In the beginning
I was born in Dublin in 1912 to a missionary called Samuel Snow who went to New Zealand the following year and was
never heard of again. I know little about my mother but I understand she was a domestic servant named Helen Spencer.
My earliest recollections are of a small fishing port a few miles south of Dublin called Greystones, of watching the fishing
boats, of rides in a pony and trap, of hens scratching in an orchard. Then suddenly everything changes. I am taken to
a big house in Belfast, past sand bags and armed soldiers on street corners. Other boys live there. But I don't stay long.
One day I am told, with some other lads, that we are being sent to London. We left that night.
And so began my life at Dr Barnardo's Homes.
I cried myself to sleep that first night. The next day there was no time for tears. The doctor and dentist examined all the
new arrivals, the barber cut our hair to the scalp, we were photographed and issued with blue jerseys and trousers, grey
stockings and hob-nailed boots. A month later I was taken by bus to another Barnardo Home at Woodford Bridge but
without any of the other Belfast boys.
The Boys Garden City was set in 64 acres of countryside. On one side a six foot fence separated us from Claybury
Asylum, on the other iron railings came between us and some houses.
It had, been opened in 1910 for 700 boys between five and 15. The boys lived in 20 detached houses named after one of
the countries of the Empire or a famous person and each had its own Matron. The houses ran the length of the city, and
at each end playing fields were laid out with football and cricket pitches and swings. We had a well equipped library,
swimming pool, hospital, school, kitchen gardens, a bakery, and in front of each house were lawns and shrubs. Nearby
on its own was Gwynne House, a large country mansion, where the Governor lived.
As soon as we arrived at the Garden City we were taken to the Governor's office to meet the Rev Howard Banister.
He was tall with large bushy eyebrows. He scared me stiff. He said he hoped we would be happy during our stay but if
we broke the rules we would be severely punished. On my own, I was then taken to Pellew House where the Matron
Miss Stanger greeted me with the same lecture I'd just had from the Governor. I was given a number - 29 - which I was
to keep until I left.
On the first floor of Pellew House were two 14-bed dormitories and one of eight, a bathroom with two baths, toilets and
Matron's room. The floors were of highly polished wood and the stairs were covered in lino and secured with brass rods.
The ground floor consisted of a playroom with lockers, tables, forms, Matron's parlour, Matron's pantry, a scullery
kitchen, store cupboards, a wash house with enamelled wash trough, towel racks and boot lockers, and outside the
coalhouse and more toilets.
I was shown round by the house boy who was also a prefect and he put me right on the dos and don’ts. And he took me to
my bed which was in the smaller dormitory.
When the other boys returned from school I was bombarded with questions. Inevitably I was nicknamed Paddy which
stuck until I left the Homes. That first day was an ordeal and I was glad when bedtime came.
We were called at seven and each boy had to turn back his bedding for Matron to see if anyone had wet the bed. Then
came a mad dash to the toilets and the washhouse then back upstairs to dress. Before breakfast there were prayers and
hymns round the piano with Matron before jobs such as cleaning the toilets and polishing the brasses. At five to eight a
bugle would sound and a boy would take over our utensils to the dining hall. At eight when the bugle sounded
"Come to the cookhouse door boys" we marched two deep into breakfast which consisted of burgoo with syrup and two
thick slices of bread and margarine and a mug of cocoa. Sometimes there was beef dripping and at Easter coloured eggs.
The boys who had left school worked in the bakery or elsewhere in the Garden City. The rest of us would parade for
school. Tea in the evening would be more bread and margarine with jam on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The crusty ends
of the loaves were much prized and Matron gave them out in turn. But if you kept your eyes closed during Grace you
might find yours missing. Occasionally we might get a banana and when there was a garden party at Buckingham
Palace and it was our turn we received a plateful of leftover cake.
After tea, we could play out in the summer but not in winter unless we were taking part in rehearsals for different events.
There were always plenty of excuses made for getting out but they didn't often work. As soon as we came in there was
a strip wash followed by Matrons inspection and then we lined up with damp toothbrushes which she rubbed first in
soap and then in whitening. If you tried to dodge this you were treated to a double dose.
Finally there were more prayers in the playroom, a hymn, a few verses from the Bible and should a boy be leaving we
sang "God Be With You Till We Meet Again". And Matron would wish him a safe journey through life.
On Saturdays after breakfast we cleaned the house from top to bottom, the brass stair rods lifted and polished,
beds changed, toilet pan cleaned, floors shone. Saturday night was bath night. The house boy was responsible for
seeing that there was enough hot water for one change of water for each bath which meant that approximately eight
boys used the same water. By the time the last two got in the water was lukewarm and thick with scum. We all smelt
On Sundays we donned our sailor suits and round hats with Dr Barnardo’s Homes written on the hat band in gold
letters. Matron fussed around us like an old hen. She didn't want the Governor finding fault with her boys. As the
bugle sounded we marched down the main drive and 700 of us, Matrons at the rear, formed two lines for inspection by
the Governor. Sometimes you could hear him scolding a boy for biting his nails. Another time he would praise one of
the Matrons for her boys' turn out. Then we were off to church.
