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1900s-1940s Orphanages and Childrens Homes

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Day one at an orphanage, mid-20th century UK

Extracted from the memoirs of Brenda May Wilson, 1927-2003

Why I was put into an orphanage

As an orphan, I spent my early years with several families. I was with the last one for about a year when they got the boy they had always preferred. So they told me that I was being sent to a Children's Home, by which they meant an orphanage. The year was 1938 and I was eleven years old.

Arrival at the orphanage

When it was time to leave, a car arrived with a lady and gentleman who were to take me to the orphanage, which was to be Myton Hamlet Children's Home in Warwick. We arrived there from where I had been living in Shropshire just after lunchtime, after what seemed like a long drive.

The Master and the Matron

I was handed over to the Master and Matron, and the lady and gentleman who had brought me left.

I was asked if I'd had anything to eat and I said I hadn't. A big plate of rice pudding was put before me and my stomach started to rebel, and my tears to fall. I hated rice pudding! After pushing it round the plate and not making any attempt to eat it I was allowed to leave it.

The Housemother

Next I was taken to the woman who was to be my housemother, and I was told that I was to call her 'Mother'. I decided I would never do that as she wasn't my mother!

The lady in question was a big woman with grey hair pulled back into a bun, and to me she looked very severe.

Bathing and nit removal

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The housemother took me into a bathroom and started to run a bath. I was most upset as I'd had a bath that morning and I told her I wasn't going to have another. She said, "Every child coming into the Home gets bathed and has their hair washed". I had to give in, and got my second bath of the day.

My hair was washed in some horrible-smelling disinfectant, "In case you've got nits". I hotly denied that I had nits! However, I understand that it wasn't uncommon for new arrivals to have them.

As it was a nice day I was told to go and sit outside on a big wicker laundry basket till my hair was dry. There was a big girl of thirteen or so sweeping the yard who kept mocking me and trying to push me off the laundry basket. So I got the broom off her and hit her with it. The housemother heard the fighting and gave me a good slap. It was to be the first of many.

Redistribution of possessions

I arrived at the orphanage with a suitcase packed with nearly new clothes and was devastated when the housemother took them all away and dispersed them among the other children, especially a lovely brand-new Panama hat, white as snow. I was given a horrible cloche-type Panama which was yellowed with age. I must confess, I felt real hatred toward the girl who got my hat.

The only item I was allowed to keep was a pair of black patent-leather shoes, and only because they fitted no-one else. So in my hurt, frustrated frame of mind I went out into the yard and scuffed them against a rough wall. This ruined them. The housemother was furious and marched me off to the Matron's office, but luckily for me no punishment was handed out, as they weren't Council property. I just got a tongue-lashing for my wilfulness and spite! But I felt a real satisfaction in performing that destructive deed.

Thoughts of running away

This was my introduction to 'The Home'. I would have run away, but where could I go? I knew that others had tried it but had been brought back by the Police.

Extracted from the memoirs of Brenda May Wilson (1927-2003), courtesy of her son, Kevin Flynn

Based on childhood recollections of Myton Hamlet Children's Home, Warwick, 1938-1941, probably similar to other orphanages in early to mid 20th century Britain

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