Harpenden Branch of the National Children's Home - 1910-1985

From London's East End to the Wilds of Hertfordshire


Harpenden Oval from the air, 1950s. Credit: ‘Our News’ – Old Girls’ and Boys’ Family Magazine, 1956, in LHS archives

TO ACCESS PERSONAL RECORDS, and for enquiries you can try the Action For Children website: http://www.actionforchildren.org.uk/contact-us  and make your enquiry by email.

The story of this branch of the Home really begins in July 1869, when Dr Thomas Bowman Stephenson opened the doors of a little cottage near Waterloo Station in London, to admit the first children of what was then known as the Children’s Home.

Stephenson had been, and indeed continued to be, a controversial figure within the Wesleyan Church in which he had been called to the Ministry some years earlier. Although perhaps best remembered as the founder of the Children’s Home, his was the inspiration which led to the formation of the Wesleyan Deaconess Order, and in 1891 the Church accorded him the honour of its Presidency. However, that was later.

In 1871 the Home moved to Bonner Road in Bethnal Green, having acquired much larger premises. The work developed rapidly, other branches sprang up all over the country, and a Sanatorium for children suffering from, or at risk from, tuberculosis was established on the edge of Harpenden in 1910 (Elmfield).

It was felt that it would be advantageous to move the children from Bonner Road, and this was implemented in 1912-13 with the removal of children to the newly purchased site at Harpenden, the offices transferring to City Road, London.

A building site

To those children coming from the East End, this was pioneering country up in the far north amongst the wilds of Hertfordshire.  First impressions were given by an Old Boy of the memorable day in 1913 when he arrived.  From the station they walked up Carlton Road, over the bridge and up Tennyson Road, and along Mud Lane.  No-one queried this apt name!  (This is now Ambrose Lane.)   On arrival at the Home they were greeted with a building site!  Closer inspection revealed that some accommodation was available.  However, this was to become home for generations of young people for over three quarters of a century.

One of the houses – after several generations of children had passed through. Credit: LHS archives

After only a year it was reported that the general health of the children had improved in the new surroundings.

The printing work of the Home was developing, and apprenticeships were offered, this becoming a distinctive feature at Harpenden with the Printing Technical School on the site.

Producing food in WWI

Children’s gardens were started in 1915 to combat food shortages during the First World War, and the farm maintained supplies.  New ground was broken up for increased food production. During the war period evening classes were started for school-leavers, but it was recognised that spiritual teaching in the houses was the real core of the work.

Difficulties continued as peace came.  In the flu epidemic of that time one child contracted pneumonia and died.  The need for a hospital block was recognised. On a happier note, an Inspector from the Board of Education was impressed with the school which was functioning successfully at the Branch. A change of Governorship occurred in 1925 when Mr G F Bush took over the reins from Mr Carnegie.

Dedication of the Chapel

Frank O Salisbury’s West Window in the Chapel. Credit: LHS archives

In the early Bonner Road days, a Chapel had become the focal point and it had long been recognised that a great need existed for a proper place of worship on the Harpenden campus. Thus it was that in 1928 a beautiful chapel was formally opened to replace the ‘temporary’ iron construction that had served the purpose for sixteen years. The new building had been made possible by the tremendous generosity of Joseph Rank. There are many outstanding features in the Chapel; space alone prevents mention of all but two: the side windows, actually taken from the Bonner Road Chapel, which had been the gift of children from various branches to Dr Stephenson on his 50th birthday in 1889; and the beautiful west window the work of Frank O. Salisbury (a Harpenden artist).

An account of the work at the Home fifty years ago reveals a very different world from today.

100 very large loaves a day

The Administration Block included a central store for food and clothing, a sewing room, staff dining room and a bake-house.  The baker, who had a young assistant, produced 100 four-pound loaves a day, two white to one brown. Boys and girls were separated for accommodation – the boys’ houses consumed eight loaves and the girls’ houses five loaves a day. Each week a four-pound cake was baked for each house.

About six boys were trained as cobblers in the Boot shop, and the Laundry covered all the Home’s washing. Engineers’ and carpenters’ shops also provided good training for those trades.

In 1937 Mr Bush moved to the Home’s Farnborough Branch, to be succeeded by Mr G M Saul-Brown who was there until 1942, when he in turn was followed by Mr Edward Shutt.

