Although I had gone to the Orphanage primarily as a purely temporary measure, it very soon developed into a permanency. My parents appeared only too thankful to have found something to do with me, and Mother was overjoyed that I should be employed on such obviously “good work”, and in a strictly Christian atmosphere. My chief duties were conducting the school, for all education was given on the premises, and as Aunt Janey found it impossible to get anyone else, she was thankful for me to stay on. Being direct from school myself I probably organized the classes and curriculum on far better lines than did the elderly spinsters who formed the greatest percentage of available helpers.
The conditions under which we lived had remained almost unchanged for sixty years. Class distinctions were a fetish, the members of the staff were known as “the ladies”, the children had to curtsey to Aunt Janey when passing her, or if she spoke to them, and everyone, children and ladies alike, stood up when she came into the room. The children never went outside the premises except on Sundays to Church, and for an occasional dismal crocodile walks, and as they outgrew the schoolroom they were trained for all forms of domestic work about the house. The enormous quantity of laundry was all done on the premises by the older girls, and each one was given a period of so many months training as kitchen maid, scullery maid, cook, chamber maid, house maid, sewing maid and parlour maid. The domestic training was absolutely first class, and as each girl finished her full training at the age of about eighteen, Aunt Janey found her a good post in private service. Her girls had always been known for their excellent training and beautiful manners, and there was always a long waiting list of would be mistresses anxious to get one of her girls. Although they all came from the most appalling homes, yet by constant contact with educated people all the children spoke beautifully, in fact it was most amusing to hear a common voiced little newcomer being sternly reprimanded and corrected in her speech by the old hands. The ladies had to be addressed as “M’am” or “Please M’am”, which caused endless confusion among the tinies, usually resulting in a spluttered “zez-’m,” or "zez-a-p'ease-m'am," or even “zez-p'ease-zez-’m.” They had not the slightest idea what it meant.
All the children wore their hair parted straight in the middle from forehead to nape, each side being tightly plaited and the plaits wrapped round the head and secured with red braid. In addition to keeping the hair out of the way, Aunt Janey maintained that this style encouraged the hair to grow. Whether this acutely unbecoming hairdo actually had that effect I do not know, but the fact remains that, without exception, every one of the girls had the most magnificent head of hair. Little newcomers would arrive with scraggly wisps, almost too thin and meagre even to plait, and within a year or two they had all grown the same long rippling manes. One thin, scrawny little creature of about twelve, who had spent most of her life at the Orphanage, had the most glorious mass of dull blond hair which reached almost to her ankles.
Their clothes were good and solid and warm, but utterly hideous. The outfits were passed down from one to the other, and some of the outdoor uniforms must have been quite forty years old. These
consisted of coats of enormously thick, heavy black material, lined with red flannel. Round the shoulders were three capes, the widest covering the shoulders, then a medium one, and the smallest forming a collar. Each was lined and edged with red flannel. Attached above these was a hood, also red lined, which was worn over the head and tied under the chin, the front being turned back to form a wide red edging. In the house they wore varyingly hideous frocks, most of which had
been donated by friends of Aunt Janey over the years, covered by the
aforementioned pinafores of grim design. Their underwear was equally dour, arid their stockings were of black or grey wool, many of them being the heelless horrors which were met with during the war
years. Their clothing was certainly plentiful, if not beautiful, for it was held that children should be well wrapped up. So
efficiently was this tenet put into practice that during the cold weather the smaller ones went about looking like little barrels, their clothes standing out in a ledge round their necks by sheer number of layers.
The dormitories were up in the attics under the roof. They were bleak, dark rooms with
sloping ceilings and small dormer windows, the floors were bare boards, and the paintwork - where paint existed was a dull and useful brown. The three main dormitories opened on to a small landing where was an
old fashioned fishtail gas jet. All doors were kept open, and the only light which penetrated the
dormitories came from this one jet on the landing. Two slip rooms had been partitioned off from the dormitories
for the use of the staff, for the children had to be under constant supervision, day and night. One of these rooms was only partitioned by
un-papered match boarding, and the children had poked out several knots in the wood, thus making convenient spy-holes through which they could watch the lady at her toilette. Both the bedrooms had a small curtained window looking into the dormitories, for the purpose of allowing the ladies to keep eye on the children, but the unofficial
peepholes were in far more constant use, When discovered by the outraged lady concerned, they were immediately pasted over with bits of paper, but within a very short time they invariably reappeared.
