Edward Joy is 44 years old, a wool broker from Leeds who knows from his time as a magistrate that the Sydney George Street market is notorious for its undesirables and shady characters. What draws him here is the purchase of some oranges for his wife Eliza – she wishes to use them to grace the table in their fashionable Newtown house. Slipping into the market square he thinks “I must guard my pocketbook from the light-fingered among the crowd.” Later he tells Eliza “I expected to see rough characters, and they were there, but what shocked me were the bands of ragged, filthy, gaunt little boys as young as 6 or 7 years-old milling around the stalls, pilfering fruit and anything else within their reach!” Joy sees here, as he later discovers, just some of the hundreds of young vagabonds, homeless and sleeping rough, strolling about the streets, growing up in idleness, ignorance and vice and generally making a nuisance of themselves.
What future do they have? It’s wrong, thinks Edward, that these children should be so neglected. The scale of the problem, although known to Police, is new to Edward for in his three years in the Police court he usually only sees adults. “Getting them into a school is what’s needed,” says Edward. “Eliza, I was told that a number have, even at their young age, spent more time in jail than in a classroom! But what can one do?” he asks, neatly slicing an orange he’s brought home from the market.
Shortly after his brush with Sydney’s juvenile underworld, Edward was reading an account of the 1860 Annual Meeting of the NSW Bible Society. A speech by Frederic Barker, bishop of Sydney, caught his eye. It spoke of the critical role of the Word of God in Lord Shaftesbury’s London Ragged Schools. These schools were for boys (and girls) like the ones hanging around the market. ‘A similar Ragged School work is needed in Sydney’ said Barker and ‘he hoped his words would spur someone to take up the work of sharing the Word of God in this way’. A book, Ragged Homes and How to Mend them had been recommended so Edward obtained a copy and advertised that he’d like a copy of the rules and reports of the London Ragged Schools.
By the end of February 1860, when Edward stood to address a public meeting called to discuss this issue, he’d become an expert on the subject. He was the man the bishop hoped would arise. What literature there was he’d read and he’d even sought the counsel of the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, Rev John West, whose brother had been involved in ragged school work in England. West said, ‘gain the affection of the children and seek their welfare and remember that the Christian faith is the grand engine to elevate these neglected children.’
‘I’m not a teacher,’ Joy thought. ‘I couldn’t hope to secure the interest of such children, but I can organize and I have wealth.’ His generosity proved crucial as the first four months of the school cost around £150 ($A 15,000) and the Ragged Schools hadn’t yet attracted community financial support. The money needed came from Edward’s own pocket and while he had a committee to assist him, they did little other than add some social status to the cause. In reality, it was he who, with the support of his wife, was the dynamic, single-minded, driving force who became ‘Mr Ragged School’.
A Sussex Street woolstore was leased and Henry Lee, whom Joy knew to be an experienced and gifted Sunday school teacher, was hired to teach the boys. The girls were initially taught by lady volunteers, but soon Kate Danne was employed. The school hours were 2 to 4pm with evening classes for boys 3 days a week from 7:30 to 9pm. Teaching these children, particularly the boys, was difficult as they were initially unruly, undisciplined, unfocused, abusive, prone to swear, boisterous and violent towards one another – Henry Lee only survived a year and needed to be replaced. Kate Danne, however, would spend the next 40 years involved with the Ragged Schools.
The school proved its worth for loving, caring, godly patience on the part of the teachers and Edward, as well as the effect of the Word of God, won the children over. The local police even reported that since the school had opened a considerable change for the better had taken place in the character of the neighbourhood!
Edward wasn’t content to have the children just obtain basic literacy; he saw the need to introduce them to the Christian faith and to have them equipped with skills to earn a living as well. To prepare them for employment, Joy instituted an industrial aspect to the school with the manufacturing of cabbage tree hats, paper bags and boxes. He also set up an industrial school at his country property near Nattai where boys, as many as nine at a time, were apprenticed and taught farming skills.
Joy worked at a frenetic pace and gave a large portion of his time to establishing a number of Ragged Schools in Sydney. At the end of seven years, however, he indicated that he intended to retire and return to England. The Ragged Schools had a difficult time adjusting to his departure, struggled financially, and were in danger of closing. With careful financial management and community support, however, they survived and continued their service in Sydney until about 1926. For over 60 years, the Sydney Ragged School movement proclaimed the gospel through scripture teaching and providing an education to tens of thousands of children who otherwise would probably not have received any effective education at all. At the closure of the last Ragged School the newspapers said that the founder of the Ragged School movement in Sydney was unknown. Unknown to the press perhaps, but Edward Joy was known to God.