Expanding beyond the Oval

Akrill House. Credit: LHS archives

Outside the branch campus itself, Mayfield and Clare Lodge were used for a variety of purposes, mainly for housing the Printing School apprentices.  Akrill House in Hollybush Lane housed babies from the London NCH premises during part of the Second World War, but went on to be used as a home for retired Sisters of the Home. Lea House in Ox Lane served as a hostel for older girls, and then for children with diabetes.

After the war, family groups of boys and girls were established, and in 1949 the Home’s school closed, with the children going to various Harpenden schools.  Much more integration into the community occurred during the 1950s and the conversion of the houses into flats took place.

Changing models of caring for children

Following the sudden death of Mr Shutt in 1959, Mr H C Roycroft arrived to take command, and he remained there for a decade, retiring in 1969 when Mr J Colin Burn come to carry the Branch through the changing period of the 1970s.  An Intermediate Treatment Centre was opened in 1981!

The Harpenden branch choir became world-wide ambassadors during this period, and strong links were made with Harpenden’s twin town of Alzey in Germany.

After Mr Burn left, Mr John Baxter has done a splendid, though very difficult job in overseeing the sad, but increasingly necessary task of running down the old established residential work in line with the changing pattern of child care today.  The outstanding contribution to the more traditional social work made by the Branch will be hard to follow, but, as in the past, the NCH is moving with the times.

[Harpenden Branch closed on 31 August 1985.]

For further information and enquiries go to:   http://www.actionforchildren.org.uk/contact-us

Comments about this page

  • Hi, my name is Raymond. I was in the home in the 50s and Sister MARY was my house mother. Before going to bed Sister Mary would read a story to us and I remember PILGRIMS PROGRESS. I am 72 years old and still remember that time.

    By RAYMOND (11/02/2022)
  • Hello – I was at the home in the 50’s left in 1955 when I was 16 – lived in Fernes House next door to Barlow house. I remember Sister Cora Rhodes very well. My maiden was Brenda Poynton and my Sister Pat was also at the home not in the same house. I would love to make any contact with maiden names – Sheila Cosgrove, Ann Quinn went to the Grammar School in St Albans. Also would love to make any contact or info with maiden names Hilary or Heather Baxter. I went to Highfields School and the cookery teacher took me under her wing.

    I remember Mr Shutt very well and I used to deliver the post on my bike down Ambrose Lane. We used to sing a song called ‘There is a misery down Ambrose Lane’.

    Would love to hear from anyone about this time I live in London. Brenda Adams – my maiden name was Poynton

    By Brenda Adams (20/01/2022)
  • I was in the NCH Harpenden in the 1980s. I and my brother and 3 sisters were all in different flats and were there until we got fostered. We were called the famous five in the Luton News and it would be good to hear from people who were there.

    Ed: Barbara, do you have a copy of the Luton News report?

    By Barbara linzell (01/11/2021)
  • Does anybody know James Crow? He lived at Harpenden and went to Manland Junior school 1969 -1971 which is when I met him. A lovely boy with a beautiful singing voice.

    By Christine Frasle (Widdup) (23/09/2021)
  • Hi. My brother Andrew and I both lived in Flat 1 from about 1971 to 1977 with Mr & Mrs Turner. I was only 3 years old when I arrived.

    I would love to hear from anyone who remembers us.

    All the best, Richard Walker

    Ed: If you would like to get in touch with Richard, please Contact Us.

    By Richard Walker (08/10/2020)
  • I was a school friend of Susan Burn in the 1970s and I knew Alison Baxter and her family.  So sorry to hear Ali is no longer with us.  I spent a lot of time at the Oval, was in the choir and Sovereign Collection. I have lost touch with Susan, she married David Smith (his brother was Peter) and they had twins. Anyone know where she is please?

    By Jill Mitchell (nee Forsaith) (08/07/2020)
  • Hi there!  I am commenting on behalf of my Nan who was there from 1948-1954 from when she was 10-16 years old. The Sister who looked after her was Florence Ford in Barlow house. She had a boyfriend but lost contact ever since and would love to see him. His name was Jeff Reed and he was 2/3 years older than her. Does anyone have any contact with him know where he is at all – it would be lovely to reunite them!

    Ed. Muriel, please let us know the name of your Nan, and we will add it immediately. We wish you every success with your search. 

    By Muriel Ransford (29/06/2020)
  • Hi Noel 

    That’s amazing that you have that on the wall. I probably would say it was either of my other brothers John or Stephen as I got fostered out before that date but they were still there! I would love if you could take a picture and I could show my older brother to see if it was him that wrote on the wall.

    lol, regards

    Darren Laurie (Grayson)

    By Darren Laurie (20/06/2019)
  • Hi Darren Laurie (Grayson),

    I live here at Highfield Oval, Harpenden and at some point last week as I was changing the wallpaper in my room  I saw a message written with a pencil underneath the wallpaper and it says :”Grayson was here between 1978-1980!”  Would that be you? Please let me know because I am a documentary film maker and have been trying to get to hear from people who were here before and capture their stories!


