The Bluecoats

Bluecoat boy, St Andrew’s Holborn

HOW DID you advertise your shop in the days when most of the population could not read? With a hanging sign, of course, the most common remnant of that practice being the red and white striped pole you see outside a barber shop. (The red representing blood, as barbers also used their razors to let blood, once a common cure-all.)

Another remnant are the bluecoat boys and girls you can find in various parts of London. These marked the separate entrances for boys and girls in charity schools, set up by philanthropists to educate the poor.

Most of these schools date to the 16th century (the last was founded in 1773; compulsory universal education for under-13s started in Britain in 1870 and was made free in 1890).

The statues therefore show how children were dressed formally in Tudor times. A white shirt and gray shorts (skirts for girls) are covered by a long blue coat, dyed blue as that was the cheapest colour available.

Long socks were dyed yellow with saffron as that was thought to stop rats nibbling at the pupils legs. At the neck are worn white ‘bands’, similar to those still worn by judges and lawyers.

Christ’s Hospital school (founded in 1552) still uses the same uniform for day to day use, although a few other schools still have it for ceremonial use. You can see the Christ’s Hospital band in the annual Lord Mayor’s parade through the City of London every November. The school’s long coat is nicknamed a ‘Housey’ by pupils.

Bands replaced the ruff as neckwear in the mid-1600s, influenced by Puritan restraint, taking the form of two simple rectangles of linen by the 1680s. Looking at paintings of America’s Pilgrim Founders, you can see how the ornate lace collar is evolving into the simpler bands. It’s harder to see how bands then evolved into the modern collar and tie, unless you take into account the bow-tie of the early 20th century, with its two prominent sides. Bands, of course, are also tied with a bow at the back.

Bluecoat girl, Hatton Garden

One thought on “The Bluecoats

  1. Absolutely fascinating that old signs can now be used as artifacts to tell us how children of the 16th century dressed! There aren’t many left, but old signs for locksmiths and pubs make for a wonderful treasure hunt around the city.

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