story icon Reminiscences of a Childhood in the Jewish Orphanage

Contributed by: Alf Graham
1928 - 1933

A photograph of the Jewish Orphanage in Norwood, from the newsletter of the Norwood Old Scholar's Association Newsletter (August 2003) which Alf still receives
A photograph of the Jewish Orphanage in Norwood, from the newsletter of the Norwood Old Scholar's Association Newsletter (August 2003) which Alf still receives

The orphanage was a huge Victorian building, a freezing hell in the winter. It stood in 91/2 acres of grounds along the railway line opposite West Norwood Station. There were 200 boys there from eight to fourteen years and 200 girls. We were not allowed to mix with one another and we were totally separated at different ends of the building, there were also a 100 babies under the age of five in a separate home in the school grounds.

There were no servants employed and all the cleaning of playgrounds, classroom, bathrooms and toilets was carried out by the children with an hours working every morning of the week after breakfast. We normally left school and went out to work at the age of fourteen. The cooking was done by girls who had reached the age of fourteen and stayed on to the age of sixteen to learn domestic work and cooking under the supervision of employed cooks.

Life in the orphanage was very confined. We were not allowed to go out roaming the street and every Saturday afternoon we were marched in large groups several miles down the road to work out our surplus energy on Streatham Common. We had plenty of activities in the school itself, football, cricket and sport. In the winter months in the short evenings we had to pursue hobbies under supervision. There was a large choice like crafts, leatherwork, painting, drawing, and other things. There was a Gilbert and Sullivan Society and they used to put on an operetta every year. It was compulsory to take up some activity. You were not allowed to opt out and had to stay with it once chosen. I must say that having a hobby of some sorts stayed with me for the rest of my life. I have never been without one.

We slept in dormitories, two had 60 boys each and two had 40 boys each. On getting up each morning at six o'clock all blankets and sheets had to be folded neatly, placed in a basket at the bottom of the bed and the mattress had to be stood in an arch to air, and you had to make your bed every evening to sleep. We had three meals a day, and the food was very basic and very good and there was plenty of it. There was no reason for anyone to be hungry.

One of the highlights of the year was when the Jewish taxi drivers association used to take every child in the school in a huge convoy to South End for a day trip and treat us to everything in the amusement parks and give us meals for the day and then take us back to the orphanage in the evening.

Another highlight - we used to be taken each January to see a pantomime at a theatre in Croydon. The whole of the boys' side of the school was divided into houses, public school fashion and you all belonged playing for the house in the school sports and games to make your house the top house.

There was a lot of physical abuse and beatings of boys for minor misdemeanours, but there was no evidence of any sexual abuse whatever. The schooling was basic but adequate. Unless any of the boys showed great promise and they were sent as day boys to outside local schools for a better education. We also had several day boys attending who were non Jewish.

downloads (JML) 950.11
Brothers and Sisters

Catalogue Reference:
(JML) 950.11

We had our own synagogue which was very beautiful where we all had to attend services on Sabbath and holy days. None of the boys were allowed to fast on fast days. I was Bar Mitzvah in that synagogue and I still have the prayer book, now dog-eared and battered which was given to me at my Bar Mitzvah. Parents were allowed to come and visit every two or three months. Every three months they were allowed to take you home for the day, but you had to be back by six o'clock in the evening. One developed an acceptance of the way of life and what was happening because that's the way it was and there was no alternative.

Alf Graham's story was recorded during a joint project with the Michael Sobell Community Centre (Golders Green, London) and Moving Here in January/February 2004. The Michael Sobell Community Centre is a Jewish Care facility. For more information about Jewish Care, go to

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