    Noel Munyurangabo

    By Noel Munyurangabo (17/06/2019)
  • I was in the home with my sisters Lorna and Celene. I noticed a post from 2012 with our names on. We were there 1976-80. 

    I remember joining the choir to ‘escape’ as we never did anything, it seemed. Vivid memories of certain children being abused: I myself for sleepwalking in flat 16. 

    I remember putting pillowcases over chairs for Christmas sacks, and sitting behind the telly when in trouble again in flat 16.

    I do remember the Burns, Sue Dalymore, and Vic – again from flat 16. Also the sisters that ran the flats were vicious especially to a girl called Jackie. 

    Some good times though: I remember the donkey behind the main office which I was good at riding, the Christmas grotto in the BB hall and brownies run from there, going to church with 10p for collection but putting in a penny I found on the floor so I could spend the 10p in the tuck shop on Friday. 

    Blimey lots of memories, too many to mention! 

    By Dionne Lavender-Davies (01/09/2018)
  • Hello, I was a staff member (Auntie Jean) at the Oval from 1977-1979.  I have photos of the children who were in my care during that time.  The houseparents were Derek and Linda Cox.  If that rings a bell, would be happy to talk with anyone who might want information/photos during that time?

    By Jean McFall Bryan (16/04/2018)
  • Hi I was at Harpenden mid 60s early 70s and would like to know anything about a Sister who I have vivid memories of mistreating me.

    By Paul Porter (27/03/2018)
  • I was at Harpenden from 1970-74 and would love to hear from those who remember me. I lived in flat 20 with Sister Jill, flat 12 with Mr and Mrs Joyner, flat 7 with Mr and Mrs Halsey and finally Flat 17 with Miss Christine Goodman. I’m in touch with Jill and Christine who were my main carers, but would love to hear from those who lived with me, great times for me back then.

    By Angus Babb (24/03/2018)
  • I was at Harpenden from 1958 for a couple of years with my sister Pam and brother Ray.  Ray was with Sister Ella, myself and Pam downstairs with Sister Kathleen.  Does anybody remember being sent home from school to be part of the Tanner Children’s Growth Chart? Looking back, not a pleasant experience.

    Ed. Can you tell us more about the Growth Chart?

    By Jacqueline Humphrey (short) (21/08/2017)
  • Hi Sonia Varadi, I was good friends with Mario and Fernando. Mark Ryan and was there with the Graysons too!! 

    By Stuart Harrison (05/06/2017)
  • Message for Ann Wilson re. At Margaret’s, Harpenden – your description of a railway line and pocket money must be St. Margarets. Your name rings a bell with me but I can’t find a reference of you in my files. I believe Rosemary has given you my email address, so if you want to contact me feel free. Regards Tom.

    By Tom Wright (24/04/2017)
  • Hi Sonia Varadi AND Darren Grayson

    I worked at Harpenden when Mario, Fernando and Darren and Steve Grayson were there.

    Today when sorting photos I found a few which I would be happy to pass on.

    I was known as ‘Miss Maggie’ at the time.

    I am on Facebook if that helps.

    Maggie Oliver (was Davies)

    By Margaret Davies (04/01/2017)
  • Hi Hazel, 

    It’s Tracey who you mention in your comment.  I loved my childhood at the home and attended Roundwood JMI as it was then. Just this weekend some of Flat 11 staff and children (now adults)  held a reunion at the Oval.  Meeting for the first time in 30 years.

    We are grateful to the current owners and residents of the Oval who allowed us to hold the reunion there and visit our old home.

    It was a moving and amazing time sharing memories and photos.   We enjoyed walking around the grounds that we knew so well. 

    By Tracey (19/09/2016)
  • Hi Sonia Varadi I remember Mario and Fernando even though I was very young. My name then was Darren Grayson and I had brothers Steve and John and a sister Jackie, it probably was early 70s. I have pics from the home and they may possibly be in them. If so let us know via Contact us and maybe sort something out!! Wow!!

    By Darren laurie (Grayson) (08/03/2016)
  • Hi, I have a few pics of the following from Flat 11 1984 ish: Tina Delpratt, Tracey Delpratt, Tracie Wesby, Paula Ryan, Tony (Trump/Crump?).  

