Local History Society

 Memories - Opening the RMNS Orphange

Bearwood College

Bearwood Canadian Convalescent Hospital

The 'Reading Mercury' on 3rd June 1922 reported extensively on the opening of the Orphanage at Bearwood as follows:



Ninety-five years ago five boys, the orphans of merchant seamen, were placed in the charge of a Mr. and Mrs. Fisher in a private house in St. George’s–in-the-East. This proved to be the modest commencement of an institution which during a century of strenuous life has cared for 2,725 children from all parts of the world, and which at the present time is guarding the interests of 328 girls and boys in one of the most bThe south front, Bearwood Mansioneautiful estates in Berkshire. Such an institution is the Royal Merchant Seamen’s Orphanage, Bear Wood, Wokingham, and Saturday was a landmark in its history, for then Commodore the Marquis of Graham, C.B., C.V.O., formally opened these magnificent premises, acting on behalf of H.R.H. the Duke of York, K.G., who was unable to be present.

The broad features of the orphanage remain the same to this day as were decided upon at a public meeting held on October 25th, 1827, but during these 95 years it has passed through many vicissitudes. In 1829, when 11 boys were being provided for, the management decided to enlarge their scope, and five girls were admitted, but illness of the children and constant expense for "changes of air" then occupied the minds of the management, and in 1834 both boys and girls were installed in an old mansion in Bow Road, where the work continued for 28 years. At the close of that period, 106 children were in residence. In 1862 another forward step was taken, when the orphanage at Snaresbrook was opened by Lord John Russell, the foundation-stone having been laid in the previous year by the late Prince Consort.

During the 60 years of life at Snaresbrook, the great work was carried on in an unostentatious manner, and year by year improvements were made, mainly by generosity of such philanthropists as Lady Morrison and Mr. John Harrison Allan, of Leadenhall Street, and the enterprise and sustained enthusiasm of the management. Gradually increased brightness and comfort was brought into the children’s lives, and everything possible was done to remove the stigma which undoubtedly attached to what used to be contemptuously termed a ‘charity school’. Intelligent interest in current affairs of the great outside world was cultivated; cricket, football and sports generally were fostered, and pleasant, though profitable, occupation was found for the children during their spare time. Above all, the children were encouraged to take a pride in themselves, and to feel that, with honesty, industry and legitimate ambition, there was nothing to prevent them from rising high in the world.

Much invaluable work was done whilst the orphanage was located at Snaresbrook, but a circumstance which gave grave anxiety to the managing body arose in later years, when faulty brickwork necessitated reconstruction at a cost estimated at £4Bearwood Mansion from the main gates5,000. They were undismayed, however, and the chairman of the board (Sir Thomas L. Devitt, Bart.) did not rest until, with the co-operation of Sir Alfred Yarrow, Bart., he purchased the mansion of Bear Wood, with its appurtenances and 500 acres of land, and presented it to the institution in November 1919, as his magnificent gift comprised the mansion itself, built at a cost of £250,000 by the third Mr. John Walter, of "The Times", Jellicoe House, whcih was converted to an infirmarybeautifully laid out grounds, a large garden with orchard, artisan’s workshops, home farm and modern stabling, which has since been converted into a school hospital.

Great expense was naturally entailed in altering the buildings to make them suitable, and notwithstanding the generosity of friends of the late Mr. F. W. Marten, of Lloyd’s – who contributed £10,465 10s. towards the erection of the "F. W. Marten Memorial Dining Hall" – and of the King George’s Fund for Sailors and the Baltic and Lloyds’ Ambulance Unit, the sum of £30,000 is still required to relieve the institution of the incubus of debt still outstanding.

It is a brilliant record that out of nearly 4,000 orphans who have found a home and preparation for the world within its walls, hardly any have failed in life. During the war upwards of 700 were commanding and officering merchant vessels that helped to save the country from famine or worse, whilst some thirty held commissions in the Royal Navy.

Brilliant weather favoured the ceremony on Saturday, and a large and representative company assembled at the orphanage to greet the Marquis of Graham, who was received at the entrance hall by the deputy-chairman (Mr. R. J. Lesslie), the secretary (Mr. F. W. Rawlinson), and governor (Captain W. J. Jenks, R.N.R).

The children were lined up on either side of the main drive,The impressive main drive from Bearwood Road and after the arrival of the Marquis they marched past, headed by the school band, each section under its own officers. From the miniature drum-major to the smallest boy and girl the children looked happy, healthy and smart.

