 had raised £280. At the annual general meeting in January, 1892, it was announced that an anonymous benefactor had cleared the whole of the remaining debt.

£200 was a magnificent sum in such times and in such a community. The question in everyone’s mind was “Who was it?” One suspects that despite the anonymity, he was well known to the teachers and may even have been present at the meeting but although the minutes secretary expressed appropriate gratitude, the secret was never revealed.

Readers today will know little about the pioneers who set up the mission. This may be an appropriate moment to get to know a few of those hardworking and devoted folk who did what they could to bring light where there was darkness and hope where there was despair.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” Isaiah 61 v. 1

According to contemporary records, the four men who started the mission were Arthur and Henry Slack, Henry Shaw and Frederick Conroy from Soresby Street Congregational Church. They were joined as soon as the regular meetings began in 1878 by many others, notably Messrs. Saunders, Gidlow, Walton, Hadfield and Legge. A stone memorial tablet in the school confusingly records two of the first group and two of the second together.

The Slack brothers contributed much to the Sunday Schools in the town, besides pursuing independent careers in local commerce. Henry, the eldest, also helped found the Salvation Army movement in the town and later became superintendent of Marsden Street Methodist Church. Arthur seems to have taken a more prominent role at the Ragged School, being elected as superintendent in 1879 and continuing in office until 1901. Mr. Conroy and Mr. Shaw lived to see only the early years, Mr. Shaw serving as treasurer from 1880 to 1886.

Frank Saunders was a colporteur. He sold bibles, tracts and Christian literature in the Chesterfield area. He seems to have been a very effective door to door salesman for God and for the Ragged School. It is recorded that in one year alone he sold 1901 copies of the scriptures, and 5810 other books besides supplying 1616 magazines and SundaySchool cards.

Mr. Gidlow was described to me from memory by the chapel’s oldest surviving member as a tall, grey haired figure who was never elected to a principal office but worked as hard as anyone for the school.

One of the best known characters amongst the founders was Thomas Hadfield, the butcher, whose Market Place premises extended right down Castle Yard. His empire included a sausage factory and a tiny square of terraced houses just above the chapel, which was commonly known as “Hadfield Town”. One might say that Mr. Hadfield had a vested interest in establishing a Ragged School literally in his own backyard, but he was a longserving and generous neighbour. When he died in 1903, the school held a memorial service and raised a commemorative plaque. There must have been some benefit to his firm as the business lasted another three generations. I can remember the chapel drains getting blocked by sausages from further up the yard as late as 1960!

” Continue to live in Him, rooted and built up in Him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught.” Col. 2 vs. 6-7.

The turn of the century heralded great changes in the long yards. Municipal concern was being expressed about the state of the area. The obvious deprivation resulting from over development may have been a significant factor in the renewed determination that the Borough boundaries must be increased and land released for housing and industry.

The first new development in the immediate vicinity of the school was the Queen’s Park, which officially opened on 21st September 1887 in celebration of Victoria’s golden jubilee. This had been unofficially used by the children for years while it was still Maynard’s meadows but now the school had unrestricted access to better facilities. A cricket pitch was added, the first county match being played in June 1898. The river Hipper had already been straightened by the building of the Midland Railway’s branch line to Brampton. Now new roads were planned from the town centre. A huge embankment was raised to the west of the chapel with a bridge over Park Road to bring the Lancashire, Derbyshire and East Coast Railway to its’ terminus in the corner of New Square, opened in 1897.Finally, in 1911,Markham Road was built, cutting through the slums from east to west and bringing new houses and rivalry in the shape of the Queen’s Park Hotel and the Salvation Army Citadel.

Through all the external upheavals the Ragged School prospered. By 1901 the children’s mission had grown into a fully-fledged independent church.

Arthur Slack, still a senior deacon at Soresby Street Congregational Church, felt unable to accept this expanding role and resigned from his demanding double office of superintendent and treasurer. Frank Saunders was elected as the new superintendent with the support of James Davenport as secretary, Robert Fisher as treasurer, and the distinguished figure of Mr. W. Marples.

