One day in 1780, Robert Raikes's newspaper business took him to an impoverished suburb of Gloucester. He was shocked to see so many children "wretchedly ragged, at play in the street." He asked a local woman about this.

"On a Sunday you would be shocked indeed," she replied, "for then the street is filled with multitudes of the wretches who, released on that day from employment, spend their day in noise and riot … cursing and swearing in a manner so horrid as to convey … an idea of hell."

In 1700s England, it was generally agreed that something must be done about such children's poverty and ignorance. After his firsthand exposure, Robert Raikes figured out what to do.

Dandy reformer

He wasn't the first to try. In the 1700s, 1,500 charity schools had been established by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge. Wesley and Whitefield had preached to the young. But most efforts were like the school conducted by Hannah Ball, a Methodist stalwart. She had worked "instructing a few of the rising generation in the principles of religion."

"They are a wild little company," she said, "but seem willing to be instructed."

Yet reformers faced several difficulties. Class separation kept the learned from the poor. Class condition was attributed to "breeding," which education could not change. Individual reformers worked alone, and the public had no appreciation of their success. Then there was the law: until 1779, it was illegal for non-Anglicans to start a school or teach.

Raikes (1735-1811) learned concern for the poor from his father, from whom he also inherited an influential newspaper. He was a bit of a dandy-walking about town in his wig and claret-colored coat, and carrying a gold snuff case. But he was also a committed member ...

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