Olivet Home/Orphanage, Ballygowan, Co. Down, Northern Ireland
What became the Olivet Home (or Orphanage) was erected in 1884-85 at Comber Road, Ballygowan. Its £7,000 cost was funded Alexander Orr Reid, in memory of his only son, who had died suddenly — reports varied as to whether this was due to an accident with a shotgun or suicide. The establishment was originally planned to operate as a residential secondary school and had dormitories at each end of the building. It was also intended to have close connections with the Ballygowan Presbyterian Church but all links were subsequently severed, perhaps owing to a quarrel between Reid and the local minister, the Rev. Woods.
At Reid's death in 1886, before the building was completed, he bequeathed the property to his friend David Henderson and other gentlemen to be held in trust for use as an orphanage to be known as the Olivet Home. To support the running of the home, Reid left it an endowment of £100 a year. The Rev. Woods, subsequently called a protest meeting, claiming that 'these schools belonged to the Presbyterian people and their children.' Mr William Gray moved a motion that 'morally these schools belong the Presbyterians of Ballygowan' and it was resolved that the claim be pressed. Having no legal basis, however, the claim came to nothing.
The management of the home was taken over by Henderson and his wife — the couple also ran the Elim Home for Destitute Boys and Girls, on the Crumlin Road, Belfast, the two establishments being located about 12 miles from one another.
A newspaper report on the Olivet Home appeared in 1887.
To many of our readers Ballygowan is known simply as the first station beyond Comber on the County Down Railway, but it is within easy driving distance of Belfast. No one can visit the village without seeing Olivet. The large stone building strikes the eye as one approaches the station from Comber, and is a conspicuous landmark. It was erected by the late Mr. Alex. Orr Reid, who formerly was a partner of Mr. John Robb and a native of the village, as a memorial to his son, and he handed it over with seven acres of ground, subject to a rent of £25 to Mr. David Henderson, and vested it in trustees to preserve it as a Home for Destitute Boys and Girls. We all know Mr. Henderson — certainly all the newsboys know him, and look out for his annual treat at Christmas tide — and probably some of our readers have visited Elim, on the Crumlin Road, where for several years he has carried own his admirable works of training boys and girls. He rescues children whom he finds homeless in our streets, and educates them for lives of usefulness — ultimately many of them are sent to a home at Ontario, Canada, whence they are placed with farmers who may want assistance. Gathered, as many of them are, from dens of misery and vice, they are, of course, at first uncouth in appearance and manners, and have not always the most angelic of tempers and dispositions; but kindness — and they receive it unsparingly from Mr. and Mrs. Henderson — soon transforms them, and the independent, daring, impudent child becomes a tractable, winsome lad, who is ready to obey the direction of his master, and will eventually Prove a useful citizen of the North-West. To Olivet on a Saturday afternoon not long ago we bent our way. It was a chance visit; we had not told Mr. or Mrs. Henderson of our intention, so it happened that when we arrived we did not find either of them at home, but were welcomed by a comely lassie of twelve summers. We knew her of old, and she immediately recognised us as friends, and ushered us into a large room on the right of the entrance hall. Scattered about the room were several children of both sexes, ranging in age from six to twelve, and they all showed that they remembered us, the boys being rather more shy than the girls. One of our party had never seen the children before, so she asks our conductor's name, and the reply is modestly given, "Rosey." Mr. and Mrs. Henderson's absence is explained; but when we tell Rosey that we have come to visit the Home, she says their absence need make no difference, and constitutes herself our guide. She takes us up to the large hall, which will be used for meetings, and leads us down to the basement, where there are the dining-hall, the kitchens, pantries, and sculleries; also the laundry and a drying-room, and separate lavatories for the boys and girls; then she takes us up to the dormitories, and winds up by showing us Mr. and Mrs. Hienderson' s own apartments. Throughout there were evidences of care, cleanliness, and order. The little cook — for there are no domestics engaged, and the entire housework is done by the children under Mrs. Henderson's supervision, and four of the eldest of the children take their turn a day each