Royal Victoria Patriotic Asylum for Girls, Wandsworth, London
In 1854, during the Crimean War, Queen Victoria inaugurated a new charity known as the Royal Patriotic Fund. Its object was to collect donations 'on behalf of the widows and orphans of soldiers, sailors, and marines, that may fall in battle, or die from the ravages and casualties of war, during the present hostilities.' The management of the Fund was overseen by a Royal Commission, with Prince Albert at its head. Part of the money raised was used for the construction of the Royal Victoria Patriotic Asylum for Girls, which was intended for the 'Education and Training of three hundred Orphan Daughters of Soldiers, Seamen and Marines who perished in the Russian War, and for those who hereafter may require like succour.' The total collected by the fund was almost £1.5M, of which £178,000 was allocated to the Asylum — £38,000 for its construction, and £140,000 as an endowment for its ongoing running costs.
The building, at Wandsworth Common, in south-west London, was designed by Mr M. Rhode Hawkins in the Gothic style popular at that date. The foundation stone was laid by Queen Victoria on 11th July, 1857. For such a large building, the construction work was remarkably quick, being completed in only 18 months. This was largely due to its innovative use of components prefabricated off-site such as iron joists, cast iron windows, stone facings, decorative leadwork etc. The first inmates were received on 1st July 1859.
The Asylum site is shown on the 1896 map below.
Below is an extract of a report about the institution from 1859.
Subsequent additions to the buildings included a swimming bath and a greenhouse, the latter being used in connection with the market garden, which was cultivated by the inmates.
Girls were admitted into the Asylum from 7 to 11 years of age, with preference being given to the daughters of men who had lost their lives in active service. Inmates normally remained until the age of 16, and were trained for domestic service. Their work included the hand-pumping of rain water from an underground capture system up to tanks in the towers. All the institution's laundry was carried out by the girls.
The Asylum became the centre of a controversy in 1863 when it was discovered that one of the inmates, a girl named Bennett, had been burnt to death during a period of solitary confinement. The punishment had been ordered by the Chaplain of the institution because the girl was said to have been rude to the laundress. Another girl was said to have been flogged with a birch rod, again under the instruction of the Chaplain. A Ladies' Committee was subsequently appointed to oversee conditions within the Asylum but the majority of its members had resigned after its proposed amendments to disciplinary procedures were rejected by the institution's Executive Committee. Despite the matter being aired in parliament, calls for the resignation of the Chaplain and of the Asylum's Lady Superintendent were ultimately unsuccessful, although the Executive Committee claimed that changes had since been put in place to address the concerns raised.
In 1872, an Asylum for Boys, also financed by the Patriotic Fund, was opened a little way to the north of the girls' establishment. It had a relatively short life, however, closing in 1881.
The girls' Asylum was visited on a number of occasions by members of the Royal Family, including King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra on July 24th, 1907.
During the First World War, the site temporarily became became the South Western General Hospital, with thousands of of troops being treated both inside the buildings and in tents erected in the grounds.
At the start of the Second World War in 1939, the girls were evacuated to Wales. The site then served as the London Reception Centre, for the internment and interrogation of 'aliens'.
After the war, the Asylum did not return to Wandsworth but was instead re-opened at Bedwell Park, Essendon, near Hatfield, Hertfordshire.
The Wandsworth site initially became a teacher training college, then from 1952 until 1972 was used as school accommodation by the London County Council. After falling into disrepair, the premises were sold in the early to a property developer subject to repair and restoration being carried out. This including restoration of the dining-hall which had been badly damaged by fire. The building now contains a mix of flats, studios and workshops.
Note: many repositories impose a closure period of up to 100 years for records identifying individuals. Before travelling a long distance, always check that the records you want to consult will be available.
- London Metropolitan Archives, 40 Northampton Road, London EC1R OHB. (The Ancestry website also has LMA records relating to workhouses and other institutions — more details.) Holdings include: Admission register (1932-39); Log books (1913-1939); Rules (1888); and a few other documents.
- The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 4DU. Has various administrative documents.
- Higginbotham, Peter Children's Homes: A History of Institutional Care for Britain s Young (2017, Pen & Sword)
Except where indicated, this page () © Peter Higginbotham. Contents may not be reproduced without permission.