* English charity institutions orphanages

English Charity Institutions

Figure 1.--These are boys from the Ripley Orphanage in Lancaster dressed up for the opening of the new town hall at Lancaster in January 1910. Note the Eton collars. The orphanage was established in 1864 to cater for orphans from Lancaster and Liverpool. The uniform for the boys was a flat cap Eton collar and suit. Click on the image for a closer look at the boy's uniforms.

The literature on English orphanages and work houses is legion. Of course most of our concept of English orphanges comes to us from the bleak descrioptions Charles Dickens provides in Oliver Twist. As bad as conditions were in 19th century English institutions, it should be remembered that these were some of the first attempts to deal with the problems of poverty. The Victorians viewd these efforts as Christian charity. Other strongly held Victorian values resulted in the creation of institutions that were in fact as bleak as Dickens described. Many Victorians saw poverty as a lack of effort and a result of a flawed character. Others felt that it was more charitable not to intervene and that Government action would simply foster a debter class that would create even more indigents.

Early Efforts to Care for Indigent Children

Charity including the care of orphaned children was the province of the Church for most of European history after the fall of Rome. The Reformation (16th century), the ensuing religious war (17th century), and the Enligtenmebt (18th century). This changed the dynamic of charity and care for the indigent. Peope began to see this as a public responsibility. The English began this effort with the first Poor Law (late-16th centuruy). In rural areas, family toies were strong. Relatives took in indigent children. And it became the duty of the parish to support the indigent for which families could not provide. While England was a primarily rural country, this seemed to work reasonably. Standards of care would often be unaccepoable in our enligtened 21st century, as historians, the system should be assessed based on contemporary values and standards--something that often does not happen. And almost always ignored is that before the wealth generated by the Industrial Revolution, the capacity of both the church and public institutions had limited financial capabilities.) Younger children were cared for in these new orohanages. older children were apprenticed out.

Work Houses

The "workhouse" is a name given in England to establishments where the town poor were maintained at public expense, and provided with labor. It was also referred to as the poorhouse. They were facilities to segregate and maintain paupers. If you were poverty-stricken, or an unwanted orphan, or an impoverished widow, if you were too old to work, or you were sick or deranged, you could end up in a workhouse. The workhouse was in fact a ruthless attempt to solve the problem of poverty. The term is sometimes applied in the United States to institutions in which vagrants, drunkards, and other minor offenders are detained on short sentences and at labor, but which are usually and properly known as houses of correction.

Orphanage Movement

The early system caring for indigent children became intenable with the Industrial Revolutiuon and the growth of cities. The Industrial Revolution generated great wealth and created an affluent middle class as well as a relatively well paid working class. There was also great poverty and unlike rural poverty it was more concentrated and visible. The public workhouses for families proved to be dreadful places. Women were particularly vulnerable and many were forced to abandon their babies. An orphanage movement began in England with the establishment of the Orphan Working Home (1758). Conditions in early orphanages and work houses were dreadful. And they were unacceptable to the values of the rising Victorian Middle class. Numerous sources credit Charles Dickens for bringing about changes. This is an ovrsimplification. Dickens certainly helped bring the problem to public attention. It was the Victorian middle class created by capitalism that demanded changes in public policvy. And it was the wealth generated by capitalism that gave Britain (both charities and the state) the financial ability to address the problem. The result was important reforns. Private orphanafes (often called asylums) were founded by various private groups throughout Britain during the Victorian era. Many received royal patronage and there was also public oversight. These orphanages commonly practiced some form of "binding-out" in which children, beyond a certain age, were given as apprentices. The girls became domestic servants. The boys work as aprentices in the trades, learning an occupation. A few orphanages were established in the early-19th century. Most were established after mid-century.

English Street Children

There were lots of destitute children then who were either orphaned or abandoned and had no place to live. Jim was like all the other ragged children. Their's was a rough life. During the day they wandered through the London East End alleyways begging from strangers. They were always in danger of exploitation by professional criminals. If begging did not work then stealing food from market stallholders was their only alternative to finding food. None went to school or had an adult to care for them. These were the forgotten boys and girls of 19th Century England.

The Children

Some of the children taken in by children had no parents, but many were taken in because of a family problem. Dad may have died and mum could not look after the children. For a tempory measure the children went to the orphanage, particularly if the orphanage looked after children whose fathers were in a certain type of job. The police authority comes to mind here.


We have little information on the types of orphanages in England and the various organizations that sponsored them. In the late 19th century and continuing into the 20th century there were orphanages specificaly for the children of members of a profession who had fallen on hard times. The police force had an orphanage for the children of policemen. I believe the military also had such facilities.