The children’s food was exceedingly plentiful and wholesome, but by modern standards, too monotonous, stodgy and filling for words. Breakfast consisted for six days of every week, of porridge and weak tea. The porridge was carried through from the kitchen in huge cauldrons and dumped on the end of one of the tables. Here the lady on duty walloped it out by means of an enormous ladle into enamel bowls, which the child on duty dealt round the tables. The tea arrived in big enamel jugs, and was poured into enamel mugs and dealt round in like manner. On Sundays the great treat for breakfast was bread and margarine, and on Easter Sunday, and I believe on Christmas Day, they rose to the dizzy heights of an egg each. In the ordinary way there was nothing else for breakfast but porridge, though they could have as many helpings as they wished. I loathed being on breakfast duty. Most of the children gobbled their porridge quite happily, but there was one little thing who literally could not eat porridge. Hating porridge myself, I had the utmost sympathy for her, but it was my detested duty to see that every bowl was scraped clean. When breakfast was over I would dismiss the children to the supervision of another member of the staff for bed-making, and I then had to stand over poor little Amy until every morsel of porridge had been swallowed. She was quite a sweet little thing, only about five or six, and did not mean to be naughty, but I could see her choke and retch over each mouthful, while silent tears poured down her cheeks. I felt a perfect brute, and did my best to encourage her to get it down, but I dared not let her off, as the news would have got all round at once, and I could not disobey Aunt Janey’s orders. At length, after a number of these painful sessions with Amy, I mentioned it to Aunt Janey, and eventually she was persuaded to allow Amy to have plain bread for breakfast instead of the loathly porridge.
Midday dinner usually consisted of a vast stew containing meat, vegetables and suet dumplings of a solid and rubbery consistency. This stew arrived in the same cauldrons as the porridge, and was doled out in the same way. There was also a pudding of a stodgy and filling nature, and as many helpings were permitted as quantities would allow.
Tea consisted of slices of bread and margarine with weak tea. On Sundays dinner comprised a roast joint with the usual vegetables, and for tea there was bread and jam. The weekday meals were so unvarying throughout the year that the slight changes on Sundays were hailed as weekly treats, and served to add to the attraction of the day. This was the last meal of the day for most of the children, as they all went to bed very early, but the older girls who worked in the house and went to bed later, were allowed a supper of bread and margarine and cocoa.
Despite this grim diet all the children were pictures of health, with round pink cheeks and full of vitality. The conditions and surroundings which seemed so terrible to me then, and still more so in retrospect, were entirely normal to them, as few of them remembered anything else.
Annual Day Out
On one day in the year those children who had relations or a home of sorts, were allowed to be taken out by friends arid relatives. This was looked forward to and counted on for weeks in advance, but it was noticeable that when they were returned in the evening, all the children, without exception, seemed glad to be back. We would overhear remarks of varying degrees of disgust and disillusionment being exchanged about the respective houses to which they had been taken, and they all noticed the coarse voices and accents of their own relations. Those children who had nowhere to go would be taken out for a bus ride or some other treat by one of the staff, and they had invariably enjoyed their day very much more than those who had gone to relatives. The evening of the Wanderers’ return was a hectic time for the staff, The children were allowed to wear their hair loose while away from the Orphanage, and there was always an appalling amount of livestock to be washed and combed out of their heads. The two big baths in the children’s bathroom were filled with hot water, generously laced with some disinfectant, and into each of the baths would be popped three or four little creatures, while the ladies, with rolled up sleeves and enveloped in vast aprons, would cope with the accumulated dirt and vermin, in a haze of soap suds and steam. It was an eye opener to me, and came as a very severe shock when I realised the types of homes from which our clean, neat and well spoken children had come. It was noticeable that none of them ever had anything to say about their doings, with the exception of those who had remained at home in the Orphanage for the day. The Orphanage was truly Home to them, and they were quite unconscious of the conditions which were so appalling to me. Often middle-aged women would call to see Aunt Janey, women who had been her orphans fifty or more years ago, and many of whom were still happy and valued retainers in the families to whom she had sent them on leaving her care. They were all quiet, well-spoken women, with the unmistakeable good manners of the old type highly respectable, family servant. They loved Aunt Janey, and were never tired of recalling all that they owed to her in their youth, and would come back to see her year after year with unfailing gratitude.
