Ancestry UK

Royal British Female Orphan Asylum, Devonport, Devon

The British Female Orphan Asylum was established at Devonport in 1839 by a Mrs Tripe. Its founding resulted from a split in the management of the Devon and Cornwall Female Orphanage. The Devonport members had separated from those of Plymouth, because they thought the latter wished to monopolise the institution. The Asylum's objects were 'to rescue the female orphans of our sailors and soldiers, from want, misery, and probable vice' and 'to train them as household servants.'

On May 24th, 1839, the new Asylum opened its first premises in a small private house at Devonport. Five months later, Queen Victoria extended her patronage to the establishment which then became known as the Royal British Female Orphan Asylum. There were then only five girls in the home, with contributions to its funds having totalled £130.

In May, 1840, an increase in the number seeking admission led to a move to larger premises at St Michael's Terrace, Stoke. The institution continued to grow and gain support. Typical if its intake were the five orphans being elected for admission on 15th April, 1841. They were: Elizabeth Soper, father a seaman (327 votes); Maria Harris, father a marine, died at St Jean d'Acre (315); Margaret Howell, father seaman of the Coast Guard, lost his life in saving the crew of vessel wrecked (310); Elizabeth Walters, father was farm labourer (301); and Adelaide Barber, father was shipwright (214). One of the unsuccessful candidates, named Revell, whose father had died at Acres, generated such a deep interest among those present at the meeting that a subscription was immediately begun to place her as a boarder at the Asylum until the next election.

The charity's funds eventually enabled the construction of its own permanent premises at Albert Road, Devonport, with accommodation for 150 children. The foundation stone for the building was laid with 'masonic honours' on April 23rd, 1845. A roll was placed inside the stone bearing the following inscription:

To provide a shelter for the fatherless, to guide her youthful footsteps into the way of peace, it is intended with the blessing the Most High, to erect on this spot a Female Orphan Asylum, of which the Corner Stone is laid Hugh Earl Fortescue, Right Worshipful Grand Master of the Ancient and Honourable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons, in the Province of Devon, with the assistance of his Provincial Grand Lodge, and in the presence of assembled thousands, on Wednesday, 23rd April, in the eighth year of the reign of Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria. A.D. 1845, A.L. 5845.

The ceremony was witnessed by the Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall, the Mayors and Corporations of Plymouth and Devonport, the Magistrates of the County and Borough, the Commissioners of the Town, the Heads of Departments Naval and Military Officers, and many others who walked in procession to the site. It was said that the rich combination of masonic, civic naval and military uniforms, the military music, and the presence of well-dressed and beautiful females, attracted a crowd of 30,000 spectators.

In 1874, the building was extended by the addition of two wings to house a further 50 girls. A further enlargement took place in 1892.

Female Orphan Asylum site, Devonport, c.1914.

Devonport Female Orphan Asylum from the south, c.1905. © Peter Higginbotham.

As indicated above, admission to the Asylum was by a periodic ballot of the charity's subscribers and donors. The presentation of a gift or collection of £10 made the donor a life governor. A subscription of 10s., or a donation of £1, entitled them to one vote, increased in proportion for each of as many children as were to be elected in one year. Boarders are also admitted by nomination of Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, the Secretary of State for War, and the Charitable Committee of the Royal Artillery. The Committee of Lloyd's Patriotic Fund had, by purchase, the right to nominate 30 orphans for admission. Boarders were admitted on payment of at least £15 per annum. Certificates of health, of parents' marriage, and of father's services were required. Girls were admitted between the ages of 7 to 13. They were sent into service at the age of 16 year, thoroughly trained, with an excellent outfit, at wages of not less than £7 per annum.

In 1906, King Edward VII granted permission for the Asylum to be renamed the Royal United Services Orphan Home for Girls.

In 1931, the Home purchased a property at Narrowcliff, Newquay, and erected the Army and Navy Villas, also known as Alexandra House, as a holiday home for the girls.

On April 7th, 1941, the Home was taken over by the Admiralty to become HMCS Niobe. After an initial period of use by the Canadian Navy, it was then occupied Polish Navy until 1946. During this period, the Home relocated to the Knappe Cross country hotel, near Exmouth. In September, 1945, the Home acquired Abbotsfield, near Tavistock, at the same time selling the Albert Road site to the Royal Sailors' Rest. In April, 1946, the Home moved to its former holiday home, the Army and Navy Villas, at Newquay. In September, 1948, the planned conversion of Abbotsfield was abandoned as too expensive and the property was sold to Tavistock Council. The charity retained an office and committee room in Plymouth at 13 Sutherland Road.

Royal United Services Orphan Home for Girls, c.1949.

By February, 1949, there were only 30 girls in residence, with five of these due to leave at the coming Easter. In the 1950s, the word 'Orphan' was dropped from the Home's name which became the Royal United Service Home for Girls. The intake of the Home was then broadened to include children needing temporary care while their fathers were away on active service.

In the 1960s, another change of name resulted in the Home becoming Alexandra House (Royal United Services Home for Girls). The decline in inmates continued, with only 15 girls in residence by 1963. The following year, to help boost numbers, boys up to the age of 9 were admitted 'in exceptional circumstances'. On 1st February, 1974, the Army and Navy Villas were closed and the Home moved to a small modern house at 6 Berthon Road, St Budeaux, becoming known simply as Alexandra House.

The Torquay site is now occupied by a doctors' surgery. The Albert Road premises have been converted to residential use and are now known as Clarendon House.

Royal British Female Orphan Asylum, Devonport


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