Edinburgh once put 1-in-20 kids under 14 in prison. Here’s how that changed – Donald Anderson

Thomas Guthrie, one of Scotland’s greatest philanthropists, set up so-called “ragged schools” that transformed the lives of the poorest children, writes Donald Anderson.

Monday, 23rd December 2019, 6:00 am
Thomas Guthrie created the original 'ragged school’ in the city

“The girls were left to grow up prostitutes, and the boys became thieves.” Such was the grim assessment of the lives of many of Edinburgh’s children around the time that the city’s New Town was being completed.

One of Edinburgh’s finest figures and one of Scotland’s greatest philanthropists was surely Thomas Guthrie. Guthrie created the original ‘ragged school’ in the city and I was familiar with ‘Guthries’ as a child.

Reading the commentary about the plight of poor children at the time is genuinely heart-breaking with over five per cent of children under 14 years of age in prison – one in 20. Guthrie, an inspiring speaker, toured Scotland to fundraise for the cause and raised the small fortune necessary to create schools where children could escape grinding poverty and be diverted from a life of crime.

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The list at the end of this article gives details of the wretched condition of children to whom the early school ‘opened its arms’. The children were fed, cared for with kindness – a watchword of Guthrie, who opposed harsh physical discipline.

Outcomes were scientifically analysed and the proportion of children in prison plummeted as lives were transformed, and public funds were saved to the tune of over £72,000 – nearly £10 million in today’s money. Edinburgh has a long and proud tradition as the home of the Enlightenment and for its contribution to the modern world. It also has a great tradition of social reform and philanthropy. Few examples shine brighter than Guthrie’s noble work saving children.

1, Found homeless and provided with lodgings: 72

2, Children with both parents: 32

3, Father dead: 140

4, Mother dead: 89

5, Deserted by parents: 43

6, With one or both parents transported: 9

7, Fatherless, with drunken mothers: 77

8, Motherless, with drunken fathers: 66

9, Who have been beggars: 271

10, Who have been in the Police Office: 75

11, Who have been in Prison: 20

12, Known to be the children of thieves: 76

13, Believed to be so, including the preceding: 148