Penkhull Cottage Homes

The concept of a ‘cottage home’ type accommodation for children was the brainchild of Jane Senior who produced a report on the treatment of pauper girls in London. Her report submitted at the request of the president of the Local Government Board dated 1873, was a landmark in the history of official policy in favour of small cottage homes. he was the first woman in Whitehall and in January 1873 was appointed as a poor law inspector, tasked by the president of the Local Government Board, Sir James Stansfeld, to visit and inspect Workhouses, and District Schools for inquiring into the operation and influence of the present system of education in those establishments upon pauper girls.

She was asked, as a woman, to report on the effect of poor law education on girls. Senior took advice from Florence Nightingale on how to compile a statistical analysis of the information she gathered. She used a team of women investigators to try to trace the current whereabouts of over 600 girls who had left pauper schools the previous year. Stansfeld accepted her report and in January 1874, her first action as a permanent civil servant was to try to stop the corporal punishment of female pauper children.

Until this report and for many years after, children admitted as paupers to the workhouse and babies born whilst their mothers were interned, were accommodated in separate buildings from adults. They were educated within the institution and all their needs, which were then considered few, catered for by the workhouse system. They were not allowed contact with their parents.
Senior’s advocacy of Cottage Homes, alongside other policies such as boarding-out should be seen in the context of the growing strength of the campaign for the family system, that of parents and children living together. This was something the Poor Law Act of 1834 failed both to recognise but actively worked against, during the 1860s and 1870s, which in the end would only encourage more families to seek care from the parish. In 1878, another official report was issued promoting the adoption of the home or cottage system of training for pauper children. Between the years 1870 and 1914, nearly two hundred such homes were authorized to be built by local guardians of the poor countrywide.
At the same time, others were raising the issue of the neglect and mistreatment of children. Although England during the 19th century was experiencing considerable growth as the industrial revolution evolved almost unstoppably, it was often at the expense of the poorer classes and – even worse – of the exploitation of children.

Few, if any, were aware of the cruelty inflicted upon children and the dreadful conditions in which they lived and worked. The state in all the Potteries towns was no different from any northern industrial town. Locally, Charles Shaw’s autobiography, When I Was a Child, compiled as a series for the Staffordshire Sentinel in 1892, illustrates a number of these characteristics. He talks of harsh punishment both by his employer and within the parish workhouse, where discipline was merciless and administered with unfailing regularity. On a national scale, Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, which like Shaw’s book, describes the appalling conditions of the time, where boys dependent on the parish could be sold into hard labour.

In addition to the progress being made by Jane Senior, Hesba Stretton wrote to The Times in January 1884 bringing to the attention of its readers: Few people have any idea of the extent of active cruelty, and still more of the extent of neglect towards children among our degraded and criminal classes. In the same year the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was founded by Benjamin Waugh. After five years of campaigning by the London SPCC, Parliament passed in 1889 the first ever UK law to protect children from abuse and neglect. In 1889 The London SPCC was renamed the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Although the conditions of the Poor Law Amendment Act were pressed hard at the workhouse, there was encouragement to make separate and less hard provision for pauper children. One reader of the North Staffs.  Mercury wrote: the homes are a very acceptable alternative to the “barracks” system where the children are reared in one large building and where, however careful, the authority may be to prevent the children from becoming pauperised, whether by the use of uniform clothing or the atmosphere of barracks life, a certain taint frequently managed to creep in.

It is from this background of public awareness and concern, that in 1899, the local Guardians of the Poor decided to adopt the new method of accommodating pauper children and pursued the policy of cottage home separation. Records from those early days have survived both locally and nationally. The minute books for the Spittals Workhouse remain in the city archives, whilst other records for the poor up to 1900 are stored in the National Archives at Kew. Records after that date were sadly destroyed by the blitz during the Second World War

The first notice of the intended Cottage Homes appears in a letter dated 17th March 1899 from the Local Board to the Board of Guardians in London enclosing an outline of the proposals. The proposals, which were yet to be finalised, cost £7,500 in addition to the building of a Muster Hall at £950. The work was to be carried out by means of a Government loan. There were to be twelve cottages in six semi-detached blocks designed to house twelve children in each. There was also proposed the Muster Hall, measuring 60 feet x 20 feet, two classrooms, and accommodation for the superintendent. The cottages, it was stated, were well designed and of a substantial character each with a day room, living room, sitting room, lavatory on the first floor and outside w.c. There were also two large bedrooms, a mother’s room and a spare bedroom. A receiving house with similar accommodation was also to be built. The architect appointed was Mr Charles Lynam of Penkhull.

