The Orphan Asylum

The orphan asylum opened on 1st April, 1850, in what is now 46 Queen Street, Wolverhampton. The building had previously been the Old Dispensary which was Wolverhampton’s first hospital.

In the autumn of 1849 there had been a terrible outbreak of cholera that resulted in 730 deaths in Bilston, 720 deaths in Wolverhampton, 310 in Willenhall, and 55 in Wednesfield. As a result, many children lost their parents and their home.

John Lees. From 'A History of the Royal Wolverhampton School'.

John Lees, a successful lock and key manufacturer, and later a hardware merchant, who lived in Telford Place, North Road and had premises in Cleveland Street, Wolverhampton, decided that something had to be done.

 He decided to open an asylum and initially approached the Governors of the Blue Coat School with an offer of £2,000 for its establishment.

He hoped that they would use the money to move the school to larger premises which would include an asylum, but agreement on the matter could not be reached.

He then decided to use the ex-dispensary building in Queen Street and paid three years rent in advance before spending around £2,000 to make the necessary modifications to the building.

The Old Dispensary.

The following description is from the Wolverhampton Chronicle:

The ground floor affords space for a board room, for apartments for the master and matron, and a dining room for the boys at the back, suitably fitted, and possessing the good old fashioned appurtenance of a reading desk, from which one of the older boys will read portions of scripture and invoke blessings on and return thanks for the meals taken. There is also in the rear of the building a commodious lavatory supplied with hot and cold water and having a large marble bath; and suitable domestic offices are on the same floor. On the first floor there are three dormitories for the boys containing eighteen beds, thirteen of which will forthwith be occupied, each boy having a separate bed. The mattresses of the beds are made of horsehair and the most scrupulous care has been taken to ensure the proper ventilation of the respective apartments. The bedroom of the master and mistress is on the same floor. A large and well-gravelled piece of ground, behind the premises is crossed to reach the school room, which is large enough to accommodate more than double the number of scholars and adjoining it is another room to be used as a play room in wet weather.

The Orphan Asylum building in 2002.

Initially thirteen orphaned boys were cared-for and clothed, fed and educated under the direction of a committee that looked after the running of the establishment. A little later another four boys and two girls were admitted to bring the number of children in care to nineteen. Only middle class children were chosen to enter the asylum because Lees believed that they were hardest hit by the epidemic. Diseased or crippled children were not considered, and no more than two could come from the same family. All children had to be between seven and eleven years of age and certificates had to be provided to show their state of health. Death certificates were also needed to prove that their parents had died.

Mr. Lees appointed twelve gentlemen to the committee and the Reverend William Dalton, who at the time was minister at St. Paul’s Church in Penn Road, provided religious instruction. Dr. Topham and Mr. George Edwardes offered their medical services free of charge to deal with any sick child and Thomas and Mrs. Sale were first master and matron.

Initially all expenses were paid by John Lees, but later money was raised by public subscription. Anyone subscribing one guinea a year could become a member of the institution and have one vote at the election of children, and an extra vote for each additional guinea subscribed.

The following description is from the History, Gazetteer and Directory of Staffordshire published by William White in 1851:

The Orphan Asylum, which occupies the old Dispensary, in Queen Street, was founded on Easter Monday, 1850, and has hitherto been solely supported by the benevolence of John Lees, Esq. but it is hoped the wealthy inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood will unite with the founder in carrying on this excellent charity, and providing for it ample funds and a large building, for the maintenance and education of 30 or 40 orphan children of either sex.

The present building has only accommodation for 18 boys, who must have lost both parents, or be the children of widows, left with large families dependent upon them for support; and their parents must have been members of the Established Church. They are received as young as eight years of age, and may remain till 14, when it is intended to place them out in situations, with an outfit. They are dressed in the costume of children of the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth, like those of Christ's Hospital, London.

Mr. Lees, the benevolent founder, had previously offered £2,000 to the Governors of the Blue Coat School, on condition that such an asylum should be established in connection with that charity; but it was found that the proposed union could not be satisfactorily carried into effect. The design is not only to clothe, maintain, and educate orphan children of both sexes, but to train them up in habits of industry.

John Lees realised that a larger asylum was essential in order to look after more of the many local orphans. Expansion in Queen Street was not a possibility and so he looked around for a suitable piece of land on which to build a larger orphanage. In March 1852 he purchased 2½ acres of land between Penn Road and Goldthorn Road for £1,000. It was conveyed to John Jeavons, William Henry Rogers and Henry Ward, who acted as trustees to ensure that the land would be appropriately used.