When Mr. Saunders left the district in 1908, Mr. Davenport took his place while Mr. Marples took over as secretary. This dedicated pair held the chapel fellowship on course through the storms of two world wars and more changes than they could possibly have imagined.

“May the God of Peace…..equip you with everything good for doing His will.” 

Heb. ch.13 v. 20

By this time, the old converted factory was full to overflowing. Between the turn of the century and the Second World War there were over 400 scholars on the books. Anniversary services had to be organised on a rota basis over two Sundays to allow every child a turn in the singing. With no grant aid or national church to support them, the teachers kept the work going through world war and economic depression not by believing in miracles but by relying on them.

When Markham Road was opened, a new frontage to the chapel site was created. Alderman E. Eastwood, founder of the town’s railway wagon works and president of the chapel, pledged £100 to start a fund to build a new schoolroom for the younger children. When he died in 1910, his son, Alderman G. A. Eastwood, took his place and championed the scheme as a memorial to his father. At the stonelaying ceremony reported in the Derbyshire Courier, July 1914, he observes that the Borough Council wereobliged to charge for the extra land needed. However, he then invited all the councillors and officials to the ceremony, seeking subscriptions to the cause to such good effect that their collective generosity paid back the whole of the land costs!

The builder, David Brown of Hasland, completed the job in four months, with extras totalling just nine shillings and fourpence.

Sadly, events of worldwide significance overshadowed what should have been the chapel’s finest hour. Within weeks, the government requisitioned the whole premises to provide barracks for the Lancashire Fusiliers while they were billeted in the town.

Undaunted, the teachers temporarily transferred their classes to Hipper Street Junior school. Eight months later, they were able to return to the Ragged School and complete their infants’ accommodation by adding a platform.

Special efforts seem to have been made to maintain all services and children’s treats throughout the war. Alderman Shentall (later to be knighted) maintained his annual gifts of fir trees at Christmas and oranges at Whitsuntide. This was more than generous under the circumstances for there were close on 500 children and teachers and Sir Ernest always sent enough for everyone.

As the war dragged on, the young men of the chapel were called one by one to serve in the forces. Teachers arranged to send them parcels and gifts. A roll of honour was drawn up recording all who went out.

Alderman Eastwood continued his active support as president, promising a treat for the whole school whenever peace should be declared. Peace was a long time coming but the president kept his promise and threw a memorable party for the entire school at Brambling House.

The end of the war was also however a time for counting the cost. Two families who had worked hard for the children lost sons on the battlefields of France. George Shooter and Sam May did not return and the third minute book concludes with the poignant arrangements for Sam’s memorial service.

” When I needed a neighbour, were you there? “

Ever practical, when the question of a permanent memorial was raised, the members resolved to collect a hundred pounds and invest it in corporation housing bonds. The interest was to be distributed annually to deserving cases.

Hard times in war were followed by hard times in peace. The memorial fund target was not reached until 1921 and for many years the chapel distributed much more todeserving cases than the interest from the bonds. The town’s Education Committee set up a scheme to feed needy children. They asked if the Ragged School could be used as a distribution centre and the members willingly agreed.

Small wonder that with so much to do, the remainder owed to the bank for the new schoolroom didn’t get back on the agenda until 1923, when a concerted effort was made to clear the debt and also install electricity. The teachers raised £50 in time for the annual general meeting of 1924 at which it was announced that a £100 bequest had reduced the amount owing to just £4. Typically, Alderman Eastwood promptly paid this out of his own pocket, bringing his task as building fund treasurer to a fitting end.

In that same year, the school enjoyed an unexpected bit of public recognition for its work when the Duke of Devonshire’s eldest daughter, Lady Maud Mackintosh, visited the chapel with her fiancé. Her recorded reaction to the scale and success of the school was that it was an “absolute revelation” and her congratulations to the officers and volunteers was well reported in the local press.

50th Jubilee celebrations in 1928 brought further publicity and encouragement. With such support, the teachers took stock of the old building and embarked on major improvements including replacement windows and the installation of a two manual pipe organ from Brampton Congregational Church. At the re-opening services in October 1930, the secretary happily records that every available seat was filled.

