Ancestry UK

Wanstead Infant Orphan Asylum, Wanstead, London

The Wanstead Infant Orphan Asylum was founded in 1827 by the Reverend (later Sir) Andrew Reed (1787-1862). Reed was a minister in the Congregational church and a prolific philanthropist. As well as the Wanstead institution, the London Orphan Asylum (1813), Asylum for Fatherless Children (1844), the Earlswood Asylum for Idiots (1847) and the Royal Hospital for Incurables (1854) all owed their existence to his efforts. Reed was particularly effective at raising money for his schemes from the wealthy and prestigious such as royalty and City merchants.

Andrew Reed

During the 1820s, Reed became increasingly concerned about the lack of charitably funded homes for children under seven, the lowest age at which many institutions allowed admission. This included the London Orphan Asylum, which Reed had founded, but whose rules in this matter its Board of Governors were unwilling to change. Reed therefore decided to establish a new establishment, specifically for younger orphans and early in 1827 met with two friends, James Taylor and David French, to settle his plans. On July 3rd, 1827, the London Tavern was the venue for the official inauguration of what was initially known as the East London Infant Orphan Asylum. A newspaper account of the proceedings reported that 'the avenues to the room were crowded with poor women, bearing in their arms infant children, intended candidates for admission.' Concerned that the new institution should not appear to be a rival for the London Orphan Asylum, Reed deliberately kept a low profile in its public proceedings.

Admission to the Asylum was by a periodic ballot of the charity's donors and subscribers. There was strenuous lobbying of the voters by those hoping to gain a place. A typical election meeting at the London Tavern was the subject of a work in 1865 by the artist G.E. Hicks.

Infant Orphan Election by G.E. Hicks. © Peter Higginbotham

Infant Orphan Election (detail)by G.E. Hicks. © Peter Higginbotham

Those applying for entry often lobbied the electors by means of cards pleading each candidate's case.

Infant Orphan Election lobbying cards. © Peter Higginbotham

The first premises for the Asylum were in a house on Hackney Road. While it was being prepared two of those waiting for admission lived with Reed's own family at Cambridge Heath. In 1830, the accommodation at Hackney Road was temporarily increased by the taking of a neighbouring house. The following year, a move was made to a mansion with large grounds at Dalston (later the site of the German Hospital).

The charity benefited enormously in gaining support from members of the Royal family, including the Dukes and Duchesses of Gloucester and Clarence, and the Duchess of Kent, whose own daughter, Victoria, was orphaned. A huge boost came from Queen Adelaide, who supported Reed's bid for a plot of Crown land at the edge of Regent's Park as the site for a new building. Although the site could not obtained, the Queen's £50 subsequent subscription to the charity was worth much more in the prestige it gave the charity.

Reed's quest for a site for permanent purpose-built home then moved to another piece of Crown-owned land, part of Wanstead Forest at Snaresbrook. This was eventually granted and in on June 27th, 1841, Prince Albert laid the building's foundation stone. His arrival was greeted by the institution's inmates singing a song written by Reed:

Hail to the Prince whose noble hand
Erects the orphans' home,
Now hand to hand, and stone on stone,
So let the building rise.

The occasion also raised considerable money for the scheme, with twenty gentlemen placing donations of £100 on the stone, followed by four hundred ladies placing purses each containing £5.

In February 1843, when the new building was almost complete, Reed parted company from the charity in a dispute over the religious teaching that was to take place in the new institution. He had always believed that the philanthropy should be non-denominational but the governors of the Infant Orphan Asylum had decided that Church of England catechisms were to used there, regardless of the religious persuasion of each child or its family.

The new establishment was officially opened on 27th June, 1843. Prince Albert, who was to have undertaken the duty but he was unable to attend and his place was taken by Queen Victoria's uncle, Leopold, King of the Belgians. During the proceedings, the 187 initial inmates of the establishment, all under seven, were brought to their new home, many of them carried in arms. The day also saw a large number of donations to the charity amounting to nearly £5,000 in total.

The architects of the new building were George Gilbert Scott and William Bonython Moffatt. The Elizabethan style design, constructed in fine brick and fronted with stone, cost in the region of £35,000. It could accommodate 400 children.

The entrance and gate-keeper's lodge lay at the north-east of the site.

Wanstead Infant Orphan Asylum - entrance lodge, Wanstead, c.1905. © Peter Higginbotham

A sign by the lodge stated that the Asylum was open to inspection on Mondays and Thursdays from 12 till 5pm.

Wanstead Infant Orphan Asylum - entrance sign, Wanstead, c.1905. © Peter Higginbotham

Wanstead Infant Orphan Asylum, Wanstead, c.1843. © Peter Higginbotham

The layout of the home, whose address was later given as 75 Hollybush Hill, is shown on the 1919 map below.

Wanstead Infant Orphan Asylum site, Wanstead, c.1919.

Extensions to the buildings eventually increased its capacity to 600. By 1880, a total of three thousand orphans had been admitted to the institution. Later additions to the facilities included sports grounds and tennis courts. A swimming bath was erected next to the entrance lodge, and a miniature rifle range by Old Birch Well.

A directory of 1890 gave the charity's details as follows:

Object.—'Maintaining and educating orphan children who are respectably descended.' Of children on the foundation, many are the orphans of clergymen, officers, and professional men. Admission.—By election of subscribers, or by purchase. The age of admission is from infancy to seven years. No candidate is admitted whose parents have not filled respectable positions in society and, ceteris paribus, its eligibility is proportionate to the former respectability of its family. Evidence must be furnished to the Committee of the father's death, or confirmed lunacy or paralysis; of the parents' marriage, and of the child's age and health. Guarantees are required for the removal of the child on its attaining the age of 15, or on its mother's re-marriage. Each case must be recommended by two respectable householders, one of whom is a Governor, or the officiating clergyman of the parish. Management.—By a Committee elected annually by the subscribers.

Wanstead Infant Orphan Asylum, Wanstead, c.1900. © Peter Higginbotham

In 1919, the charity's Patron, King George V, granted the institution a new name, the Royal Infant Orphanage. In 1938, it was renamed again, now becoming the Royal Wanstead School.

Wanstead Infant Orphan Asylum, Wanstead, date unknown. © Peter Higginbotham

Following the 1944 Education Act, the School gained grammar school status and began admitting pupils funded by the Local Education Authority (LEA). A decline in its finances and pupil numbers, particularly those funded by the LEA, led to the school's closure in 1971.

The charitable role of the organisation was carried on by the Royal Wanstead Foundation, subsequently renamed the Royal National Children's Foundation (RNCF). In 2017, the RNCF mreged with nd The SpringBoard Bursary Foundation (SpringBoard) to form the Royal National Children's Springboard Foundation, now the UK's largest boarding school bursary charity.

The former school buildings now house Snaresbrook Crown Court, said to be the largest crown court in England, handling more than 7,000 cases each year.


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.

  • Redbridge Local Studies and Archives, Local History Room, Redbridge Central Library, Clements Road, Ilford IG1 1EA. Extensive holdings include: Candidates books (1850-1947, indexed); Death register (1875-1936); Yearbooks (1827-1939); Committee minutes (1827-1944); Poll books (1827-45, 1888-1940); Various school magazines (1869-1969); etc.



  • Grist, Donald A Victorian Charity: the Infant Orphan Asylum at Wanstead (1974, R.V. Hatt)