“The careless maintenance from year to year, in this, the capital city of the world, of a vast hopeless nursery of ignorance, misery and vice, a breeding place for the hulks and
jails, is horrible to contemplate.”
—Charles Dickens, the Daily News, March 13, 1852
When Dickens wrote about the “ragged schools” that so pitifully attempted to address the problem of London’s uneducated underclass, he was less moved by their pupils’ physical wretchedness, which was extreme, than by their spiritual poverty, which he saw as absolute. Yes, he was affronted by the squalor in which they were forced to live; yes, he was outraged by the injustice of it. What drove him to near despair, however, was not that, of material things, they had so little but that, of morality, they had nothing at all. “The first distinctions between right and wrong are, from their cradles, perfectly confounded and perverted in their minds,” he wrote. “They come of untaught parents, and will give birth to another untaught generation . . . there is no escape or chance for them in any ordinary revolution of human affairs.” Dickens believed that, if decent folk were to see for themselves inside the prisons and ragged schools of that time, they would be “shocked, pained and repelled”...