ONCE upon a time, they were regarded as a byword for the worst excesses of Victorian education, but now a new trove of previously unseen documents suggests that the so-called “ragged schools” were not as Dickensian as had been thought.

An archive of pupils’ letters, analysed by researchers at the University of Edinburgh, shows the establishments were not all doom and gloom.

The ragged schools – named after the way the children attending them dressed – were charitable organisations which offered free education to destitute children in 19th-century Britain.

Conditions in them attracted widespread attention, most notably from Charles Dickens, whose visit to such a school in 1843 inspired A Christmas Carol – which tells of the remarkable transformation of the miserly Scrooge following conversations with a series of ghosts on Christmas Eve.

More than 220 letters record the experiences of 57 boys who had emigrated from the age of 14 to Australia, Canada or New Zealand with the help of the London Ragged School Union’s Emigration Fund.

Edinburgh University researchers say they offer a new perspective on working-class education, by revealing the pupils’ reading and writing skills.

The letters – which were stored in the Surrey History Centre in Woking – are part of the family archive of Martin Ware, a barrister and superintendent of the boys’ school at Compton Place Ragged School. When he left, he took some school journals, letters and papers with him.

Researchers have analysed the handwriting, misspellings and clarifications of each writer to build a picture of their sense of pride or shame towards literacy.

Testimonies from the ragged scholars – who went on to enter a range of trades, including bakers, farmhands, plasterers and joiners – include their opinions of the teacher and their thoughts about emigrating.

They highlight, in their own words, their anxiety and homesickness, such as one scholar who wrote: “But we like to hear from old and Tried friends at home What Magic there is in that small world.”

The study, published in the Journal of Victorian Culture, argues that the ragged school movement played an important role in communities in its time, teaching reading and writing to children who had been excluded from existing institutions by their poverty.

Until now, researchers say that insights on the schools focused on the voices of adults – the assessments of teachers and government inspectors of the schools, prior to education acts.

Their own work shifts attention towards the words and writing skills of the children, demonstrating the widely varying abilities found in one classroom.

As such, it offers new and valuable insights into the literacy attained by the poorest children in Victorian society and their individual efforts to improve, suggesting that both pride and shame could become attached to literacy.

The letters also include well used phrases from the Victorian era, such as: “I write these few lines to you hoping to find you well as it leaves me at present.”

Lead researcher Laura Mair, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Divinity, said: “The letters have provided a valuable insight into students’ experiences of a ragged school.

She added: “The students’ side of the story add colour to a historic view of the schools which in some respects has been black and white.”