Ancestry UK

The National Children's Home (NCH) Story

Early Days

The founding father of the National Children's Home (also known at different times as The Children's Home, The National Children's Home and Orphanage and, now, as Action for Children) was Thomas Bowman Stephenson.

Stephenson was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne on 22nd December 1839, the seventh child of a Wesleyan Methodist minister and preacher, John Stephenson, and his wife Mary (neé Bowman). Because of his mother's poor health, several years of his early life were spent in the care of an aunt. His father's profession also meant that the family were moved around between a number of Methodist church circuits including Bedford, Dudley and Sheffield. Thomas became a committed Christian while at school in Dudley. Later, at Wesley College in Sheffield, he developed a liking and talent for public speaking and preaching. Stephenson's initial thoughts about a career had been to study law and become a barrister. This changed, however, during a stay with his parents who had returned to Tyneside. He stood-in for a local minister who was ill and the response to his preaching was such that he instead began to think about entering the ministry, formally offering himself as a candidate in 1858. A month after examinations had taken place in London, he was accepted for training and spent the next two years at a Methodist college in Richmond, Surrey.

Thomas Bowman Stephenson, c.1860.

Stephenson's initial placements as a minister were in Norwich, Manchester and Bolton. His work was characterised by a willingness to find new ways of reaching people who would normally not enter a church, such as holding meetings in a theatre, or programmes of recitations and music. Stephenson was an accomplished singer and would sing at any opportunity, whether in church or while preaching from a chair in the street.

In 1868, Stephenson and his wife Ellen, whom he had married in 1864, were moved again — this time to take over the Waterloo Road Chapel in Lambeth, one of London's poorest areas. Again, he readily used novel means to make contact with non-church-goers, erecting a platform outside the chapel for open-air meetings. Realising that people would be more likely to stay and listen if they could sit down, he appealed to his Methodist friends for donations to buy 200 chairs for the purpose.

One group that particularly came to Stephenson's attention in Lambeth were the numerous orphaned, abandoned and homeless children, many of whom were sickly and malnourished. He later wrote:

There they were, ragged, shoeless, filthy, their faces pinched with hunger, and premature wretchedness staring out of their too bright eyes, and I began to feel that now my time had come. Here were my poor little brothers and sisters sold to Hunger and the Devil, and I could not be free of their blood if I did not at least try to save some of them.