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Origins and Development
The foundations of the Norwood children's home dates back to the beginning of the 19th century, when, in 1807, the Jews' Hospital - Neve Tzedek - was established at Mile End. Set up by leading members of the Jewish community, a small section of the Jews' Hospital was used as an old-age home. The rest was a boarding trade school for children of respectable poor families, training them to be productive citizens.
By 1860, the school had become an ordinary boarding school, and as one Old Boy recalled at the time:
"I experienced the usual conditions of a big public school...There was popularly no charity taint attached to scholarships at the JH... There were children there related to some of the best Jewish families in London... I was what was then known in metropolitan and provincial Jewry as a Neve Tzedek boy, the equivalent of the Blue Coat schoolboy in the Christian community. We had a distinctive uniform, one for weekdays and the other for shabbos, the latter being quite decent and not suggestive of charity garb."
With eight acres of land in West Norwood, South London, the home moved to a new purpose-built building in 1866, accommodating 220 children.
"What a change from the drab dinginess of Mile End. I remember the big hospitable gates, the broad pathway up to the handsome big building... We had a magnificent lawn big enough for football and its own grounds surrounded by fields."
The other charitable institution from which Norwood developed was the Jews' Orphan Asylum. Established in 1831 in Leman Street, Whitechapel, London, the Orphan Asylum gave children in its care an education, taught them a trade, and apprenticed them.
In 1876, the Jews' Orphan Asylum merged with the Jews' Hospital, becoming The Jews' Hospital and Orphan Asylum.
In 1897 it was enlarged with the opening of the Centenary Hall and new wings, and in 1911 the Arnold and Jane Gabriel Home was built in the orphanage grounds to house the younger children, aged between 5 and 8.
In 1928, the institution changed its name again to The Jewish Orphanage and in 1956 finally changed its name to the Norwood Home for Jewish Children.
Life at Norwood
"I was ten years old when my grandfather took me from the East End... My brother was already there. I had four sisters. My mother had died and my father was a presser. He couldn't keep the children. There was no help from the State, no social services."
"My mother died when I was seven months old. My father remarried in 1927, when I was three or four, and my stepmother had 11 children. It must have been very difficult for my father to have managed 17 children, so I was put into care."
"It seemed a complete new environment with opportunities. The fact that my older brother was there gave me the opportunity of being with him and a new start."
"At Norwood, I had everything given to me. I was laying on clean sheets. I was being fed... It was better than living at home because I was being looked after and my mother had no worry over me."
"I went to Norwood when I was seven years old in 1920. I was in the Gabriel Home. I used to wet my bed so Nurse Jessie took me to the loo every night. One Thursday night on the way back to bed, she said to me, 'Would you like to see the fireworks on display at Crystal Palace?' She stood me on the window-sill in my nightie. I have never forgotten those fireworks and I never needed to be taken to the loo again."
When the children left Gabriel Home, they moved into dormitories in the main house. The largest dormitory was vast, with 78 beds in three rows.
"Everyone had a job. You might be sweeping part of the top playground or helping in the kitchen."
"The older girls were appointed 'guardians' to the younger ones and were responsible not only for darning their own black woollen stockings but also those of their 'slutty charges' - as we called them! We also had letter-writing evenings to write home and hobby evenings with leather-work classes, indoor games and the very popular 'operetta' classes which I am sure encouraged many of us to develop a love of music."
"The synagogue at Norwood was a glory. We had been initiated into everything that smacked of synagogue at Mile End but here was the real thing on a fine scale... A real shul, and we loved it!"
One Old Boy recorded the daily routine at Norwood:
"We rise at half past six, attend synagogue, breakfast at seven, which consists of bread and butter and milk, and then we prepare ourselves for school from nine to twelve. We have dinner at half past twelve... meat and potatoes... and begin school again at half past two until five. We have our supper at six, which is the same as breakfast. Then we have synagogue again."
A senior girl's daily timetable was very different:
"In the morning we were in class, and in the afternoons we spent a month in turn either in housework, cooking, sewing, scrubbing, darning, and the whole round of domestic duties."
"We enjoyed swings, skipping-ropes, hoops, walks to the Crystal Palace, rambles among the lovely hills, dales and woods of Norwood, Dulwich and Sydenham."
