The Actors' Orphanage, Croydon / Langley / Chertsey
In 1891, Mrs Kittie Carson, the wife of the editor of the Stage newspaper, founded the Theatrical Ladies' Guild (now known as the Theatrical Guild) to improve the welfare of women and children connected with the theatre. Initially, the Guild helped provide clothing to those in need such as young or unemployed actresses. In 1896, he Guild's growing concern with the welfare of children led it to establish the Actors' Orphanage Fund 'to board, clothe and educate destitute children of actors and actresses, and to fit them for useful positions in after life.' A destitute child was defined as one without parents, or whose only parent could not support it, or whose father by reason of mental or physical affliction could not support it. The Fund's first President was the eminent actor, Sir Henry Irving.
Until it raised sufficient capital to open its own home, the Fund helped hundreds of children in other ways such as paying for their board, lodging, education, clothing or holidays. As well receiving donations and subscriptions from individuals, theatres around the country were invited to raise money by putting on a benefit matinée performance each year. Many actors and actresses also sold autographs to for the benefit the Fund.
In 1906, the charity was able to establish its first orphanage in a leased property at 32-34 Morland Road, Croydon. Girls lived in one half of the semi-detached pair, and boys in the other. The children all attended local schools. The home was run by Mr and Mrs Ansell, about whom a growing catalogue of worries accumulated. At one inspection by the Visiting Sub-committee, concerns were raised about the lack of green vegetables being provided and also the poor state of the children's underclothes. In 1911, an outbreak of ringworm was discovered at the home. The poor quality of the food was again raised. It also appeared that two fifteen-year-old girls, Dolly Allport and Lilly Davis, were being allowed to wander the streets of Croydon unaccompanied. Most seriously, the mother of one of the girls at the home, a Mrs Beesley, was said to have raised complaints about Mr Ansell's conduct with her daughter. In December 1911, the Ansells were dismissed from their posts and the home temporarily closed, with the children sent to stay with relatives or found alternative accommodation. The home re-opened in 1912 under the management of a new Ladies Committee and with a new staff consisting of a Matron, Assistant Matron, Resident Master, Cook, two House Generals, a Between Maid, a Gardner and an Oddman.
With the lease on Morland Road due to expire in 1915, a search began for new permanent premises. A suitable property was located in the shape of Langley Place, an old country house at Langley in Buckinghamshire, for the purchase of which the sum of £4,500 was raised. The orphanage transferred to its new home in the spring of 1915. There were again staffing problems with the home's Master being dismissed due to the boys' poor school reports, and the Assistant Master resigning due to disagreements with the Matron whose own departure followed soon afterwards. Some stability was restored with the appointment of a new Master, Mr Baumeister, who had overall control of the home, and the former Assistant Matron, Daisy Craft, being promoted to Matron.
At Langley Place, the younger children were taught on the premises and the establishment became rather more like a charitably funded boarding school. The word 'Fund' was dropped from the charity's name which now became 'The Actors' Orphanage'. Fund-raising was still a major activity with an important contribution coming from Penny Collections — a voluntary contribution of 1d in the pound of the income of working performers. An annual garden party at the Chelsea Royal Hospital also contributed to the income.
In keeping with its theatrical roots, Langley Place had its own small theatre, known as The Bijou, with a stage, orchestra pit, scenery, lighting, and dressing rooms. The home's Christmas pantomime was an annual highlight.
In 1934, Noël Coward became President of the charity and initiated many changes at the home. The buildings were redecorated, the grounds improved, and a new boys' dormitory was built and bunk beds were replaced by single beds. He also ended the practice of cold baths and improved the food. When Coward visited the home, he came loaded with sweets and other treats and was often accompanied by well known stars of stage and screen such as Mary Pickford, Rex Harrison, Edith Evans, Jack Hawkins, Sybil Thorndike and, in the 1950s, Marlene Dietrich.
In 1938, the orphanage moved again, this time to the Silverlands estate on Holloway Hill to the west of Chertsey in Surrey. With the onset of the Second World War the following year, the children — again thanks to the influence of Noël Coward — were evacuated to the United States where they remained until 1946.
In 1950, the charity acquired 27 Rutland Gate in Knightsbridge for use as a London hostel for older children or those attending vocational classes in the capital.
In 1956, Sir Laurence Olivier took over as President with Richard Attenborough as his Deputy. They instigated many changes at the home, working in conjunction with Mr and Mrs Slater who had taken charge of the establishment the previous year. The old dormitories were partitioned into individual cubicles each furnished with a new bed, small bureau and mirror. The children were divided into 'family groups' each containing a mixture of boys and girls of different ages and placed under the supervision of house parents. Each group had its own sitting room and dining room. The children were also allowed to choose some of their own clothes, listen to pop music, and hold or attend Saturday night dances. Despite the changes, the tradition of Saturday morning chores continued — dusting and sorting laundry for the girls, and shovelling coal for the boys.
In 1958, the cost of major repairs needed by the building, the declining numbers of children at the home, and the increasing difficulty of finding good staff at its isolated location resulted in a decision to close Silverlands. Instead, grants would be offered to the families of those children who could take them back, while other would be rehoused in smaller properties in Watford — Nascott Wood, accommodating eight children, and Rookwood accommodating six. The Rutland Gate hostel was sold to the Baha'i Spiritual Assembly. By 1961, a further dwindling in the number of children being supported by the charity led to the selling of the two Watford houses.
In 1960, the Actors' Orphanage began moves to work in conjunction with Denville Hall, the actors' retirement home run by the Actors' Benevolent Fund. After considerable negotiations with the Charity Commissioners, the groundwork was laid for a merger which effectively took place in 1963 although the two bodies remained legally separate for many years. The new organization was renamed TACT — The Actors' Charitable Trust whose aim was to serve actors and their dependants.
In the early 1960s, a resurgence in demand for residential care led to TACT taking over the management of the Gracie Fields Orphanage at Peacehaven in Sussex, which continued in use until 1967.
TACT continues to offer financial support, information and advice to actors whose children have special needs, learning disabilities or long-term ill-health problems.
The orphanage's original Morland Road premises no longer exist. Langley Place is now occupied by the Langley Hall Primary Academy. Silverland later housed the St Peter's Hospital School of Nursing but in recent times has been standing empty and increasingly derelict.
Note: many repositories impose a closure period of up to 100 years for records identifying individuals.
Except where indicated, this page () © Peter Higginbotham. Contents may not be reproduced without permission.