Comments from Whitehall, who had the last word on all things, stated that the plans were generally satisfactory but the kitchens and living rooms should be larger, and that a door linking the two sides of a cottage block be provided on the first floor in case of an emergency. Correspondence continued. A letter from the Stoke-upon-Trent Union to London, dated the 23rd May, enclosed a further set of outline plans accommodating the suggestions made previously to include bedrooms of equal size, sinks and baths upstairs and a washhouse for the use of the combined homes. The response from London was favourable, although comments regarding the low cost of the project were made; Mr Lynam assured them that the costs were correct. A loan over a period of 30 years was suggested.
By July 1899, the plans were completed and submitted for final approval by the Local Government Board at Whitehall. Once outline approval had been authorised, a meeting was called of the local guardians on the 8th November 1899 to confirm the arrangements for the building of the Cottage Homes. Also to be built at the same time were farm buildings, adjacent to the workhouse, and a new boiler house for the Spittals, to which the Local Government Board had affixed their seal. The total expenditure on these items would not exceed £12,000. Agreement was confirmed to the borrowing of the funds required. The financial statement produced to the board showed that, since 1875, they had borrowed a total of £33,142, of which £28,402 remained outstanding.  This was in addition to this further loan of £12,000 for the new projects.

The minutes contain just a few references to the building arrangements. That new gates to the avenue would be fitted at a cost of £55 supplied from George Cotton, of Holmes Chapel, and that the walls of the cottages and the Muster Hall would be painted with coloured distemper. Contractors appointed were Samuel Peake of Stoke. The cost of furnishing the new cottages amounted to £2,912.
Arrangements for the transfer of children from the Spittals Workhouse to the new homes were put in hand. The boys were to be transferred on the 6th November 1904, and the girls shortly afterwards.

The system in the new cottage homes was that the children were boarded in large detached houses, each with its own foster mother, which, it was claimed, would enhance the happiness of ordinary family life. There had, it was reported at the opening ceremony, been considerable criticism of the expenditure to the ratepayers. The guardians proceeded with their plan as it was thought that the results would give children a far greater chance in life. Here children would be able to dress as other children did, and attend local Board schools in the village of Penkhull and Stoke. There were now twelve homes, a muster hall and a house for the superintendent, Mr Till, whose wife was the matron. By the time of the opening, each house was full with 140 resident children.

New boots, shoes, and clothes were to be purchased for the children ready for the grand opening. Boots and shoes were obtained from Wallace Bros, of Newcastle at a cost of £97 5 10d and the purchase of boys clothing amounted to £85 5 10d from Staffordshire Tailoring Company, of Hanley. Six women were to be employed one day a week to take care of all the washing at a wage of 2s a day.
The object of the cottage homes was to provide, as near as possible, a family life for each child with a house mother, then much later on in the 60s a father. The father would go out to work as normal, but the duty of the housemother was to care and provide for the children. Each mother ran independently, and as a result, there were no two cottages that were run the same. From the opening of the Homes, it was decided that older children should have regular daily duties to perform. Furnishings were basic with few soft furnishings until after the Second World War when more modern and comfortable beds were purchased.
The need for foster mothers for the new homes can be identified by advertisements and recruitment. By September, the following staff had been appointed at an annual salary of £20 rising by annual increments of £2 to a maximum of £30, with uniform and rations provided: Lydia Yearsley, aged 28; Eliza Brookes, aged 25; Edith Green, aged 25; Clara Wharton, aged 25; Elizabeth Ellen, aged 29; Alice Collister, aged 33; Emily Davies, aged 33; Agnes Walsh, aged 26; Rose Roman, aged 29; Mary Davies, aged 29; Mary Cordall, aged 39 and Laura Price, aged 28.

