Ancestry UK

John Cecil Austin at Steyning Union Children's Home (St Wilfrid's) 1917-27.

In 1915, two-year-old John Cecil Austin entered the Steyning Union workhouse in Sussex. A year or two later, he was transferred to the Union's children's home at Shoreham, where he spent the next ten years. John died in 2005 but his memories of his time at St Wilfrid's, kindly contributed by his daughter Pat Mathewson, provide a revealing insight into life in the establishment.

I made my entrance into the world on the 15th July, 1913 at 29 White Rock Place, Southwick, Sussex. My mother was Alice Eva Austin, daughter of William Halifax of Wangford, Suffolk, and Elizabeth (née Balls). She registered me as John Cecil Austin and my father as Charles Austin, a traveller in leather goods. I was taken into care at the age of 2 and when I was 4 I was moved to Steyning Children's Home, Shoreham, Sussex, then called St. Wilfrid's. This was because my mother died in 1916. I do not remember my mother or any other relative. I did not enquire as to the cause of my mother's death. Except for the odd child whose mother or some other female relative came to visit them, we were never told of any relations until leaving the home and then only if we asked. There were no photographs or personal effects from my mother.

My daughter, Pat, discovered much later that I was taken to the workhouse by my auntie, my mother's sister, Mrs. Annie Lincey and I spent about one year of my young life there. Between the age of 3 and 4 years old, I was moved to Steyning children's Home, then called St. Wilfrid's. The children's home was run by the Steyning Board of Guardians.

I do not remember my time in the workhouse but I do vaguely remember being transported to the orphanage. I made the journey by horse and cart. The cart was covered overhead with canvas and was known as a van cart. I sat in the back under the canvas on my own. A man in charge of me and the horses sat on top. When I got to my future home I was greeted by two women. The home consisted of three blocks for children, depending on their age and sex. There was a nursery block, a girl's block and a separate block for the boys over 6 years of age and so I moved into that block at that age. I remember my time there more clearly. Our block consisted of a large dining room and off a long passage various rooms were placed such as the kitchen, washing room, master's rooms and office. There was also a large day room, used for playing in. Each boy had a locker with his home number on it and that is where he kept his boots and plimsolls. Four large cupboards held our best clothes.

St Wilfrid's girls' block, just prior to demolition.

We wore jerseys, corduroy trousers, stockings and highly polished boots. The wearing of boots was compulsory so that we could be easily identified as inmates of the orphanage. Orphans were still abused in those days by the more fortunate children in the district. Before we set off for school we were all inspected to see if we were clean and smart enough to be seen outside the confines of the orphanage. We walked to school in the morning and back again for our dinner. After dinner we made the same journey and returned at 4 p.m. when school finished. To make our journey to school more exciting, sometimes we would jump on the milk cart which was horse drawn, as it galloped up the road. This was rather a precarious thing to do as the driver never took the trouble to stop or even slow down. That being the case, only a few boys managed to make the free ride. Getting off the moving cart was a work of art too. I found school to be a bit of a relief from the discipline of the home, but I was a poor scholar and left at fourteen years of age just able to read and write.

At the Orphanage the youngest children went to bed between 7.30 p.m. and 8 p.m. but the older ones retired at about 9.30 p.m. We slept in long dormitories with 20 boys in each. The mattresses we slept on were cases filled with straw which were changed every month. We were allowed to keep a small gas light on all night. When we got up in the morning we had to make our beds, clean the dormitory, have a wash and brush our teeth, making sure the little ones did the same. Before lining up for breakfast we would be inspected by the foster father or mother.

Unfortunately, there was a fair bit of harsh treatment. In my case I had the misfortune to wet the bed. Each morning the master would wake us. The boys who had not wet their beds would wash and get dressed. Those of us who had committed this sin, would have to stand at the foot of the bed in our nightshirts and wait for the master to attend to us. On reaching each victim he would order, "Bend over". He then removed his leather slipper and thrashed the lad quite hard, a dozen times or more. Sometimes he used the cane. If a boy had wet the bed twenty nights in a row, he would be thrashed every time. I had such a run and got fed up with being punished for something that I could not help. One morning I decided to turn the tables on him. This beating made no sense to me. Being brave I asked the cruel master, "Do you really think that I would wet the bed on purpose when I know I will get a beating for it?" As he walked away I threw a boot at him which hit him on the back of the head, much to the delight of the other lads. This resulted in another beating, but for once it felt worthwhile.

After that episode I decided on another tactic. Normally, when we were beaten we tried not to make a sound as we didn't want to give the master the satisfaction of knowing how much he was hurting us. But with my new tactic, it was decided to yell the place down. Once we started yelling really loud and even the children who were not being beaten joined in. This put the wind up the master, because passers by in Ham Road, Shoreham, where the orphanage was, could hear all the children yelling. Those people, being concerned, went to the lodge and spoke to the Lodge Keeper about the noise. He went to the Headmaster, Mr. Higgs, who came to the boys' block and asked the master what on earth was going on. The master told Mr. Higgs that he was punishing the boys for wetting the bed. Mr. Higgs was flabbergasted and sacked the master on the spot. My friends and I realised that had we yelled earlier, we need not have put up with the beatings. A humiliating part of the punishment was that the bed-wetters had to stand in front of the girls' block with the wet sheet above their heads. This was really designed to humiliate us, but the girls did not laugh, they thought it was very cruel.