After the march-past the company immediately assembled in the new dining hall, where the Marquis of Graham was supported by Mr. R. J. Lesslie, Sir Alfred Yarrow, Mr. F. W. Rawlinson, Mr. A. L. Sturge (chairman of Lloyd’s), Captain W. J. Jenks and Colonel Leslie Wilson, M.P.

Amongst those present were:

Sir Alan and Lady Anderson,
Sir Kenneth and Lady Anderson,
Sir W. S. and Lady Abell,
Sir S. and Lady Abram,
Sir H. Acton Blake,
Captain Sir de M. and Lady Baysham,
Mr. and Mrs. Walter Burness,
the Mayor of Wokingham,
the Mayor of Reading,
the Rev. W. H. and Mrs. Bayley,
Mr. C. F. Brightman,
the Right Hon. A. and Mrs. Carlisle,
Dr. and Mrs. Curl,
Captain Sir A. W. and Lady Clarke,
Miss Devitt,
Mr. Howson F. and Mrs. Devitt,
Mrs. and Miss A. Devitt,
Mr. P. H. and Mrs. Devitt,
Miss Florence and Miss M. G. Devitt,
Miss Deacon (head mistress),
Mr. and Mrs. Erlebach,
Rear-Admiral and Mrs. Eustace,
Mr. W. G. and Mrs. Glover,
Mr. I. C. and Mrs. Geddes,
Captain H. H. Hooper,
Lieut.-Colonel N. O. and Mrs. Lane,
the Rev. R. E. Langdon (chaplain and head master),
the Rev. B. and Mrs. Long,
the Rev. N. A. and Mrs Lash,
Mr. H. J. Arbon,
the Hon. K. and Mrs. Mackay,
Colonel and Mrs. Mackenzie,
Mr. G. A. Messenger,
Mr. Walter Morris,
Mr. Charles and Mrs. Mansfield,
Alderman Sir W. R. and Lady Pryke,
Lieut.-Colonel and Mrs. Poulton,
Miss Ritchie (matron),
Major M. H. and Mrs. Simonds,
Mr. T. W. and Mrs. Stephens,
Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Scott,
Mr. and Mrs. J. Herbert Scrutton,
Miss Ruth Scrutton,
Sir W. H. and Lady Turner,
Mr. E. A. and Mrs. Veale,
Colonel and Lady Victoria Villiers,
Mr. and Mrs. John Walter,
the Rev. H. M. and Mrs. Walter,
Mr. Stephen Walter,
Sir E. Shadforth Watts and Lady Watts,
Mrs. Leslie Wilson,
Sir J. H. and Lady Wimble, and
Mr. and Mrs. John Weir.

Mr. Lesslie regretted that their chairman (Sir Thomas Lane Devitt) was unable to be present, and stated that a letter had also been received from the Treasurer (the Right Hon. Lord Inchcape, of Strathnaver) regretting his inability to be present. Proceeding, Mr. Lesslie gave details of the events which led to the acquisition of the Bear Wood Estate, and paid handsome tribute to the generosity of Sir Thomas Devitt and Sir Alfred Yarrow. He gave details of the work and careers of past children of the institution, and remarked that at the close of their education about two-thirds of the boys expressed a desire to go to sea.


Mr. Rawlinson then read the following letters, which had been received from the King and Queen Alexandra:-

Buckingham Palace.

I am commanded to convey to the Board of management of the Royal Merchant Seamen’s Orphanage the expression of the King’s thanks for their kind message to his Majesty.

On the occasion of the opening of the institution’s new home at Bear Wood the King congratulates all who are interested in your great national charity upon the possession of this splendid property, the munificent gift of Sir Thomas Devitt and Sir Alfred Yarrow.

Ever since the Accession of Queen Victoria the orphanage has been closely associated with the Royal Family, and his Majesty, now its Patron, does not forget that for many years he occupied for many years the office of President.

The world-wide work of the institution especially appeals to the inhabitants of these islands, for it brings within its fostering care the necessitous orphans of the seamen of our famous British Merchant Service; and the nation may indeed be proud that during the war upwards of 700 vessels in the Merchant Service were commanded and officered by those who had been educated and trained in your orphanage, and also that some 30 others held commissions in the Royal Navy.

On this important event, which marks a further development in the life of the Royal Merchant Seamen’s Orphanage, the King assures you of his heartfelt good wishes, confident that in the future it will uphold that high standard and great tradition which has characterised the institution for almost a century.