With the service over we were allowed to walk down the country lanes. Not far from us was a Roman Catholic
orphanage. If we met them coming towards us on the same side, Matron would tell us to cross over. They called us
Banana Skins. Our name for them was Cat Lickers. And we exchanged abuse out of Matron's hearing.
The afternoon was spent reading and learning the Collect for the Week. There would be questions from Matron about
the Governor's sermon. And she would gather the small boys around her and read to them. But we were not allowed
comics or games on Sunday.
In the evening there was more hymn singing and lectures. And six of the older boys were detailed to clean our boots for
school next morning. They were rewarded with a piece of cake and a mug of cocoa.
Although Matron was very strict she had no favourites and she didn't like tell tales. Bad language was punished with
a mouth wash of soapy water and anyone who answered back got a dose of her strap. But the worst punishment was to
be sent to bed all day on dry bread and water. For continual disobedience you were sent to the Governor for a public
caning. Matron particularly didn't like bed wetting. She called it lazy. One boy in Pellew was perpetually in trouble for
this and he spent more days on bread and water than the rest of us put together. He suffered a number of different
punishments including standing in the lane at the back of the house with a sheet over his head, working when the other
boys were at play, refused all luxuries like jam, bathing last, and sleeping on a wooden board on the bathroom floor.
Anyone caught fighting would finish up in the boxing ring. Boys caught with their hands in their pockets would have
them sewn up. And you were in trouble if you wiped your nose on your sleeve. Sewing ladies who visited the house to
do any mending cut up anything that was beyond repair into small squares for our runny noses.
In the spring of 1921 a measles epidemic closed all the schools for a week. I was one of the victims and the ambulance
was sent for. It arrived, a wicker basket on a stretcher on two wheels pulled by two boys. They drove hell for leather
down the drive with me clinging on for dear life to New Zealand House which was the hospital at the time. While I
was there I contracted whooping cough and was covered with a cage and nearly suffocated with eucalyptus oil.
Christmas Day was the high spot of the year. Beside each plate at dinner time would be an apple and an orange, a
small bag of nuts and one of sweets. After dinner we would gather round the tree and be given a new shilling and a
game or a book. The shilling was the only money most of us had during the year and we knew how we would spend it
in Mr Milman's sweet shop in the next road which we reached by some steps built on both sides of the fence.
In January a, party of boys were taken by charabanc (coach) to the Royal Albert Hall to take part in a show that was
put on by the different Barnardo Homes. We all looked forward to the sausage and mash supper which we had when
we returned late at night. Then in June some of us would be selected to go to the Girls Village, another Barnardo Home
but much bigger. Not having seen or spoken to a girl, we stood and stared at each other as if from different planets.
We were never told anything about girls and I don't suppose they ever learned about boys. On Guy Fawkes Night we
made huge bonfires of thousands of fruit baskets from Covent Garden Market.
Quick March to School
There were three schools which we attended. The tin school in the grounds was for boys up to eleven. Then you went
to Snakes Lane about a mile away, or Woodford Green about two miles away. The boys attending Woodford Green
left earlier than the rest of us taking their lunch with them and having dinner at night. About 200 of us went to Snakes
Lane and the master who accompanied us formed us into two rows, inspected us to see we were clean and tidy and our
boots shining, and then quick march us through the grounds and into the outside world, a long line of bald heads
summer and winter. We went home for dinner and returned for the afternoon session. On the whole we got on well
with the outside boys. It was in the classroom that we appeared to be less then equal thanks to the teachers. We were
not allowed to take part in any sport or be in the school football or cricket team. This had been stopped because other
schools protested when many Barnardo boys were selected for the school team. Sometimes a boy would be invited to
tea but had to refuse as it was not allowed. And of course we were blamed for things we hadn't done.
The disappointment of not being able to play for the school was mitigated by the sports facilities at home. Through he
generosity of the Friends of Barnardo's, each house had its own football and cricket equipment. My house colours were
claret and gold and we guarded our gear jealously. It was not easily replaced. We swam in summer and in winter the
baths were covered over and used for boxing. We always swam in the nude and if you stuck your rump up too high, the
master had a long thin cane to whack you with. It improved your swimming. If visitors arrived there was a mad
scramble to put on slips but as there were never enough to go round those who failed had to stay in the water and shiver
until the visitors had departed.
One day I was summoned by Matron. I was 14 and the time had come, she said, for me to go to the William Baker
Technical School known as Goldings. I was to leave the next day. That evening at prayers we had the usual going away
hymn and Matron said a few words about me. I shed a few tears and went to bed excited. Next morning, empty handed
as I had nothing to take with me, I said goodbye to Matron and the other boys and reported to the Governor's office.
All the years I was at the Garden City the Governor never once paid a visit to my House. Now he was saying goodbye
to me and several others, wishing us well and saying we were going to learn a trade so that we could earn a living when
we left Barnardo's.
We boarded a covered wagon and left for Goldings.
