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Playbill detail

The Ragged Child

A Musical in 2 Acts. Music by David Nield, book and lyrics by Jeremy James Taylor and Frank Whately

Sadler's Wells Theatre, London - 20 January, 1988


A stark and moving account of child deprivation in London in the 1850s which won the coveted Edinburgh Fringe Festival Award, The Ragged Child is about the plight of the poor and destitute, mirrored in the tragic lives of Joe Cooper and his sister Annie. We see Lord Shaftesbury fighting for the education of the ignorant and illiterate poor in the House of Lords, and, from an inauspicious beginning, the 'Ragged Schools' are founded with Lord Shaftesbury as President, but it is too late for Joe and Annie. Based on an important chapter in social history, this show is an ideal vehicle for school projects involving the music, drama and history departments.


Act 1

London, 1849. A seething mass of humanity becomes visible from where they have been huddling under blankets. The Earl of Shaftesbury addresses the House of Lords about the more than 30,000 orphaned and abandoned children in the city. He claims that cholera is the best solution to the problem, having already claimed the lives of 60,000 ragged and poverty-stricken people the previous year.

In a courtroom, 13 year-old Joe Cooper is in the dock, accused of robbing Sir Giles Merridew. His sister Annie encourages him to defend himself, but Joe remains silent. The Judge says he must have a motive to convict. The Crossing Sweeper steps forward and declares the motive as "need, cold, and hunger." Annie tells the judge that she and Joe are orphans and points to Leary, also 13, as the true culprit. Leary denies any responsibility and the Judge sentences Joe to seven years in the penal colonies in Botany Bay.

At the London docks, the Patterer, emerges from the crowd and sings to the health of the motley criminals. The new transports, including Joe, arrive at the dock in chains. The ship is said to be infested with cholera, sending the crowd into panic. The Patterer sings of the sad life of Joe Cooper as Joe makes his escape.

Annie Cooper cries in a corner at Connie Crimple's Lodging House, devastated over the loss of her brother. The other Lodgers gather. Charlie and Bill black themselves for the minstrel show, Alice arranges flowers as Leary sulks. Syd and Perkins arrive, back from selling cauliflower. Mrs. O'Lafferty remarks that once someone ships for Botany Bay, they're never seen again. To everyone's amazement, Joe arrives at the door. Annie begs Joe to stay away from Leary from now on and asks if they can emigrate for a fresh start.

At Lord Shaftesbury's home, Sir Giles Merridew regales the guests with the story of his run-in with young Joe Cooper. The Aristocrats talk about how hard it is to be upper class - there are the Corn Laws to deal with, the trouble in the Crimea and, of course, the topic of what to do with the city's poor. They cheer the upper class and deride the poor, wishing they could transport the entire lot.

Outside, Shaftesbury is approached by the Crossing Sweeper who gives him a look at life on the other side. The Patterer joins them as they see how the poor really live. A party of drunks appears, singing. The Crossing Sweeper shows Shaftesbury the urchin Leary, just at the moment where he steals from a laundry girl. They see a rat fight, a group of young prostitutes, children playing at hanging each other. Connie Crimple approaches Shaftesbury and offers him a room. The poor surround them.

The Crossing Sweeper and Shaftesbury arrive at the Lodging House where Annie is coughing. Joe is concerned for her and considers going out with Leary to steal so he can buy her food, but Annie is against it. The focus shifts as the other Lodgers joke about prostitution and cholera. Alice says that a woman from the Board of Health came in trying to tell her how to prevent the dreaded disease. Syd shows the guests a letter he's written. Lord Shaftesbury takes it from him.

Shaftesbury reads Syd's letter to the House of Lords. It calls for attention to the plight of the poor and begs the help of the city's leaders. The others shrug it off as unimportant, but Shaftesbury stands up for the people, saying that something must be done. The Lords respond with "Let Them Starve" while the Poor beg for mercy. Lord Shaftesbury, changed by his experience, pledges the Poor his undying support.

John Giles, the cobbler, sings as he works. A group of Ragged Children join him. Giles is teaching the children how to read and write. He also gives them food. Giles seeks out Mary and asks about Annie and Joe.

At home, Lady Shaftesbury helps her young son Francis pack for boarding school. She asks Anthony, his older brother, to help him make a smooth transition to life at Harrow, but Anthony frightens the boy with horrible tales from school. Francis is weak and coughs terribly, but insists he will be fine. Lord and Lady Shaftesbury see him off.

Giles and the Crossing Sweeper arrive at the Lodging house to look for Annie and Joe. The Patterer and the Chorus chime in with "Be Up and Be Doing" which weaves in an out of the next few scenes. Giles is armed with "taties" and quickly convinces Annie to join his Ragged School. Annie brags that her brother is a great reader and Giles gives Joe a new book, hoping it will entice him to join as well. Joe takes the book gratefully, then runs off with Leary and his gang.