As bad as conditions were in 19th century English institutions, it should be remembered that these were some of the first attempts to deal with the problems of poverty. The Victorians viewd these efforts as Christian charity. Other strongly held Victorian values resulted in the creation of institutions that were in fact as bleak as Dickens described. Many Victorians saw poverty as a lack of effort and a result of a flawed character. Others felt that it was more charitable not to intervene and that Government action would simply foster a debter class that would create even more indigents. Many early orphanages were quite severe institutions. It was very difficult for mum or dad to get permission to visit their children once they were committed. The adminitrative side of an orphanage would allow parent visits only on special occasions. The staff looking after the children in the workhouse may not have allowed the children outside its walls. That's the impression which comes across in Oliver Twist. The orphanage developed as a place where children were put. For the most part the children in a work houuse were the children of adults taken in by the work house. (I'm not sure how common it was for workhouses to take in abandoned children. Here the availability of a local orphanage and the superintendent's attitides may have been important factors.) One English reader reports that he has noted more accounts of the children being better cared for at orphanages than work houses. He noted the childrebn being taken on suppervised walks with the care staff. Here the chronological time period is no doubt a factor. They would have been escorted to church on Sundays. In the 20th Century orphanages took children on week long trips to the seaside. This was often done in conjunction with charities that specialised in taking poor children on holiday.


We have little information at this time on orphanage clothing in England. The children in early orphanages were poorly dressed if not in rags. At some point, conditions improved. Here we do not have detailed information, but cinditions by the late 19th century are much impoved. One example is how well outfitted the children sent out on the orphan transports were (figure 2). We believe that boys in English orphanges usually wore short pants and kneesocks. Corduroy was a popular choice. It was not only hard wearing, but a relatively inexpensive fabric. A British reader tells us, "The children were very well clothed in the orphanage during the 20th century. I have a clip from a British Pathe newreel from the mid-1950s. The movie shows the work of an orphanage in the South of England. The orphanage had its own shoe repair shop and an in house shoe shop for fitting the next new pair of shoes. The children in the film are of primary school age. I remembera s a boy that a girl in my school went to the town's orphanage and she wore clothes as good as any body elses. However there were times when she came to school wearing inappropriate footwear, such as Wellingtom boots in the height of summer. None-the-less there were children from poorer homes whose dress was worse that hers. Another girl ( My girl friend) was living with a foster family and she was dressed really smartly but lacked pocket money on school trips. Your pages don't half rekindle forgotten memories." [Fergusson]


An English reader reports thar some buildings were put to varied uses earlier times. One building had been a workhouse, then turned into a hospital, and finally an orphanage. One account describes the inmates at the ??? Workhouse who got sick and were left to die. The bodies were sold to teaching hospitals. The story came to light when the student doctor at the 'home' was in a disection lecture and recognised the cadavor as being a sick inmate who had vanished.


Missionaries came bedore missions. Miisionaries were disatched by the early christian Church to convert heatens in Europe and spread the faith. Missionaries like Saint Patrick and Adalbert of Prague played a major role in spreading the faith beyond the boundaries of the historic Roman Empire. While Patrick had begin the convrsion of the Irish, a pagan people who were never part of the Empire (5th century), the Anglo-Saxon invasions meant that what is now England was a numnber of pagan kingdoms (6th century). The Irish church began the convrsion of Scotland and northrn England. The Hiberno-Scottish missionart effort began (563). Pope Gregory the Great sent missionaries, including Augustine of Canterbury, to England (7th century). A Franciscan missionary effort to Asian was conducted late-13th and early-14th centuries). One of Queen Isabella's motives in financing Columbus' voyage (1492) was to spread the Christian faith. As part of both the Spanish and Portuguese colonial effort were priests serving as missionaries who accompanied the Conquistadores. As part of the conversion process, the missionaries began fonding missions. This wasdone by Augustinians, Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, and smaller orders. This was primarily a Catholic endevor. Protestants joined in this activiy in Africa, Asia, and Oceania (19th century). The term mission is primarily used withinin the context of European and later American churches attempting to convert people outside of Europe. The term began to be used in Beitain and America for facilities to convert the poor and downtrodden, often Children, in the growing industrial cities. The people they tried to aid and convert were people who were not practicing Christiams. The Ebglish and American missions sought tonprovide material support as bringing them into the Church. The British missions dealt with children nd adults. The american missions as far as we can tell wer mostly associtd with adults. Unlke the Afrisan Asin, and Latin American missions, hese were not primarily residential faciliies, although some of the most successful evenually did provide residential care.