    Ed.We understand some of you are already in contact with Hazel but if anyone else would like to contact her you may do so via ‘Contact us‘ on this website.

    By Hazel (17/02/2016)
  • Hi Sonia Varadi,

    I worked at NCH Harpenden from 1974-1976 & was working in the flat where Mario & Fernando were first living. I remember them well, & have at least one photo of the 2 of them. I worked in the flat with Shirley Walls, then with Jim & Sheila O’Rourke, in flat 5 with Miss Wendy, & finally flat 7 or 8. Wendy & I are still good friends, & between us we must have a lot of photos of children who were in Harpenden. The trouble is, I lived abroad for over 20 years, & photos from that time in my life are still in storage there! Sonia, I would love to help you, & anyone else I looked after. I don’t know how you can contact me though; I’m not on Facebook. 

    By Lesley Ellison (21/11/2015)
  • I was in the home in Harpenden in 1952 to 1958 with my sister Patricia Hawgood.  My name was Sandra Hawgood.  I remember my first boyfriend named Martin.  He gave me a snake bracelet.

    Any one remember my sister and me? 

    By Sandy Whelan (née Hawgood) (02/09/2015)
  • I am a retired Canadian lawyer living in Victoria, British Columbia. In 1947 my sister and I were placed at NCH Harpenden. There were a lot of children whose parents had been killed in the war and some of the younger ones would cry at night or wake up screaming. Boys houses were on one side of the Oval and girls on the other. I could visit my sister on Sundays. Much food was rationed – one egg a week – but there were gardens for vegetables and rabbits for meat. We were not mistreated and most of my memories are happy ones.

    By David Morris (02/09/2015)
  • Hi! I was in the Home with my brothers John Hailey, Kenny Stevens and sisters Mandy and Lorraine.   

    We perhaps were more lucky than some in having a great Sister. All my love and respect to Sister Louis, RIP.

    By Victor Hailey (08/04/2015)
  • Hi Sonia Varadi

    I was at school with Mario from infant (Wood End) all the way through to senior school (Roundwood) and I am sure that my Mum will at least have a class photo somewhere.  Let me see what I can find.  I remember him as being a funny and very sporty little boy.

    By Jo Pettitt (Nee Farrington) (09/03/2015)
  • My Gran, Annie M Liddell, (who adopted my Mum) worked at Harpenden. Must have been in the 1930’s – 40’s, I think. She married a Frederick Crisp and lived in Falmouth, Cornwall. I would love any information about her at all – no worries if not good, I have no rose-tinted spectacles where she is concerned. Thank you.

    Ed: You could also try sending an email via http://www.actionforchildren.org.uk/contact-us 

    By Sallie Kneebone (27/02/2015)
  • My husband Mario Varadi and some of his brothers were there from about 1973-83, does anyone remember them?I’d love to get some photos of children to see if there is one of him. He has no photos of him as a child at all. 

    By Sonia Varadi (08/02/2015)
  • I look after the letterpress equipment at Frogmore Paper Mill in Apsley, Hemel Hempstead, (http://www.thepapertrail.org.uk) and would be interested in any information about the NCH printing school that anyone has and is willing to pass on (and photos).

    Ed: copy any replies to enquiries@harpenden-history.org.uk please so that we have them too!

    By Paul Woolley (04/02/2015)
  • Pamela Gray nee Dack – at Harpenden from 1950….1964 ish; never kept in touch with peers; I think your young brain wants to forget sad times.

    Thinking back we were never given love, a cuddle or encouragement.

    No skills for the outside world.

    By Pam Gray (14/12/2014)
  • Hallo, I was in Harpenden in the NCH from 1948 – 51. I came from Germany with my sister Elisabeth. I lived in OGB-House* and my sister was in Barlow House.

    Ed: Information from P. Atkinson -*’Old Girls And Boys House’. The house by the gates where children of leaving age were put if they were working and waiting for somewhere to go ie lodgings or with a family

    By Ernst Lemcke (17/08/2014)
  • Re Anne Wilson (see St Margarets – http://www.harpenden-history.org.uk/page_id__105.aspx) I have a letter talking about Sister Margery in 1950 and I also went on holiday to Alverstoke (an NCH Home in Hampshire). I am afraid I only have bad memories. I also remember the railway line and pocket money and sweets being taken never to be seen again. I know it will never leave me but it does help to talk about it.