John Lees decided to spend £2,000 on the new buildings which would include a school and also to make an appeal for extra funding. He initially contacted Christ’s Hospital in London but had no success, and then appealed locally to raise money for a building fund, which initially raised around £6,500.

Building work soon got underway. The foundation stone was laid on 15th March, 1853 by the Rev. Dalton. Friends and subscribers met at St. Paul’s School in Merridale Street and walked up the hill to the new site to view the ceremony, led by the children (14 boys and 3 girls) and John Lees.

The new building was designed by Joseph Manning of Corsham, Wiltshire and built by John Elliot of Wolverhampton. It would provide accommodation for 50 boys and 30 girls. The building cost £6,000 and consisted of school rooms, dining rooms, sleeping rooms, a kitchen, master and matron’s rooms, sick wards, committee rooms, and an office. It opened on Wednesday 28th June, 1854. By the end of 1857 the fencing and entrance gates had been installed and work on the grounds and playgrounds had been completed. All of the rooms had been decorated and furnished, although only one wing was occupied. By this time the number of children had increased to 18 boys and 6 girls.

The Royal Orphanage. From the 1908 Wolverhampton Red Book.

In 1858 there were 32 children and William Henry Rogers became Chairman. At the time, John Lees was suffering from ill health. John acquired a further 2½ acres of adjoining land which he gave to the orphanage.

In 1860 an organ was built in the dining room by J. W. Walker of London and a Christmas tree party was held on two successive afternoons which attracted 1,500 visitors and raised £300. John Lees never recovered from his illness and died on 4th February, 1863 at the age of 59.

William Henry Rogers was a successful businessman who ran Henry Rogers, Son & Company Limited based in Union Street.

They manufactured products including components for steam engines such as cylinders and took out a number of patents for inventions relating to locks and cut nails. They also had premises in London, Sheffield and Paris. Many of their products were exported.

Henry was one of the two founders of the South Staffordshire General Hospital and Dispensary which opened its doors on 1st January 1849. He also gave generously to the building of Holy Trinity Church at Heath Town.

William Henry Rogers, 1839 - 1900. A painting that used to hang in Holy Trinity Church, Heath Town.

On 6th April, 1863 an extraordinary general meeting was held to discuss the possibility of extending the building by the addition of two wings, at an estimated cost of £5,500. It was agreed that the scheme should go ahead and tenders for the work were sought. On 21st April a tender from J. Cockerill of Darlington Street, Wolverhampton for £4,705 was accepted an work soon began. By the end of the year the new wings had been built and the installation of internal fittings and furnishings had began. The Enlargement Fund had raised £5,000 towards the cost. Also in 1863 the lodge was built. The cost was covered by the late John Lees' Bequest.

In 1864 the fountain at the front was built and dedicated to William Henry Rogers' wife, Mary Rogers. It was designed by P. E. Masly of London and sculpted by W. Farmer, also from London. By 1886 the number of children had reached 100 and by 1875 annual subscriptions amounted to nearly £1,800 and the income from endowments amounted to £1,400. Over the next 60 years or so many improvements were made to the buildings which were also extended and a number of new buildings added:

1868 Infirmary extended.
1872 A new gymnasium.
1875 The Stripling Wing built. Named after Miss Charlotte Stripling.
1879  A new laundry.
1881 A new swimming bath.
1885 The Headmaster's House.
1894 The Chapel.
1900 The Jubilee Extensions.
1901 The clock tower.
1906 Extension to the boys' school.
1911 King Edward VII Wing (boys' school).
1911 Queen Alexandra Wing (girls' school).
1928 A new wing for the girls' school.
1932 The Junior School
1937 An extension to the Junior School.

In 1883 there were 250 children and changes had to be made to the central hall in order to accommodate all of them. The Headmaster's House was built in 1885 for the new Headmaster Mr. A. T. Hawes. By 1899 there were 300 children and it was felt that the hospital accommodation was now inadequate. The medical officers, Dr. McMunn and T. Vincent Jackson recommended the provision of an isolation hospital. The new building, built at the rear of the hall with 20 beds was designed by F. T. Beck and built by Henry Willcock & Company for £2,196. At the same time, improvements were made to the kitchens, the out-offices and the laundry. In 1892 William Lees, who was the late John Lees's nephew,  became Chairman.

The Chapel. From the 1908 Wolverhampton Red Book.

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