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1900s-1940s Orphanages and Childrens Homes


Daily weekday schedule in an orphanage, mid-20th century UK

child in an orphanage

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

At the orphanage, boys' and girls' houses were run on much the same lines. No domestic outside help was employed. It seems to me that the housemothers had very little to do except supervise, cook the midday meal on weekdays (as on Saturdays and Sundays the girls did the cooking), and be on duty if a child got sick in the night.

I am a number, not a person

I very soon learned that my freedom was well and truly behind me, and play almost a thing of the past. I was a number, which was twelve. Everything belonging to each child was numbered. Names were not used on anything. Tooth mugs, toothbrushes, flannels, towels and combs were all numbered in the bathroom. There were four wash basins but only one bath, so everyone was allocated a bath night.

This is how a typical day went:

Getting up, jobs and preparing breakfast

At 6.30 am a bell was rung for us children to get up. So downstairs we went to the children's bathroom to get washed and dressed. Back upstairs, each child, even the smallest, made their bed, hospital style. These were inspected and, if not up to standard, were stripped and had to be remade.

Two of the older girls then got on with preparing breakfast for the house. Four girls dusted and mopped the dorm, and one girl cleaned the bathroom - not the floor, except for sweeping, as it was scrubbed after school. The remaining two got the little ones ready for school: fastening shoes, combing hair, etc. The work rota was changed about every six weeks so that each girl eventually got to do every job.

Breakfast and washing up

Breakfast was at 7.30. It was porridge, bread and dripping, and tea. No talking was allowed in the dining-room. After breakfast the washing-up was done, tables were set for dinner, and everyone got ready for school.

Morning school

School was well over a mile away, and we went there walking in twos.

The mid-day break, dinner (lunch) and more jobs

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.

We children actually ran back to the orphanage for dinner (which was what we called lunch). This was because late-comers had to forego pudding. So heaven help the stragglers.

All food had to be eaten, every scrap, and no-one was allowed to have likes and dislikes. I hated fat most - which in those days we were told was good for us - and Irish stew made with very fatty mutton just turned my stomach over. If I could transfer it to another girl's plate without being caught, all was well. Some of the children would eat anything! I tried this ploy once too often and got caught. I was made to take the plate of horrid fat up to the sickroom and stay in isolation until I saw the error of my ways and ate it. I sat for the remainder of the day looking at the lumps of fat congealing on the plate, but had no intention of eating it. The toilets being downstairs, I couldn't dispose of it there, but late at night I got a brainwave. I opened the window and threw it out! It never occurred to me that someone might see it, but my guardian angel must have been on my side and sent the birds to eat it before dawn.

Dinner over, two girls washed up, one washed the top of the gas stove, two swept and tidied the dining-room and set tables for tea, and the washbasins in the bathroom were cleaned again. After this, we all headed back for school.

Afternoon school

I was late for afternoon school several times despite running all the way, because the housemother had kept me back doing extra jobs. I was too frightened to tell the teacher why I was late, until one day, smarting at the injustice of it all, I told her. She was very sympathetic and wrote a letter to the orphanage saying that I was arriving at school hot and distressed from running, and could I start for school earlier. All it achieved for me was a telling-off for carrying tales to school.

After school

After school, we all changed our school clothes for what were called 'play clothes' - which was laughable as there was very little time to play.


Tea was plain fare: four half-slices of bread and butter with a dollop of jam put on your plate or, not and, an apple or, again not and, a banana, depending on which day of the week it was. Sundays and birthdays were different.

After tea until bedtime - more work

After tea, it was work again. The cooker had to be cleaned with steel wool and soda, all the floors scrubbed from kitchen to toilets. Soda was always added to the water, even to wash up, to soften the water, though it didn't soften our hands. Mine were always rough and red.

The so-called playroom and the dining-room were polished with Ronuk and a bumper. Sometimes the children wrapped old jumpers round their feet and slid up and down to polish the boards: it made fun out of work.

All the vegetables for the following day's dinner were also prepared by the children, as was the bread and butter which was then covered up with a cloth.

Ankle socks were washed out for next day and put on the pipes to dry in the bathroom, and shoes were cleaned. Even the insteps of shoes had to be polished.

Supper for some

Children over the age of 12 had supper: one slice of bread and dripping, or sometimes cold bread pudding, and a cup of cocoa. I was 11 when I first arrived at the orphanage, and the no-supper rule rule hurt my stomach as much as my pride for I was a big girl for my age with an appetite to match. I was always hungry. But for a year I got no supper! There was a loophole though. If you were asked to cut and butter the bread for next day, you could snaffle the odd crust and hide it up your knicker leg for consumption later - if you could find a hidey-hole so that no-one knew what you were doing. It was very unhygienic, but also very satisfying to a rumbling tum.


Bed was from 7 pm onwards, but no-one was up later than 9 pm.

No talking was allowed in the dorms, but I wasn't used to being silent and used to tell stories to the other girls - and got punished for it.

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 UK

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