Marlborough House, S.W.1, May 12th, 1922,

Dear Sir, - I have laid your letter of the 10th inst. Before Queen Alexandra, and am desired by her Majesty to say how greatly interested she is to know of the acquisition of Bear Wood, Wokingham, for the Royal Merchant Seamen’s Orphanage, and to hear that the schools there will be opened on May 17th.

Queen Alexandra rejoices to think that as a result of this munificent gift the far-reaching and beneficent work of the Merchant Seamen’s Orphanage, in which her Majesty has always felt the keenest sympathy, will be carried on under such favourable auspices. Her Majesty feels that every effort should be forthcoming to promote the welfare of the orphans of our splendid men of the Mercantile Marine, whose services to their King and country, especially during the Great War, cannot possibly be over-estimated, and her Majesty wishes me to convey to the management her earnest hopes for the future prosperity of the institution in its new home.

The record of services of the men trained at your schools who were engaged during the war, which you are good enough to mention, is, her Majesty thinks, a most remarkable one, and one of which the Royal Merchant Seamen’s Orphanage may be justly proud.

I am, dear Sir, Yours faithfully,

(Signed) HENRY STREATFEILD, Colonel,
Private Secretary to H.M. Queen Alexandra.

The Marquis of Graham said he was sure that they all appreciated the gracious messages which they had received from the King and Queen Alexandra, and that they would give him permission to suggest that they send loyal messages thanking them for their gracious communications (Applause).

In coming there that beautiful afternoon to see those fine buildings and pretty grounds, and all those happy children in the march-past, he could not help feeling that it was a great privilege to everyone to be present. In his case it was not a privilege, it was an honour he much appreciated.

They knew he was acting as deputy for H.R.H. the Duke of York, who had written that he deeply regretted that, owing to the pressure on his time, on account of the arrangements in connection with the forthcoming Royal marriage, it was necessary for him to cancel an engagement to which he had been looking forward with much pleasure. He was deeply interested in all that pertained to the men of the sea and all their children, and wished for the school a very successful opening and a long and prosperous career. It was, the Marquis thought, unnecessary for his Royal Highness to assure them of his interest in the children of the orphanage, because he was interested in the welfare of all young people in the country. Indeed, the interest of the whole of the Royal Family was so well known and appreciated that they had secured for themselves a great and abiding place in the love and affection of the people (Cheers).

He ventured to think that the Duke of York’s visit to the orphanage was only postponed, and that when he did come he would be assured of a warm welcome (Cheers). Continuing, he referred to the fine record of the orphanage, whose history was a record of progress following progress. Many great benefactions had been received, but the gift of this building and 500 acres of land was so splendid that he could scarcely find words with which to express his gratitude. Their best thanks were due to Sir Thomas Devitt and Sir Alfred Yarrow for making it possible to carry on the work at the institution. (Cheers).

Their names would live in the institution as long as it existed. This was not a reformatory or an industrial school; it was a home (Hear, hear) – and it was the ambition of the managing body always to turn out boys and girls to be a credit to the institution. In the name of his Royal Highness the Duke of York he declared the orphanage open, and wished it every success and prosperity (Cheers).

Colonel Leslie Wilson, M.P., proposed a vote of thanks to the Marquis of Graham, and referred to his Lordship’s thorough knowledge and interest in the sea service.

The vote was seconded by Sir Alfred Yarrow, and carried by acclamation, the Marquis replying.

Mr. Sturge then formally presented the "F. W. Marten Dining Hall" to the managers of the orphanage. He referred to Mr. Marten’s great but unobtrusive work as chairman of Lloyd’s, and the enthusiasm with which members of Lloyd’s and certain insurance companies welcomed the suggestion of a memorial hall as a seamen’s orphanage to one whose life was connected with the sea.

The following inscription is placed on the mantelpiece of the hall: "This hall was presented in memory of Frederick William Marten by his friends at Lloyd’s, and was dedicated on the 27th day of May, 1922, by his Royal Highness the Duke of York".

The Marquis of Graham said that he had great pleasure, on behalf of the Duke of York, in dedicating the F. W. Marten Hall for the use of the Royal Merchant Seamen’s Orphanage.

After the ceremony the guests were entertained to tea on the lawn, during which the children gave a very smart display of gymnastics and physical drill. Graceful national dances were performed by several of the girls and hornpipes by the boys, followed by school singing.

A special train from London conveyed about 130 guests and a number of representatives of the Press to Reading, whence they were conveyed in charabancs and cars to Bear Wood, under excellent arrangements made by Messrs. Skurray, of Reading, whose businesslike organisation and the excellent appointments of their cars were favourably commented upon.


With acknowledgements to Berkshire Newspapers

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