History comes home


Redbridge Museum will open a new permanent exhibition later this year exploring 200,000 years of local history. In the eighth of a series of articles, Museum Officer Nishat Alam looks at some of the items on show

The Wanstead Infant Orphan Asylum opened in Snaresbrook in 1843. The building is now known as Snaresbrook Crown Court, but for over a century it was a boarding school. In this article, I look at the history of the asylum, later called the Royal Wanstead School, which will be explored in a new display about the borough’s historic institutions when Redbridge Museum re-opens in the next few months. 

We usually understand ‘orphan’ as someone who has lost both their parents, but the pupils of the Infant Orphan Asylum were children whose fathers had died and whose mothers could not afford to take care of them. The asylum only took in children from respectable, middle-class families, who could often buy the vote of the private donors who funded the asylum, ensuring their child’s admittance.

In this way, the asylum was not a traditional orphanage. The building itself is not the kind of place we tend to picture when we think of homes of its kind. Now Grade II listed, it was designed by two prominent architects and its foundation stone laid by Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, who was the institution’s first royal patron. But despite its status amongst royals, the Infant Orphan Asylum was, after all, a boarding school where children were sent away from their families, often as infants. Pupils had a strict, disciplined schooling by the teachers and nurses who took care of them and, as with many in similar schools at the time, may have been quite miserable.

Donald Grist, who was there from 1903 to 1919, wrote in his memoir, A Victorian Charity: “Meals were simple and sparse: mince or stew with one vegetable… Drinks were cocoa, water and watered milk.” Meals were served on plates like the one pictured above, which will feature in the new museum display among other material, having been donated to us by a local resident who, in 1990, recovered various pieces of crockery used by the asylum from the shores of Eagle Pond. They paint a picture of a rather grim experience hidden behind a grand façade.

The asylum’s slightly ominous Victorian name was abandoned for the more inviting Royal Wanstead School in 1938. At this point, it began to operate as a school rather than an orphanage as social attitudes on education and care changed. Pupils attending at this time probably looked back at their time more fondly than their Victorian counterparts. 

As welfare provision improved in the 1950s, more children began to attend local schools and the Royal Wanstead School saw a decline in income and attendance until it could no longer afford to stay open. It finally closed in 1971. The building opened as a Crown Court on 26 November 1974.

Redbridge Museum is located on Clements Road, Ilford. Visit wnstd.com/rm
To complete a survey on what else should go on display, visit wnstd.com/rms