Penkhull Cottage Homes were formally opened on Friday, 19th December 1901, by the Right Hon. Henry Chaplin., M.P. he press report reads: the children parade under the leadership of Superintendent Till, to meet the gathered company, the boys in blue cloth caps and neat dark suits, which had nothing of the “old workhouse garb” appearance. The girls wore spotless white pinafores, frocks of different colours and tams of light blue and red wool. The children looked remarkably healthy and what is equally important, they looked decidedly happy. The snow on the ground showed them up well and the invigorating atmosphere gave their cheeks a decisively warm glow. A foster mother was to run each cottage home.

Visiting was only allowed on the first Saturday of the month, between the hours of 3pm. and 5pm. t was to these children’s homes that all babies over the age of one year were sent. Under the rules of the homes, natural mothers were only allowed to visit once a week.

The grouped house system of cottage homes was not without its critics who recommended several alternatives, including scattered houses dispersed amongst ordinary residential districts, and boarding the children out in ordinary working-class homes to be grafted into normal families. This last suggestion had been carried out for many years under the old workhouse system and the National Archives hold much correspondence on this matter. Even with the new homes providing accommodation for around 150 children, the need continued for additional spaces, as demand exceeded available beds. In 1902, it was reported that bedrooms designed for six children were accommodating up to nine, and the dining tables were inadequate for the number of children to dine together. In October of the following year, the situation became so bad that to relieve the situation, a number of orphaned and deserted children, as a special measure, were sent to certified homes.

Under this new, and at the time, progressive way of caring for children, many other unions were unable to provide anything comparable. So much so, that Unions in Stafford, Stone and Leek sent children to Penkhull. In 1902, a charge of 3s a week was paid for the care of a child housed at Penkhull but later the same year a charge of 2/6d per week was charged for the maintenance of Jane Billingham from the Leek Union. It may be that she was an older child and therefore a larger fee was charged.

It would appear, for whatever reason, this was a two-way process, and the Stoke Union was sending children to other places. For bad behaviour, George Alcock, in July 1902, was sent to the Certified Industrial School at Standon Bridge. In April 1903 two boys, Walter Jones and William Bagnall, were transferred to Dr Barnardos in London whilst a further three boys were sent to St. Paul’s Home for boys at Coleshill. In May 1911, the guardians received a note that the weekly charges had been increased from 5/- a week to 5/6d per week for boys held in the Stratford-upon-Avon Industrious School. These industrial schools were almost the same as the modern day borstal, designed and administered specifically for children with behavioural problems. Their objects were Custody and detention with a view to their education, industrial training and moral reclamation of such boy as lawfully permitted. Corporal punishment would be a part of their moral reclamation.

From the outset of the Cottage Homes some children were placed into places of work, fostered, or accommodated with families. In July 1901, an application was made from Mr James Fox, a farmer from Longton, applying for Arthur Lycett, a boy of 15 years, to be a farm apprentice. It was agreed that he should be sent for a month’s trial. In February 1904 the numbers increased, Joseph Cartwright, aged 14 years, was also sent for a month’s trial to work for Mr William Crewe, a tailor of Hanley, with a view of being apprenticed, and the same month Robert Stattham, aged 4 years, was boarded out with a Mrs Rigby of Holly Place, Fenton, just to name a few.

For girls, the only future before them was in service, and in reality; this was the same for the vast majority of girls from working class backgrounds. In August 1903, Ellen Philips was sent to a Servants Training School at the convent of the Holy Child Jesus at St Leonard’s on Sea. Many other girls followed over the years. Mother Superior of the Convent in December 1922 wrote about three girls, Mary, Elsie and Kate all in training. It was agreed by the committee: that in accordance with the request of the Mother Superior that the three girls are returned to Penkhull immediately. No reasons were given. Why so many girls were sent such a distance and into a very strict Catholic setting can only be guessed at, as other girls were sent to the Girls’ Training Home at Shelton.

The sending of children to be placed into care elsewhere was standard practice for the time. Once a child was adopted by the Board of Guardians under the 1899 Act, they came under the jurisdiction and authority of the board until they were 18, and had to do their bidding. Hundreds of children were taken into Penkhull Cottage Homes each year on this basis as orphans, or from parents that were either incapable of looking after their children, mostly because of abject poverty, unemployment, family breakdowns, death, or in many cases the parents just did not care. For example, for one month, in 1911, 63 children were deserted by their parents, just left at the door of the receiving officer, and a further 10 were admitted, as their parents were deemed unfit to care for them. These figures are not unusual or out of keeping with the general patterns of admissions at that time.


