News From Crystal Palace was looking for a bit of background history on Shirley Oaks and found the following.

Taken from the National Archives website it is reproduced almost without comment except this: Shirley Oaks survivors (and their friends / relatives / supporters)  will be livid when they read this, especially the end part which News From Crystal Palace has put in bold type.

Shirley Oaks

This record is held by Lambeth Archives

The children’s home at Shirley Oaks was opened in 1904 by the Bermondsey Board of Guardians and the idea behind it – that children should be brought up in a home environment rather than a large regimented institution – still holds good today. In the past, the children in the care of local authorities, whether the parish overseers or after 1834 the Boards of Guardians, were not so fortunate, and their education and welfare were largely ignored. However, after 1844 it became legal for poor law unions (the bodies responsible for poor law administration locally) to combine to provide ‘District Schools’ for their children to remove them from the rigorous discipline of the adult workhouse and in 1852, unions in Newington, Rotherhithe, Poplar, Greenwich, Bermondsey, and Camberwell combined in the South Metropolitan School District and built a school at Sutton, to which children from all unions were sent. It was, in fact, an enormous boarding school for pauper children.

These enormous district schools were increasingly criticised as being too impersonal and institutional, and failing to equip the children for life outside. They were also breeding grounds for disease, particularly ophthalmia. A report by Mrs Nassau Senior to the Local Government Board in 1874 recommended the use of ‘cottage homes’ as an alternative. Shirley is an example of this system, the children living in small groups with houseparents, on a site including school, workshops, administration block, infirmary etc, in a self-contained community. However, it was thirty years before Shirley was opened, and in the meantime the Sutton Schools continued, the subject of increasing criticism for their management as much as for the philosophy behind them. Camberwell in particular objected that it sent few children to Sutton but paid a high proportion of the costs, and it led agitation for the abolition of the system. On 4 December 1897, the managers of the Sutton Schools were informed that the Local Government Board had decided to abolish the South Metropolitan Schools District, whose existing accommodation was inadequate, and would be costly to bring up to standard. The Sutton buildings were to be sold to the Metropolitan Asylums Board and the proceeds used to provide new accommodation for the children.

The Bermondsey Board of Guardians decided in favour of the cottage home system on 21 February 1898, and after considering several sites decided in July 1899 to purchase Shirley Lodge Farm. However, they did not receive Local Government Board sanction until 1 February 1900, and extensive discussions on the design followed. The Board thought 300 was the maximum number for a school, but Bermondsey wanted places for 600, so the design had to suggest two schools of 300 each. A swimming bath, farm, workshops (for training as well as maintenance) and laundry were also included in the scheme. The headmaster and headmistress were responsible for general administration as well as education, and the cottages were run by Housefathers and Mothers with the help of Assistant Housemothers. J F H Roberts was appointed the first headmaster at a salary of £150 p.a. The architect was A H Newman and the buildings were erected by Charles Wall (for £8,126 12s 8d more than the £144,000 originally allowed).

The Guardians’ interest extended to minute details. They drew up dietary tables (which the houseparents were instructed ‘not to leave about to be seen by the children’) and ordered ‘The bread must be properly cut into slices’. However, in their minutes of October 1903 they set out the guiding principles of the home: ‘A place where (the children) may receive kindly and homely parental care, a sound education and industrial training to enable them upon leaving the home to secure a livelihood’. Significantly, houseparents were forbidden to use corporal punishment – though later edicts to the same effect suggest that housemothers on duty from 6am to 10.30pm may not have kept the rules as strictly as they might.

The school was opened officially in January 1904, although a few children had been sent to the ‘probationary’ i.e. admission ward somewhat earlier. There were teething troubles, the system of married houseparents proving notably unsatisfactory, since they expected the assistants to do all the work, and the appointment of single housemothers was substituted. A headmaster’s assistant was appointed in July and other staffing adjustments made. It was decided to vote £15 p.a. for newspapers for the children, including the Daily Mirror, Boys Own Paper and Girls Own Paper. The school band was permitted to play near the road to Epsom on Derby Day, and solicit contributions from the racegoers, which became a tradition. Both band and, later, sports teams were successful parts of school life.

In 1930, the functions of the Guardians of the Poor were taken over by the London County Council, and the School was placed under the control of a Managing Committee responsible to a sub-committee of the Education Committee. Following a report on the School by LCC inspectors, attempts were made to widen the rather inward-looking, self-sufficient attitude and bring the children into greater contact with the world outside. The appointment of a separate headmaster, with responsibility only for the school, was one step in this direction. Individual bedrooms for the older girls weere encouraged to promote independence and more scope allowed for individual activities outside school. The inspectors also recommended the abolition of the general farm, although pigs and poultry could still be kept.

The Managers maintained the close interest in daily details shown by the Guardians, worrying about the weekly allowance of eggs (raised to two per child in 1931), the length of grass, and similar matters. Considerable debate also took place over the siting of the girls’ and boys’ lavatories at the summer camp – concern was expressed that they were too close together ‘causing anxiety to the staff at lunchtime’. The transfer of responsibility to the LCC Children’s Department in 1949 brought little change, but the attempt to ‘de-institutionalise’ was taken further in 1955 when the name Shirley Oaks replaced Shirley Schools. Numbers gradually fell, and by 1958 there were 370 children (of whom 259 had families) whereas in 1930 there were 619.

When the London Boroughs were formed in 1965, Lambeth took over Shirley Oaks, although ILEA was responsible for the school. Less than twenty years later, the old ‘cottage home’ system has in its turn been superseded by other methods of care. But the main aim of these changes is the aim that managers and staff of Shirley Oaks have shared throughout its eighty-year history – the provision of the best possible care for the children in their charge


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