The Waifs of St Mary’s

Children HistoryMy interest in St Mary’s Waifs and Strays Home in Cold Ash, near Thatcham in West Berkshire, was sparked when I found some photographs in an old family album. An image of the girls, sitting contentedly at their needlework on a sunny day in Matron’s garden, was not exactly what I expected of a certified ‘industrial school home’ for girls under magistrates’ orders of detention.

St Mary’s was initially called ‘Hill House’ when it was opened in the small country hamlet of Cold Ash by the Church of England Waifs and Strays Society in 1886. It became St Mary’s in 1893.1

Receiving no government support, the Home relied on voluntary contributions. It was managed by a Lady Superintendent (Matron) who in turn was overseen both by the local vicar in the guise of ‘Honorary Secretary and Chaplain’ and by a powerful committee of local people, undoubtedly many of them donors.2

At the time of the 1891 Census there were 30 girls at the Home, aged between 1 and 15, who came from all over the country, from London to Dundee.3 They would have most probably been perceived by the authorities as being ‘rescued’ from poverty and/or their parents’ iniquity or, as one document had it, from “overcrowded and evil homes.4

St Mary’s was a Church of England home, so unless proved otherwise, new admissions of all ages were ‘conditionally’ baptised. The ‘conditional’ part allowed the church to baptise girls who had no idea whether they had been baptised or not. This is great news for family historians! If you are lucky the Cold Ash parish registers have a date of birth, both parents names, father’s occupation and an alternative address (other than St Mary’s).5

After baptism, most if not all of the girls were prepared for confirmation when they reached about 13/14 years old. Once again, from a research point of view, this is very useful because a few ‘Lists of Confirmations’ have survived, two at least give the girls age, which combined with an earlier baptism means you can learn quite a lot about them even after the last currently available census of 1911.6

As soon as they were old enough they were trained up as domestic servants, so in general their prospects of employment were pretty good. The Berkshire Record Office has a very indignant response to a Home Office Inspector’s report of 1915, written, I suspect, by one of the Home’s committee members. The writer quotes the government inspector as recommending “dancing for the elder girls to secure grace and lightness of movement.” The response was unequivocal, “I don’t think employers want servants dancing in the kitchen instead of doing their work. The work of this home is to train servants.7

The committee minutes for 20th June 1903 note the decision that when a girl was sent out by the home to do domestic work in local people’s houses, she should receive 3/- a week (an income of 3 shillings per week in 1903 is worth just over £12 today). The minutes are careful to add that “no money either for wages or as a present shall be given to any girl except through the lady superintendent.8 No little extras here!

By 1927 the girls sent out to domestic service were on a starting salary of just £239 a year, an income worth about £1 070 today.

However harsh it might have been, illness was rare (at least according to the quarterly reports) and there was some dancing, at least once a year, around the Maypole, to raise funds for the Home. After the ceremony, one of the girls would be chosen as the ‘Rose Queen’. The Hidden Lives website has a picture entitled ‘The Maypole Girls at Cold Ash’ which first appeared in the August 1902 issue of the Society’s magazine, Our Waifs and Strays.

Children History

“Drill at St Mary’s
May 1901″

Tellingly, many ‘old girls’ stayed in touch after they had left the Home for good. In one of the quarterly reports for 1929, we learn that old girl Eliza Cotton was to be married in Cold Ash Church to George Piper in August.10 Eliza Emma Cotton, conditionally baptised in 1920, was a St Mary’s old girl who up until 1929 had been with the same employer in Newbury for 6 years. She did indeed marry George Piper, a local carpenter in Cold Ash, on 12th August 1929.11

Sadly, by 1930, St Mary’s was very run down, even though it was still housing 30 girls.  According to the Home Office Inspector’s report of 31st October 1930, the kitchen was “bad”, the baths needed re-enamelling, the walls needed repainting or re-distempering, there were damp patches and cracks, broken plaster and wainscoting and most damning of all, “the earth closets were very offensive the day of my visit.”12

I don’t know how they dealt with such a report but according to the ‘Hidden Lives’ website the Home eventually closed n 1946 and the building was turned into a day nursery. RB Tubb in his book, ‘Cold Ash & Ashmore Green Road by Road’ (2nd Ed. 2004 Henwick Worthy Books) continues the story by telling us that the house and the chapel were eventually converted into housing in 1980 whilst the Home’s play area was developed into bungalows and is now known as St Mary’s Paddock.

There are more pictures of St Mary’s in my ‘Berkshire’ photos on Flickr at

[2] Kelly’s Directory of Berkshire 1899
[3] 1891 Census (TNA Ref: RG12/968/85/9-10)
[4] Berkshire Record Office Cold Ash Parish Records (MS Ref: D/P130D/25/3/1)
[5] Ibid (Ref: D/P130D/1/2)
[6] ibid (Ref: D/P130D/1B/4-5)
[7] ibid (Ref: D/P130D/25/3/1)
[8] ibid (Ref: D/P130D/25/2)
[9] ibid (Ref: D/P130D/25/3/5)
[10] ibid (Ref: D/P130D/25/3/5)
[11] ibid (Ref: D/P130D/1/1)
[12] ibid (Ref: D/P130D/25/3/8)

© Emmy Eustace


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