as cook — tells us that tea will shortly be ready; in fact, that she is only delayed by the want of the milk which comes down from the farm, and promises us a cup, but as we are reminded by the motto on the clock tower, "The time is short," and the shades of evening were falling, we could not wait for tea, and after taking a hurried glance round the grounds we start again for home. Though Mr. and Mrs. Henderson were both absent we saw no disorder amongst the children. They were all harmoniously amusing themselves — some working, others playing, enjoying the autumn afternoon. How many of us could leave oar family of three or four little ones of the ages of these children, and go off for an afternoon confident that they would not get into any mischief, in our absence? Very few; yet here was a much larger family: in fact, many families and their parents (for if we look upon those who first show us kindness as parents, Mr. and Mrs. Henderson are the parents of these little ones) were able to leave them for several hours certain that no harm would befall them. It is a noble work for a hard-working citizen, and Mr. Henderson is daily at his office, to give his mornings end evenings to these little ones. He is greatly encouraged in his work at Elim by the kindly interest of sympathisers, and he has lately appealed to the public — for he does not ask anyone directly for assistance — for £1,000 to enable him to complete the furnishing of Olivet, and to fit Elim into a receiving-house and home for working lads. We hope his appeal will soon be responded to. Olivet is large, and no expense was spared by Mr. Reid in its erection, but he died before its completion, and the house needs a good deal of what the Yankees call "fixings" and furniture. It would accommodate a much larger family, and there are plenty of children ready to come in, only funds are wanted to fit the house for them and to maintain them there; and some of our friends can give money, others clothes, books, toys, or other things to meet the varied wants of such children as these.
How the Hendersons shared their time between the Ballygowan and Belfast homes is unclear. Mrs Henderson, presumaby unhappy with her lot, subsequently moved to America, obtained a divorce from her husband under US laws, and remarried. The Home was by then being run by a matron, Henderson having moved back to Belfast and visiting Ballygowan by train each Sunday.
In the early 180-s, Henderson embarked on ambitious fund-raising activities to provide, he said, new dormitories, a gymnasium and swimming bath. He organised visits to towns across Ireland taking the children around the country with him to aid his appeals. He also began referring to his Ballygowan and Belfast establishments as the Orphan Homes of Ireland, echoing the Quarriers' Orphan Homes of Scotland.
By 1896, however, complaints were staring to be made about the conditions in the home, with letters being sent to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) about the 'deplorable condition of the house'. Apparently no action resulted.
Nothing appears to have changed until 1904, following complaints by a widower with three children aged 13, 10 and 5, who paid 3s.6d. a week to board them at the home. He visited the home occasionally and became so disturbed by what he found that he took his children to the NSPCC. The children were very dirty and covered in vermin. An NSPCC inspector visited the home and found that the only food was bread and milk, the bedding was dirty and many mattresses were wet. The children had sores, scabs inflamed scalps, and many were infested with vermin. A former matron claimed that Henderson would not give her money for vegetables and other necessities or cleaning materials. He had bought a few boots but never any clothing. Henderson, together with the then matron, Mary Thompson, were summoned to appear in court at Florida Mansions Petty Sessions. On the morning of the hearing, Henderson was found to have committed suicide by gassing himself.
After a period of closure, the home was re-opened. In 1907, Mr Crawford Browne, of Cromac Saw Mills, was appointed as its manager by the trustees.
In 1918, following the closure of the home, the Presbyterians desire to own the property was finally fulfilled when Presbytery of Comber purchased the site for the sum of £1,000, with plans to convert it for use as a national school, lecture hall and teacher's residence. The premises are still in use as Presbyterian Church Halls.
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- None identfied at present — any information welcome.
- Higginbotham, Peter Children's Homes: A History of Institutional Care for Britain s Young (2017, Pen & Sword)
- None identified at present.
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