Almost all our fresh faced, healthy girls had the most terrible stories behind them. There were two sisters of about my own age, one of whom was the parlour maid, and the other the student cook, They had come as tiny things of about three years, and eighteen months. Ella, the parlour maid, and the older of the two, had been a mass of sores from head to foot, and covered with bruises from her father’s belt. Both were filthy and verminous, and Ella had been so terrified that for months she would never sit at table with the others for meals, but would snatch her food and gobble it under the table like a little wild beast, She always showed such a desperate desire to hide herself that Aunt Janey had provided a large tea chest in a dark corner, and that became Ella’s abode for months, until the kind treatment and good food worked a cure. Rose, the younger, had been too small for the brutal conditions to have had as much effect on her, but she was slow witted and permanently deaf as a result. When I knew them, both Ella and Rose were nice looking, well built girls, both very sweet natured and gentle, and as healthy and contented as could be.
Another pair of sisters, of about fifteen and thirteen, were utterly unlike in appearance and temperament. Their mother was alive but had abandoned her daughters entirely, arid did not even know who their fathers were.
The father of Olivia, the elder girl, must have been of good family, for she had fine features, an exquisite complexion and a quick and alert brain, She was a holy terror, for something in her blood gave her a fierce resentment of the inferior position for which she was being trained, and her proud, independent nature and wild temper made her impossible to manage. But if Aunt Janey wanted any intelligent assistance in the garden, or on any intricate job, it was always Olivia that she preferred to any other. She had brains far above her birth, poor child, and though she was the outstanding bane of my life, I always had a sneaking liking for her. She was one Aunt Janey’s rare failures, for her intelligence, combined with her intractable nature, drove her to very unpleasant performances, and she had to be sent away to a Remand Home. I have often wondered what eventually became of her.
The younger sister was slow and stupid, with a coarse face and a coarse mind, and her father had obviously been a very different type from Olivia’s.
Another girl, one of the seniors, and a year or so older than myself, was a real beauty, though her mother did not know which of half a dozen men was her father. This girl, Esther, was so lovely that she was chosen to take the part of the Blessed Virgin in the Christmas Tableaux at the Church which we attended. She was as sweet and gentle as she was pretty. Finding that she had grown into such a beauty, her mother turned up one day, and despite all Aunt Janey’s protests, claimed her and marched off with her then and there. Everyone was terribly anxious as to what had become of Esther, and nothing was heard of her for weeks. Then a letter came to Aunt Janey from the English Chaplain in either Ostend or Antwerp, saying that an English girl had made her way to him begging his protection and asking him to write. After a great deal of trouble and correspond, Esther returned, and we learned that her mother had deliberately sold her into the White Slave Traffic. As soon as Esther had come to realise what had happened to her, she had managed to make her escape before harm befell, and had had the sense to make straight for the English Chaplain. I never heard all the details of the case, but Esther stayed on at the Orphanage for some time after her return, and was eventually found a good post, with a kind and sympathetic family. With her pretty face and charming nature, I believe she eventually became a lady’s maid.
One of the first things I was told on arrival was that I must never hug or pet any of the children, emphatically never kiss them, and to avoid touching them more than was absolutely necessary. This seemed a very harsh injunction, but I learned later that it was not merely in order to enforce discipline and class distinctions, Almost all the children were tainted to a greater or less degree with some form of venereal disease, and the order was primarily for my own protection.
