Ancestry UK

London Orphan Asylum, East London / Watford, Hertfordshire

The London Orphan Asylum was founded in 1813 by the Reverend (later Sir) Andrew Reed (1787-1862). Reed was a minister in the Congregational church and a prolific philanthropist. Though not wealthy himself, Reed was particularly effective at raising money for his schemes from the wealthy and prestigious such as royalty and City merchants. As well as the Orphan Asylum, Reed's efforts resulted in the founding of four other important establishments: the Wanstead Infant Orphan Asylum (1827), the Asylum for Fatherless Children (1844), the Earlswood Asylum for Idiots (1847) and the Royal Hospital for Incurables (1854).

Andrew Reed

The London Orphan Asylum had its genesis in a gathering of friends on June 24th, 1813, at Reed's house on Cannon Street Road, Shadwell, when he aired his plans to establish a charitable institution to aid orphan children. At a second, rather smaller meeting, on July 27th, it was agreed that the "East London Orphan Asylum and Working School", as it was to be called, would aim "to relieve destitute and orphan children, to afford them clothing and maintenance, to fix habits of industry and frugality, to inculcate the principles of religion and virtue, and to place them out in situations where their morals should not be endangered, and where a prospect of honest livelihood should be secured." The word "East" was dropped from the institution's name in February 1815.

In April 1814, the Asylum opened its first premises in a house in Clarke's Terrace, Cannon Street Road. A matron was appointed and in July, the first three girls were elected for admission. Reed provided much of the furniture for the orphanage from his own home which stood nearby.

Donations to the charity were initially slow to materialise but were given a considerable boost following a fund-raising dinner at which the Duke of Kent, the father of Queen Victoria, presided. The Duke was so impressed by what he saw and heard that he offered to become the charity's patron, something which prompted a flood of support and subscriptions from leading City figures.

As the number of children in the home increased, larger accommodation was required. The boys were transferred to a house in Hackney Road, with the girls moving to premises in Bethnal Green. By 1820, even this proved insufficient and plans were made for the construction of a much larger purpose-built establishment. An eight-acre site was purchased at Clapton and an appeal for funds launched. On May 5th, 1823, Frederick, Duke of York, laid the building's foundation stone in which were placed: a glass vase containing coins of the realm, two glass bottles in which were placed scrolls recording the origin of the of the charity, a book of the charity with the regulations, and a glass plate with an inscription. Construction was completed in 1825, with the official opening by the Duke of Cambridge taking place on June 16th.

London Orphan Asylum site, Clapton, c.1870.

Plan of London Orphan Asylum, Clapton, c.1925. © Peter Higginbotham

London Orphan Asylum, Clapton, from the west, c.1825.

The new home, which was designed by William Southcote Inman, could house 300 orphans. This figure later rose to 400 after the buildings were extended. Children were admitted to the home through a process of twice-yearly election by the charity's subscribers. A one guinea annual subscription, or a ten guinea life subscription, entitled the donor to a single vote at each election, while a double subscription brought two votes. There were always more applicants than places and in the run-up to election, there was always intense lobbying of the electors by supporters of particular candidates, with cards stating the credentials of the child.

London Orphan Asylum — typical lobbying card, 1857. © Peter Higginbotham

By the 1860s, the home's location, once semi-rural, had become a very built-up neighbourhood. After fifteen of the children had died in an outbreak of typhoid in November 1866, it was decided that the institution needed to move to a healthier situation. The following year, a 36-acre site was acquired at Watford for the construction of a new building which was to be designed by Henry Dawson. Its foundation stone was laid by the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) on July 15th 1869. The school was formally opened in 1871.

The buildings included separate classrooms and dormitories for boys and girls, a dining hall, a swimming bath and a chapel. The children's accommodation was divided into 'houses', the boys' houses being named after prominent figures associated with the school and the girls' houses after flowers. The layout of the buildings is shown on the 1898 map below, followed by a bird's-eye view of the buildings.

London Orphan Asylum site, Watford, c.1898.

London Orphan Asylum, Watford, bird's-eye view from the south-west, c.1871. © Peter Higginbotham

London Orphan Asylum, Watford, aerial view, date unknown. © Peter Higginbotham

London Orphan Asylum - entrance lodge, Watford, early 1900s. © Peter Higginbotham

A contemporary report on the new building (slightly edited) is reproduced below.


The new London Orphan Asylum is a handsome structure, or rather series of structures, which fronts the London and North-Western station at Watford. The building nearest the railway is the chapel, behind which and at some distance is the administrative portion of the building, 140 ft. long, 75 ft. deep, and 60 ft. high to the ridge. It contains the board-room, visitors' room, library, and other offices, as well as the temporary infirmary, the intention being to erect another building for this purpose when circumstances permit. On the right of the administrative block is the girls' quadrangle. The main building on one side is 220 ft. long by 37 ft. wide; it contains a music-room, with off spaces for separate practice, work-rooms, sitting-rooms, school-room, residence for the head mistress, playground, and offices. The quadrangles for the boys, senior and junior, are on the left of the administrative block. There are several houses, each accommodating fifty boys, and containing school and class rooms, and dormitory accommodation for the matron. There is a swimming-bath, 62 ft. by 37 ft., and ample separate provision is made for the head master. A tower of 125-ft. elevation rises from the administrative block of building. It will be provided with bell and clock. The central entrance and vestibule are under this tower, and in the same way the principal staircase is reached, behind which is the dining-hall, forming a separate building. The hall is 108 ft. long by 50 ft. wide, and 56 ft. high. It contains a visitors' gallery divided from the body of the hall by a screen of columns and arches. Underneath are the culinary arrangements on an extensive scale for cooking and baking, and lifts for bringing the food to the dining-room. There is behind the girls' quadrangle an extensive range of laundry buildings, and an abundant supply of water is obtained from a well specially sunk for the purpose. It is impossible to speak too highly of the internal arrangements. Light, space, and air are abundant. There is ample provision for recreation in bad weather as in fine. The views are cheering and the situation is healthy and convenient. No money has been lavished on mere ornament. The useful has predominated in every department of the work. Although intended for the immediate reception of 450 — 300 boys and 150 girls — the asylum has been built with a forethought of the day when its friends may be able, with a small additional expenditure, to provide accommodation for 6OO orphans — that is to say, eight houses having fifty orphans each. The Grocers' Company is a donor of one house of the eight, and the residents of Hertfordshire of another. The original contract was for £63,000. The entire work has been erected under the superintendence of Mr. H. Dawson, of Finsbury.

