In May 1939 the Government passed the Camps Act. It is to be remembered that in those days City children rarely ventured beyond their city streets. It was envisaged that camps of a permanent nature were to be set up in the countryside within a reasonable distance of large urban centres. These camps would be built and owned by an ad hoc central national Camps Corporation relying on Treasury finance. In the event of war they were to be used as Evacuation Camps to accommodate children and other persons ‘non essential to a war economy’ evacuated from large towns and other dangerous areas. In peacetime they would be rented and used either by Education Authorities as Camp Schools or by approved non-profit making or public utility organisations as Holiday Camps for the rapidly increasing body of workers, with their families, who were obtaining holidays with pay.
A nationwide competition was set up to design a suitable complex. The Act also promoted grants or loans for the construction, compulsory purchase, maintenance and management of the aforementioned camps. Existing buildings suitable for conversion were included in the brief, as war loomed ever nearer.
On 26 February 1940 Alfred Herbert made a gift of Town Thorns to the City of Coventry for use as a Boys’ Camp.
Kelly’s Directory for 1940 lists Town Thorns as a Camp School owned by Coventry Education Committee and names a Mr A G Donaldson as the Head.
Situated near Cleobury Mortimer in Shropshire, a National Evacuation Camp School purpose built by the Government had been up and running since the outbreak of the War. There was accommodation for 300 boys aged 11 and over. The school was offered to the Coventry Education Dept.
In May 1940 the parents of every boy within the ages of 11 and 14 at school in Coventry were given the option of sending their son to Wyre Farm. The only cost incurred was a billeting charge. The amount varied according to the financial position of the parent, but it would not exceed 6sh a week. There would be no charge for transport, laundry and medical supervision. It was, in effect, a boarding school.
However, Town Thorns did not fully function as a Camp School. Coventry was a target for bombing. The City Council and the Camps Corporation were considering the evacuation of children from the city. It was decided and agreed by Sir Alfred Herbert, that the children in Care in what was known as the ‘Scattered Homes’ would be sent to Town Thorns for safety. They were moved in the summer of 1940.
In the early years of the 19th century children from destitute families and orphans were put into the workhouse. These places were crowded with people of all ages, with very little personal space. Later, it became the practice to put homeless children into Cottage Homes. Cottage Homes usually had their own schools and housed large numbers of children.
In 1893, J Wycliffe Wilson, Chairman of the Sheffield Board of Guardians devised the isolated homes system. The rationale being that small groups of children in ordinary houses scattered around the suburbs would live in the real world and attend the local Board Schools. There was also less chance of infectious diseases spreading. The large Cottage Homes were breeding grounds for ophthalmia and ringworm.
The Corporation administered the Scattered Homes in Coventry:
Hill Crest 55 Radford Road held 40 boys.
1&2 Highbury Place Abbots Lane,
66-68 Highbury Terrace, Hill Street was home to 58 girls and 16 boys.
With the evacuation they were under one roof. Town Thorns was home and school. Unless family circumstances changed, or a referral was made for another type of institution, or the leaving age of 14 was reached, they were in the same place day after day, week after week.
The Administration of Town Thorns was at that time in the hands of the Children’s Committee.
The Council had to employ a housekeeper. Sir Alfred had the right to use a room in the house when he stayed over in the City.
The Superintendent was Miss D M Floyd with Miss V Helliwell as deputy. The teacher in charge was Mr Robert Smith 1941-1946
Miss Righton was released from Brinklow to assist the Coventry teacher in March 1942.
The numbers of children were recorded monthly. On average there were 37 Babies. As there were no facilities for children under the age of three, these ‘babies’ would have been aged from three to seven years old. The average number of babies, girls and boys in residence was 105.
Town Thorns As A Children's Home
Children were in care for several reasons. Some were orphans. They would have spent their entire childhood in homes. Others were the offspring of irresponsible parents and may have spent all or part of their childhood away from home. Others were in temporary placement due to straitened family circumstances.
The Authorities did as much as they could to make the children’s lives more bearable. Being out in the countryside, the children were well fed. They lived in clean, hygienic conditions. They kept pets and had plenty of space to play in. Boys did gardening and followed outdoor pursuits. Entertainment was put on and appeals were made in the local press for volunteers to visit. Nevertheless, it was an institution. The regime was quite strict. Boys and girls were segregated to the point of having separate dining rooms and play areas. Brothers and sisters had little or no contact with each other. Older children were expected to do household chores. Caning was an accepted form of punishment. After the war, some of these conditions were relaxed.
Some children were adopted into families. The school leaving age was 14. Boys were found work in factories; girls were placed in domestic service.