Masses of junk
Beyond the playground was a cluster of buildings which had originally been stables and coach-house, with living quarters above. One of these rooms was used as the schoolroom, and was approached by an outside staircase. All the rest of the building I seldom entered, but every available space seemed to be full up with masses of junk. There were shelves and cupboards all over the place, every one full of indescribable rubbish. Aunt Janey was a jackdaw to put all jackdaws in the shade. She never threw anything away whatever. Even the children’s used nibs from the schoolroom, she would have handed over to her, though what she thought she would ever find to do with a lot of corroded and rusty nibs is more than I could ever imagine. She kept every magazine and paper which came to the house, and even the circulars and advertisements that were put through the door had to be stored away. She was an expert carpenter, and delighted in putting up shelves and more shelves in every available space throughout the house and the stable buildings. Even the lavatory was lined from floor to ceiling with shelves on which were kept every copy of Blackwoods Magazine from the first issue onwards. After her death all these accumulations of years had to be sorted through, and in and out among the rubbish and junk were found all sorts of really valuable things. Among the piles of ancient magazines were found sheets and sheets of early stamps, triangular Cape Colony and Penny Blues of priceless value among other things. She would tuck all kinds of treasures away into the most unimaginable corners, and then completely forget their hiding-place, and very often their existence. Her Will was lost in this way, which led to endless trouble and confusion and heart burnings throughout the family, but this came later on. When the cupboards in the stable buildings were opened after her death, several were found to have been stacked with the most exquisite old cut glass of immense value, tumblers, wine glasses, decanters and every sort of article, all of which had come from Madeira. The shelves however, had crashed down under the weight of glass and years, and all this magnificent stuff was nothing but a mass of splintered wreckage.
The schoolroom was as grim and raw and bleak as were all the other children’s apartments. The floor was bare boards, worn and roughened by years of scuffling feet, and one of my greatest penances was having to supervise the weekly scrubbing done by two of the older school children. It invariably meant that I had to get down on hands and knees and scrub too, or it would never have been finished in the allotted time.
The actual lessons I quite enjoyed, and I think the children did too. Such subjects as
scripture and history I always told in the form of stories, and the deadliness of the
old fashioned spelling books, in which columns of words were set out to be learned by
One of these older schoolchildren, was a most peculiar girl. She was a big, bonny youngster, taller and much sturdier than myself, with a bright rosy face, and lovely big brown eyes. Poor Ellen had however, a queer physiological malformation, which caused her always to write backwards. Not only did she write in “looking glass” fashion, but she also actually spelled the words backwards, which caused me endless trouble in correcting her work. She should of course have had expert treatment, but I gathered that the schooling had been in a very difficult and much neglected condition before I came, owing to staff troubles, and Ellen had been allowed to grow to her fifteen years, without ever having been properly trained. She also had a weak heart, which the doctor reported was on her right side, and was prone to fainting fits. When Ellen fainted it was a major proposition to know how to cope with her, as she was so plump and heavy. The younger ones had been taught to lay her down on the floor, and raise her feet, and run for one of the ladies. One day screaming pandemonium broke out in the playground, and a scurry of ten and twelve year olds came dashing in for help. On rushing out we found that Ellen had fainted again in one of the shelters. Several of the little ones, acting on instructions, had climbed on the bench, and with three or four to each leg, were assiduously standing the unconscious Ellen on her head. Even so, she was far too heavy for them, and as we arrived all the tinies, together with Ellen and the bench, collapsed in a shrieking heap.
Aunt Janey the Gardener
Beyond the stable buildings stretched a very large garden, where Aunt Janey spent a great deal of time, as she was a keen and experienced gardener. She had several vine houses, in which she grew the most magnificent black grapes. The original cutting had come over with the de Brissac family many years before, and bits of it had been distributed all round the various branches of the family.
In my own home in Gloucestershire we had a cutting of the de Brissac vine, and as far as I know it is probably flourishing there still.
That is one of the great fascinations of vines, they are practically immortal, and will outlive
generations of their human tenders. Aunt Janey also went in for bantams. They were of no earthly use either for eggs or table, but the old lady liked them, which was more than most of us others did. Stevie, the little cock bantam, was the most savage and aggressive little scrap of feathers
imaginable. When any one, other than Aunt Janey, went into the pen to feed them, Stevie would make vicious dives at our shoe-laces and pull them undone. When we stooped down to fasten them again, he would take the opportunity of pecking our hands, and if he could fly up and grab a
beakful of hair, his triumph was complete, and he would race round and round the enclosure with the stolen hair trailing behind him, squawking with delight.