Ancestry UK

Dame Margaret's Home, Washington, Durham

Dame Margaret's Home, situated on The Avenue in Washington, County Durham, was formerly the home of Sir (Isaac) Lowthian Bell, founder of the Washington Chemical Works, a Lord Mayor of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and a Member of Parliament for North Durham and for Hartlepool. The Bells' grand-daughter, Gertrude, later became a noted writer, traveller, political officer, archaeologist and spy. After the death of Sir Lowthian's wife, Margaret, in 1891 he gave the property, previously known as Washington Hall, for use as an orphanage to be named "Dame Margaret's Home" in her memory. The orphanage, originally founded by Miss E Watson in 1888 as the Home for Waifs and Strays, had previously occupied premises at 7 Ashburton Crescent (now Lansdowne Crescent), Gosforth, which were opened in December 1888.

Sir Lowthian Bell.

The new home was formally opened on 9 May 1891. With its extensive grounds, it could accommodate up to 130 children under the age of ten at their time of admission. The boys were taught crafts such as boot and shoe making, tailoring, bread-making, and farm and garden work, while the girls did knitting, dress-making and millinery, and washing and laundry work.

The location of the home is shown on the 1919 map below.

Dame Margaret's Home, Washington site, c.1919.

The 1910 Christmas festivities at the home featured in a local newspaper report:

For the entertainment of the children at Dame Margaret's Home, Washington, there was a Christmas tree given Mr John Scott of Riding Mill. Miss Maling and Mrs Mathwin provided the presents, one for each child—seventy girls and 40 boys. There were present Mrs Mathwin, Miss Hawthorn, Miss Amy Hawthorne, Mrs Cattell, Miss Baker, Miss Marjory Baker, Mr Arnold Irving, Misses Unwin, Miss Young, Miss Harrison, Miss Story, Dr Hawthorne, the master and matron (Mr and Mrs Berriman). Each child received a book from Mrs. Hannay of Jesmond. and a beautiful present from Mrs Johnson of Arncliffe, the daughter of Sir Lowthian Bell, the owner of the building. The honorary director in London (Mr Baker) sent each child a new sixpence, and Dr Jacques of Washington sent each child a new penny. Oranges were sen by Mrs Wood, Mrs Joseph Carr, and Mr Harry Pyle of Washington. It is the intention of the committee to alter the building shortly. The building be entirely renovated, and the bedrooms are be changed into dormitories. The alterations are expected to be complete by June, and proper visiting times are to be set so that people may inspect the building.

Not long after this, the house was acquired by Barnardo's to become their northernmost branch in England, with the official opening taking place in April, 1912. Following the closure of Barnardo's Leopold House in 1912, some its residents were transferred to Dame Margaret's. They were accompanied by their former home's superintendent, Mr Armitage, who now took charge of the boys at Dame Margaret's, while his sister superintended the girls.

Boys and girls at Dame Margaret's had separate quarters. Meals were taken together in the dining hall although here again there were separate sections for boys and girls. Grace was sung before and after each meal, with prayers said immediately following breakfast. The children attended a local school and on Sunday morning attended Holy Trinity Church where they sat in the gallery. A Sunday school and evening service were conducted back at the home.

Entrance to Dame Margaret's Home, Washington, date unknown. © Peter Higginbotham

Entrance to Dame Margaret's Home (detail), date unknown. © Peter Higginbotham

The older children contributed to the housework such as cleaning boots and shoes each morning before breakfast. They also worked in the large vegetable garden and, during the school summer holidays, helped with haymaking.

Dame Margaret's Home girls, c.1913. © Peter Higginbotham

In 1940 and 1941, two critical Ministry of Health reports on the home resulted in a threat to withdraw its certificate of operation unless changes were implemented in its staffing and accommodation. The complaints centred around a girl at the home, aged 18, who was discovered to be six months pregnant, allegedly by a boy at the home who had since left. Apparently, certain communicating doors at the home had, contrary to former practice, been left unlocked to provide an emergency exit in case of an air raid. The Barnardo's Council decided to remove all the girls from Dame Margaret's, turning it into a boys' home.

Dame Margaret's also served as a wartime evacuation home but was closed down in May 1946 with the children being transferred to the Beaconsfield Home at Cullercoats in Northumberland.

In 1948, the site was sold to the National Coal Board who used it as a training centre. The property has now been converted to residential use.

Entrance to former Dame Margaret's Home, Washington, 2012.© Peter Higginbotham

Former Dame Margaret's Home from the north-west, 2012. © Peter Higginbotham

Former Dame Margaret's Home from the south-east, 1925. © Peter Higginbotham

Former Dame Margaret's Home from the south, 1925. © Peter Higginbotham

Former Dame Margaret's Home from the south, 2012. © Peter Higginbotham


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.


  • Barnardo, Syrie Louise, and Marchant, James Memoirs of the Late Dr Barnardo (Hodder & Stoughton, 1907)
  • Batt, J.H. Dr. Barnardo: The Foster-Father of "Nobody's Children" (S.W. Partridge, 1904)
  • Bready, J. Wesley Doctor Barnardo (Allen & Unwin, 1930)
  • Higginbotham, Peter Children's Homes: A History of Institutional Care for Britain's Young (2017, Pen & Sword)
  • Rose, June For the Sake of the Children: Inside Dr. Barnardo's: 120 years of caring for children (Hodder & Stoughton, 1987)
  • Wagner, Gillian Barnardo (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1979)