By Carolyn Hammond
Brentford and Chiswick Local History Journal 7 (1998)
Pigot’s 1839-40 directory of Chiswick contains an intriguing entry: ‘Royal Victoria Asylum, Chiswick Mall – Ann Bourhill, mistress’ No information on this mysterious ‘asylum’ had ever come to light until a Mr Geoff Blackburn of Western Australia wrote to Chiswick Library. He had been studying the antecedents of some of the early immigrants to Australia and had come upon the asylum through that research.
This is the story of what he discovered, taken from his book The Children’s Friend Society: Juvenile Emigrants to Western Australia, South Africa and Canada 1834-1842. There is a copy in the Local Studies Room at Chiswick Library should you want to read more about the Society.
In the 1830s, moved by the plight of the children he found roaming the streets of London, Edward Brenton, a retired naval officer, got together with other philanthropic friends to set up an organisation which he called the Children’s Friend Society. The Society’s aims were to provide these waifs and strays with training and then to place them in situations as domestic or farm servants, mainly in the colonies.
Brenton believed that ‘with the Bible and the spade for the boys and the Bible, the broom and the needle for the girls’ the children could rapidly be ‘brought into habits of order, regularity and obedience, and this without the agency of any other means than kindness and firmness’.
The Society first set up an asylum for boys in Hackney and then, in 1834, a similar asylum for girls was opened on Chiswick Mall under the patronage of the young Princess Victoria. At that date directories and ratebooks do not give full addresses, but from various clues it has been possible to work out that the asylum was at Walpole House, a suitable building since it had been used as a boarding school earlier in the century, where Thackeray had been an unwilling scholar for several years.
In 1839, two years after she came to the throne, Queen Victoria visited the asylum; she was most impressed with the work being done there and recorded in her journal: ‘it is a most interesting and delightful establishment … it is for poor vagrant girls who are received under the age of fifteen and Miss Murray says that they have never had a girl six months who did not become a perfectly good child. When they have become quite good and can read and write and do work of all kinds necessary for the home they are sent abroad … where they are apprenticed and become excellent servants’.
Mrs Bourhill, the matron, described how the girls were trained to the author of Industrial Schools for the Peasantry published in 1838: ‘In the first place we do not allow a girl to do any work in the house for a few weeks after her entrance into the asylum until we know a little of her character; we then appoint her to some domestic employment, leaving it to herself to choose for the first time. The employments of the children are changed every fortnight, excepting that of attending to the dairy. The dairymaid holds office a month.
The plan adopted with regard to the dairy is as follows: I go into the dairy myself with a child, and teach her until she understands well what she is about; I then place a girl under her to be instructed, and as soon as one girl is removed another succeeds her; if the girls are very young, we place two instead of one. At present the dairy maids are only ten years of age; and however strange it may appear, these two little dears manage the cleaning, churning and other operations to my entire satisfaction. With regard to the other domestic employments, we place two in the largest bedroom, two in the next, and one in the small ditto; one in the parlour to clear and wait at table, answer the bell etc; two in the kitchen; two in the laundry.
When our family is large, we require three to wash two days in the week, one to smooth and to mangle. There are two school room maids, whose duty it is to light the fires, sweep and scrub the tables and floors, lay the tablecloth, place the food upon the table, and remove the dishes’. This training, which presumably also included reading and writing, equipped the girls to be useful servants in any household. They were then sent overseas in small groups under the charge of a matron, mainly to the Cape of Good Hope or to Australia. Local committees in the colonies were supposed to find suitable situations for the girls with local families and then to monitor their progress until they were 21 years old.
Unfortunately, the high ideals of Edward Brenton and his committee were not always matched by those of the local committees in the colonies, and there were stories that some of the children were exploited as cheap slave labour. One young boy who was picked up by the police for thieving in London revealed at his trial that the Society had sent him to the Cape of Good Hope where he had been ‘sold to a Dutchman for 10 guineas’ and after two years of being starved and beaten he had escaped and worked his passage back to England on a cutter. This led to sensationalist reports in the press; one newspaper even referred to the Society as the Children’s Kidnapping Society. A Government enquiry was set up and reported in 1840, clearing the Society of allegations of slave trading and ill-treatment of the children, but saying that the supervision of their progress must be improved. However, the Society’s reputation had been irreparably damaged by the adverse publicity, and the public support and subscriptions upon which it relied to finance its work dwindled away.
Edward Brenton himself died of a heart attack in 1839, possibly brought on by the worry, the asylums were closed and the Society was finally wound up in 1841. In the few years of its existence the Society had ‘rescued’ nearly 2,000 children, many of whom had been trained at Walpole House on Chiswick Mall.
Carolyn Hammond is the Local Studies Librarian at Chiswick Library, author of the History of Chiswick Library and co-author of Chiswick (1994) and of Brentford (1996) in the Old Photographs Series, published by Chalford Press