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Action for Children

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The first two children taken in by National Children’s Homes – Fred (left) and George

This grainy photo of two raggedly-dressed boys, Fred and George, shows two of the first children to be admitted to a children’s home in England 150 years ago.

The house in Church Street, Lambeth, was the first incarnation of the National Children’s Home and Orphanage, set up by Methodist minister Thomas Bowman Stephenson in 1869.

Its successor charity, Action for Children, is launching a nationwide search for the descendants of some of these first children in care.

It has released a collection of historic images of England’s first children’s homes from its archives to help with the search.

Those looking after George (pictured above right) in the late 1860s believe he was left to fend for himself after his father died, while his mother looked after her three younger children.

George was described by records at the Waterloo home as “hot tempered”, adept at swearing, but “fairly truthful”, healthy and “of good intellectual capacity”.

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Action for Children

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Mary Ann Annette was admitted to the Bonner Road home in 1871

The charity has managed to track down his great-grandson, Chris Barned, 36.

He said the 1869 description of his great-grandad “shows he had a bit of personality”.

“I imagine it was quite hard at that time to get heard without swearing,” he adds. “There’s something about the shape of his face, his expression and the nose that resembles my father.”

Chris came across the charity’s search while researching an unknown part of his family tree.

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Action for Children

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The Children’s Home started to expand around the country. This boy was a resident, where the city’s first home opened in 1882

He says he feels very lucky that details about George were recorded by the home.

“Discovering that he was the very first child ever taken in by the charity has been a huge surprise – especially when I realised he lived in east London, so close to where I now live and work.

“We’ve been walking the same streets as him for years with no idea there was such an emotional connection,” says Chris.

George was one of a collection of what Stephenson described as “ragged, shoeless, filthy” abandoned children that he encountered while preaching in Lambeth, south London.

The minister was so moved by the plight of the group, that he set up the home for orphaned and abandoned children in Waterloo in 1869.

Chris says: “It was a lovely thing really, because it really seems like he wasn’t just wanting to set up another institution, he was genuinely trying to bring these children care and attention.

“And it’s great to think that my second great-granddad was with them for a few years.

“They trained him in woodwork, they gave him a trade.”

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Action for Children

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The Chipping Norton home opened in 1903

Within two months of the Church Street home opening, the number of boys had risen to more than 20, and another house was rented close by to accommodate them, according to the history website.

It was not long before the home, which was growing fast, was relocated to larger premises in Bethnal Green, and the Bonner Road children’s home was opened.

It was set up to mirror a family structure and the children were encouraged to call those in charge “mother” and “father”.

Those working there received instructions saying: “You should, therefore, constantly think of yourselves as heads of a family, and endeavour so to act as to lead the boys to treat you with all the respect, confidence, and affection which children should feel for their parents.”

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Action for Children

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The Chipping Norton home was a perfect venue for afternoon tea!

They were exhorted to “act with the mingled firmness and wisdom and love which alone will justify the assumption of such titles”.

The guidance continued: “As put in the position of parents to these children, you will sit at table with them.

“At their meals let them be merry and cheerful, but repress rudeness and boisterous conduct.

“In all your dealings with the boys keep a watch on your temper, on your words and deportment.

“You will have much to try you, many annoyances, and some occasions when firmness alone will save the discipline of the home.

“But love will be your greatest strength in all your dealings with the boys.”

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Action for Children

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Billy Buster was one of the children at the home in Harpenden, which opened in 1913

This, and the charity’s other homes, were set up at a time of widespread poverty when children were sleeping on the city streets.

Poor and destitute families faced the workhouse, where conditions were far from loving.

One and a half centuries on, Action for Children is inviting members of the public to view its historic photographs at in the hope that their stories after leaving these homes can be heard.

Carol Iddon, Action for Children’s managing director of services, said: “This search is a reminder of how far we’ve come when it comes to helping the most vulnerable in society, but also how far we still have to go to make sure children today have a safe and stable future.”

Excerpts of instructions to mothers and fathers of the home have been reproduced with the kind permission of history website.

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