Rev Thomas Guthrie established the Edinburgh Original Industrial Ragged School in 1847. A leading philanthropist and reformer, Rev. Guthrie had previously set up another three schools to aid destitute children living in the squalor of Edinburgh’s Old Town. Rev. Guthrie originally hailed from Brechin, Angus and was a highly educated man, having previously studied at Edinburgh University and in Paris. In 1827, he became a minister in Airbilot, Angus, before he was invited to be minister for Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh in 1837. From the outset, he was horrified at the extreme poverty of the Old Town.
It is likely that Rev. Guthrie had heard of the Ragged School movement in England, established in 1818 by a Portsmouth shoemaker, Thomas Pounds. Pounds had begun teaching the poor children in his area without charge, and the movement grew from there. The idea was to take the poorest children and give them a better start in live by providing a free education. They also were fed. At the same time as Rev. Guthrie was encountering the poor conditions of his new neighbourhood in Edinburgh, a Sheriff Watson was establishing an Industrial school in Aberdeen.
At first, Rev Guthrie converted a room below his church to make soup and porridge in order to feed local impoverished children. As children attended regularly for meals, Rev. Guthrie began teaching them, and soon had his first regular class. Within a year, he had set up another two identical schools in other parts of the neighbourhood, with 265 children in attendance.
In 1847, Rev. Guthrie began campaign for these schools with a pamphlet called “Plea for Ragged Schools”. In this, he described the shocking state of the children he wished to help, who were forced to beg and steal in order to survive. It was a success, public subscription reaching £2,000, quite a considerable sum at the time. With this, Rev. Guthrie was able to establish the school at Ramsay Lane.
This school had space for 45 pupils, whom it fed, accommodated and educated. These were 45 of the poorest children in Edinburgh. Breakfast and supper consisted of porridge and molasses, whilst dinner (lunch) was a ‘nutritious soup with bread. At night, the school dining room was turned into a dormitory, the pupils sleeping on hammocks. The school taught children reading, writing, cleanliness and godliness. As well as an education, they were also given additional training. For instance, boys were taught tailoring and shoemaking, whilst girls were taught how to be ‘good wives’ to working men. The pupils were also given odd jobs to do for local businesses, earning a small wage.
The impact of the Ragged Schools was considerable, taking child beggars off the street and reduced the population of children in prison by three quarters. Rev. Guthrie was also involved in other philanthropic and reforming projects, such as improving housing and working conditions. He died aged 70 in 1873, and was held in such esteem that 30,000 people lined the route of his funeral procession in Edinburgh; 230 former Ragged School pupils stood at his graveside. He was a kind and thoughtful man, an efficient orator on the pulpit and the most popular minister in Edinburgh.
The Ragged School he established in Ramsay Lane continued into the 20th century, but eventually closed down due to education reforms that required every child to go to school.
Apart from during the 1950s and 1960s, when there was a flat in the top floor of the building, the Ragged School has been left empty for the last four or five decades. It sits next to the Outlook Tower, which houses the Camera Obscura and has been the site of a museum for over 100 years. Recently, the Ragged School was purchased by the owners of the Camera Obscura with a view to extending the attraction into the empty building. Both buildings are linked by a basement. Ghost stories have long been attached to the Ragged School.
Generally, sounds of children giggling and running around have been reported; the building’s owner has also encountered these. A general ‘air of sickness’ has also been experienced by some, surprising given that the Ragged School has a history of being a happy place.
Paranormal groups have investigated the school on a number of occasions. One of these was Ghost Finders UK, who investigated both the Ragged School and the Camera Obscura, which also plays host to some ghosts, in 2007. In their investigation report, the team also mention the sound of children giggling on the third floor, and the sound of footsteps running up and down the fire escape. They also note that visitors have reported an ‘oppressive atmosphere’, perhaps linked to the ‘air of sickness’? Unlike other sources, Ghost Finders UK state that not long before their investigation, a former resident of the school came forward, reporting experiencing a lot of paranormal activity during their time there between 1939 and 1949.
During their walk around, the team mediums noticed many different things in the school. On the top floor, Linda sensed there were two distinct eras, the main area being the oldest, with the smaller part being added later. She felt ill in the older part of the floor. She was attracted by a pram in the middle of the floor and noticed the spirit of a young girl called Sarah, with dirty blonde “Shirley Temple’ hair. There were other child spirits detected by Linda, whom she felt never experienced any cruelty and were very happy. Linda also picked up a similar atmosphere on the first floor, as well as male ghosts. It seemed to be a place where things were always happening.
During the investigation, some interesting things occurred, such as the motion sensors going off without any noticeable reason and loud bangs being heard. One team member saw a shadow figure on the top floor, where they also got some EVP. Similar activity happened on the ground floor, and a medium was ‘playfully’ pinched in the stomach.
Ghost Hunters International, from the USA, investigated the Ragged School a few years later. They obtained similar results and managed to debunk some of the things felt by team members as resulting from wind blowing down chimneys and other structural reasons. They found that staff from the Camera Obscura were reluctant to go down to the basement connecting their main building with the Ragged School because of the large amount of ghostly activity they experienced. The staff also believed that the Camera Obscura was haunted because some of the ghosts had moved in from the School. Visitors often experienced strange things and tour guides would see, hear or feel people on their tours who weren’t there. One of the most seen apparitions was of a man nicknamed George by staff. In the late 1950s, early 1960s, Bella Roxburgh had lived in the flat of the top floor of the Ragged School with her parents and siblings. They often heard the sounds of someone walking around… …someone who wasn’t there.