The William Baker Technical School was a 19th century mansion in 50 acres of beautiful countryside. During the war
it had been a hospital and then in 1922 it was given to Barnardo’s who transferred their technical school there from
London. It accommodated about 300 boys from 14 to 19 with the aim of teaching them printing, blacksmithing,
bootmaking, carpentry, tailoring, tinsmithing, and gardening. There were six dormortories with 50 beds divided into
The Governor the Rev Sutcliffe welcomed us. He said you may seem to be hampered by rules and regulations but
you cannot have discipline without them. You will be given every opportunity to do well and we will do our best to fit
you into the trade you want. There were only a few vacancies for each trade but there would be a second choice.
He went on to say that some of us would be going overseas, others to farms in the country. Those without a trade
would go to school, Wednesday afternoons were free for sports and on Saturday afternoons we were allowed to go into
town, a privilege which would be stopped if there was misbehaviour.
We were fitted with grey flannel suits our first long trousers overalls and a comb. We were allowed to grow our hair
and given numbers. Mine was 181 and I spent the rest of the day sewing the number into my new clothes. Each house
had a sergeant and two corporals, boys of about 18 or 19, with a sergeant major in overall charge. They were responsible
for discipline and took a large part in the running of the home. Three masters were over them: one was so ugly we
nicknamed him Monkey Face but he was the most popular; then there was Mitch the Miser who was always looking for
ways of stopping our pay; and Baldy the Sneak who wore rubber shoes and acted as night watchman. You could never
hear him coming.
The day started with 30 minutes on the parade ground. Then beds were made, back to the parade ground to form up
before marching into the dining hall for breakfast supervised by the N.C.O's to see that everything was dished out fairly.
After that the boys made their way to school or workshops. Work finished at four o'clock and then we were free to read,
go for walks, play sport. We were in bed by nine and lights out by ten. At midnight the nightwatchman would call out
for any wet beds. One lad who still wet his bed had to report to the sick bay everyday for special electrical treatment.
He would have to hold two small cylinders in his hands from wh,ich two wires led to a dynamo. When the sister turned
the handle an electric current went through his arms. He was unable to let go and the sister could increase the current
and she did if she was in a bad mood. After 10 or 15 minutes of this the boy's arms would ache for a couple of hours.
Another treatment was an electrical pad which the sister moved around your lower abdomen and private parts which
was painful and embarrassing. Punishment might also include a visit to the Governor where it was trousers down and
From my first day at Goldings it was my ambition to join the band. At first I went along to listen to the lads in practice
then I was invited to join and began learning to read music and play the cymbals. I was given a uniform and 4d a week
which took my wages to 7d. Then I started to learn the clarinet and went out with the band on several occasions not
playing but handing round the music. These were my happiest days with Barnardo's.
A Country Life
It was early in March 1927 that I was told I was being sent to Cardiff and from there to a farm somewhere in Wales.
I was terribly upset by the news. But there was nothing I could do except shed a few tears.
I reached Cardiff to be greeted by Mr Spriggs the Superintendent of 10 Pembroke Place who informed me that I would
have to wait a few weeks before a farm was found to take me. Several of us were waiting and when the day's chores
were finished I found myself drawn to the docks. I was fascinated by sailing ships.
The day came When I was told I was being sent to a smallholding in Monmouthshire. I was met at the bus stop by a
pony and trap and after a few miles through country lanes arrived at Beckworth Farm. I was taken with my trunk up
to my room and told to change into day working clothes. The bedroom was like a palace to me. Some of the furniture
I had never seen before. At tea I felt out of place with the farmer and his wife, my face was red and I was sweating.
The table was set with a tablecloth and real china instead of aluminium ware. My duties were everything from bringing
in the cows for milking to cleaning out the stables. I collected the eggs and cleaned the hen house, groomed the horse
and did some hoeing. On Fridays the farmer took a small wagon to market and returned loaded with fruit and vegetables .
The following day he and I went into Cardiff and sold the produce door to door. I was a complete failure. I hated
knocking on doors. I got the orders mixed up, gave the wrong change and I would sweat and go red. I was given a
chance to learn but after five weeks the farmer sent me back to Pembroke Place. Mr Spriggs made it plain that I had
let Barnardo's down.
He then asked me if I would like to go to sea. I jumped at the chance and signed a form to state that I was going of my
own free will. I went to see a shipping agent and had to call there morning and afternoon to await a job. I knew that if
I didn't find work soon I would be sent to another farm.
Then the chance came. There was a position of deck boy on Norwegian ship the S S Eros. Mr Spriggs took me to a
ship's chandlers to kit me out for sea: one kit bag, oil skin and souwester, a pair of sea boots, two sets of dungarees,
aluminium plate and mug with eating utensils, two towels, one pound each of Sunlight and Lifebuoy soap, a straw
mattress and pillow. Back at Pembroke Place the kit was completed with two shirts, underwear, working boots, scarf
and my Bible.
That evening Mr Spriggs gave me a lecture on drinking, smoking and women, I was puzzled by the mention of women.
I didn't know anything about them but if they were anything like the Matrons at the Garden City it was best to keep
clear of them.
I didn't sleep that night and next morning after breakfast Mr Spriggs took me down to Roath Docks and the Eros.
He wished me well and said goodbye. I was feeling very low and alone as I walked up the gangplank.
By Mervin spencer 1926