The Ragged School Museum has a park to its front and a canal behind, giving it enviable views on both directions. It is interesting to think a moment about how pleasant the surroundings are now, compared to the reality of living in the East End during the late Victorian period. I confess that my first thoughts upon arriving at the Museum were about the size of the windows (big) and the colour of the bricks (yellow London stock), and how much I liked them both. Once inside, though, my eyes were opened to the true value of the place.

Ragged Schools were set up during the 19th century to educate poor children – they took their name from the ragged state of the clothes the children wore. This school, set up by Thomas Barnardo, opened in 1877 and helped educate the local children until 1908. The converted warehouses housed three schools: one for younger children as well as separate schools for older boys and girls. Not only were these schools a vital source of education for the children, they also offered free meals. The school also acted as a hub for the community. That work continues today, as the building is now the community museum for Tower Hamlets.

The ground floor exhibition space is all about the local area. The history of the last 200 years is told largely through information boards, with some exhibits. The displays are split up into geographical and thematic sections. I read about Stepney and Mile End, Whitechapel and Spitalfields, the Bryant and May match factory, and the Bethnal Green tube disaster. My favourite exhibit was the model of the match factory: it is so detailed, I was almost waiting for the workers to trundle out after a long shift. The information about the Match Girls' Strike of 1888 is fascinating – no wonder they were fed up with draconian rules that included fines for having dirty feet or talking.

Up on the second floor is a replica kitchen showing living conditions in working-class homes at the turn of the 20th century. One of the things that struck me was the disconnect between the past and present we sometimes have. In the same way that the building now prompts sighs of envy or delight, so too do some of the objects in the home. I spotted a few objects that are now ornaments or curios, but a century ago were essential daily items, such as the stoneware hot bottle. The display is totally interactive – children can touch and play – and walking into the kitchen gives a sense of size that is enhanced by the photographs and testimony displayed nearby. On this floor too is some information about both the Ragged School itself and the extent of poverty in the area in the 19th century.

The highlight of the museum is on the first floor. Here a classroom is presented as it would have been during the Victorian era. There are sloping desks with lids that lift and holes for inkwells. There is a huge swinging blackboard, a map of the British Isles and a portrait of Queen Victoria. Everything, in fact, that I imagined an old classroom should have. This one also comes with a strict teacher. If you time it right, and I did, you can experience a Victorian lesson for yourself. I cannot recommend this enough; it is really fun and a little bit nerve-wracking! We were taught by Miss Perkins, who wasted no time in laying down the law in her domain. Complete with bustle and cane she strode the room, exhorting us to achieve our "good, better, best", inspecting our hands for cleanliness, and drilling us on our ABC. All sorts of lessons were touched upon including drawing and copying on slates, sums and Sterling currency – much harder pre-decimalisation. It was brilliant, and I was thankful that is was only at the end in a more informal session that the various types of punishment were demonstrated.

The Ragged School Museum is geared somewhat towards school groups, and I imagine both the ground floor and replica kitchen come to life more when someone is discussing them with you. As an individual visitor I felt I needed to work a little to get the most out of the information; but that's not necessarily a negative thing. The class was excellent in every way, and well worth the trip alone. I got the impression the museum is trying to do a lot with its limited resources, and I appreciated and admired their efforts.

For Kids!
The Ragged Museum is an interesting place for children to visit. The replica kitchen on the second floor boasts plenty of objects to touch and play with, and there are some challenging "guess the item" exhibits. A box suspended on the wall with mesh sides had me and my niece stumped. We enjoyed the "feely-drawers" and trying to match old gadgets up with the foods they processed. The information on this floor is set out with children in mind, and the poverty map is particularly engaging.

The Victorian lesson is brilliant fun. Getting to write on a slate and learn about old money rated very highly on the fun things to do list. The teacher is strict, but not scarily so, and the discussion session at the end of the class gives an excellent perspective on the experience. I would recommend it to children old enough to sit still and follow instructions to really get the most out of it – it lasts a good 45 minutes. For the rest of the exhibition being able to read independently makes it more accessible and rewarding, although I saw some toddlers having a great time banging pots around!

Ragged School MuseumSarah Watkins reviews the Ragged School Museum in London.3