At the Ragged School, Miss William plays the harmonium while the children sing. Joe arrives with Annie and surprises the teachers by having already read the new book - twice! The children are given fresh clothes and food to eat, but Leary arrives with his gang and wrecks the school.

Stephen Storey and his friends discuss creating the Ragged School Union. Shaftesbury offers to serve as President. Back at the school, the children practice their studies. "Rob Roy" McGregor arrives with a way for the boys to make money and help the school as well. He suggests starting a shoeblack brigade. The boys will charge a penny a shine and split the money evenly with the school. He gives the boys badges, uniforms, and shoeshine boxes.

Outside, Leary teases Joe about his new uniform and tries to get him back in the gang, but Joe refuses. Shaftesbury passes by and becomes Joe's first customer. Not knowing whose shoes he's shining, Joe talks about the great Lord Shaftesbury - a saint - and admits it's been a hard life on the street. Shaftesbury is charmed and gives Joe a sixpence.


It seems that all of London is off to the Great Exhibition, including the new Ragged School Shoe Black Brigade.  Annie comes to see Joe off,  but is too sick to join in. Lord and Lady Shaftesbury arrive to wish the boys well, then continue on to visit Francis who is sick in bed at Harrow. Leary and his gang are also on their way to the Great Exhibition, ready to pick the pockets of the world's elite.

At Harrow, the School Matron tells Lord and Lady Shaftesbury that they are too late - Francis died just thirty minutes before they arrived. A Ragged Boy appears and sings as Lady Shaftesbury breaks down. The boy leaves and is replaced by Annie, wrapped in a blanket.

At Exeter Hall, Shaftesbury begs the city's leaders to do something about the condition of the poor. Holding up Annie as an example, he asks them to reach out to help save the lives of the children living in poverty.

The boys are returning from their day at the Great Exhibition, their pockets full of money. They gather around Giles and McGregor as they count the money from the day - sixteen shillings and fourpence ha'penny! Young Sam accounts for the mysterious ha'penny - he gave a shoeshine to a one-legged man. The boys are proud of their work.  The boys leave and Giles speaks to Joe about a revolutionary idea. The Ragged School Union has decided to help industrious children emigrate. Giles assures Joe that Annie is interested and tells Joe all about The Land of Opportunity. Joe will have none of it.

At the Lodging House, Annie begs Joe to reconsider. She desperately wants to emigrate and believes Australia's sunny weather will cure her cough. Joe refuses - he doesn't think that Annie will survive the six-week voyage. Frustrated, he runs out into the night. Annie succumbs to a fit of coughing and, comforted by Alice and the other Lodgers, she dies.

Lord Shaftesbury addresses the House of Lords on the subject of emigration . He notes that the State would save 100,000 pounds a year if they sent 365 emigrants to Australia instead of 365 convicts. He is sure that the possibility of success in a new land will be the start that they need to rise up out of poverty and squalor. All they need is a chance.

In the street, Leary threatens Joe, but the Crossing Sweeper steps in just in time. Unfortunately, he bears the news of Annie's death. Unbelieving, Joe runs back to the Lodging House. The Crossing Sweeper explains that his job is to clear the way for people. He also confronts Leary about his despicable behaviour.

At the Ragged School, the children are behaving badly in the terrible heat. As the thunder rolls in, Joe appears. He knocks over desks and tables, half out of his mind with grief. Joe sinks to his knees. In a nightmare scene, Leary makes the police aware of Joe's whereabouts, then falls prey to a den of opium smokers. Joe stumbles through the streets looking for Annie, but cannot find her. He sees Leary swinging from the gallows. A crowd appears and carries Joe over their heads. He returns and finds himself still at the Ragged School. Joe tells Giles that he has decided to go to Australia.

In a Drawing Room, a female aristocrat sings to an attentive audience. She is joined on another part of the stage by a group of Ragged Children. Joe returns to the Lodging House to pack his meager belongings. The Lodgers are excited for him to have a fresh start and sing to him, wishing him well.

At the docks, the scene is a far cry from the first time Joe was to ship out. A spirit of excitement is in the air as the crowd bids farewell to the emigrants. Joe says goodbye to Giles, McGregor, and Shaftesbury and boards happily, but an Officer appears and points Joe out to a Policeman. At sea, the ship is caught in a violent storm, but finally arrives in Australia where everyone is promised a fresh new start.

Giles and Shaftesbury wonder about the boys they have sent overseas. They have heard good news from many, but have yet to hear from Joe Cooper. They believe that, out of all the boys, Joe will be the one to make his mark.