Individual Orphanages

We have found the names of more than 60 English orphanages. We have only limited information about them, but have begun to find some limited informtion. The first was the Bristol Asylum for Poor Orphan Girls (Blue Maids' Orphanage) located near Stokes Croft Turnpike, Bristol (1795). Most were founded in the 19th century. Large numbers were founded begiining in the 1860s. We do not yet have detailed informtion on these orphanages so we can create individual pages. We note St. Vincent's Orphanage in Preston, some times called the St. Vincent Boys' Home. It was a Catholic orphanage opened in 1896 with some 250 boys. This was one of the last orphanages that we know of opened in Britain. Most were opened well before the turn-of-the 20th century. A photograph of their boys' band is not dated, but looks like the early 1900s, perhaps about 1910. The band was very succesful and apparently the 'pride of the orphanage'. We do have some details on the Watts Naval Training School (1903). It was associated with Bernardo's. English orphanages operated in the 20th century, but few were founded in the 20th century. After World War II, the British like other countries began to close orphnages and adopt alterntive methods of dealing with oephans and other children requiring care.

Barnardo Homes

For his part Barnardo could not forget Jim Jarvis and the terrible plight of poor children, which the boy had shown him. Barnardo chose the East End of London and did not become a missionary in China. The Barnardo homes were established in his lifetime. His organisation helped many destitute children find their way. In the United Kingdom of today Barnardo�s is the largest children�s charity that helps many thousands of children. A 10-year boy called Jim Jarvis touched Thomas Barnardo�s heart and opened his eyes to the suffering experienced by street children. This resulted in the formation of a children�s charity, to care and help them grow into good citizens.

Ragged School Union

At first respectable society avoided pauper children but a movement started and by the 1860s a more caring attitude to the poor had developed. Ten-year-old Jim Jarvis was not totally alone there were people who cared about him. The Ragged School movement gave the care. It was started by John Pound, a shoemaker by trade, who opened the first Ragged School in Portsmouth in 1818. Others took Pound's idea opened these schools. The facility was free for the poor children who attended. It was Lord Shaftesbury who had in 1844 brought such schools together in an organisation called the Ragged School Union. Angela Cotts, of the famous banking family, gave it large sums of money. The movement flourished and by 1866 it was well established and schools were everywhere.

Figure 2.--The English children have been outfitted in new outfits, including raincoats for tranport overseas. I'm not sure when the photograph was taken or where they were headed, but Australia was a likely location. The children in these transports were often dressed for England rather than the country that was to be their new home.

Orphan Transports

British children between 1906 and 1970,were forcibly transported from Britain to Australia, New Zealand, Rhodesia and Canada. Estimates sugget that about 230,000 children were involved in these transports. Many of the children, but not all, were orphans. Many had relatives. In many cases the relatives were not told and did not know about the transports. The motivation for these transports varied. Humanitarian feeling for the childrn were a factor. The transports were supposedly to give them a better start in life, but the children had widely varying experienes. Another purpose of the transport was to populate British colonies with ethnically British people. The eugenics movement was another influence. There have been many accounts and films depicting the opposite.

Theatrical Orphanage

An English reader tells us about the orphanage/school he attended. Te school was a charity run for orphans of theatrical parents where one or both parents had died. I'm not sure just when the orphanage was founded. The school was at first run on strict terms with the boys and girls kept apart but in 1934 a change was made to convert the school to a co-ed boarding school run for 52 weeks. So boys and girls shared playing fields (sports grounds) classrooms (mixed) and other facilities. This was very unusual in UK at that time. Some schools (day schools) did mix genders in the classrom but very few to include boarding. I am not sure, but I suspect that the switch to coeducation was primarily based on financial considerations and not educational philosophy..

Raising Money

An important part of these charity efforts is raising money. Various approaches have been used over time. This is especially important in a country like England where private charity has played an importat role in addressing the needs of the under privlidged.

Emergency Shelters

We had thought that emergency shelters were a rather recent innovation. They are normally thought of today as places where battered women can seek safty with their children. We are not sure what the English had in mind with an emergency shelter in this case early shelters seem to be more to protect children. This would mean children without family to take care of them, we thinkmon a temporary bases. The first such shelter we have noted is Beauchamp Lodge Emergency Shelter in the 1920s. There may have been more than than one location. Unfortunately we cannot find any information about Beauchamp Lodge. Hopefully we will be able to find more information. We have found images showing that the Shelter had support from the highest level of Britih society.


The literature on English orphanages and work houses is legion. Of course most of our concept of English orphanges comes to us from the bleak descrioptions Charles Dickens provides in Oliver Twist.


Fergusson, William. E-mail message. September 23, 2003.


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Created: June 15, 2003
Last update: 11:25 PM 10/17/2019