I was cured of the bed-wetting problem when I went to a Nautical School where there was a more understanding attitude. I was never beaten for wetting the bed there but instead I was woken up at regular intervals throughout the night and made to go to the lavatory. That did the trick. I have since heard that children who are forced to eat food which they do not like are liable to wet the bed. It could just be coincidence but the food at the Nautical School was much better than at the orphanage where I had been forced to eat tripe which I found revolting. Very often if you didn't eat your meal it would be served up to you the next day.

Saturday evening was the time when we were all bathed. Two large baths about ten-feet long were used. Six boys squeezed in the bath together. When we were all scrubbed clean, the foster mother would comb our hair with a metal nit-comb dipped in a small bowl of paraffin. Our final cleansing process was the cutting of our finger and toe nails.

Once or twice a year a few people would come to the orphanage hoping to choose a boy to adopt. We would all have to line up to be viewed. We would all be hoping that we would be the chosen one and taken away to a better home. The same thing happened to the girls. I was a good looking little boy and I was favoured quite often. But when the prospective adopter was told that I was a bed wetter that was enough to put them off.

The food was not very good. For breakfast we had two slices of bread with very little margarine scraped on. Sometimes in winter we had a plate of porridge with currents floating on top instead of sugar. A mug of tea followed. Dinner, which was served at midday, was nearly always stew with lumps of fat floating in it. We hated it, but we were sometimes forced to eat it until we were sick. I always tried to sit next to a boy who liked fat and would pass it to him when nobody was looking. Very often the food left on our plates at dinner time would be put before us the next day. I dreaded the days that we had tripe because I just could not eat it. I knew that I would go hungry on those days and that it might be served up at the next meal. It is not always true that people will eat anything if they are hungry. I never could eat tripe nor fatty meat. Tea was a repeat of breakfast but if we were lucky bread pudding would be served. This is not the same as bread and butter pudding. This is more like a slab of fruit cake but more solid. It is made by soaking bread in milk or water and adding sugar, spices and dried fruit. It is then baked until the top is crispy. I liked it cold and I liked it hot with custard.

Before each meal we had to stand with our hands held as though in prayer and sing grace. I can only remember that it began with, "We thank thee Lord for this our food." We sang this again at the end of the meal too. I don't think I felt like thanking anybody because my memories of the food, especially the midday meal, were not happy ones.

All the food was weighed. The oldest boy in the orphanage would go with the headmaster to the store room. The headmaster would then proceed to weigh the necessary amount of groceries, vegetables, bread, flour etc. The oldest boy would be given the task of taking the rations round to the different blocks. This job was always done on a Saturday. A two-wheeled truck was used to deliver the goods. This job would take nearly all day. The poor boy would only finish the rounds at about 6 p.m. He was very tired. I did this job myself for a few weeks, and, in spite of being tired I enjoyed going round to the different blocks. In every case there was a rear door to the kitchen where the cooks were waiting to put the rations way. Quite often a cup of tea and a slice of bread and butter would be offered much to my delight.

Boys of 12 years or older would be responsible for looking after a younger child. He would see that the youngster was kept clean and tidy. He also kept an eye open to see that his shoes were highly polished. The older boy was called the youngster's shadow and if the little one had holes in his socks or sported torn trousers it was his shadow who was punished. We were all taught to sew and darn and were expected to use those skills when needed either by ourselves or our young charges.

Idleness was not encouraged. All of us were given jobs to do according to our age. Gardening and heavy work was done by the older boys. They would also have to stoke the boilers in the four blocks. This was quite a responsible task as the kitchens were adapted for the cooking to be done by steam. They would also help in the workshops when necessary. Younger boys did light cleaning chores. I liked the job of cherry picking, for it was then that I filled my tummy as well as the basket. Polishing the floors was done between breakfast and parading for school. We used what was called a 'Molly'. It was a heavy contraption with a rectangular box with a long handle fitted on to it. Ronuk floor polish was used on a rough cloth fitted at the bottom of the polisher. It was very heavy to use but very effective as it went back and forth.

Being small came in handy when I went with some boys to raid the farmer's orchard. On one occasion I scaled the 8ft wall at the end of the playing field and jumped into a large orchard. There was an abundance of apples and pears. I began to pick them and threw them down to the waiting boys on the other side of the wall. They were making quite a racket shouting words of encouragement to me. I was really enjoying myself thinking of the good feast we would all have later when suddenly it went quiet and I knew that trouble was brewing. Trouble was brewing all right in the shape of Mr. Higgins, the Headmaster. He marched us all back to the boys' block where I was punished in front of all the boys and staff. The humiliation was nearly as bad as the severe thrashing I received on my behind with the cane. My behind was sore for days but I was very popular with the other boys when I shared out our ill-gotten gains. I found out later that the farmer was the same kind man who gave us an apple for Christmas. Thankfully, he did not press charges.