For probably hundreds of boys and girls over the life-span of the Cottage Homes, a new life abroad was to be their future. It is only now that representations are being made nationally with regard to this policy for dealing with unwanted children. The first reference found in the National Archives precedes the opening of the Cottage Homes and confirms the practice of emigration of children from a much earlier date than first thought.

The report is dated July 1897, and was obtained by the guardians of the poor through the Colonial Office. It contains reports submitted by the Canadian Immigration Officers regarding the settlement of paupers. For 18 children it details their occupations, education, church-going, work, and states who they are living with. The first record for emigreation Penkhull Cottage Homes is dated 1911 when Dorothy Philips and Minnie Leek, both aged 14, left for a new life in Canada under a scheme organised by the Catholic Emigration Society. Vast numbers of such organisations were set up from the turn of the century to deal with the emigration of paupers or orphans. The Canada connection came from a visit to that country by Fr Banns and Mr Chilton Thomas from the Liverpool Homes of Rescue and their conclusion was that Canada was the most inviting field of emigration in the world for Catholic children. Other children followed later that year. One case is recorded, – that of PH, – a boy, aged 15, who in December 1911 was sent to Canada. In February 1912, it was reported to the Board of Guardians in Penkhull that a letter had been received from the organisation dated September 1911, that PH had absconded from his home in Cedarville, Ontario and his present whereabouts were not known. One can only guess at the circumstances.

Despite this, and the possible implications of poor treatment of the boy, in the following June, it was agreed to send two further deserted children to Canada; JM, aged 13 and FM, aged 12. The board agreed to cover the cost of transport for the two boys amounting to £33 9 3d. The meeting agreed that they were to be sent immediately. A further case recorded in 1923 of WB, a boy aged 12, whose new address in Canada was submitted to the Board of Guardians. So too was a letter referring to AB, a boy aged 15, on how well he was doing.

Boys were dispatched to the colony, a charge being made to the guardians of 25s a week for their board. The records provide evidence that many boys still went through this system of emigration until the after the First World War. In 1925, H.A. a young boy had to undergo a medical examination before being sent to Queensland. The passage for him was £22, plus a £2 landing fee. He also required a new set of clothes costing a further £8 of which the Church Army agreed to contribute £3. The sad part was that the boy was to first return to Penkhull to visit his blind mother at the Spittals Workhouse to say his goodbye. It is doubtful if he ever saw her again. The guardians continued to process children through the Church Army Farm Colony for many years, as it did with the Catholic Emigration society. The Church Army continued to receive children from Penkhull for emigration to the dominions until at least March 1944, by which time the charges had been increased to 29/9d per week. Records show that boys were still being sent to the training farm up to 1948.

However, this treatment of the young did not end here, there was even a worse alternative for many boys, that of going to sea. The first account is dated 6th November 1912 when the Master of the training ship Clio, reported that two boys, Martin and Lee, who had been chargeable to the Union, had been discharged and placed in berths on the liners Canada and Merion. The governors’ approved this action.

The Clio training ship was moored off Bangor, North Wales, and was lent by the Admiralty, from 1822, to provide accommodation for 260 boys of all religious backgrounds. Boys typically joined ship at the age of 11 or 12, and stayed until they were around the age of 15 years. Discipline would be harsh and strict, boys often being birched to enforce it. Food was limited in quantity and variety, biscuit, potatoes and meat with occasional green vegetables. By the 1920s the training ship Exmouth was used by the guardians to send boys for training as future sailors. It was to these ships that many boys from Penkhull Cottage Homes were sent. Others were sent to the Lancaster National Sea Training home at Wallasey from the late 1920s and the National Nautical School at Bristol. Records show that boys were still being sent for sea training in April 1939 at Wallasey, as the guardians were charged £36 8s for each boy per annum until the late 1930s. A number of boys opted to join the army from the age of 14 years.

Serious overcrowding of the Cottage Homes became an ever-increasing problem. Unemployment and poverty experienced in the pottery towns following the end of the First World War created unprecedented pressure on both staff and guardians. In 1922, it was reported that there were 202 children between the ages of 3-16, and 12 children under the age of 3, all resident at the Cottage Homes, which were only designed for around 140. The problem boiled over into 1923, when in March it was ordered that all efforts should be made to alleviate the overcrowding by boarding out, and that every effort be made to obtain suitable homes in which a number of orphans and deserted children could be housed.

