The Magazine of Lenton Local History Society

Friar Street - Lenton

From 'The Lenton Listener' Issue 23

March - April 1983

The Orphanage

At the time of writing, there is a vacant site at the end of Friar Street, Old Lenton after buildings recently vacated by Crepe Sizes have been demolished. Crepe Sizes Ltd. were in Lenton for almost sixty years, but before they came to Friar Street, the site housed the Midland Orphanage for Girls. Many readers may never have heard of this institution, which isn't surprising, as practically nothing has been written on it. A number of early annual reports produced by the Orphanage are kept in the County Local Studies Library which together with the occasional account of the institution's annual meeting, found in local newspapers, have formed the basis of this history. We have failed, however, to come across an early photograph or illustration of the Orphanage and its inmates.

The Friar Street entrance to Crepe Sizes Ltd.
Photograph by Stanley Wilson

Leaving aside public day schools such as Bluecoat and High Pavement schools and the large number of private schools, the first elementary day schools in Nottingham were established in the early nineteenth century. Growing out of the Sunday School movement and financed by the charitable subscriptions of members of the middle and upper classes, these 'voluntary' schools were opened for the education of the poor. They were, however, initially unable to attract the children from the poorest families and it was to remedy this that a number of 'ragged schools' were set up, where no charge was made to the pupils. The Church of England's ragged school was established about 1847, shortly afterwards moving into new buildings on Glasshouse Street, very near the Workhouse, and among some of the poorest families in Nottingham. The members of this school's committee were constantly aware that the girls 'having spent years in their school, and being without qualifications for domestic service, find it impossible to obtain suitable situations, and are, in consequence, exposed to the most serious temptations to an evil mode of life, an exposure to which more than one or two have already fallen victim'. In 1855 they sought to establish a 'Female Home and Industrial Institution' to give them the necessary facilities to provide these girls with a domestic training. In an advert in the Nottingham Review of 18th May 1855, in which the above quote appears, the committee appealed for funds to set up the institution and indicated that they hoped that such an establishment would soon become largely self-supporting from the proceeds of the laundry and other industrial work of the inmates.

In those books, which comment on the matter, the Dowager Lady Sitwell is accredited with founding the home. Presumably, this lady, the second wife of John Smith Wright, a member of the Nottingham banking family, gave a generous donation to the funds. Sufficient money was raised and premises taken on St. Anns Well Road. However, the committee could not have done its homework properly, for they soon decided that the property was far from ideal, being ill adapted, in a dilapidated state and expensive to run with an annual rent of £60. Consequently, the committee set about raising further funds to purchase a more suitable site. New premises were eventually found in Friar Street, Old Lenton and the Girls Industrial and Training Institution, as it was then called, moved in on Lady Day 1863. The three storey main building, with separate stables and coach houses converted into washhouses and laundries, was considered by the committee much better situated and admirably adapted to the purpose of the institution. Girls were admitted once they had reached the age of thirteen and remained for a period of about two years during which time, religious influence and instruction may be combined with such industrial training, as may fit them for domestic duties' .The committee gave the subscribers the opportunity to play a direct role in the selection of the girls. All vacancies had to be filled by candidates nominated by a subscriber and selection of the successful entrants was by election by all the subscribers. Each subscriber was entitled to one vote for every half guinea subscribed. Some years there were fewer candidates than available places and so no election was necessary but in other years an election was required. In 1868 six candidates were sponsored for four vacancies.

Copy of the 1881 O.S. map showing part of Old Lenton. The wider of the two rectangles left of the
Orphanage's title represents the main building, the other is the single-storey laundry.
Map reproduced courtesy of Nottingham Local Studies Library.

The subsequent voting was :-

Alice Cattell
100 votes

Henrietta Heskett
62 votes

Charlotte Nix
120 votes

Millicent Sheppard
136 votes

Emma Smith
57 votes

Harriet Wheatley
1 vote

Presumably canvassing of the subscribers took place at each election or possibly the social standing of the sponsor played a dominant role in the success or failure of a candidate. No doubt the subscribers took notice of the committee's desire that girls from the poorest and most destitute classes, especially orphans, should constitute most of the intake. Those who had 'fallen from virtue' were ruled ineligible - for them the Reformatory and the Refuge were considered more appropriate institutions. Girls who had any defects of mind or body, suffered from ill health or some form of constitutional debility were also debarred, as they could not possibly be expected to make good and efficient servants. Once in the institution each girl had to serve a probationary period of one month when her suitability was reassessed. Even if they passed, the committee still reserved the right to expel any girl who proved to be 'obstinately incorrigible in behaviour' or subsequently unfit for domestic service.

