Story: Elizabeth and Gordon Shaw
In 1877 the National Union of Teachers founded a Teachers’ Benevolent Fund. A year later, a separate Orphanage and Orphan Fund was established, in order to ‘aid as liberally as possible all who had fallen upon evil times’. Two orphanages were eventually set up, one for boys in Peckham Rye, London and another for girls, situated at Firshill (pictured above).
Where a family had been making contributions, it was possible to apply for a place at the orphanage when the father died. It was not necessary for the mother to have died as well.
From Firshill to Page Hall
In 1887 the premises at Firshill came into use as ‘The Teachers’ Orphanage for Girls’. Orphanage Road, at the side of Firs Hill School, was possibly the entrance to the property. In 1894 the June issue of ‘The Schoolmaster’ informed its readers of the purchase of new premises to replace Firshill, the lease of which was nearly expired. The move was to Page Hall, a ‘well built substantial mansion with 4 acres of freehold land’. Purchase money entailed an outlay of between £4,000 and £5,000. Accommodation was available for between 40 –50 girls.
The admissions book is held in Sheffield Archives and provides a wealth of information about the families who benefited from the fund. The first entry is for Letitia Mary Burke who was born in 1878. She was admitted to the orphanage on 11 June 1887. Her father, John Burke, having trained at Hammersmith College, was last employed at Fowler Street, Seven Dials Bds in 1885. Unfortunately, he was drowned off the Isle of Wight, aged only 36.
Letitia had three sisters; Helena aged 14, Alice 12 and Catherine 2, noted as being dependent on their mother. However, the mother, Letitia Burke, a maidservant, is also shown as having died aged 38. Neither the cause of death nor the year is recorded. Letitia is noted as having suffered measles and whooping cough. She left the Orphanage on 17 June 1893 to commence duties as a Pupil Teacher.
The last entry is for Hilda Ernestine Luffman who was born on 13 April 1914. Her circumstances were quite different in that her father, who was not a teacher, had deserted the family. Her mother had died and the family had been making contributions to the Fund, so she was eligible for a place. She had four brothers aged 16, 15, 13 and 9 years. The two eldest were sent to work on a farm and the younger two were adopted.
The book contains details of approximately 150 girls, 7 of whom have Sheffield addresses. The others came from Plymouth, Wales, Ipswich, Liverpool and Durham to name but a few. Long distances to travel to live away from one’s family and at quite a young age! Not surprising then to read the Medical Officer’s comments in the case of one of the girls – ‘sleepwalking – nervous condition. Condition has improved on becoming used to the orphanage.’
The age of the father at death was mostly between 36 and 45 years. The cause of death is often given in a single word – consumption, bronchitis, nephritis, leukaemia, typhoid and tuberculosis. Cases of heart disease and cancer also appear. The most detailed entry was in 1907 for the 45 year old who, ‘ruptured blood vessel owing to weakness caused by cancer’. One died of alcoholic poisoning and another is recorded as having fallen into a quarry.
Most of the girls were between 10 and 12 years old at the time of admission. If a girl had had illness, this was entered in her details. Most had been through measles and whooping cough. Smallpox, fever and scarlatina are also mentioned. One girl born in 1899 is shown as having been vaccinated in infancy. It’s noted that vaccination becomes more frequent, though one girl was vaccinated unsuccessfully!
The space left for Medical Officer’s remarks gives further insight to the condition of the girls. Sometimes there is a simple ‘satisfactory’ or ‘appears sound and healthy’. Other entries are more detailed such as this one: ‘Small but fairly robust health. Lungs healthy, also heart. TB in family history – special care in feeding. Encourage open air as much as possible. Cod liver oil is advised for winter months.’
Time to Leave
The girls could stay at the orphanage until they reached the age of fifteen. Many did so and this was given as the reason for leaving. Some, like Letitia, the first girl, went on to be a pupil teacher. Some girls left ‘at mother’s request’ or because they were ‘needed at home’.
Though most of the girls seem to have lived uneventfully at the orphanage, there were at least two who were clearly not suited to that way of life. One girl ‘absconded without reason and was subsequently expelled’. Another girl was ‘removed by resolution of the council for bad behaviour’.