St John’s Orphanage stood at the corner of Freehold Road and Bloomfield Street, Ipswich. Henry from Ipswich was sent there with his twin brother Frank in 1932. Henry and Frank Webb had a happy early childhood living with their widowed mother Jessie at 49 Ringham Road, Ipswich. Their mother managed to give the twins a normal upbringing for boys born in 1925. There were trips to the seaside with sandcastles and ice creams, birthday parties with children from neighbouring streets. At Christmas their mother managed to buy presents. Henry remembers starting school as his mother held the twin’s hands on their first day. There were a few tears as they watched her vanish down the corridor. Little did the twins know what sadness was ahead. When they were seven their mother died.
Henry said “For most the halcyon carefree days of childhood come to an end by the gradual natural process of growing up. In our case instead of just petering out they went out with a suddenness that left such desolation and puzzling sadness behind as only those who have experienced it can understand”.
“We were only one-year-old when our dad, Henry, mum’s second husband died of consumption (Tuberculosis) in the local sanatorium. Mum was left with Frank and I and two other children from her first marriage to bring up. For six years she struggled until the two eldest found work and were able to help with family finances. The years of struggle took their toll. By the time we were seven our mother who was forty-six was dying of the disease herself. When she died we were committed to the care of the local council at the St John’s home.”
We soon found that we were to exchange the kindly and loving tolerance of home with its tears of forgiveness for a life composed of strict discipline and harsh routine”.
After mum’s funeral we spent a sad few hours round the fire. All our thoughts were on tomorrow and our final bedtime was miserable for all. The memories of that last time we climbed those familiar old stairs come across the years sharp and bright with an old pain that has never been forgotten. After a while we blew out the candle but I could not sleep knowing that this time tomorrow we would be in a bed behind those strange walls of St John’s. Brother Willie went to relations in Norfolk and sister Margery went to live with an aunt.
Our pets, the wheelbarrow granddad made, our home-made stilts, all looked neglected and forlorn in the corner of the washhouse yard on the grey wet November day in 1932 we went to St John’s only a ten minute walk from our home.
“St John’s home was the last of the many grim old barrack type orphanages, which existed for decades before the Second World War. It was not a cosy foster home for children with all today’s comforts. It was run like a remand home or prison. The homes were rougher, hard, and more barbaric”.
“The policy before the Second World War was for children to be placed in the care of council homes until they were fifteen. Then for them to have the choice of a working boys home in London or to join the armed services”.
“There were thousands of children growing up in council care during the years between the two World Wars. Some were the result of family tragedy, or through poverty caused by unemployment or just neglect.”
“When you were admitted to the home children from a family unit were split up and no direct daily contact was allowed between sexes, not even brother and sister. The only time you would see each other was in the dining hall, or at visiting times. One a child became an inmate at a home he or she never saw much of the outside world other than school days or outings”. Henry attended Clifford Road, California, and Whitton Open Air School.
“When you were taken into care you lost your identity and sense of belonging. You suffered great loneliness. I was never taken on anyone’s knee or kissed and cuddled. We had to give up most of our treasured possessions”
“Discipline was harsh. If you fell out of line or misbehaved you were usually given a good hiding or some extra task like scrubbing, extra yard drill or heavy kitchen duties. The daily routine was of work and effort where each child had a number and followed a routine for that number”.
“Saturday mornings were spent with two hours of army style drill, and marching in line and open ranks. There was also physical training. Every morning before school we had to make our beds, polish the floors, clear up the dining hall and wash up”
The daily sick parade at the home was mainly of boys who needed dressings changed for scraped knees etc. One of the masters would escort the “Sick Lame and Lazy” to the infirmary. I was quit often in the sick brigade because of a chronic bone complaint. This would mean I would be admitted for a spell of complete rest which would mean a few weeks away from the scrubbing, bed making, drilling or marching for a while. No more being bawled at by “Three Hairs” as we called Mr Roberts the boys senior officer. He was a strong, stocky, thick set, bow legged and practically bald with a few strands of hair which would fall over his eyes. For me those bouts of enforced rest could not come round quickly enough, or last long enough.
“Life at St John’s did have some happy times squeezed between the routine and work. Hours spent in the yard on long summer days with our games and pastimes. Hours would be spent sorting through our collection of cigarette cards or reading comics. We would play leapfrog, touch, and have races, play rounders and football. Football with a real ball was not allowed -only on the playing field. We had a goal chalked on the wall and played with a rag ball held together with string or tape. In the autumn came conkers, and pop guns made from Elder wood”
Above all else reading was my favourite pastime and still is. Another treat was a weekly Tuesday evening film show, with films like, Tom Mix, and Buck Jones Westerns, and Will Hay, Robertson Hare, and Tom Walls comedies.
Christmas at St John’s was much different from our family gathering. It was still the highlight of our year. It was the most looked forward to of all our annual treats. The summer trip to the seaside was always enjoyable, also the yearly trip to the cinema or visit to the pantomime. To all of us in the orphanage the Christmas season was the peak of it all, compared to the rest of the year St John’s became a fairyland. The officers relaxed the rigid discipline. For a time they became ordinary mortals.
“The institutional way of orphanage life I knew as a boy has gone forever. My generation was the last to experience it. It was harsh, drab with a stern code of discipline and routine. In our child minds we knew outside those high walls of St John’s hundreds were on the dole, there was much poverty, children suffered malnutrition. At least we were sure of three meals a day, a good bed, and strong shoes on our feet”.
“Strangely I now feel a great sense of nostalgia for that grim old place that is now mostly covered by houses and flats”.