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Berkshire Family Historian
December 2002

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Orphans at Bearwood - the Merchant Seamen’s Orphan Asylum
John Hann

Bearwood House, near Wokingham, was rebuilt by John Walter III, the grandson of the founder of The Times, after his father’s death in 1847. By 1860 he was extending his estate, buying land in much of the Arborfield, Wokingham and Sandhurst area. He pulled down the old Bearwood House and built the present mansion with its extensive grounds and large ornamental lake. In the early twentieth century the house became the home of the Merchant Seamen’s Orphan Asylum. John Hann, the archivist of what later became Bearwood College, explains the background to the fascinating history of the orphanage.

Today the house is an independent co-educational day and boarding school, but, like many other public schools, it started life as a charity for children in need. It was founded 175 years ago, on 25 October 1827, as the Merchant Seamen’s Orphan Asylum. Based originally in London’s dockland, it moved in 1834 to Bow and in 1862 to Snaresbrook, before coming to Berkshire in 1921.

Bearwood House (photo)

John Walter III’s Bearwood House, Wokingham

From William IV and Queen Adelaide to our own Queen Elizabeth every sovereign has been Patron to the charity, and in 1902 Edward VII gave permission for the word ‘Royal’ to be included in its title. The new name was Royal Merchant Seamen’s Orphanage. By 1935 another change had become necessary. Former scholars were complaining that it was a handicap in later life to have attended a school described as an orphanage, and the name was therefore changed to Royal Merchant Navy School. Finally, in the 1960s, when children unconnected with the sea became eligible, parents were often misled into assuming that it was a training school for the navy, and it was decided to adopt the current name, Bearwood College.

Nowadays it is generally assumed that an orphan has lost both parents, but in the nineteenth century this was not so. A dictionary definition of 1857 is ‘a child who has lost father or mother or both.’ The Managers of the Orphan Asylum assumed that the ‘inmates’ had mothers or grandparents to go home to. A child was eligible for admission only after the age of seven and was required to leave on his or her fourteenth birthday. Most children went home for three weeks’ holiday in July and in some years, for ten days at Christmas, though medical advisers often objected to the winter break because the children were likely to return with whatever infectious disease was prevalent at the time. The Constitution of the Asylum laid down strict rules for the admission of orphans and it was the responsibility of the Board of Management to vet each application and confirm that the child was eligible. First the dead parent had to be the father. A child whose dead mother had been at sea as a stewardess was rejected out of hand - the Constitution referred only to seamen. Second he must be British, which meant from anywhere in the British Isles. The MSOA always claimed to be a national institution. Although half the children were Londoners the other half came from dozens of coastal towns around the country, and the Asylum had representatives in no less than 38 of these so-called ‘outports’.

Black candidates

An interesting question of Britishness arose in 1850, when the first application was received on behalf of Richard Millington - ‘a boy of colour’. One committee member objected that ‘he would be objectionable in the school and lessen the respectability of the charity’, adding that The Institution was for British only and if anyone were asked what was the complexion of our Merchant Marine he would say at once ‘white’. However, his was a lone voice. Another member retorted that ‘any attempt at exclusion in consequence of complexion will be likely to bring much odium on the Institution.’ No vote was taken, and in due course the boy became an inmate of the asylum.

The dead father had to have been a seaman, and following the widespread introduction of steamships a special meeting was held to consider whether the children of engineers and stokers were eligible. Some argued that these men were not genuine seamen as they could work as easily on land as at sea. Stokers especially were ‘no more than labourers who could turn their hands to anything on shore’. Others maintained that all persons who assisted in the navigation of a ship must logically be seamen and these men also risked their lives at sea for the benefit of the public. After two adjournments of the meeting it was agreed to consider each individual case on its merits.

Boy and girl at Bow Girls at the Snaresbrook swimming pool
Boy and girl at Bow in the 1840s Girls at the Snaresbrook swimming pool

Many fathers were killed in accidents at sea, but what if the accident left a man unfit for sea service but able to do some kind of work ashore before his death? The father of Charles Hall had been crippled in both hands through loss of fingers from the explosion of a gun at sea and was subsequently employed for many years as a ship-keeper in harbour. The child was accepted, and cases like this were again considered on their merits.

Illegitimate children

The Constitution allowed no such latitude in cases of illegitimacy: bastard children were ‘improper objects’. An application from Newcastle explained that as the father had been away at sea the parents had married after the child was born. The Committee could not help. Another rule was, however, relaxed. A candidate had to be destitute, but if the widowed mother remarried it was at first assumed that the stepfather could support the child, who was promptly sent home from the asylum. Later it was thought that this rule was only encouraging immorality, and cases were considered individually.

Charities today often gain our sympathy by publishing names, photographs and tragic life stories of children in their care. Unfortunately the small print at the end hardens our hearts again when we read that the names are false, the life stories fictitious, and the photographs of models. Victorian charities had no such inhibitions: their advertising was for real. Children accepted by the MSOA Committee as candidates had still to be elected by the subscribers, who were known as governors. At the half-yearly elections each governor had one vote for every half-guinea subscribed. The voting papers gave details of each candidate, including the father’s name, rank and ship and cause of death, the mother’s name and address, and the number of children dependent on her. Little information survives about the unsuccessful candidates, but the annual reports which we still have give all these details about children actually in the asylum. This can be of great assistance to the family historian.

Election of candidates

The elections often caused excitement, with demands for recounts and accusations of malpractice. Large sums of money could be raised from new subscribers who were entitled to vote immediately. Family and friends of some candidates obtained lists of governors and canvassed for votes, but this disadvantaged other equally deserving children. In 1837 a petition was presented on behalf of an unsuccessful girl, Ellen Fotheringham, whose mother ‘on her dying bed was unable to exert herself in canvassing the subscribers on behalf of her child’ who would be ‘shortly cast upon the world a wanderer without home or protection’. A special Board meeting admitted her at once. However, most of those elected in the nineteenth century were children of captains or mates, and it was even argued by the secretary of the Foundation that this was only right. ‘The widow of a captain will toil and slave under a constant burden of anxieties and hardships .... to preserve her family pride.’ If the children of ordinary sailors’ ‘thriffless, easy-going widows’ were admitted it ‘merely enables them to spend more of their own earnings and doles upon themselves’. Fortunately in recent times the number of seamen’s orphans has declined. No elections have been held since 1915, the admission rules have been relaxed, and the fifty or so ‘foundationers’ today at Bearwood or elsewhere can be treated far more generously. No longer dismissed on their fourteenth birthday, many are assisted through university and even beyond. Finally, a word of waming to family historians. Many ships in the nineteenth century simply disappeared, and it was eventually assumed they had sunk with the loss of all hands. In 1844 it was discovered that the father of John Folkes, who was reported dead had in fact returned home a few months later, but the mother had said nothing and the child had remained in the asylum. I suspect there were some other undiscovered cases. At a time when the MSOA offered education and medical care not easily obtainable elsewhere other mothers must have been tempted to leave well alone.

In addition to the annual reports already mentioned the Archive at Bearwood has complete Admissions Registers which often mention the child’s educational standard and intended career. The Board Minute Books on which this article is largely based begin in 1827 though some volumes for the late Victorian period are missing. Their indexes enable one to find references to a number of children for reasons either good or bad. Other records are much less complete, but we do have copies of testimonials for many leavers between 1910 and 1940. I am happy to search for names submitted by family historians. No charge is made for this, but contributions to the RMNS Foundation are always welcome.

Enquiries should be addressed to: The Archivist, Bearwood College, Wokingham, Berkshire RG41 5BD.

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