For mid-nineteenth-century writers, ragged clothing was often used as shorthand to indicate social status and more especially social need. In 1846 Charles Dickens wrote a letter to the London Daily News (reprinted in the Illustrated London News) in support of Ragged Schools:
Nearly thirty years later, Dr Barnardo used raggedness as a key theme in the appeals for his Homes,2 whose foundation he linked to an encounter with: ‘eleven boys huddled together for warmth – no roof or covering of any kind was over them and the clothes they had were rags’.3 The scanty clothing of poor children was implied in their characterisation as ‘street arabs’ or ‘savages’ in need of ‘civilisation’.4 By 1880 the discourse had shifted, and those who were denied the newly-identified ‘right’ of childhood because of poverty or family problems were presented as ‘victims’ or ‘waifs’. The new concept was enshrined in the name of the Church of England Central Society for Providing Homes for Waifs and Strays (CEWSS), founded in 1881.5 Once again, this state was represented through ragged clothing. The shift
from threatening ‘arab’ to pathetic ‘waif’ took place in different media at different times, or co-existed, as Cunningham has shown in his analysis of ‘street urchin’ cartoons by Leech and May.6 This complicates the interpretation of nineteenthcentury texts and images.