It was at the same time in March 1923 that consideration was given to the extension of the Cottage Homes. By September, Messrs Ball and Sons of Stoke had received the contract and work had commenced. By early 1924 the architect reported that painting work was being undertaken, and that new cooking ranges, four feet high by the name of ‘Harold’, had been agreed upon for fitting in the kitchens; and that Mr George Fleet of Stoke had the contract for fixing the linoleum for £4 1s 6d for each new cottage.

Progression was slow and despite the architect pressing for a hand-over date in November the matter remained unresolved until in January 1925, when at last the Ministry of Health visited the homes for final approval suggesting changes to the bathrooms before children could be accommodated. The new cottages were soon filled from the scattered homes, and Basford Hall, where accommodation had been provided for a number of years to remove some of the pressures at Penkhull.

New admissions  

Children entering the home came from varying circumstances, all tragic. Most were unwanted; orphans with no relatives prepared to offer care, some came from situations of abstract poverty, physical abuse, some were ill nourished or from single mothers or even fathers where the mother had run off. They entered into care by many means; just taken to the Penkhull Cottage Homes and left there, others being collected by an officer of the poor law direct from school with no ‘goodbye’ to parents or siblings, or there was simply a knock on the door and the child was removed as they stood. Others left as orphans would be taken for a walk to Penkhull by a relative or neighbour and just deposited there without a word of explanation. It was very easy to release oneself from the responsibility of parenthood and so the system was abused.

The matron carried out the administration for admission into the home centrally in a room attached the Muster Hall. When a new child was admitted he or she was taken to the sewing room and given a completely new set of clothes consisting of: three pairs of shoes and two blazers, one for school, one for best. They were also provided with a raincoat and two further coats, again one for school, one for best.

Boys: Best pair of grey flannels, second pair for daily use and three other pairs of trousers, a best pullover, school pullover and jersey, winter shirts and jerseys, two pairs of pyjamas for older boys, two nightdresses for smaller boys.
Girls: Tunic and day blouses for younger girls, skirts and Dayella blouses for older girls. Cardigans and blouses, two nightdresses, pinafores were also provided. Many of the clothes were made ‘in-house’ whereas the majority of the woollens were purchased from the Blind Workshops at Fenton. As and when the children reached the age to leave school they would receive a completely new outfit. Once a month, a ‘condemning day’ was held when old clothes or those badly worn would be discarded to make way for new. The same also applied to cracked or chipped crockery.

To ensure that children were in good health, each child underwent a medical examination every three months. They were weighed, measured and examined. This was in addition to the medical given upon arrival at the home and prior to leaving.Each housemother had to make frequent reports on the children under their care. This was submitted to the City Children’s Committee. The questions consisted of name, age, etc. followed by more personal questions – reactions on admission if recently admitted, personal habits, and attitude to staff and to other children in the home, recent development and progress, school attended and educational ability and the child’s health. These were then followed by other questions such as interests; whether mother, father, other relatives or friends visit and how often; whether the child visits other children or home, and for how long. None of these records have survived.

The daily routine of each home was kept the same to maintain a regular pattern of times and duties. At 7.30 a.m. breakfast was served. After this, the younger children would go out to play while the older children would then commence their daily tasks. Lunch was served at 1.00p.m. tea at 5.00p.m. A cleaner was employed at each house from 9.00a.m.–2.00p.m. as it was impossible for the housemother to look after the children, as well as prepare meals. After tea, the younger children were prepared for bed by the older ones. In some homes, older children were allowed to stay up a little later, but before going to bed after they prepared the tables for the following morning’s breakfast.
A typical menu for the day would consist of:
Breakfast – cereal, bacon sandwiches for the younger children; bacon, egg and coffee for the older children. Dinner – Stew, peas, potatoes, cabbage, followed by either egg custard or stewed apple and custard. Tea, beans on toast, or tomato and ham sandwiches, jam and bread, cake and milk.

These extracts as an introduction to the care of children for this period in history are taken from The Royal Manor of Penkhull. © Richard Talbot.

This book is still available and the chapter on the cottage homes consists of 21,000 words and loads of pictures. Now reduced to £20 including UK postage. Its a hard-back A4 size book –  Interested – send a message on the contact address and I will return with ordering details etc.