At first, no more than two members of a single family were accepted into Norwood. Later on, the number was increased to three. Brothers and sisters could only meet one afternoon a week.
"Every Saturday afternoon, boys who had sisters could come over for an hour to visit them, but if I must tell the truth, after greeting their sisters with a preliminary kiss, they seemed to be engrossed in conversation with the other boys' sisters and quite forgot their own."
Among the great events in the children's lives was the monthly visiting day, when parents or relatives could visit the children for two hours one Sunday afternoon a month. However, for children without families, visiting day was dreaded.
"To us, it was the worst day of the month and we used to go and hide ourselves. We just felt so out of place. There were some kind people who used to ask to see all the children who had no one to visit them... I was ashamed to go over. My sister and I decided we didn't want charity.
Following the Education Act in 1900, the school closed for three weeks every summer. In 1904, a holiday home at Margate was opened - the start of a variety of breaks for children who did not have homes to go to.
"Holidays were a great time for those of us who 'stayed behind'. There was the JFS hut at Seaford and the Girl Guide camps for girls and the JLB camps for the boys. Pictures twice a week at the old Norwood Palace, and later at the Regal. Then there were the concerts at Brockwell Park, and the mad scramble back afterwards - to be rewarded with sweets when we arrived."
Employment and Aftercare
In the early days, all the boys were apprenticed, but as production processes changed there were fewer industrial apprenticeships. Instead, the boys entered a greater variety of occupations, including engineering, dental mechanics, fancy leather goods making, furniture making, hairdressing, office and warehouse work, and jobs in the clothing trades.
"Like all childhoods, my sojourn (at Norwood) entailed many happy times, as well as fewer not quite so happy. All in all, I can truthfully say that I am proud to have been a 'Norwood boy' - the standard of education bestowed on us has served me in very good stead throughout my life."
Some girls also were apprenticed to tradesmen such as furriers and bead-workers; some were trained as nursery governesses, but choices were very limited and the majority went into domestic work. By the end of the 19th century, there was a trend away from domestic service. The girls preferred the independence of trades such as cap-making, cigar-making and tailoring, despite their low pay.
The Committee members encouraged the girls to enter domestic service, fearing that with increased freedom the girls "would soon forget the careful training which they received at Norwood". Despite such efforts, by the late 1920s, the girls had all turned to occupations such as dress-making, hairdressing, office work and shop assistance.
World War II and after
With the outbreak of the Second World War, life at Norwood, as elsewhere, underwent a sudden and dramatic change - never to be the same again. Children who were used to living in an institution- found themselves billeted in private homes mostly around Worthing and later in Hertford. The school was taken over and staff were either called up or involved in the war effort. The children from this period have many vivid memories.
"They taught us a lot about Columbus and the Gold Coast but nothing about other people's religions, and being institutionalised it came as a very harsh cultural shock...I think I realised for the first time that people could eat pork and bacon without dying."
"American forces came and brought us presents - they brought me the only doll I ever owned."
"War was a blessing - being at Worthing was like a perpetual holiday."
"I was very unhappy at one billet in Hertford. I ran away but my mother brought me back and they found me another. The man of the family taught me all about the countryside. He took me out with him."
Much of the sense of community, family and security that Norwood represented was lost never to be restored. After the war children were sent to local schools rather than reverting to the pre-war policy of educating the children on the premises. Contacts with local synagogues families were increased. There were no longer restrictions on the number of siblings accepted, and family and friends were given free access. Dormitories were subdivided with curtains to give older children more privacy and small mixed-age, single-sex 'family groups' were established, each with its own houseparents.
As part of this move toward making Norwood as home-like as possible, two ordinary residential houses were built in the grounds of Norwood in 1957. By 1961 Norwood had acquired nine houses in the neighbouring streets to add to its growing family.
Almost exactly one hundred years after it was built, the orphanage was demolished. A new synagogue and assembly hall were built on the site in 1963, since the children still came together at a central location for various religious and recreational activities. But a decade later, it too had become redundant, as Jewish community institutions became increasingly centred in North London.
Taken from interviews compiled by the Jewish Museum London for the temporary exhibition: What About the Children? - 200 Years of Norwood Child Care 1795-1995. First shown in 1995, it is also available as a touring exhibition. The full interviews and transcripts are available for consultation in the Oral History archive at the Jewish Museum, London. With acknowledgements to Norwood.
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