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Teaching the Poor

St Anthonys Hall, former home of Blue Coat School

The word ‘School’ did not always have the implications it does today. During the 18th and 19th centuries, schools were established in York which did not focus primarily on reading or writing. Instead they gave poor children something useful to do, teaching them valuable skills and making them productive within their society.

The Blue Coat and Grey Coat Schools were set up in 1705 for 40 boys and 40 girls, respectively, all of them either orphaned or from poor, often large, families. Both were charity schools, run by the city corporation. The schools are so named because the children were given clothing each year, which included blue, or grey, coats. Whilst the boys of the Blue Coat school were taught reading, writing, and some arithmetic, as well as the catechism, the Grey Coat girls were prepared for domestic service, learning to spin, sew, and do various household duties. The boys’ Blue Coat school was housed in St Anthony’s Hall in Peasholme Green until it was closed in 1946. The Grey Coat School was run in a house in Marygate until 1784, when a new school was built in Monkgate. Girls still boarded at the Grey Coat School in Monkgate as late as the 1950s, but attended other schools in the city.
Similar schools were set up in 1717, funded through a legacy from a woman named Dorothy Wilson. ‘Wilson’s Green Coat Boys’ Charity Schools’ was set up in her former home. Twenty poor boys of St Denys parish, aged 8-14, were taught reading, writing, and some arithmetic by a clergyman. The boys were expected to attend St Denys’ church, where a pew was reserved for them there. A girls’ school was added almost as an afterthought to Dorothy’s will; she left money to fund a ‘school dame’ to teach six poor parish girls to read. While the number of students at both schools increased by the 19th century, both were closed down in the 1890s and the money endowing them was diverted to other purposes.

The York Industrial Ragged School was set up in College Street, near the Minster, in 1848, for both boys and girls. The Ragged School (named in reference to how poor the children were) simply provided poor children with a craft. Boys were set to work clog-making, tailoring, gardening, and net-making, while girls learned needlework and domestic skills. A year after its foundation there were 90 children in attendance, and as these numbers increased (doubling in winter compared with the summer), the school moved into an old workhouse building in Marygate. The children lived at the school, with some going out to work. The Ragged School finally closed in 1921.


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