John Pounds | A History of Portsmouth


Another Portsmouth first, the British birthplace of free education for our children. John Pounds (June 17, 1766 – January 1, 1839) was a teacher and altruist born in Portsmouth, and the man most responsible for the creation of the concept of Ragged schools.

A Portsmouth cobbler, he began teaching poor children without charging fees in 1818, unknowingly leading to a revolution in the British education system. Thomas Guthrie, the Scottish philanthropist built upon Pound’s idea of free schooling for working-class children and started a ragged school in Edinburgh. John Pounds was born on June 17th 1766 in St Mary’s Street, Old Portsmouth. His father was a sawyer who worked in Portsmouth Dockyard and aged just twelve years old, John himself took employment as an apprentice shipwright in the Dockyard.

A shipwright is a skilled craftsman employed to build and repair naval ships at the Dockyard. The apprenticeship typically would involve four or five years of training. Unfortunately only three years into his apprenticeship John suffered a life-changing accident whilst at work, he fell into a dry dock, he was lucky to survive at all, but he did suffer serious injuries to his back, leaving him badly deformed and unable to continue with his training.

The Ragged schools were charitable organisations dedicated to the free education of destitute children in 19th century Britain. The schools were developed in working-class districts. Ragged schools were intended for society’s most destitute children. Such children, it was argued, were often excluded from Sunday School education because of their unkempt appearance and often challenging behaviour. Pounds would scour the streets of Portsmouth looking for children who were poor and homeless, taking them into his small workshop and teaching them basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills. This small workshop was often host to as many as 40 children at any one time. John carried with him simple food items like baked potatoes to attract children.

To quote the noble fellow…

“I wants they as nobody else cares for….An so I goes along Crown Street and Warblington Street, an down to Town Quay, an East Street, an all about the back courts and alleys, an I keeps my eyes about me; an when I see a poor little starved thing, that nobody cares for, poking about in the gutter – that’s the one for me – an I goes gently to it…. an I says ‘Will y’have a taty’, and I has a boiled taty ready in my pocket. And I pulls taty part out of my pocket. An when he sees taty he says ‘yes’. And I gives him the taty. And he begins eating it. An while he’s eating his taty, I moves off. But not so fast, ye knows, but he can keep up wi’ me. But I takes care – before he’s done eating his taty, I’se be in my shop. An he follows me into the shop for another taty. And as sure as he comes once, he comes again.”

Henry Hawkes, a Unitarian minister asked John Pounds why he had begun to take in children and Pounds explained how he had known a very poor family who had a child, born crippled, with both of his feet turned in. Thinking that they would have great trouble looking after such a child he offered to take little Johnny into his household. The child was only one year old at the time. Pounds took to calling the boy his ‘Neffy’ (nephew) and he set about straightening his feet with specially designed shoes which forced the feet into a correct alignment. It hurt the child but it worked.

As Johnny grew older, Pounds realised his Neffy needed someone to play with so he approached his old friend Lemmon and asked him to send some children from his family round to keep Johnny company. In return Pounds promised to help all the children learn their lessons whilst he carried on his trade mending shoes. After a while neighbours passing the shop couldn’t help noticing the bunch of children happily learning to read and write and they asked John if he would take their children as well. Before long he had up to forty children in his workshop which measured just eight feet wide and fifteen feet long.

One of the practices that Pounds adopted to educate so many children at once were that he let the older children, who had already learned to read and write, take charge of the younger ones as teachers in their own right, whilst Pounds looked after newcomers. It was this method that so attracted the founders of the Ragged Schools and lay behind the idea that John Pounds had begun the movement.


Information amalgamated from Wikipedia, Welcome To Portsmouth, John Pounds Church and History In Portsmouth with grateful thanks.

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