The main sections of the building are shown on the illustration below. The administrative department was located at the centre of the site, surmounted by a spire. To its rear lay the dining hall. The boys' accommodation and playgrounds were to the left, with juniors at the front and seniors at the rear. The girls' school was to the right, with the schoolmistresses quarters alongside, and with the laundry to the rear. The chapel stood alongside the front entrance drive. The infirmary stood at the rear right of the site.

London Orphan Asylum, Watford, 1869. © Peter Higginbotham

London Orphan Asylum - administrative block, Watford, early 1900s. © Peter Higginbotham

London Orphan Asylum - board room, Watford, early 1900s. © Peter Higginbotham

London Orphan Asylum, Watford, girls' side, c.1905. © Peter Higginbotham

London Orphan Asylum, Watford, boys' house, c.1871. © Peter Higginbotham

London Orphan Asylum, Watford, boys' house floor plans, c.1871. © Peter Higginbotham

London Orphan Asylum, Watford, dining hall, c.1905. © Peter Higginbotham

The chapel was the gift of a former headmistress of the Asylum, who bestowed the then very large sum of £5,000 for the purpose.

London Orphan Asylum, Watford, chapel, c.1905. © Peter Higginbotham

London Orphan Asylum, Watford, chapel interior, c.1905. © Peter Higginbotham

London Orphan Asylum, Watford, group photo, date unknown. © Peter Higginbotham

London Orphan Asylum, Watford, group photo, detail. © Peter Higginbotham

In 1915, the institution changed its name to the London Orphan School. In 1921, the school took over the Royal British Orphan School at Slough, whose financial problems had forced it to close. The Slough institution's assets and pupils were then transferred to the Watford site, which then adopted the rather cumbersomely title of the London Orphan Asylum and Royal British Orphan School. Another change of name came in 1939 when the establishment was renamed Reed's School to commemorate its founder.

London Orphan Asylum and Royal British Orphan School, Watford, 1920s. © Peter Higginbotham

London Orphan Asylum and Royal British Orphan School, Watford - senior boys' classroom, 1920s. © Peter Higginbotham

London Orphan Asylum and Royal British Orphan School, Watford, boys' chemistry laboratory, 1920s. © Peter Higginbotham

London Orphan Asylum and Royal British Orphan School, Watford - girls' cookery class, 1920s. © Peter Higginbotham

London Orphan Asylum and Royal British Orphan School, Watford, girls' dining hall, 1920s. © Peter Higginbotham

London Orphan Asylum and Royal British Orphan School, Watford, 1920s. © Peter Higginbotham

London Orphan Asylum and Royal British Orphan School, Watford, girls' dormitory, 1920s. © Peter Higginbotham

London Orphan Asylum and Royal British Orphan School, boys' swimming bath, 1920s. © Peter Higginbotham

London Orphan Asylum and Royal British Orphan School, girls' swimming bath, 1920s. © Peter Higginbotham

London Orphan Asylum and Royal British Orphan School, Watford, boys' infirmary ward, 1920s. © Peter Higginbotham

London Orphan Asylum and Royal British Orphan School, Watford, girls' infirmary ward, 1920s. © Peter Higginbotham

London Orphan Asylum and Royal British Orphan School, Watford, headmaster, staff and prefects, 1920s. © Peter Higginbotham

Following the outbreak of the Second World War, the school site was requisitioned in 1940 for use as a military hospital. The boys were then evacuated to the Seymour Hotel at Totnes in Devon, while the girls were housed in several properties near Towcester in Northamptonshire.

At the end of the war in 1945, the site was retained by the government for use by the Ministry of Labour and the school was obliged to find new premises. The girls moved to a large country estate at Dogmersfield Park, near Basingstoke in Hampshire, while the boys took over a large property at Sandy Lane, Cobham in Surrey. However, the cost of maintaining the two establishments eventually proved too great and Dogmersfield Park was closed in July 1955, with the boys then joining the girls at Cobham where the school continues to this day.

The Asylum's former premises in Clapton were taken over by the Salvation Army in 1881 who created a 4,700-seat Congress Hall in the building. The Salvation Army vacated the site in 1970 and most of the building was demolished in 1975. All that survives is the entrance portico, incorporated into a new building on what is now Linscott Road.

The Watford site continued to house government offices until the 1980s. Virtually all the original buildings survive, now converted to residential use.

Former London Orphan Asylum, Watford, 2014. © Peter Higginbotham

Former London Orphan Asylum detail, Watford, 2014. © Peter Higginbotham

Former London Orphan Asylum mistresses' block, Watford, 2014. © Peter Higginbotham

Former London Orphan Asylum rear of girls' side, Watford, 2014. © Peter Higginbotham

Former London Orphan Asylum chapel, Watford, 2014. © Peter Higginbotham


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