When Joe steps off the boat at Port Adelaide, he is arrested by Police Officers who accuse him of fraud and trying to escape punishment. They sentence him to seven years in prison. A Judge asks Joe if he has anything to say for himself. Joe remains silent and accepts his punishment as the inmates surround him and pull him back into the mire.

Minimum cast:

23 male, 13 female (can be expanded)

  • A Judge 
  • Aggy - a Streetwalker
  • Alice Smith - a Street Trader
  • Annie Cooper age 11
  • Anthony Ashley-Cooper - 7th Earl of Shaftesbury
  • Australian Judge 
  • Ben - a boy in the Lodging House and a street urchin who becomes a member of the Bootblack Brigade.
  • Bill - a Street entertainer
  • Billy - a boy in the Lodging House and a street urchin who becomes a member of the Bootblack Brigade.
  • Charlie - a Street entertainer
  • Clerk of the Court 
  • Connie Crimple - a lodging house owner
  • Dorry - Street Urchins
  • Eaves - a boy in the Lodging House and a street urchin who becomes a member of the Bootblack Brigade.
  • Ethel - a Fish-wife
  • Francis Ashley-Cooper - Age 13, son of Shaftesbury
  • George – a boy in the Lodging House and a street urchin who becomes a member of the Bootblack Brigade.
  • George Lloyd - a Transportee
  • George Wilson - a Transportee
  • Joe Cooper - Age 13
  • John Giles - a crippled cobbler
  • Jolyon 
  • Lady Grangemouth  
  • Lady Shaftesbury 
  • Lady Ursula Epp 
  • Leary - a Thief. age 13
  • Lenigan - a Beggar
  • Little Eaves - a boy in the Lodging House and a street urchin who becomes a member of the Bootblack Brigade.
  • Lord Flitterby 
  • Lord Ganlian 
  • Lord Greville 
  • Lord Shaftesbury - Father of Anthony
  • Mary  - Street Urchin
  • Matron at Harrow School
  • Miss Williams - a volunteer Ragged School teacher
  • Molly - a young Washer-woman
  • Mrs Ingleby  
  • Mrs O'Lafferty -  an Inebriate
  • Mrs Sterncastle  
  • Mrs Underby-Pugh 
  • Perkins - a Stall-holder
  • Polly - Street Urchin
  • 'Rob Roy' Mcgregor - a Scottish philantropist
  • Sam - a boy in the Lodging House and a street urchin who becomes a member of the Bootblack Brigade.
  • Sir Giles Merridew  
  • Sir Peter Dykewater  
  • Stephen - A boy in the Lodging House and a street urchin who becomes a member of the Bootblack Brigade.
  • Stephen Storey - an accountant and founder of the Ragged Schools Union
  • Syd - Head of a team of Mudlarkers
  • Teresa - a young aristocrat
  • The Crossing Sweeper (Tommy)
  • The Patterer - a Street-Singer
  • The Rev John Lowry - founder of the Ragged School Union
  • Thomas Cranfield - a clerk and founder of the Ragged Schools Union
  • Timothy - a young aristocrat
  • Tommy  -  boy in the Lodging House and a street urchin who becomes a member of the Bootblack Brigade.
  • William Smith - a merchant and founder of the Ragged Schools Union

Extras Policemen, Australian Policemen, Dock Officers, Flunkies, Sailors, Emigrants, Female Transportees, Maidservants, Indigents

Musical Numbers

Act 1

    1. Music Under Sentence of Judge
    2. Botany Bay
    3. The Ballad of Joe Cooper
    4. Now Ain't That a Blooming Shame?
    5. There'll Come a Day
    6. Banquet Scene
    7. Have the Guided Tour, Sir
    8. Roll Up
    9. When We Hear That Final Trumpet
    10. Deep Below the City Streets
    11. Cholery
    12. Up and Be Doing / Jesus Bids Us Shine
    13. "Be Up and Be Doing"
    14. There's a Friend for Little Children
    15. Work, Boys, Work

Act 2

    1. London Town
    2. London Town - Reprise
    3. There's a Friend for Little Children - Reprise
    4. Work, Boys, Work - Reprise
    5. Here's to the Bootblacks
    6. Australia
    7. The Nightmare
    8. Home Sweet Home
    9. The Ballad of Joe Cooper - Reprise
    10. The Voyage


Pit Band (can be replaced by 1 keyboard player): clarinet db. bass clarinet, 2 horns, 2 percussion, piano db. harmonium, bass. Stage Band: flute, clarinet, cornet, trombone, percussion, violin

Recording: CD available on sale from Josef Weinberger