Once the move to Lenton was made, the words 'and Orphanage' were added to the institution's title. Presumably the committee felt that the addition might bring wider support from the people of Nottingham. While stressing their charitable works, the committee were nevertheless quite willing to accept for training as servants, girls who were neither orphans nor from the ranks of the destitute poor, provided some benefactor met in full the cost of their maintenance and instruction. Such fees helped the committee meet its overheads. Each year at the annual meeting of the institution, the committee should report to the assembled gathering of patrons, subscribers and local worthies, on the activities of the committee, the staff and the girls themselves. Problems of outstanding debts or at best barely adequate funds seem to have figured large and the committee appears to have been continually thwarted in its ambition to manage a large and important institution. The title was changed in 1868 to the Girls Orphanage and Industrial Training Institution and again in 1874 to the Midland Orphanage and Industrial Training Institution for Girls. The word 'Midland' was included in the hope of attracting financial support from all the 'Midland Counties' and of reflecting, it was hoped, the future prominent position of the Orphanage in the region.

Although the institution was considered capable of accommodating about 30 girls, in the years prior to the adoption of the title 'Midland Orphanage', it was rarely more than two thirds full. Funds would only permit about twenty 'orphans' at a time. The 1878 report stated 'while the inmates have a home and home comforts, they do not eat the bread of idleness', and in that year the 22 girls sweated away to earn £255 5s 6d by their exertions in the laundry and with needle and thread. As this sum was almost £70 more than was raised from subscriptions and donations, it bore out the committee's original suggestion that the establishment could become largely self-supporting. But if there was to be the expansion the committee hoped for, then more money had to be forthcoming and it was felt, the girls' efforts notwithstanding, that this should be obtained by increasing the number of subscribers. Existing subscribers were requested to tell all their friends of the good works of the Orphanage and to try and encourage them to sign up. Those interested were invited to inspect the orphanage any Thursday between 11 and 4 o'clock on application to the Matron. It was stressed that though the inmates were liberally supplied with all things necessary for their comfort, the cost of maintaining each girl was only £15 and that this contrasted favourably with the expenditure in other similar institutions where nearly double the sum might be spent. Alas, no records remain to assess quite how liberal, or otherwise, the committee actually was! In spite of all the urging of the committee, the enthusiasm of those in the midland counties for the Midland Orphanage remained much as it had been before the change in title and the number of girls catered for failed to increase.

The general rules of the Institution, printed in each annual report, clearly stated that 'no girl shall be admitted under the age of 13'. But it is evident that the committee did not always adhere to this ruling. The 1871 census returns show that among the occupants of the Girls Training Institution and Orphanage were two girls aged eleven and two aged twelve, and the 1881 returns also indicated a similar total of girls under thirteen years of age. The 1879 report made actual reference to the presence of underage girls when it stated that 'were the committee to confine the admission of inmates to those who from their age would be able to earn the cost of their maintenance by their work, the Institution could easily be made self-supporting. The little ones admitted are, it is true, a source of great expense until able to work.

Obviously the committee had exceptions to the rule - but what they were isn't clear. Perhaps it reflected a change in the institution's emphasis or just a greater degree of honesty, but by 1895 the rule had been altered to state 'the committee shall give preference to girls between 10 and 14 years, but may admit girls of other ages under special circumstances'.

The Midland Orphange: drawn from memory by Reg Meakin.
In the foreground the Leen flows past the end of Friar Street.
Drawing carried out in 1983.

In the early 1890s the committee must have been quite pleased with itself. The 1894 report, for instance, showed 39 girls on roll. In 1895 the numbers had increased to forty four, even though it was acknowledged there was really only space for thirty. But that year the girls' discomfort was not the committee's main cause for concern. They had been informed that the present building would not meet the requirements of the government inspector. Their own Medical Officer had claimed that dampness in the building had led to repeated attacks of sore throats and rheumatism among the girls. The problems could only be rectified by building more sleeping accommodation and digging down to the foundations of the whole building to put in concrete. The alternatives were to pull down the entire building and rebuild or else seek new premises. The committee could not countenance the cost of these two latter options and so it was decided to spend the money needed to improve the buildings, which still meant going heavily into debt. One timely death, however, helped matters a little. A Mr. William Martin who had earlier served as Honorary Secretary of the institution, died and in his will directed that a sufficient sum be invested by his trustees in Railway Debenture Stock to produce £300 a year for the maintenance of the Orphanage. Heavy debts continued for a number of years but were finally removed in 1909 when the orphanage received £1,450 as its share of the money left undisposed after the Great Central Railway had purchased the old Ragged School premises as part of the proposed site for the Victoria Station.

Once the alterations had been completed the Local Government Board Inspector allowed up to 49 girls to be housed at the Orphanage. In succeeding years, however, this maximum was seldom reached. In 1913, for instance, there were 36 girls -13 seniors who had embarked on a 'three year course of instruction in domestic economy' and 23 juniors. These juniors, the committee emphasised, were not expected to do the household work, but to attend school and lead the ordinary routine of schoolgirls.