The home life was a mixture of good and bad. Good when one could get away from the discipline, but bad when for some trivial wrong doing a beating would be given to some unlucky child. I was playing around with another boy one day and I fell and hurt my head on a drainpipe. Instead of a bit of sympathy and a cuddle I received a slap in the face.

On one occasion I went for a walk by myself. I was only a little boy at the time and wandered into an army camp. One of the soldiers took me by the hand and led me into their dining room. I was given tea and cakes. When the soldiers found out I had come from the orphanage they walked me back. I hadn't actually been missed and so nobody knew I had even gone absent until I was brought back. Nevertheless, I was still punished. I remember one time when I was taking a beating for some slight misdemeanour and I tried putting a towel down my trousers. That little trick didn't work though, for Mr. Higgins spotted the towel and pulled it out.

We had a small fife drum band and would sometimes march into town. One of the masters who liked his own voice and had been in the army always made sure we marched past the town memorial so that he could shout at the top of his voice, "Eyes Right". We would then all sharply turn our heads. He would make sure that we passed the same place going home so that he could shout, "Eyes left". He was the same master who thrashed the boys when they wet the bed.

However, we made our own fun. One of the things I really enjoyed was being a member of the local church choir. Apart from the fact that I could go out of the orphanage without supervision, which was a great relief, I also got paid pocket money for singing my little head off. I enjoyed my freedom three times on a Sunday for church service and two evenings a week for choir practice. The church I belonged to was The Church of Mary de Haura, New Shoreham, but I also had choir practice at The Church of the Good Shepherd at Shoreham Beach which at that time was known as 'Bungalow Town'. It was famous in the early days of cinema.

I was at a disadvantage from the start because I was very small for my age. (I was never taller than 5ft 2½ ins.) Orphans were still abused in those days by more fortunate children in the district. The orphans had to wear boots instead of shoes so were easily identified and there always seemed to be a stigma about wearing boots. However, we made our own fun and being a member of a local church choir was one of the best things that could happen to any of the children. It meant that we could go out without supervision three times on Sundays and again for two evenings a week for choir practice. The church I belonged to was 1¼ miles from St. Wilfrid's, literally from one side of the town to the other across the fields where we used to have most of our fun.

A very kind gesture was made by the two Box brothers of Brighton when they supplied a complete set of gymnastic equipment, which turned out to be quite significant for me. They also spent at least one night a week teaching us. I did well and in 1926 was Sussex Junior Champion and was given a medal which unfortunately I lost when larking about in a field where it probably still lies. It seemed in those days that if you were good at sport you were accepted by most of your associates. This was also true when I later joined a Nautical School and later still when I joined the army. Being good at gymnastics opened a lot of doors to me which otherwise would have been closed. The same applied if you were good at boxing, soccer, rugby or cricket. I have been a keen follower of sport all my life.

There were also two old ladies who used to invite a group of us to tea. They lived a few miles out of Shoreham. I don't remember their names but it just shows that there were some kind people around who tried to make life a bit better for the children in the orphanage.

The two oldest boys would stoke the boilers in the four blocks. This was quite a responsible task as the kitchens were steam fitted and most of the cooking was done by that method. I cannot remember having roast except at Christmas. I think we had Roast Beef on Christmas Day and we usually had a party in the Hall and were given one orange and one apple per child. We also had a decorated tree. We usually put on a pantomime such as "Puss in Boots" (I played the cat); the Enchanted Forest in which I was the jester; Jack and the Beanstalk when I played Jack and Aladdin. I can't recall what I played in that one. All Pantomimes were rehearsed religiously for about 2 months before performance and were all based on a musical theme. The costumes were made by the Matron, Foster Mothers and some of the girls.

I had one school friend who didn't come from the orphanage and when I visited his home I began to think that perhaps the orphanage wasn't so bad after all. His home was poor and he often had nothing to eat all day. It was a shock to me as it was not as I imagined an ordinary family home should be.

I left the orphanage a month after I turned 14 in August 1927. I was allocated a place at the National Nautical School at Portishead so that I could be trained for the Merchant Service. The Superintendent of the orphanage came in one morning and told me to be in his office by 9.30 a.m. the next day. He had decided to take me to Portishead by car. It was a Morris Cowley with a folding hood and it was such a beautiful day that he chose to keep it down. We stopped once or twice on the way — once in a wood to have something to eat and again at Wells in Somerset where we had a walk around the Cathedral. His wife and daughter went too. Looking back I can say that this family were the only people I ever felt any affection for in my 11 years in the orphanage. In fact, the Superintendent's wife was the first person to kiss me and I was about 9 years old at the time I did not really feel any regret at leaving friends behind and was looking forward to the excitement of a new life at the nautical school.

At holiday times those of us who had homes or somewhere to go were allowed to leave the school. On the one occasion I went back to the orphanage at Christmas 1928 and I was allowed to stay in the Lodge where there were two other boys visiting and two girls. We got up to some fine old larks and enjoyed a freedom which none of us had ever previously known existed. We were able to come and go as we pleased and the food the Lodge keeper's wife cooked for us was delicious.

© Pat Mathewson

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