Ipswich Icons: Taking care of and educating children of workhouse inmates

The old St John's Children's Home reception building. Picture: JOHN NORMAN

The old St John's Children's Home reception building. Picture: JOHN NORMAN - Credit: Archant

In 1849 the Freehold Land Society purchased a large tract of farmland east of Ipswich and set about dividing it into individual plots.

Most considered the land to be too far from the town centre to be of value for working class housing (there was virtually no transport except for the horse).

The plots did, however, come with a bonus: the working man, on being allocated a plot, gained a vote. Voting in the mid 1800s was limited to “landowners”.

The first half of the 19th Century had seen a vast increase in the working population of Ipswich. Ransomes and Sims were expanding fast, Cobbold was not only brewing beer but also investing in shipping and in the railways.

The provision of artificial fertiliser was developing and Ipswich also offered employment in malting, brick-making and silk weaving, as well as agricultural engineering.

Ipswich was a busy port and garrison town. The Wet Dock, opened in 1842, was at 33 acres the largest enclosed body of water in the country: bigger than London, Hull or Liverpool.

The population tripled between 1801 and 1851 to become a community of 33,000 people.

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Farm labourers had moved into town to secure a regular income. The wages paid by the likes of Ransome weren’t good but they were regular, unlike agriculture, which paid well during harvest but perhaps not at all over the winter.

Living in Ipswich was fine if you were in work but desperate if you lost your job. There was no social security, but from 1834 the Poor Law Commission had the authority to set up, regulate and manage poorhouses, theoretically one in each parish.

In the 20 years following its purchase of the farmland, the Freehold Land Society had sold plots (by allocation of lots) and houses and cottages were being built.

The early examples included flint cottages with small market gardens, utilising both back and front gardens. One enterprising individual decided a hotel would be a good investment and set about building the eight-bedroom Freehold Tavern on the corner of Bloomfield Street and Freehold Road (opened in 1860).

The venture failed. Freehold Road simply didn’t carry any traffic (other than local residents), and there wasn’t the necessary passing trade for a hotel.

In 1869 John Chevallier Cobbold stepped in and purchased the building, offered it to the board of guardians and it became St John’s Children’s Home.

Outside London, the idea of a home and school for children, separated from what were regarded as work-shy adults, was revolutionary. Children could grow and mature, be educated and trained, without the influence of the older residents of the workhouse.

Initially the former tavern with its eight dormitories was for boys but the forward-thinking board of guardians leased (and eventually purchased) adjacent land: a connecting plot that fronted both Bloomfield Street and Britannia Road.

In 1871 the home was ready and it was immediately set up to accommodate 53 boys in 21 double and 11 single beds. The former pub toilets were still outside and there was a lack of basic amenities inside. If it was the guardians’ intention to create a typical Victorian family house, it simply didn’t work. Modifications were made (although the inside toilets didn’t come until 1896).

A much bigger new building was erected alongside the former hotel: a barrack-like place of three floors of very institutional design; long straight corridors on each floor, with large multi-bed rooms.

At about the same time, major changes were taking place in the education system. The Forster Act of 1870 was the beginning of compulsory education and school boards were established to implement the requirements (and supplement the existing limited number of church and private schools).

Convenient for St John’s Children’s Home, a boys’ school was built (1873) in Spring Road: the California Boys School, just five minutes’ walk from the home.

The building is still there, today known as Parkside Academy, but the primary school children moved to St John’s in Victory Road. It first accepted boys from the home in 1895.

After the new children’s home was opened the former Freehold Tavern became the reception centre.

In 1878 an extension was built along similar lines to the barrack-like boys’ wing and girls were accommodated. Their school was in Britannia Road, even closer to the home.

In 1904 a receiving house was built fronting Britannia Road (this building has been converted into flats). Young people spent their first few nights in this building, rather than in the dormitories off Bloomfield Street.

At its height, St John’s could house 250 children all separated from their parents, most of whom were in the workhouse.