    By Anne Ransom (12/07/2014)
  • I was at this home from 1968/1976. It was a miserable time. I was one who was very abused by J C Burns and tormented by his wife. I was in the choir and in the Sovereign Collection along with Caroline Susan Burns, Vivienne and Christine. I am still friends with Christine (Zennonos). I remember I was in Flat 16 with Sister Violet. My friendship with Christine got me through some of the hardest times.

    It occurred to me later in life that Burns abused kids who had no visitors or family members and so we had no one to tell what we suffered. I am glad he’s gone but I would have loved justice to be served.

    By Jacqueline Lariviere (Martin) (30/04/2014)
  • Hey Nick, I was a friend of your sister Alison in the 70s. We went to Townsend together and spent many evenings listening to records in your house.

    By Eleanor (18/03/2014)
  • My friend Renee Kitson was in this children’s home from possible 1945 until approx. 1949. We are trying to find her long lost family. Any help you can give us will be greatly appreciated.

    By Dianne Dalton (07/03/2014)
  • I was in the home from 1965 till I was fostered in 1980, while my brother was there till he was 18. Peter Dawson sadly took his own life in 1996 and is buried at Harpenden.

    Life was fun at the branch, plenty of children to play with plus great times. Hi Nick Baxter, remember singing with you in the choir – sorry about your sister and parents.

    By Yvonne Russon (nee Dawson) (09/02/2014)
  • My late husband Terence Howard lived at the home  maybe in the late 50s to 60s. His house was with Sister Dareen who is family member and still in contact with us. If anyone remembers him please contact. He went to Roundwood School.

    By Jenny Howard (09/10/2013)
  • I was there from the eighties. I  remember some great times but I also remember what happened that were not so great - the abuse and the lies that Burns said, and Baxter and the rest let go including Luton Social Services.

    By Alison Gilmartin (01/01/2013)
  • My mother who we think was called Dinah or Doris June Fordham ( we think her first names were ‘given’ rather than her birth names, she now calls herself Anne) was at the home from around 1934 when she was aged 2 until about 1948 when she left at 16 to go into domestic service. She had a brother called Bill who was also there. Does anyone have any relatives or connections who may have remembered her?

    By Les Barnes (30/12/2012)
  • I was at Harpenden from 1967 through to 1975 and had great times and good memories. Sister Joan was amazing and sad to say I have not kept in touch with many of my peer group.

    By Peter Smith (01/12/2012)
  • My brothers and sisters was in NCH Harpenden from 1977 until 1980 or 81 – good memories there. I remember my 2 sisters and I and some other children that got picked went to France camping for a week, and most weekends we would go on trips. Each Christmas we would go to Christmas parties in London. I remember one was at the post office tower in London. I only remember one member of staff named Lindsy,but she later moved to Canada. I remember a few kids in the home:the Davies sisters, Celine, Dionne and Lorna*. I remember these 5 sisters (or maybe 4?) that lived in one flat. They was in the choir – Silvia, Brenda, Moira -forgot the other 2 names. Would love to get in contact with people that was there from 1977-1980 (or 1981?).

    * Ed – see Dionne’s comment on 4 September 2018, below

    By Joanne was Peters, now Setzer (21/10/2012)
  • I was in the children’s home from 1972 and they were the best memories of my child hood. I still to this very day think about my house parents Mr and Mrs Turner and their daughter Sue, and would love if any information could be passed on about them. Thank you Tina xx

    By Tina Wacey (21/10/2012)
  • My late mother Ivy Doris (Okines) was at Harpenden along with her sisters Edith, Queenie and Olive. If anyone has any information of Olive, I would be most grateful.

    By Gerry George (04/10/2012)
  • As John Baxter’s son, I and my family spent 14 great years at Harpenden – my mum June, my sister Alison and my brother Simon. Unfortunately mum died in 1990, dad died in 1999 and Ali died in 2000, but we had many fond memories of the fun we had.

    By Nick Baxter (23/06/2012)
  • Does anyone have any information of a Mr John Buchannon who was trained as an artist at the National Childrens Home & Orphanage. Chipping Norton. I have a calander of his work and would appreciate knowing more about him. Altough disabled, having no hands, he produced some exquisite art work.

    By joyce (09/05/2012)
  • Last night we went to see the excellent film ‘Oranges and Sunshine’ at Harpenden Film Society. I am old enough to remember (just) selling Sunny Smiles to support the home. Does anybody know if any children from the Harpenden home were sent to Australia? And if any were and are reading this it would be extremely interesting to hear about your experiences.

    By Michael (22/03/2012)

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