Although the newspaper reports of the annual meetings and the Institution's reports themselves make it possible to build up a history of the Orphanage, there is very little from which to draw a clear picture of what life must have been like for the girls. We have been fortunate to interview two sisters who were sent to the Orphanage in 1915 and spent the next five years there.

In 1913 Myles Purdy died after a short illness from a brain tumour. He left a wife aged twenty six and four young girls. With no money coming into their house at Arnold, Mrs. Purdy was forced to take on cleaning work at large houses in West Bridgford. The two older children were already at school, but there was no one who could look after Madge aged three and Ethel aged two and so they were simply locked in the house during the day. To ease Mrs. Purdy's problems, in late 1914 the committee of the Orphanage agreed to take the two youngsters even though it had never before accepted such young children. Both vividly recall the day they were first taken to the Orphanage. Received by the superintendent, the two girls were allowed to play in a room full of such toys as a doll's house, a rocking horse and a pram. It stood out in their memories, as after that day they were to have no such playthings again. They were soon kitted out in dark blue cotton dresses, aprons and leather clogs with wooden soles. As the Orphanage had never had children as small as these two, everything was far too big.

The everyday running of the Orphanage was in the hands of a Matron and her assistant, who both lived on the premises. These two were strict disciplinarians, as no doubt had been their predecessors. The institution was meant for girls considerably older than Madge and Ethel and the two young children found the rules and restrictions very hard to keep to and the punishments needlessly severe. Being the youngest there, they were often picked on by all the other girls and forced to take the blame for the others' misdemeanours. Many was the night that Ethel, in particular, went to bed in the large dormitory, with a good hiding, yet not knowing what she was supposed to have done wrong. Once old enough, they joined the other girls who attended Lenton Church Schools. Each school day the girls would proceed crocodile fashion along Gregory and Church Streets and such was their punctuality that residents could set their clocks by the sound of their clogs as the girls passed by.

If anyone talked during the journey, on their return to the Orphanage, they were punished by being made to stick out their tongue and having their jaw jarred upwards causing considerable discomfort to the tongue -an instance of letting the punishment fit the crime? Life at school was little better as it seemed to them that the teachers specifically picked on the orphans - presumably because they had no one prepared to stick up for them.

Madge and Ethel remember being constantly hungry at the Orphanage (the bigger girls would often take their food). Breakfast seemed to be merely a lump of bread with a nub of butter or occasionally lumpy porridge which had probably been cooked the night before. In the evening they were usually treated to a meal of stew. (Ethel considered the meat in it to be no better than cats' lights). This food was prepared by the Matron with the help of some of the senior girls. Only the older girls had to work in the laundry, but all were expected to help with at least some of the household chores. When not at school or church, the orphans were largely confined to the premises. Ethel and Madge remember days spent knitting, crocheting lace doilies, drawing threads and spending endless hours making kapok stuffing by separating the 'wool' from the seeds.

A view of the side of Crepe Sizes before it was demolished. If you ignore the
lean-tos you should recognise the western end of the Orphanage. This was
formerly a one-storey building which was extended upwards to provide extra
dormitory space in 1896.

At weekends Madge and Ethel were permitted to go home to their mother who collected them each Saturday afternoon. They couldn't go straight to Arnold but instead had to sit and watch while their mother helped clean the Express offices on Upper Parliament Street. The girls were required to return by Sunday teatime and while away were given strict instructions not to eat anything other than bread, as rich food would undoubtedly upset their stomachs.

In 1920 the committee of the Orphanage decided to return the two children to their mother, as it felt the girls were now old enough to be able to look after themselves. Reluctantly their mother took them back.

During the years of the First World War the Orphanage drifted into debt again. With so many distractions in those years, the committee obviously had problems attracting sufficient subscribers. Once the war had finished, matters failed to improve. The Orphanage seemed to suffer public neglect in the face of the emergence of many other charitable appeals. For a number of years the Orphanage had been unable to attract girls over the age of 14 to train as domestic servants. Many young girls had been absorbed into the labour market during the war and training for domestic service failed to prove an attractive alternative once the war was over. By 1920 there were only 8 senior girls and 22 juniors resident at the Orphanage.

With so few seniors the income raised by the girls' activities in the laundry was severely reduced. The financial position failed to improve and at the annual meeting on March 24th 1922, the committee announced that it had been decided to close the Orphanage, having already been forced to close the laundry. In the previous year only three applications for admission had been received while ten girls had left. Seventeen children alone remained and there seemed to be no likelihood that matters would improve. In May that year the last of the girls were removed to other institutions, some to the nearby Beeston Orphanage, and the Midland Orphanage for Girls closed its doors forever.

After two years the old Orphanage buildings were bought by Crepe Sizes Ltd. and converted into premises for the production of elastic yarns. Gradually the firm converted or knocked down most of the old buildings and had new ones erected. They also took over the nearby houses in Friar Street and converted these into offices. Now, however, all the buildings have been demolished to make way for new housing. The last remaining physical reminder of the Orphanage has gone forever.

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