There were calls in the following year for a fund to be started to install central heating in the main building, but there seems to have been little enthusiasm for taking on another challenge so soon. The regular work was demanding enough with 460 children on the books at the end of 1933. Four cast iron radiators were eventually added to the existing system to serve the back room, but the main room continued to rely on an open fire and a “turtle” stove for heating for another 50 years. The clank of galvanised buckets of coke and the acrid whiff of burning were a regular feature of winter services until 1988.

The first annual general meeting recorded in the fifth volume of the minutes books was overshadowed by the passing of the school’s president.

Alderman G. Eastwood had been a tower of strength to the chapel through difficult times. The whole assembly stood in silent tribute. The sympathy and appreciation expressed were duly followed by calls for Miss Blanche Eastwood to be invited to take her father’s place. Her acceptance carried her family’s presidency into a third generation and gave a measure of stability through the uncertain years that were to follow.

At the 1936 meeting, appreciation was again expressed when it was announced that the long serving assistant superintendent, Walter Wicks, had been made both an alderman and a justice of the peace. There was unusual warmth in the congratulations for Mr. Wicks was a popular teacher and musician, training and conducting the children for anniversaries since before the First World War. He had a special rapport with the scholars who would follow him out into the park after the services in scenes reminiscent of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. His leadership in Sunday school and music helped the chapel through the dark years of another world war.

In 1942, following the evacuation from Dunkirk, the government again requested help in finding accommodation for troops. This time, the matter was approached on a more reasonable footing, the authorities asking for the Eastwood Room only and offering a rent of £40 p.a. for the duration. The contingent settled in for a couple of years, building themselves a rough kitchen and wash-house in the rear yard which was eventually sold to the school for £30 and served as a store for another fifty years.

The Sunday School infants department had to be crammed into the Endeavour Room. Small children were sat in every windowsill and squashed into every corner. Nevertheless, the few remaining teachers managed to keep classes going and even found time to organise occasional entertainment for the troops.

On the conclusion of hostilities, there were thanksgivings, reunions, joys and sadness, but in the autumn of 1945, the deepest sense of loss did not arise from a casualty of war. Walter Wicks, having led the Borough Council’s ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign on the allotments and proudly seen so many of his former pupils acquit themselves well in adversity, did not live to see all of them return to his beloved Ragged School. There were tributes recorded for his contribution to all kinds of good work in the town.

In retrospect, it seems that his passing signified the end of an era in the chapel’s history.

” We will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, His power and the wonders He has done.” Psalm 78 v. 4

When the Second World War came to an end, a new age dawned for many peoples and nations. How did a Victorian mission to the poor come to terms with the atomic bomb, the welfare state and social housing which spread even the poorest families out across large estates of three bedroom, semi-detached houses?

The rest of the country’s Ragged Schools have vanished almost without trace, made redundant by state education and higher standards of living.

One must also admit that the name has associations with the poverty of a bygone age. In the 1950s it lacked a ‘modern’ image. In ensuing decades it wasn’t ‘trendy’, ‘groovy’, or ‘cool’. People didn’t choose to attend the Ragged School if they were social climbers or status seekers. Perhaps this was a hidden blessing, testing the humility of those who continued to cross the threshold, but all things considered, Chesterfield’s school is an amazing survival. Why is it still there?

One essential factor to date has been the ongoing process of change and renewal, both in the building and the people.

In the 1950s, the new superintendent, Cliff Tingay, and secretary, Geoff Collins, worked hard to meet changing needs and tackle major building repairs including roof, gable wall and organ re-building.

In the 1970s and 80s, the threat of compulsory purchase, followed by another cycle of repairs and improvements encouraged teamwork in practical as well as spiritual matters for the next generation. The last of the town centre family housing disappeared, and for a little while, so did the children, but even as I write, the present fellowship is experiencing a further time of renewal, seeking to meet the needs of a new millennium.

As long as this pattern continues there will always be another chapter of history to write.

D.F. Botham, Chapel Secretary